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.

 

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