STATEWIDE NETWORK RALLIES HUNDREDS FOR PRISON JUSTICE IN VIRGINIA

By Phil Wilayto

Braving temperatures just above freezing and dire forecasts of a life-threatening winter storm, more than 200 people rallied Jan. 12 at the Virginia State Capitol to demand justice for the state’s prisoners and changes in its criminal justice system.

It was the second year in a row that the prisoner-led Virginia Prison Justice Network had organized a rally to draw public attention to issues in the state’s prisons and the need for criminal justice reform. With nearly 38,000 state prisoners in 38 facilities, Virginia has the 14th highest rate of incarceration in the country,

PRISONERS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

While last year’s rally featured representatives from advocacy organizations, this year’s focused on the voices of prisoners themselves, with co-chairs Lynetta Thompson and Joseph Rogers of VAPJN-Richmond reading statements sent in from prisons across the state. Half the statements were from women, who make up the fastest growing segment of the state’s prisoners.

J. Blake wrote that, unlike in men’s prisons, the cells in the women’s prisons at Fluvanna and Goochland County do not have toilets. When nature calls, the women have to use an intercom to call a guard to be let out to use a bathroom. She said the guards don’t always cooperate, and as a result, “I have been forced to defecate in a trash bag in lieu of using an actual toilet more times than I can count. It has been the most degrading, humiliating and dehumanizing experience of my life! The [Virginia Department of Corrections] currently has no policy in place to address this issue, nor is there any such law to prevent this from happening.”

“Mass-incarceration is not a catch-all solution,” wrote Julie Calahan. “Each individual has a different need that needs to be addressed, not looked over like week-old produce.” Chanell Burnett described having to choose between feeding her children or breaking the law. Another woman, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote about how she wound up in prison as a result of postpartum depression.

Several men wrote how, while still teenagers, they got drunk or high and committed crimes that resulted in decades-long sentences, with no chance of earning an early release because Virginia is one of 16 states that have abolished parole. Terence, at Nottoway Correctional Center, pleaded for more re-entry programs. Others, also from Nottoway, about serious injuries being dismissed by medical staff.

Read by his godmother, Henrietta Trotter, was a statement from Jermaine Doss at Sussex II, 18 years into a life-plus-38-year sentence after being framed by a crooked cop now doing time for extorting defendants.

Also presenting in person or by written statements were VAPJN co-founders Margaret Breslau of the Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg; Askari Danso of Prisoner of Conscience, now at the notorious Red Onion “supermax” prison in Wise County; Hassan Shabazz, also of VAPOC, at the Augusta Correctional Center in Buckingham County; Lillie “Ms. K” Branch-Kennedy, Executive Director of Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised (RIHD), along with Willie S. Brown, recently released after 40 years confinement; and Ashna Khanna, the legislative director for the Virginia ACLU.

HOW IT WAS BUILT

The driving force behind turnout at the rally was Virginia prisoners themselves. At Buckingham Correctional Center, with a population of just over 1,000, prisoners mailed some 300 letters to friends and family members urging them to attend the rally. A notice was posted on a bulletin board at Sussex II. Prisoners at Augusta, Nottaway, River North,  and Red Onion were enthusiastically promoting the event. Meanwhile, more than 1,200 people had indicated interest on the event’s Facebook page.

In the end, weather conditions undoubtedly hurt the turnout. News reports warned people not to drive, with good reason: by the next morning, hundreds of accidents had been reported in the Greater Richmond area, with three fatalities, while some 9,000 people had lost power in their homes. Under those conditions, the turnout of 200 was a strong indication of much broader support.

THE NEXT STEPS

Following the rally, about 30 organizers and attendees gathered at historically Black Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church to strategize on promoting prison and criminal justice bills in the 2019 Virginia General Assembly.

The emphasis was on three issues: restoration of parole; an end to the use of solitary confinement; and addressing the situation of hundreds of prisoners sentenced between 1995 and 2000 when juries were not allowed to be told that parole had been abolished and so recommended long sentences under the false impression that the prisoners would not serve their full time. (These are the so-called Fishback cases, named for the court case that finally ended this practice.)

The next steps: VAPJN affiliates RIHD and Bridging the Gap Virginia, along with the Virginia ACLU, are keeping people informed about General Assembly committee meetings that need to be packed with reform supporters. Discussions also are taking place about holding more local town hall-type meetings, called Prison Justice Speak-Outs, along with efforts to strengthen the network’s infrastructure.

SOLIDARITY

The day’s watch word was Solidarity. When rally organizers learned that an important Richmond Women’s March and Expo was being planned for the same day, they contacted the organizers and moved the rally’s starting time so people could attend both events, promoted the women’s actions along with their own and joined the morning march. For their part, the expo organizers invited the network to have a table at the expo, invited longtime prisoner rights advocate Janet “Queen Nzinga” Taylor to speak at the expo rally and urged people at that event to also show up at the prison justice rally.

At Capitol Square, recently released prisoners of all races were joined by family members and supporters. Despite the near-freezing weather, spirits were strong, and several hundred dollars were donated to help support the network’s newsletter.

BIRTH OF THE VAPJN

Last January 20 saw Virginia’s first major rally for prison justice in memory. That gathering, also held at the state’s capitol, was initiated by the prisoner organization Prisoners of Conscience and organized by the Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg and the Richmond-based Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice Equality. Seeing the need to link up prisoners, ex-prisoners, families and advocacy groups, the three organizations launched the Virginia Prison Justice Network, which now has 15 affiliated organizations.

In 2018 the network created a website and Facebook page; started a monthly newsletter now read by prisoners in half the state’s facilities; and held three local Prison Justice Speak-Outs, in Hampton, Roanoke and Richmond, where ex-prisoners and family members exposed the ongoing inhumane conditions overseen by the state’s Department of Corrections.

The network now has three major focuses:

Service – responding to inquiries and posting updates on the status of criminal justice reform legislation; publishing the monthly newsletter (this work is handled by the Coalition for Justice); responding to letters from prisoners and taking action on grievances; and publishing a blog of prisoners’ writings.

Legislative – Promoting and sometimes creating state bills dealing with prison and criminal justice reform; and mobilizing people to attend committee meetings held by the state legislature. This work is led by RIHD and Bridging the Gap Virginia, along with the state ACLU.

Mass Organizing – Local public meetings, protests and the now-annual Prison Justice Rally, organized by the Virginia Defenders.

With national interest in prison and criminal justice issues on the rise, especially with the recent bipartisan efforts on sentencing reform, the time is ripe for an intensified campaign here in Virginia.

For more information and to offer your support, contact: Virginia Prison Justice Network at VAPJN1@gmail.com. On the web at vapjn.wordpress.com.

A video of the rally can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbcTuWzIaWQ.
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Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender and was lead organizer for the Jan. 12 Prison Justice rally. He can be reached at DefendersFJE@hotmail.com.

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Hundreds to attend the 2nd Annual Virginia Prison Reform Rally

Sat., Jan. 12, at Richmond’s Capitol Square

Hundreds of people including former prisoners, their family members and supporters are expected to attend the 2nd Annual Virginia Prison Reform Rally scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 12, from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Bell Tower on Richmond’s Capitol Square. As of Jan. 7, more than 1,200 people have indicated interest on the Facebook event page. (“2nd Annual Virginia Prison Reform Rally”)

This event is a statewide collaboration of the many organizations that have joined together through the Virginia Prison Justice Network to create a greater voice for incarcerated individuals and their family members who still remain victimized by unjust laws and policies. The rally will feature statements from Virginia prisoners and remarks by former prisoners and family members. Also speaking will be representatives of the ACLU of Virginia and the prisoner advocacy organization R.I.H.D. The rally will be interpreted for the deaf.

The first goal of the rally is to call attention to the many injustices that exist within prisons and the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The second goal is to garner support for bills to be presented to the 2019 session of the Virginia General Assembly which would correct these long-overdue inequities.

The major areas of concern include:

Restoring Parole – Virginia ended it in 1995, one of just 16 states to do so.

Abolishing Solitary Confinement – The Virginia Department of Corrections denies that it still uses this barbaric practice, but in fact it has just reclassified it as “restrictive housing.”

Addressing the “Fishback” cases – Starting in 1995, Virginia juries were not told that parole had been abolished and so continued to impose long sentences, thinking they would later be reduced. The practice continued until 2000, when the courts issued the Richard Fishback v. Commonwealth decision. Today some 300 prisoners sentenced between 1995 and 2000 remain caught in this sentencing trap.

The Jan. 12 rally was initiated by the Virginia Prison Justice Network and has been endorsed by the following organizations:

American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia  –  Bridging the Gap in Virginia  –  Coalition for Justice (Blacksburg)  – House of Dreams Outreach & ReEntry of Hampton Roads  –  Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR)  – Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised (RIHD)  –  Roanoke Jail Solidarity – Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality  –  Virginia Prisoner of Conscience  –  Virginia Prisons Accountability Committee

For more information, contact the Virginia Prison Justice Network at: vapjn1@gmail.com

 The Virginia Prison Justice Network is a prisoner-led network that grew out of the first Prison & Justice Reform Rally attended by more than 300 people on Jan. 20, 2018, at Richmond’s Capitol Square. The VAPJN now has a website (https://vapjn.wordpress.com) and a printed newsletter that reaches hundreds of Virginia prisoners. It has sponsored local Speak-Outs for Prison Justice in Hampton, Richmond and Roanoke, supported prisoner-activists facing repression for their activism and developed a coordinated plan to address legislation in the 2019 Virginia General Assembly.

Federal Prison Reform and the State

Hassan Shabazz, VAPOC, Augusta Correctional Center

Recently Congress passed a prison reform bill attacking harsh sentences in a bipartisan effort to address injustices within the system which have resulted in mass incarceration. Many people are under the impression that this also applies to the states. What must be understood is that this is only for the Federal Prison System. In order for any type of prison reform to take place in Virginia, the General Assembly has to pass it through legislation first. I have had to explain this to so many of those that I am incarcerated with as they have all been hyped under the misconception that Virginia is too following the Federal legislation.

In striving to educate them about the process I let them know that even though the legislation does not apply in the states, the fact that Congress acknowledged the need for prison reform lends credence towards the fact that the state should be doing the same. If the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are willing to address this issue then why not the Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly of Virginia?

So how do we use this to our advantage in Virginia? Well, we as prisoners do not have the right to vote, but our families and friends do. We have to galvanize our families and friends to vote for whichever candidate that we endorse, and what we are saying is that if that candidate does not have prison and criminal justice reform as a part their campaign then they will not receive our votes. This type of civic engagement has worked in many other states, we are just behind the curb here in Virginia.

As free citizens our families and friends are taxpayers which means that they have a say so in where their tax dollars are going. The biggest way to ensure that your dollars go where you want and need them to go is to engage your representatives and hold them accountable. Let us work in unison to bring about the changes that we seek, and let us not get discouraged because those changes don’t come about instantly. There are no microwavable solutions for problems that require an oven of activism, so let’s keep on baking.

The 13th Amendment & Mass Incarceration

By Hassan Shabazz

As we explore the 13th Amendment and its application as well as the fallback which has resulted in mass incarceration (modern day slavery), we must also delve into how this Amendment to the Constitution is in violation of every citizens Universal Human Rights, especially the so called “American Negro” who through chattel slavery were freed into conditions of poverty and disenfranchisement which caused many of them to be placed back into slavery/involuntary servitude, and still does today.

The 13th Amendment states:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the person shall have been duly convicted shall exist within the United States or any place subject to its jurisdiction.”

This Amendment has been the subject of many conversations pertaining to mass incarceration and the prison labor industry, but was not been addressed is how this amendment of the U.S. Constitution is in direct conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I will expound on this conflict, but first a little history.

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Following this Historic Act the Assembly called upon all member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, and read and expounded principally is schools and other educational institutions without distinction based on political status of countries or territories.”

Now, for anyone who has never rear the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is incumbent as a sentient being that you do so to be aware of the rights which are universally accepted and recognized by human beings all over the planet. This sets the stage for you incorporation into the international and cosmopolitan community. The Preamble to his document explains the purpose of such a Declaration, and the 30 articles that follow address a wide array of subjects, all necessary to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

For those who are defendants of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (Black Holocaust) where over 100 million Blacks died via this crime against humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds a very species dial place in the pursuit of our total and complete liberation. In my previous article entitled “Behind Poverty Lines” I address how the 13th Amendment is connected to modern day slavery in the form of the prison labor industry, and how the criminalization of poverty out o chattel slavery has led to the state of mass incarceration that we face today. This only scratches the surface, for we are human beings before anything else, therefore our rights as such must be enforced that we may enjoy the liberties which should be granted to all human beings on the planet earth.

As human beings a prisoner deserves even the most basic human rights, and since slavery is one of the most debased things that one human being can force upon another, the status of prisoners under the 13th Amendment must be scrutinized. For those who opposed slavery, abolitionists never talked of reforming slavery. Freedom fighters never talked of reforming Jim Crow. They fought to abolish these things. Well the truth is that the 13th Amendment did in fact reform slavery as it was abolished “except as a punishment for crime.” This means that it has not been completely abolished and in order to do so we would have to abolish prisons, (but more on that later).

As member of the United Nations General Assembly, the United States of America ha pledged to uphold and enforce the articles given within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but America has been and proceeds to be in violation of the very declaration that the country has sworn to uphold through its ratification of the 13th Amendment. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall prohibited in all their forms.”

Because the United States allows slavery by way of the 13th Amendment which states that slavery shall be abolished except as a punishment for a crime whereof the person shall have been duly convicted, it is in direct violation of “Article 4” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So how can the United States both enforce the Constitution (namely the 13th Amendment) and also be a member of the United Nations General Assembly when its proclamation condemns the very act of slavery which is sanctioned by the constitution?

There is no doubt that the Human Rights Declaration outright prohibits atrocities such as the Black Holocaust, but somehow the 13th Amendment which supposedly put an end to that crime against humanity, that actually reformed slavery, has flown under the radar. So what is the solution?

Pipelines and Prisoners, A Real Connection

At the heart of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is capitalism and those who are willing to do anything to make a dollar. The two multi billion dollar pipelines are being pursued by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for obvious financial benefits at the expense of Virginia waters among many other things. Their thirst for profit comes at a total disregard for how future generations will be affected by their treatment of the environment. This is a 600 mile project crossing rivers, streams, and forests and is an extreme threat to Virginia’s water supply. What has not been talked about is how prisons will be affected by this.

Some prisons are already dealing with both toxic water and water shortage problems. Many towns where prisons are located already suffer from water problems due to the enormous amounts of water used by overcrowded prisons, and prisons are frequently placed on water restrictions. What’s going to happen when the MVP is added to the equation? This is known by those who have the power to remedy the problem but the solution will affect their bottom line so they turn a blind eye to it all.

The type of mentality exemplified by Atlantic Coast Pipeline towards the environment is the same as that adopted by those who advocate Truth-In-Sentencing (TIS) which has resulted in mass incarceration. These individuals have not thought of the damage to future generations that has been caused by mass incarceration. From 1995 to present TIS is the pipeline that has desecrated our communities and proceeds to do so and I have no doubt that if the MVP is allowed, 20 years from now we will face an environmental crisis just like the one we face with mass incarceration. In the same way that the MVP will damage the natural resources, TIS has already damaged the human resources. We must recognize the connection and then work together to solve these and other problems holistically. – Hassan Shabazz, VAPOC

What it Means to be a Prisoner of Conscience (and the struggles of being a prisoner-organizer)

On June 1, 2018 I was fired from my position as a law clerk which I’ve held for over 3 years now here at Augusta. I was told that it was because I was too much of an activist, and that I was using my job as a means to promote activism.

It all seemingly stems from 2 letters that I wrote during free time at work. The first letter was to the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) where I was requesting membership as they now accept jailhouse lawyers into the Guild. In the letter I gave them a summary of all the great work that we have been doing here in Virginia towards ending mass incarceration through prison and criminal justice reform.

I informed the Guild of the successful conference calls, rallies, Speak Outs, and mobilization for the 2019 General Assembly. I wrote about mass incarceration and the domino effect of cruel and unusual prison conditions that have resulted from Truth-In-Sentencing and prison overcrowding. I also mentioned the struggles of VAPOC and our comrade Askari Donso. The second letter was to the American Bar Association (ABA) where I was requesting information about the 47,000 barrier laws that exist across the United States so that I could share that information with the patrons of the law library.

After writing the letters I approached my supervisor, Clay Atkins, about printing the letter for me. He read the letter and then told me “no” because it was too much like activism. I told him fine, and that I would handwrite it. After talking to me he still made a copy of the document and sent it up the chain of command. About a week later I was called into his office and told that I was being fired via the instruction of the Chief of Housing and Programs and the Warden. Nothing in my letters was inflammatory nor was it in any way a breach of the security of the institution. I was simply striving to bring attention to our struggle for justice here in Virginia and I have a right, in fact, a duty to do so.

The Virginia Department of Corrections’ Director, Harold W. Clarke stated “We are in the business of helping people to be better.”

When you look at the VADOC’s “Mission” it is stated:

“We enhance the quality of life in the Commonwealth by improving public safety. We accomplish this through reintegration of sentenced men and women in our custody and care by providing supervision and control, effective programs, and reentry services in safe environments which foster positive change and growth consistent with research-based evidence, fiscal resposibility, and constitutional standards.”

As for the VADOC “Values” they state:

“We have identified our core values which we nurture and embody in our daily work to fulfill our Mission: Safety, Ethics, Learning, Commitment, Support, Respect, and Honesty.

Finally, when we look at the VADOC’s “Vision” the following is said:

“Our long term vision is for the VADOC to be a progressive and proven innovative leader in the profession. Research, data analysis, and reporting of outcomes will be used in strategic planning, policy guidance, program assessment, and administrative decision-making. Virginia is a better place to live and work because we improve long term safety and foster societal progress through the successful transformation and reintegration of men and women entrusted to our care.”

Now, all of this sounds wonderful, but practicing what you preach is a totally different story. They say that they want to foster societal progress by transforming men and women entrusted to their care, but once you do transform yourself into one who will be a productive citizen, and you move with a conscientious mind to address your grievances against flaws in their system in the proper manner, you are demonized and treated contrary to what the VADOC’s alleged mission is.

If I was to react to the conditions of my confinement in an uncivilized manner, that would be easier for the Administration to handle. They have security for that, but when you strive to assert your constitutional right to challenge your conditions and seek assistance in doing so in an intelligent manner, you are public enemy number one.

I’ve done nothing but be productive in my position as a law clerk, and I love to help the prison population. I have went beyond my job description when asked by supervisors to assist with different things that have been needed. Recently about three weeks ago, I attended a Volunteer Banquet where I greeted over 60 volunteers, organized a door prize raffle, and issued name tags to every guest. I was a great asset for affairs like this, but when I start to speak the truth about this broken system, I am persecuted for it. It is like Nicole Pughsley the wife of my brother and friend Askari Danso said in a Richmond Times Dispatch interview, “They just want them to be quiet and do their time.”

My present situation is just another example of what I means to be a Prisoner of Conscience. We strive to awaken the people, and fight for what’s right in the right manner, and we are persecuted for it. A productive citizen is one who is active in the process of improving the system in which he/she lives. If prisoners cannot raise awareness about the flawed system of corrections in a civilized manner, how can society expect them to even desire to become productive upon release.

Virginia Prisoner of Conscience (VAPOC) is our attempt to bring about a much needed balance within a system that is built off of instability. The hypocrisy here is clear. The VADOC says that they are in the business of making people better, but if that “better” means that I will be a better slave, I think I’ll pass. – Hassan Shabazz, VAPOC

Wardens at Sussex I & II are out – what does it mean?

Staff report from The Virginia Defender – May 30, 2018

In the midst of a prisoner-led campaign to win better conditions at the Sussex II state prison in Waverly, Va., the wardens at both that prison and its sister facility, Sussex I, have been replaced.

Tracy Ray, the warden at Sussex II, has been removed from his position and replaced by Beth Cabell, previously the warden at St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake.

The new warden at Sussex I is Israel Hamilton, previously the warden at Haynesville Correctional Center in Richmond County. Both changes seem to have occurred within the last week.

What does this mean? Was it a decision by the Department of Corrections to address the long-term problems at the prisons? Cosmetic changes? Even previously scheduled shufflings? Was it because the Department of Corrections has concluded that both wardens recently have violated the rights of prisoner activists? At this point we can’t be sure, but in the context of the ongoing struggle there, it’s at least a very hopeful sign.

Prisoners at Sussex II, organized as the Sussex II Human Rights Committee, had drawn up a petition requesting remedies for eight very basic issues, such as access to clean drinking water, immediate health care for prisoners experiencing serious health crises and an effective grievance system. (The petition is posted HEREhttps://vapjn.wordpress.com/) While removing the warden was not one of the requests, his name appears several times in the petition.

Between 50 and 100 men signed the petition, which was addressed to the general public. The organizers then asked representatives of the Virginia Prison Justice Network (VAPJN) to deliver the petition to top officials at the Department of Corrections.

But before that could happen, three prisoners who the Sussex II authorities evidently believed were connected with this perfectly legal petition, were put into solitary confinement: Askari Danso, co-founder of the VAPJN and the Virginia Prisoner of Conscience (VPOC); Askari’s cellmate, D. Braxton; and longtime Sussex II prisoner-rights activist Uhuru Rowe. Askari and D. Braxton were transferred to nearby Sussex I, a more restrictive facility. Uhuru evidently was kept at Sussex II.

VAPJN’s outside supporters alerted the media and, within days, a front-page story appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch covering the petition and the transfer of Askari. A previously planned Richmond Speak-Out for Prison Justice, held May 19 and attended by more than 100 people, was dedicated to Askari and the prison struggle at Sussex II. A Times-Dispatch a story on the speak-out also mentioned Askari. Supporters of the three men deluged the DOC with calls demanding their release, and the prisoners’ petition with a report on the case was posted on the VAPJN website.

Meanwhile, the VAPJN requested a meeting with A. David Robinson, Chief of Corrections Operations who is the second highest official in the DOC, to discuss the petition, the ongoing conditions at Sussex II and the situations of Askari, Uhuru and D. Braxton.

On May 22, VAPJN members Lynetta Thompson and Phil Wilayto met at DOC headquarters with Robinson; Eastern Regional Office Operations Chief Jamilla Burney-Divens; the sub-director of that office who oversees Sussex II; and the heads of the DOC legal services and communications departments. Thompson is the State Advisor for Youth and College Division of the Virginia State Conference NAACP. Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper. Both are cleared to speak at Virginia prisons and together have spoken a half-dozen times at prisoner-organized events at Augusta and Buckingham correctional centers.

During the 45-minute meeting, Thompson and Wilayto presented the officials with the petition, went over the cases of the three prisoners and gave the officials copies of the two Times-Dispatch newspaper articles.

Robinson and Burney-Divens pledged to look into the issues raised by the Sussex II prisoners and to be in touch with the two VAPJN representatives about their investigation. They also said they would look into Askari’s case, but that information on his status would have to come from Askari himself. (At the time of the meeting, the VAPJN had only sketchy knowledge about Uhuru’s and Braxton’s situations.) The two VAPJN representatives left the meeting feeling cautiously optimistic that the officials had seriously listened to the prisoners’ grievances.

Uhuru and D. Braxton now have been released from solitary, as a result of having completed sentences given them for charges arising from the petition.  Askari is still in solitary awaiting a transfer decision.  According to the DOC’s website Offender Locator page, Uhuru is at Sussex II, Askari is at Sussex I and D. Braxton could be at either I or II; there’s a D. Braxton at both prisons.

This preliminary report will be updated as soon as new information becomes available.

 

May 19: ‘Richmond Speak Out for Prison Justice’ to expose issues in Virginia’s prison system

On Saturday, May 19, the Richmond Committee of the Virginia Prison Justice Network (VAPJN) will host a Richmond Speak-Out for Prison Justice from 1 to 3:30 pm at Second Baptist Church, 1400 Idlewood Ave. in the Randolph neighborhood.

Titled “Confronting Justice: One Story at a Time,” the Speak-Out will be an opportunity for prisoners, former prisoners, family members, supporters and advocates to tell their stories and inform the public about the realities of life in Virginia prisons. The event will be livestreamed on Facebook and then posted on the VAPJN website.

One of the key issues to be discussed will be Virginia’s use of solitary confinement. Among those addressing this issue will be David Smith, who spent more than 16 months in solitary confinement in the Norfolk City Jail. Mr. Smith spoke about his experience at a recent press conference hosted by the ACLU of Virginia and other advocacy organizations.

The May 19 Speak-Out will be dedicated to Askari Danso, currently held in solitary confinement at the Sussex I maximum security prison after leading several prisoner efforts to expose injustices in the system. Mr. Danso was the subject of a front-page story in the May 6 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. His case will be spotlighted at the Speak-Out.

As of May 12, the Speak-Out has been endorsed by the ACLU of Virginia, Community Unity in Action, House of Dreams Outreach & ReEntry (Hampton), Interfaith Action for Human Rights, Mary G. Brown Transitional Center, RIHD Inc., RISE, SONG and the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

For more information, see: https://www.facebook.com/events/630839550585150/ or email: richmondprisonjusticenetwork@gmail.com

Support the Sussex II Human Rights Committee #FreeAskari

Sussex II Petition – Page 1

Sussex II Petition – Page 2

Sussex II petition – Page 3

These are copies of the 3-page petition from the Sussex II Human Rights Committee. A copy of the petition was found in Askari Danso’s cell after he and his cellmate were transferred to Sussex I from Sussex 2.  Askari says that this petition was the basis for his being convicted of planning some kind of group demonstration, which it absolutely does not.  Askari is a founding member of VAPOC (Virginia Prisoner of Conscience), a member of the Coalition for Justice steering committee, as well as a member of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice, & Equality.  Askari and his cellmate D. Braxton should not be in solitary and should be removed from Sussex II.

About the Sussex II Human Rights Committee:

The committee’s petition outlines “grievances” the committee members say are particular to Sussex II. It states that when prisoners have attempted to use the facility’s grievance procedure, staff members have “circumvented” those efforts or “many times outright refused to respond.”

So the committee is asking the public to raise their grievances for them to the director of VADOC, Board of Corrections, Director of Public Safety and governor’s office.  The committee’s petition is addressed to “individuals, citizens and organizations” and asks them “to take our issues to VA DOC Headquarters and request that they remedy the following grievances by implementing our requests outlined herein:”

Note: The proposed solutions are framed as “requests,” not “demands.”


The requests are for:

1 – “Better quality medical care”  Petition claims prisoners have died because of “slow response times” to medical emergencies.

2 – “A clean source of drinking water”  Claims the Town of Waverly (where both Sussex I and II are located) receives “boil water advisories” and staff is told not to drink the water at SUssex II, but prisoners have no alternative to water that “is oftentimes ‘mud puddle’ brown while carrying a strange, indescribable odor.” Claims that, as a result, prisoners suffer from diarrhea, headaches, nausea, skin irritations and rashes.

3 – “Adequate law library”  Claims that, unlike at other Level Four VADOC prisons, prisoners at Sussex II are not allowed the use of computers or typewriters to type legal documents and so must write them out by hand.

4 – “An end to “arbitrary group punishment”  Claims prisoners are often locked down “for many hours” when a single individual commits a minor infraction, such as not standing for count or cursing at a guard.

5 – “A clean and healthy environment”  Issues listed include moldy showers, vents that go years without being cleaned, holes in windows that allow insects to enter cells, and indoor temperatures between Oct. 1 and May 1 that are below 65 degrees.

6 – “More programming to help us to become more productive and healthy”  Claims that despite many drug overdoses there is no drug program; despite many “violent assaults and fights,” there are no appropriate programs. Request is for “more work, religious and educational programs.”

7 – “More time with our loved ones during visitation”  Claims that the combination of a small visiting room, overly lengthly visitor screenings and “where the prison is located” (near cities with large low-income and Black populations) all contribute to shorter visitations. Requests a more efficient screening process.

8 – “A fair and just implementation of the grievance procedure”  Claims officials arbitrarily refuse to process or give receipts for written grievances.

Politically active Va. inmate, now in solitary, transferred three times after complaints about prisons

Published in the Richmond Times Dispatch, May 6, 2018, by Patrick Wilson

A politically active Virginia prisoner who organized inmates to file grievances about medical care, staffing and water quality was recently transferred to a high-security prison and placed in solitary confinement. Supporters and his wife fear he is being unjustly punished for activism.

Askari Danso, whose legal name is Dale Lee Pughsley, promotes black history and Rastafarian groups in prisons and recently organized a petition asking for better medical care and staffing at Sussex II State Prison, where he formed a human rights committee for prisoners.

After he left the Sussex II law library on April 24, he said he and his cellmate were handcuffed and moved to Sussex I, where they were each put in solitary confinement.

 

His cell has a stool, toilet and mattress, no pillow or hygiene products, and no TV or reading material. He can see trees out the window. Danso said he’s being punished for political speech he says could save prisoners’ lives in understaffed prisons.

“You’ve got these prisons that are bursting at the seams,” he said in a phone interview Thursday after spending 10 days in solitary confinement at higher-security Sussex I. “They’re not open to the idea of prisoners being political, even if it’s democratic.”

Danso, 38, has served 20 years in prison stemming from a 1999 conviction for second-degree murder and firearms charges in Lynchburg when he was 18. He fatally shot a man in the neck during an argument over drugs. His projected release is 2046.

Danso said he’s been transferred three times since 2016 for reasons he believes are political.

“He’s raising these issues about the problems of the system as a whole,” said Phil Wilayto with activist group Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. “He hasn’t disrupted anything.”

A Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman declined to comment.

***

Here is the story of Danso’s transfers, as he describes it:

He spent four years at Buckingham Correctional Center, where he was a facilitator for black history and Rastafarian programs and worked as a treatment aide helping lead groups on anger management and substance abuse. He educated prisoners that they are legally entitled to be treated with dignity.

After a warden reduced the annual Black History Month celebration from three days to one and reduced inmate involvement in organizing activities, inmates wrote complaints.

The warden had Danso brought to his office, where he told him he’d transfer him if he found inmates were writing complaints because of him.

In September 2016, Danso was told he was being transferred. He was moved to Augusta Correctional Center and was accused of trying to organize prisoners to stop working, which Danso said is untrue.

At the new prison, he found no black history program, no Kwanzaa celebration and no Rastafarian class, and wrote complaints. The warden allowed a black history program with outside guests.

Danso helped organize a rap talent show in the prison yard with lyrics to be focused on political conscience, love and family.

A counselor at the prison liked the idea, but a higher-level official stopped it and organizers were punished. A Department of Corrections investigator referred to the plans as “an illegal black supremacy meeting.”

Danso has recorded podcasts about prison justice that were posted to a blog.

“We need to let the citizens out there know what they’re paying for,” he said.

He got a Rastafarian program started at Augusta, arguing it was a religious freedom issue. But days before it started, in March of this year, he was told he was being transferred again.

Back in December, he had been given two charges, which he said were his first in nearly nine years. One was a violation of postage rules. He said DOC officials also alleged that a phone conversation he had with his wife 13 months earlier used coded language — that when they discussed DVDs they were actually talking about Suboxone, a drug used to treat people addicted to opioids.

His transfer in March was to Sussex II, which has higher security than Buckingham and Augusta.

“It is the worst prison in Virginia,” Danso said. “They call it understaffed. Conscious prisoners call it overcrowded.”

He and other inmates at Sussex II organized a human rights committee with a goal of getting citizens involved in lobbying for better inmate conditions.

***

As Danso was escorted in handcuffs to a watch commander’s office on April 24, supervisors and a prison dog followed. A lieutenant told him they’d been given strict orders to get him out of Sussex II. DOC staff drove him in a van that evening to Sussex I, an even higher-security prison.

After a few days in solitary confinement, an investigator told him the DOC was investigating “a Blood-Crip petition and potential riot.”

After searching his old cell at Sussex II, DOC staff found a petition that had been circulated to inmates related to prison grievances, Danso said. He was charged with encouraging others to participate in a group demonstration, a serious charge given to inmates who try to start a riot, he said.

Danso said the petition is an excuse by the DOC to justify moving him from Sussex II to Sussex I. The petition was a collective idea from the inmate human rights committee, he said.

Gregory Carter, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said the department does not discuss inmate transfers, security-level changes or assignments to restricted housing because records on them are exempt from mandatory disclosure under Virginia law. The department declined an interview request with Tracy Ray, the warden at Sussex II, about why Danso was transferred.

“The DOC wardens do not share the offenders’ personal information with the public,” Carter wrote by email.

The department does not release information on staff vacancies at its prisons. But in response to a recent request, the DOC released data showing that the region of 12 facilities that includes Sussex I and Sussex II had a 15 percent vacancy rate as of Jan. 31.

The Richmond-based Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality and the Blacksburg nonprofit Coalition for Justice, of which Danso is on the steering committee, are among prisoners’ rights groups alarmed about Danso’s transfer to solitary confinement at Sussex I. They alerted their members to call Sussex I to ask why Danso was transferred, ask for him to be removed from solitary confinement, and ask that he be given access to his personal property.

Margaret Breslau of the Coalition for Justice said Danso has never been interested in gangs and she doubted the validity of the charge against him.

His wife, Nicole Pughsley of Lynchburg, said she’s worried about what will happen to her husband.

“He’s just trying to wake a lot of the young black men. He’s just trying to wake everybody up, and they don’t like that,” she said. “They just want them to be quiet and do their time.”

pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson