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

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