Statements by VAPJN Prisoner Leaders for the Jan. 16 ‘Not One More Death!” car caravan

HASSAN SHABAZZ

Co-Founder & Steering Committee Member, Virginia Prison Justice Network – Augusta Correctional Center,Augusta County, Virginia

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 losses. 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.

CHANELL BURNETTE

Virginia Prison Justice Network Steering Committee Member, Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, Troy, Virginia

First and foremost, I would sincerely like to thank each and every one of you for coming out to support us on our mission. It is greatly appreciated!

If I may speak on the effects of COVID-19 for those of us on the inside, I must also offer a solution. For the attempts made at precautionary measures which are transpiring here at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, I can say, are simply not enough. The administration continues to prove itself inept at containing the virus. This is the only medical facility for women [in prison] in the state of Virginia, yet one [that] has repeatedly failed to provide adequate healthcare. And as conditions worsen with the spread of this deadly virus, the obvious need for outside oversight is nothing short of critical for our survival.

Vaccinations must be prioritized logistically, beginning with the elderly population of 65 years of age and older and those inmates suffering from terminal illnesses. Next in line should be those inmates who, if contracted the virus in addition to preexisting health conditions, would be at greater risk of deteriorating health or fatality. And lastly, vaccinations should be made available for anyone else who chose to receive one.

But even more importantly, we must focus on creating more space within these correctional institutions. The smaller the population, the less the susceptibility rate of contracting the virus. There are more ways to reduce the prison population than the slothful Inmate Early Release Plan.

In addition to such [a] plan, what about putting HB 5148 into effect immediately? Or consideration of the release of long-term inmates who have exemplary institutional records and have served their sentences wisely? Also to be cogitated, making an amendment to the Inmate Early Release Plan to allow those who meet all said criteria, but have more than 12 months left to serve on their sentences to be considered for early release as well.

There is much to be done, yet not enough actually being done. We need less talk and more action! If we are ever to begin to enact positive changes, the time is now! Thank you for your time.”

ASKARI DANSO

Co-founder, Prisoner of Conscience & the Virginia Prison Justice Network, North River Correctional Center, Independence, Virginia

This is the fourth annual prison justice rally organized by the Virginia Prison Justice Network. The Network was organized in an effort to bring all of the criminal justice organizations fighting to bring equity to the Virginia’s prison system under one umbrella. The vision was that we’d be able to share resources namely information and ideas. 

Over the last four years we’ve seen a few positive reforms to state policy, but nothing of any real significance in repairing the constant racial injustice employed by this system. Now today after the BLM movement here in Virginia demanded changes to the criminal justice system, state leaders have co-opted the message and limited that demand to “police reform.” As a result, there’s been an enormous focus on police violence, abuse, and ultimately lack of accountability by state lawmakers. The solution has been to limit the force police can use, create civilian oversight mechanisms, and list those police officers with a history of abuse in a statewide database. 

I want to be clear that, while many of us politically active prisoners applaud those changes, the fact is we’re left to wonder when will the state finally atone for and address its racist and unjust prison system? Here in Virginia, Black prisoners from urban areas are in rural prisons typically run by majority-white staff, causing significant cultural tension that often leads to abuse since the power dynamic between the groups is so disproportionate. Not to mention many of the highest ranking officials in administrative positions throughout VDOC started at prisons known for abuse and torture. Thus, Excessive Force, Retaliation, Breach of Duty, and so forth have become very much a part of the VDOC culture. 

During the pandemic, these problems have been exacerbated. The entire state prison system has been on a “modified” lockdown since March, with visitation, transfers and all education, religious and treatment programs suspended. Prisoners have been stressed and there’s been superficial actions taken by the agency giving the appearance that they are addressing the enormous mental health crisis that’s developed in here, but those measures are largely ineffective. 

With limited education, coping skills, and drug addiction histories, many prisoners tend to cope with the stress using antisocial mechanisms. The result is oftentimes confrontations with guards where corrections officers end up using disproportionate force to remedy what is essentially a mental health crisis. Remember, despite the legislative actions taken at the August special session, prison guards can still use choke holds, physical force during mental health crises, retaliatory searches and ransackings of our cells and so much more. 

Add to that, prison environments themselves increase the risk of not only contracting the virus but also suffering complications as a result because of our poor diets, ventilation, hygiene & sanitation, dirty & contaminated water systems, chronic stress, etc. that lead to immunosuppression and many other health defects. For example there’s been a diabetes pandemic in VDOC for decades!! 

That said, We are here to assert that Gov. Northam’s one-year early release program due to the Emergency Declaration (resulting from prisoners filing suit forcing a settlement agreement) doesn’t begin to address the enormous need to release many prisoners early who will be leaving in the next five years or less. 

Lastly, all these problems make clear why we prisoners must be vaccinated immediately. There’s poor PPE in here, absolutely no way for us to social distance or self-isolate in prison and we’re oftentimes under the care of staff who don’t take the contagion seriously! 

One thing this pandemic has done is highlight exactly how cruel and inefficient this prison system has been and continues to be. Please, on behalf of all Virginia prisoners I implore you, demand that your state treats its citizens better by embracing our requests! We want the state to create civilian review boards that have power to hold VDOC officials accountable to the law. We want a more diverse Board of Corrections with enough members to represent many communities with more power to create and enforce administrative policy. We want a more efficient early-release program that expands the time for eligibility to five years or less remaining. And lastly, We want prisoners to be recognized as the vulnerable population we are and prioritized for vaccination.

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