The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a life-and-death crisis in Virginia’s prisons and jails. Nearly one out of every four incarcerated Virginians have come down with the disease, due to overcrowding, poor health care, lack of outside oversight and many other factors.


We will be raising three demands:

1 – Outside oversight of the state’s prisons and jails by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a similar agency.

2 – Classification of prisoners on the same level as residents of nursing homes for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

3 – Rapid expansion of the state’s early release program to include a much wider pool of eligible prisoners.

WE WILL GATHER AT NOON ON SATURDAY, JAN. 16, in the very large parking lot of the Black-owned Supreme Flea Market at 3302 Williamsburg Road, Richmond, about seven miles from Capitol Square. We will then caravan downtown where we will circle the State Capitol. We will then return to the parking lot.

The caravan itself will take the form of a defiant funeral procession under the slogan “NOT ONE MORE DEATH!” with signs, banners and a portable sound system.

NOTE: This will be an outdoor, socially distanced event at which everyone will be strongly encouraged to wear a face mask out of concern for each other’s health.


Every January for the past three years, hundreds of former prisoners, family members and supporters have gathered at Capitol Square in Richmond for the VIRGINIA PRISON JUSTICE RALLY.

This annual event, the largest of its kind in Virginia, is sponsored by the VIRGINIA PRISON JUSTICE NETWORK, a prisoner-led alliance of more than 20 advocacy organizations that works to create a greater voice for incarcerated individuals and their family members who remain victimized by unjust laws and policies.

Each year the rally features statements from Virginia prisoners, remarks by former prisoners and family members and representatives from prisoner advocacy organizations. The goal is to call attention to the many injustices that exist within prisons, jails and the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth of Virginia and build support for bills to be presented to the 2021 session of the Virginia General Assembly that would correct these long-overdue inequities.

This year, because of restrictions the state is putting on events held at the Capitol, we will be holding a car caravan and posting prisoner and supporter statements online. (https://vapjn.wordpress.com)


For more information, see:

Website: vapjn.wordpress.com

On Facebook: 4th Annual Virginia Prison Justice Rally

Email (for the caravan): DefendersFJE@hotmail.comEmail for general VAPJN information): vapjn1@gmail.com

Let’s Build!

From Hassan Shabazz: Peace and Solidarity to the Unified family:

First, I would like to thank everyone who has worked long and hard to make this event a reality and have braved the current conditions of Covid-19 to participate in this 4th annual Prison Justice Rally. When I look at the past 4 years there have been so many people who have advocated, supported, and dedicated their time and energy to the goal of progressive prison and criminal justice reform, and to all of you I would like to express my gratitude.

2020 was a year filled with many accomplishments mirrored by many losts. For the first time in 26 years in Virginia, prison reform laws were passed for Fishback, Juvenile Parole, and Good Time Credits, but at the same time we saw people take to the streets demanding justice in honor of those forever lost to the struggle such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery amongst many others too numerous to name. We continue to watch the fire of Covid-19 tear through our world, international and domestic, and while the hope of vaccines have shown some light at the end of the tunnel, it is still a tunnel we must go through, and undoubtedly it will be a long hard journey.

With all that is going on today, some may not see prison or criminal justice reform as something significant, but the truth is that we are all tied together in the struggle to escape oppression, in whatever form it may appear. Covid-19 has shown us that “No man is an island unto himself.” It doesn’t care about your race, nationality or status. I have seen the virus affect my own family and ravage the Reentry Community where I reside infecting men (including myself) that only have a few weeks to months left to serve and who are afraid that they may not make it home. I have seen men taken out on gurneys never to return. There is no parole for the majority of the population, so many of them are hoping for an early release through the Covid release plan or a vaccine. Covid-19 has shown just how ill prepared the DOC is to deal with a pandemic and more oversight is needed for the safety of those under their care.

As we continue to endure the pandemic we proceed to have thoughts of freedom, justice, and equality. We must not be satisfied with the accomplishments that we’ve made thus far and we cannot rest until justice prevails. From the issues of No-Knock Warrants and Community Policing, to Parole and Good Time Credits, we must press on. Let us not be discouraged when we do not succeed right away, rather, we must understand as I always say, “There are no microwavable solutions to problems that require an oven of activism.” Thank you for your time and participation, and with that, I leave you as I came, in peace and solidarity.
Hassan Shabazz, VAPJN


By Phil Wilayto

for The Virginia Defender

RICHMOND, VA, Sept. 8 — “Some terrible mistake was made along the way.”

That was how a federal judge described the recent massive COVID-19 outbreak at a private immigrant detention center in Farmville, Va., the result of officials transferring a large number of detainees from Arizona and Florida without first quarantining them.

The same words could describe the coronavirus crisis at the Richmond city jail, where one out of every eight inmates now has the disease.

Back on April 27, Sheriff Antionette Irving told this reporter that no inmates at the jail yet had been tested for COVID-19. By that date, Virginia already had reported 13,535 cases, with 2,066 people hospitalized and 458 deaths.

Irving explained that her policy was to test any inmate who showed symptoms of the disease or who asked to be tested. But it is well-known that people infected with COVID-19 can show no symptoms and yet still pass the disease to others, especially in confined spaces such as nursing homes, jails and prisons. 

Irving also stated that she didn’t have any COVID-19 test kits at the time.

In response, this reporter and other advocates on May 11 wrote to Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico County health departments, urging him to make test kits available to the jail administration.

Dr. Avula responded on May 15, stating, “To date, the Richmond City Justice Center has no confirmed cases, and as a result, we have not considered widespread testing.” 

He added that his department had provided test kits to the jail “so that testing can be conducted on any inmates or staff who exhibit symptoms, and a PPS [representative testing] would be considered and likely recommended if COVID-19 was identified.”

In late July, the Defender sent a list of questions to the sheriff under the Freedom of Information Act asking for an update on the COVID-19 situation in the jail. Sheriff Irving’s office quickly responded, stating that 503 out of about 644 inmates had volunteered to be tested, with 340 being tested on July 7, 21 and 27. Of the 340, 12 were found to be infected, with four showing no symptoms. 

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the first case of COVID-19 in Richmond was confirmed on March 18 – nearly four months before this first mass testing in the jail.

Later, in response to a second FOIA request, the sheriff stated that, by Sept. 2, a total of 119 inmates had tested positive at the jail, with 109 – more than 90 percent – displaying no symptoms. By that date, there still were a total of 81 active cases among 675 inmates, meaning that 12 percent – one out of every eight inmates – had the disease. 

Jail officials say they follow all guidelines recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including “wearing masks, social distancing within the facility, and courts, hand washing/sanitizing, daily temperature checks, and increased janitorial cleaning throughout the day at the facility.”

The jail can house 1,132 inmates, including in the medical clinic and solitary confinement, so there should be room for isolating inmates with active or suspected cases.

Asked what happens if an inmate declines to be tested, the sheriff told the Defender, “They are quarantined and asked daily if they would like to test, and are educated in regards to COVID-19, and continuously assessed by the nursing staff to monitor if there are any signs or symptoms.”

And are inmates tested before they are released back into the community? 

“No,” the sheriff responded, “but they are provided with resources and education in addition to VDH [Virginia Department of Health] contact person.”

So inmates who may have declined to be tested for COVID-19 and who have the disease but are not showing symptoms can be released back into the community, without being tested. 

Unlike in prisons, most people confined in local jails are there for relatively short periods. According to a study by the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care, the average time an inmate spent in a local jail in 2017 was just 17 days.

And active cases aren’t limited to inmates.

Also by Sept. 2, according to the sheriff, 22 jail employees and/or contractors had tested positive – with none of them showing symptoms at the time they were tested. Staff and outside contractors, who pass in and out of the jail, would seem to be the most likely carriers of the disease. It is not known how many people in the community the infected but asymptomatic staff members or contractors may have infected.

Local activists have charged that one Richmond inmate has died from COVID-19, something Sheriff Irving has publicly denied. In response to a question submitted under FOIA, the sheriff told the Defender that by Sept. 2 no inmate had died from the disease, and no inmate who had the disease has died from what was determined to be other causes. 

Meanwhile, by mid-June, officials at nearby Chesterfield County Jail had tested all inmates, resulting in positive tests for 41, of whom 31 were asymptomatic. The 41 represented about 20 percent of the more than 200 inmates. No employees tested positive at that time.

As of Sept. 1, the Chesterfield jail was reporting no active cases among inmates in the previous month.

Unlike in Richmond or Henrico County, the Chesterfield jail posts updated information about active COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths on its website, as does the Virginia Department of Corrections. 

The tragedy is that if all Richmond city jail inmates and staff had been tested back in April – or earlier – the present outbreak in the jail may have been avoided.

One problem may have been the lack of outside pressure. Except for The Virginia Defender and the Richmond Free Press, there was little media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in the city jail until 11 young activists were brutally arrested Sept. 1 during a protest outside the jail, resulting in wide media attention.

And, to the best of our knowledge, the Richmond and Henrico County health departments have not sought to make the crisis a public issue.

As of Sept. 2, the sheriff’s office stated that that jail had both testing kits and PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], adding, “We are always excepting [sic] more cleaning supplies PPE and testing kits for the appropriate outside escorts.”

Advocates including the Richmond Legal Justice Center, Richmond Community Bail Fund, Richmond Public Defender Tracy Paner, S.O.N.G, American Civil Liberties Union, Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality have been calling on jails to release more inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic. As of Sept. 2, 675 women and men were being held in the jail, a decline of 12.2 percent from the average of 769 held in January of this year.

Editor’s note: The formal name of the Richmond city jail is the Richmond City Justice Center. It is the policy of The Virginia Defender to use the more accurate term, “Richmond city jail.”) 




Virginia Defender <virginiadefendernews@gmail.com>

George Floyd, A Prisoner’s Perspective

Peace! I go by the name Righteous Arvel and I will like to thank everyone who’s taking this pandemic seriously by doing their part to save lives. I also want to say “thank you” to all the protesters out there for showing the world what unity can really do, because numbers don’t lie. Fighting for justice is the only way WE can respectfully honor the death of George Floyd who has become the successor for all those who were ever victimized by Police Brutality, and the Criminal (Slavery) Injustice System. My sentiments are heavy with understanding and grief, because I also had to experience my friend being shot to death by a Richmond, VA Police Officer. Before that, I was a victim of police brutality twice, but there was no cameras. So I understand the nature of violence that can be used to detain a suspect. I admit I resisted a few times, but they still applied excessive force to subdue me. I still ask myself, am I lucky or did they use “NECESSARY” force to arrest me?

My point is, Police Officers do not need any additional training to justify their negligence. Every Police Officer who wears that badge are professionally trained to handle hostile and non hostile situations. Therefore, if an Officer uses unnecessary (excessive) force to apprehend an unarmed suspect it is an act of malice with the intention to do harm or in some cases kill. They are Officers of the Law, which means they’re sworn with the responsibility to protect and serve “The People”. In other words, they must “Protect” the Life, Liberty, and Property of every citizen equally, because Constitutionally we’re All innocent until proven guilty. They also must “Serve” justice on anyone who violates the Life, Liberty, and Property of every citizen protected by the Constitution. With that being said, why isn’t the Constitution protecting the Life, Liberty, and Property of Black People?

I’ll tell you why — because the Constitution was written during slavery which kept us psychologically oppressed for over 400 years. The dehumanization of being called 3/5ths of a person remains engraved in our minds which caused us to be less than average compared to the Majority. Therefore, freedom cost us our lives. Abe Lincoln was not so honest when he so-called Emancipated us, because Emancipation is not Liberation. Liberation is absolute Freedom, Justice, and Equality. Emancipate comes from a Latin word which means to be Free from ones chains, but not from ones hands. The 13th Amendment only “Emancipated” us from one Plantation to Another (Prison), using the Criminal Justice System as a slave ship. Why do you think this Amendment still uses the language “except”? Except what, if we free?

It’s time America abide by their own creed which is Freedom and Justice for all. However, it’s up to Us to make that happen, because like the weather change comes in degrees. The first degree is to break the psychological chains of slavery by recognizing there is a problem and the problem is racism. The second degree is to understand that the problem is not Us, it’s anyone who believes it’s Us. The third degree or solution is to change the language of the Constitution that has enforced and endorsed Structural, Systemic, Statistical, Institutional, and In your face racism to All minorities in America. Who ever denies that Racism has plagued and divided this country are either color blind or hiding behind white privilege. Racism was the nature of chattel slavery which they used as a measuring stick to build this country. Our blood, sweat, tears, and lives are the foundation of America’s Freedom as well as our economical and industrial wealth? WE are “The People” of the United States of America which means WE have the power to change the laws and the future of the next generation. So WE have to BE the change WE want to see.

The Bible says it’s a time and season for everything. Therefore, it’s our time to kneel and keep one knee on the necks of injustice until WE see change. Change in our Communities, our Police Department, our Educational System, our Economical System, and our Criminal Justice System. Our progress is the only way WE can honor the lives of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and too many others who paid the price for being Black in America. The time is Now to confront, indict, and convict the real criminals who promote and support racial discrimination. In other words, if you can’t empathize don’t criticize (Drew Brees).
We might be hurt, but one thing we’ll never be is broken. Our spirit has always been the heart beat of our resilience. Especially our black women who have sacrificed their mind, bodies, and souls to raise and save every generations of our people. Our Black Love got us through everything which is why WE could never practice the hatred of racism. Racism is based on the concept of Superiority.
Superiority is when a group of people or race believe that their race is Superior or Supreme over another race with the intentions to divide and conquer.

However, in order to supplant Superiority the other race have to adopt an Inferiority Complex out of fear and perpetual indoctrination, which gives the Superior Race the opportunity and power to implement their own Ideology Hegemony (Institutionalization) as law. This is why WE must educate (involve) ourselves in the political affairs of this Nation, because Everything they do affects Us too! When I say “They” I mean White Supremes, not White People. Once WE recognize the difference, UNI can end racial discrimination. There’s no Unity without UNI, so together WE can change the narrative of OUR future.

Thank You From, Cavonza Teasley #1129038 go to (Jpay.com)

COVID-19 and Mass Incarceration

By: Hassan Shabazz, VAPOC/VAPJN/CFJ
Senior Liaison/Mentor in the Augusta
Pre-Rentry “Self Governing” Community

The COVID-19 virus has altered all of our lives for the foreseeable future, and as a prisoner of conscience I see the both the negative and the positive that has come from this calamity. While many people have been stuck inside, the earth has seen a decrease in carbon emissions and temperatures over the cities. Animals have appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and the earth is somewhat resetting itself. Unfortunately, many people have lost their lives, but for those of us who have seen enough in life, we know that calamity can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. We just have to find what that is.

Everything inside has changed so drastically. The heightened anxiety towards wanting to be free for fear of COVID-19 manifests itself in many ways. Men try to find ways to self medicate or escape in any way that they can. Coping mechanisms such as over use of phones take place which causes disputes and quarrels. There is absolutely no outlet such as social media for prisoners besides an outdated media device. There is no surfing the net, or face time. We deal with being caged in with 63 other men in housing units, and up to 99 other men in dormitories. Everyday we hear of social distancing which is impossible for us. We all know that we are only one asymptomatic guard or counselor away from becoming a hot spot. We do our best everyday to make the best out of it all, but we know that it is only so long before it touches us, if it already hasn’t.

Our circumstance finds its origin with Truth in Sentencing (“TIS”). As a victim of TIS having been convicted after 1995 (1999) and sentenced to a total of 26 years for Robbery and Use of a Firearm, I have experienced the most punitive form of corrections whereas I was made to do 85% of my sentence with no possibility for parole (parole was abolished under TIS). Over the years I have walked with others who have committed the same crime as me but did significantly less time because they were able to make parole. Now, I am not stating this fact for the purpose of inciting some type of sympathy of mercy from anyone, I simply want to show how the desire to be tough on crime and see no hope for reform or rehabilitation has made the current state of corrections a breeding ground for a disease like COVID-19.

TIS resulted in a severe overcrowding of the DOC. As it turns out, the need for social distancing cannot be provided for in prison because of overcrowding which was caused by TIS. For years advocates have stated that mass incarceration is a problem and there must be a solution, but Virginia has not listened. The unwillingness of the DOC to bend has set the stage for the chickens to home to roost. Now, since the advent of COVID-19, the state of emergency and need for social distancing has brought about the need for space that the prison system just doesn’t have. We are left with the only thing that we can do now…, react.

On 4/22/2020 the General Assembly approved Amendment 21 to the budget which allows for the DOC to review and release prisoners who have 1 year or less as long as they don’t have a Class One Felony or a Violent Sexual Offense. This will initially release approximately 2,500 prisoners and will last until June 10, 2020 and can be extended up to July of 2021. For a population that has grown from 18,000 in 1995 to almost 40,000 present day, this does not in any way solve the overcrowding issue. There are about 7,900 individuals waiting in jails to go to the DOC so the release order may assist with the jail overcrowding, but the DOC will still face issues as those in jails empty into the system.

The most logical solution to this problem is a mass release order much like that which occurred in California after the decision of Brown v. Plata in 2011. California released 60,000 prisoners due to its overcrowding problem and the fact that they could not provide proper medical and mental health care. This is not unlike Virginia. The DOC healthcare is known to be inadequate and COVID-19 is sure to further reveal that inadequacy. When you only have in some cases 1 doctor for 1300 prisoners what do you expect? 2,500 prisoners is a start, but it is only a band aid over an open wound that needs stitches. (Honestly, I believe that this number has been stated to appease activists and advocates. There have only been 100 cases reviewed with 62 people released). We must get ahead of the inevitable and get as many of those who have shown that they are ready for release out of the system.

After a mass release then it should be the reinstatement of parole for everyone. The reinstatement of parole will allow for the parole board to evaluate the prospective candidates for release and this will open the door for those who may have more than a few years left but have done what is necessary to reform themselves and prepare for life as a productive citizen. The next thing is housing. There is a problem as can be seen with the release of current parolees. The failure of Virginia to provide a reasonable expectation of release for those who have done decades in prison, but have shown all the characteristics of rehabilitation, has left many men with no one to go home to and thus no home plan. This has led to no vacancies in halfway houses and transition homes due to the amount of guys who have lost so many loved ones along the way.

At the present time I know of at least 5 men who have made parole but because they have been kept for so many years, all of their families are deceased, and the Transition homes are full due to this State of Emergency. It is for his reason that we need not only advocates for release, but we also need advocates for post release housing. The number of Halfway Houses and Transition Homes in Virginia cannot possibly handle the influx of men/women who are making parole. This means that some of these individuals may have their paroles rescinded. To this I would ask, “What good is an order to expedite parole if that order does not include a plan for housing some of these men who have been kept so long that they have no one to go home to?”

I believe that the Coronavirus has exposed just how flawed the system of Corrections is here in Virginia. We have to proceed to push for more progressive reform. Here in the Re-entry Community we say that, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We know that if you keep a problem from occurring you don’t have to solve it. Virginia, in contrast, has created the very problem which it is now having trouble finding a solution for. The true solution is that we have to save ourselves (as best we can…, if we can). We cannot continue to depend on a failed leadership to guide us to the proverbial “promised land.” If this virus has shown us anything it is that as it stands those in society have more in common with those in prison than they think, and mass incarceration doesn’t just exist behind the wall.

COVID19 in Prisons & Jails in Virginia

Follow our Facebook page to get updates on inmates/staff who have tested positive for COVID19.  Click here.

04/08/2020:  UPDATE:   In an inquiry about the death of an inmate at Sussex 2, Jae Davenport, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, responded today in an email saying: “There are no COVID-19 related deaths at any of the facilities at this time. VADOC works very closely with VDH on these cases and it will continue to provide daily updates to the public.”  There are 5 inmates in hospital, 2 from Sussex 2 and three from Virginia Correctional Center for Women.

Organizations within the Virginia Prison Justice Network are amplifying the voices of those in detention so that their concerns are addressed during this pandemic.  We are also rallying to call on the Governor to early release those who are:  geriatric and/or  medically fragile; within one year of their release date; already parole eligible; have a conditional pardon; are release eligible via parole through HB35, juvenile parole bill; and those who are release eligible via parole through HB33, Fishback prisoners.  As long as these prisoners have a home plan in place, a health care plan, and pose no threat to society, they should be afforded an opportunity for early release for their safety and well being.

An Open Letter to Delegate Jeffrey Campbell from a Prisoner of Conscience

To the Honorable Delegate Jeffrey Campbell:

My name is Hassan Shabazz and I am the Senior Liaison of the Augusta Pre-Reentry “Self-Governing Community.” I was present when the 6th District Delegation visited us here at the facility. I spoke with Senator Emmett Hanger and Delegate Steve Landes but I
was rushed into the cell for count time. I have since been in correspondence with Senator Hanger about rehabilitation and the progress that we are making all on our own. A large part of the reason why we are successful is due to the incentives that are provided as a part of the program. What I have come to learn in my over 20 years of experience behind the walls is that there is no better incentive than good time.
Your bill (HB1370) provides some good time but does nothing to change the current rate for violent offenders. This is bewildering, for those are the offenders who should be provided more incentive to change not less. Delegate Don Scott’s Bill (HB1532) addresses this concern by providing a way for a person to work his way through a tiered system to a maximum of 30 credits for every 30 days served after 5 years of being charge free (which is hard if your not reformed). It is for this reason that we, the Pre-Reentry Self-Governing Community, are requesting that you withdraw your bill, and please support HB1532 as we are the evidence of what incentives can do no matter what charge you may have.

Thank you for your time.
Hassan Shabazz, Senior Liaison, Augusta Pre-Reentry “Self-Governing” Community

The 3rd Annual Virginia Prison Justice Rally on January 11

January 11, 2020, 1:00-2:00 PM, the Bell Tower at the Capitol (Richmond, VA)

Hundreds of former prisoners, their family members and supporters attended the 3rd Annual Virginia Prison Justice Rally on Saturday, Jan. 11, from 1 to 2 p.m. at the Bell Tower on Richmond’s Capitol Square. This event was 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 remain victimized by unjust laws and policies. The rally featured statements from Virginia prisoners, remarks by former prisoners and family members and representatives from prisoner advocacy organizations. The goals were to call attention to the many injustices that exist within prisons and the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth of Virginia and to garner support for bills to be presented to the 2020 session of the Virginia General Assembly that would correct these long-overdue inequities. The rally is sponsored by  the Virginia Prison Justice Network.

Full video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zh7nZyPZwkg

Free Jermaine Doss

From the front page of the Dec. 1, 2019 Richmond Times-Dispatch by Patrick Wilson.

“Believing their loved one is innocent of a murder-for-hire, the family of Jermaine Doss submitted a pardon request to then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe in May 2014.  More than five years later, they still don’t have an answer. Virginia’s governors have the power to grant several types of pardons, at their prerogative. Requests are reviewed by the Virginia Parole Board and eventually the governor in a secret process. It’s not publicly known how many requests for a pardon from the governor are pending.  Gov. Ralph Northam won’t provide information on the status of Doss’ request or any other, or even say how many staffers are tasked with investigating pardon requests.  Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act doesn’t require any records to be made public.  “We don’t provide any status updates or specific details about pending pardon petitions, so I don’t have anything I can share with you at this time,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said by email in October when asked about the status of Doss’ request.
Doss was convicted in 2000 in the shooting death in Norfolk of James Webb and was sentenced to life plus 38 years. The confessed shooter, Nathaniel McGee, was sentenced to 17 years for the killing, plus 10 years on related charges, but he later recanted his testimony.  One of the Norfolk detectives involved in the case, Robert Glenn Ford, was convicted of taking bribes from criminals and lying to the FBI about it and in 2011 was sentenced to 12 ½ years in federal prison.  Doss has “always maintained his innocence,” said Phil Wilayto, a civil rights activist in Richmond and editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper.  In July, Doss filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus asking a court that he be freed or granted a new hearing.  Webb was found fatally shot in his home in March 1998. Two days earlier, Webb had gone to Doss’ business, armed with a gun, and threatened him, according to federal court records. The two were in a dispute over cocaine Doss sold to Webb.  In court, McGee testified that Doss drove him to Webb’s home and told him to kill Webb, saying he would pay him.  At one point, a charge of capital murder for hire and related charges against Doss were dropped because a judge found McGee’s confession was unreliable, according to court records.  Norfolk prosecutors took the death penalty off the table for McGee and he testified against Doss, who was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges related to the killing.  About six months later, in October 2000, McGee wrote Doss a letter that said: “I had no choice but to lie and say that you hired me to kill Webb because the prosecutor and the detectives kept wanting me to say. I know you did not know what I was planning on doing to Webb but I had to use you to get the plea or they would have killed me.”
But was his new statement credible?
A Norfolk judge found in 2006 that it was not — that the statement was motivated by a desire to help Doss, fear of Doss, and fear of being known as a “snitch” in prison, according to court records.  Doss has continued to fight in court. In March 2018 he received a letter from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project saying they were unable to help him at that time, following a long investigation.
Virginia abolished parole in 1995.  Wilayto questions why the governor’s office even has a pardon process if years pass without decisions being made.  “It raises hopes for prisoners who are at the end of the appeals process. It raises hopes for families,” he said. “This family has gone five years and five months without a response. This is crazy.”
If there’s a need for more personnel to review cases, let’s fund them, he said.
Doss’ family and supporters held a news conference near the Martin Luther King Monument in Norfolk in September to raise awareness.  Felicia Dixon-Bray of Virginia Beach, Doss’ sister, is among family members who regularly visit him at Sussex II State Prison.  “We know our family member is not gone, but it always feels like there’s one person missing,” she said. She added: “It’s like we’re locked up with him, too.”
When their mother got her house redone, Doss mapped out what walls she should take out. If he was ever released from prison he wants to open a juice bar, his sister said. He’s very intelligent like that, she said, with a mind for business.  She tries to steer their conversations toward family and uplifting things, she said, but “for some reason, he will always bring up the case.”




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,


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.
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.