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 There is absolutely no outlet such as social media for prisoners besides an outdated media device.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.