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Self-described whistleblower fired from Virginia Department of Corrections

Sign: "No Trespassing Department of Corrections: This Is A Tobacco Free Facility"
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
A sign sits in front of a Virginia Department of Corrections Facility.

Corrections Lt. Kelsey Haley sent lawmakers an email in December warning of “blatant corruption” at the department.

Update: This story was updated May 22 at 6:46 p.m. to include information about Secretary Bob Mosier's departure from the Department of Public Safety.

The Virginia Department of Corrections fired an officer May 18 who previously criticized leadership at the agency. In a termination notice, the department claimed Lt. Kelsey Haley surfed the internet on work time — the final straw in a series of alleged misdeeds.

Haley said he believes the punishment’s severity differs from an unnamed VADOC warden whom the department found bullied lower-level employees, made racist remarks, lied to investigators and asked female job applicants under the age of 21 if they were “ready for the d—” they might encounter from imprisoned males. That warden was suspended for a week and transferred to a new facility, according to VADOC paperwork.

The differing discipline reinforces the need for an oversight panel focused on the corrections department, according to Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist at the ACLU of Virginia. The department has faced several lawsuits in recent years over its use of solitary confinement and one of its facilities, Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, has repeatedly failed to meet the terms of a federal consent decree over poor health care and deaths of incarcerated people.

The department spent $1.8 million on outside counsel in lawsuits from Sept. 30, 2021, to Oct. 31, 2022, according to public recordsobtained by the ACLU and reviewed by VPM News.

Legislation creating a board and ombudsman to oversee VADOC sailed through the state Senate with unanimous, bipartisan support, only to reach an abrupt dead-end in a House committee after Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration objected to the bill, according to Weneta.

Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, confirmed the governor opposed the bill on the grounds that VADOC already is subject to inspection by nine entities, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the American Correctional Association and internal audits and investigations. A new ombudsman office, Porter said, would have created unspecified “operational challenges” as well as “security risks.”

“Clearly, those nine different layers of oversight aren't working,” Weneta said.

Shortly before this story was published, the Youngkin administration announced that Secretary of Public Safety Bob Mosier, who oversees state prisons, is stepping down effective June 1. In an email, Porter said Mosier “is leaving his role to pursue a new opportunity that will allow him to live closer to his family and grandchildren.”

Kelsey Haley

Haley, a 14-year employee of VADOC, had his first serious run-in with department management in 2020, when he filed an internal complaint accusing several coworkers at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland of abusing overtime and falsifying documents.

Two days later, one of Haley’s colleagues filed their own complaint. It claimed he regularly showed favoritism toward certain employees and used derogatory language.

The department demoted Haley two ranks, cut his pay and transferred him to work at another facility. Haley ultimately filed a lawsuit against the department related to the incident that is set to be heard by the state Court of Appeals June 6 after a lower court tossed Haley’s complaint.

On Dec. 21, 2022, Haley emailed members of the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Cabinet denouncing what he called “blatant corruption.” He forwarded an email where the department celebrated the promotion of Dwayne Turner, an official accused of choking an incarcerated person in 2019.

The next day, Haley was put on paid pre-disciplinary suspension for allegedly violating department policies related to the misuse of state equipment and failing to devote himself to the duties of his job. Several months later — and 10 days after VPM News contacted the department for a story about Haley’s suspension — the department added a new accusation: that Haley had used his work computer to visit more than 300 sites, including “personal shopping sites and media sites.”

On Thursday — less than a week after VPM contacted VADOC about its discipline practices — Haley said he was officially terminated. In a written notice announcing the decision, the department cited “an accumulation of discipline” as well as what they said was a threat from Haley to share “confidential employee information unrelated to this matter.”

In an interview Monday, Haley said he’d warned VADOC staff that firing him would be a poor decision.

“I told them that they were rolling the dice on how much information I know. I gave them a few examples,” Haley said. “The department wants to retaliate against me for uncovering their misconduct.”

A bullying warden

Haley argues the department is using uneven standards to discipline staff. His lawsuit includes redacted documentation of a separate employee’s disciplinary record that he says proves the point.

In investigative reports dated July 20 and July 27, 2020, the department documents a slew of substantiated allegations against a warden at Lunenburg Correctional Center. The warden’s name is redacted from the reports. Darrell Miller served as warden of the facility at that time, according to archived snapshots of VADOC website, but his name was removed the following month.

Miller declined an interview through VADOC spokesperson Kyle Gibson and did not respond to an email seeking comment. VPM News cannot confirm he is the warden named in the reports.

The reports state the warden violated a slew of department policies, according to VADOC investigators: “bullying; creation of a hostile work environment; workplace harassment and discrimination based on race and sex; creation of a stressful and intimidating work environment through fear based management; threats; and conduct that undermines individual self worth, team cohesion, employee morale and the healing environment.”

The report noted that employees were afraid to speak even confidentially about the warden and concluded his “leadership at LCC is based on fear, intimidation, and asserting his power and control over the employees at the facility.”

The warden also is accused of repeatedly using crude language in interviews with female staff under the age of 21; employees interviewed by VADOC said the warden asked questions like “Are you ready for the d—?” and “what if they [masturbate] in your face and start [ejaculating]?”

The warden’s punishment: a one week suspension and transfer to the Greensville Correctional Center, according to the VADOC report, whose authors cited the warden’s 30 years of service to VADOC “without any formal disciplinary actions.”

Miller, who now serves as warden of Deerfield Correctional Center and whose LinkedIn profile shows previous stints as warden at Greensville and Lunenburg, earned an annual salary of nearly $99,000 last year.

Miller was previously at the center of a 2008 lawsuit in which an employee alleged Miller, then a corrections captain, sent a pornographic email. The official accused Miller of retaliating against him for reporting the email. A circuit court judge tossed the case, noting that the employee was not entitled to a grievance case because he’d already resigned.

In an email, Gibson defended the department against accusations of favoritism.

“Department operating procedures stress that management must apply corrective or disciplinary actions consistently and in an objective manner, while taking into consideration the specific circumstances of each individual case,” Gibson said in an email.

Ombudsman office

For the past three years, lawmakers have proposed legislation to create more oversight for the corrections department. This year’s iteration, sponsored by Sen. Dave Marsden (D-Fairfax), would have created a new Office of the Department of Corrections Ombudsman with authority to conduct facility inspections and investigate complaints from imprisoned people and their families and friends, as well as VADOC employees, contractors and public advocates.

The bill was supported by Americans for Prosperity, the ACLU of Virginia and the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers, which represents corrections employees.

VADOC spoke out against the bill in committee, arguing it was unnecessary and came with an unknown price tag.

While the proposal was pared down through the legislative process, it won unanimous approval until it hit the House Appropriations Committee, where Republicans voted on a party-line 11-10 vote to table it with no debate.

Advocates promoting the legislation say it could ultimately save the state money in legal fees and settlements in addition to promoting transparency. Marsden and Weneta said they’re still hoping a curtailed version of the ombudsman office can make it into this year’s budget, which has yet to be fully negotiated.

In the absence of change, the department is left policing itself, Marsden said.

“They have their own internal inspectors, but internal inspectors work for the department,” said Marsden, who oversaw the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice from 2000 to 2002. “They're always going to most likely try to keep the peace.”

Correction: Shawn Weneta's name was misspelled in a previous version of this article. We apologize for the error.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.