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Warden at troubled Va. women's prison to step down

RICHMOND, Va. - RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The warden at Virginia's largest women's prison is retiring amid allegations the prison discriminated against gay inmates and denied others access to religious services.

Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said Monday that Barbara Wheeler will retire as warden of Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. He would not say when or provide other details.

State Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, asked the department in June to look into allegations that the prison curtailed inmates' access to religious services and separated masculine-looking prisoners from the rest of the population at the 1,200-inmate facility in Troy.

His request followed an Associated Press report in June that inmates — mostly lesbians — who wore short hair and baggy clothes and had more masculine features had been segregated in a wing commonly referred to as the "butch wing" or "little boys wing" for more than a year. Inmates and guards said the practice stopped after the AP questioned Wheeler about it.

Ruff said he was particularly concerned about restrictions on inmate access to religious services.

Inmates must designate a religion and be placed on a list to attend services. The list is updated only once every three months, and if an inmate goes to segregation or changes housing units, she is removed from it.

Inmates also are turned away from church services for punitive reasons, such as their hair being too long. All lay chaplain visits have been stopped, and several programs run through the chaplain's office have been discontinued.

"I certainly don't want to be in the business of micromanaging prisons, but I think as a society we need to do those types of things of not barring them from service if there's any way possible," Ruff said Monday.

Telephone and e-mail messages left for Wheeler were not immediately returned.

Ruff said the department informed him that investigators responding to his request found things that should have been done differently but "they did not feel like it rose to the level of much more than that at this point." He did not elaborate.

Traylor did not immediately provide a copy of investigators' findings. He said no other management changes are in being considered.

Wheeler first started working for the department in 1986 and became warden at Fluvanna in March 2004. She will be replaced by Wendy Hobbs, the warden at Virginia Correctional Center for Women since 1991.


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