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.

Defying fear, VAPJN caravan demands COVID-19 protection for Va. prisoners

Staff Report – The Virginia Defender – https://virginiadefender.org

RICHMOND, VA, Jan. 17 — Three days before the presidential inauguration in nearby Washington, D.C., a state of emergency has been declared in Virginia. The FBI has warned of possible attacks this weekend on all 50 state capitols, including in Richmond. There was a bomb threat yesterday at the Virginia Supreme Court. And thousands of angry “gun rights” activists are expected to converge on the city tomorrow. Tensions are so high that even some county “militias” are saying they’re skipping that event out of safety concerns.

And yet none of that prevented nearly 50 cars from joining the “Not One More Death!” caravan that drove through downtown Richmond yesterday to demand protection for the state’s prisoners from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organized by the prisoner-led Virginia Prison Justice Network, the mobilization attracted former prisoners and family members from around the Greater Richmond area and as far away as Stafford to the north and Suffolk to the south.

Led by the Richmond organizations Community Unity In Action and Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, the mobilization was joined by members of Incarcerated Lives Matter VA, Bridging the Gap Virginia, Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised (RIHD), Richmond For All, New Virginia Majority and anti-eviction activists, among others.

While people gathered in the parking lot of the Black-owned Supreme Flea Market in Henrico County, VAPJN organizer Lynetta Thompson explained the caravan 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.

Thompson and Defender Charles Brown then read statements from the three VAPJN prisoner leaders: Hassan Shabazz, incarcerated at the Augusta Correctional Center in Augusta County; Chanell Burnette, from the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy; and Askari Danso, at River North in Independence. (The statements are posted on the VAPJN website: https://vapjn.wordpress.com.)

Defender Phil Wilayto then went over the logistics of the day and the ground rules for participants. (Richmond For All video of the presentations is here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CKHX67LlxRs – To view, cut and paste onto your browser.)

After drivers taped posters to their vehicles, the caravan set off, headlights on and blinkers flashing – a militant, defiant funeral procession paying homage to the 51 Virginia prisoners who have died from COVID-19, along with two prison staff members. Altogether, nearly one-third of the state’s 25,000 prisoners have contracted the disease. Many also have died in local and regional jails.

Once the caravan reached downtown Richmond, it turned north and made two swings by the Richmond city jail, which did not begin testing inmates until four months after the pandemic had hit Virginia, and then only after multiple protests by local prisoner advocates. By that time, one out of every eight inmates had been infected, with 90 percent showing no symptoms.

“The most impressive part for me was when we circled twice in front of the city jail and we all could see how many of us there were,” Thompson told the Defender. “And by the time we went around the second time you could see faces in the jail windows.”

Then it was back onto Broad Street and past the State Capitol, which has been shut down and fenced off, with plywood covering its windows. This is where the VAPJN has held rallies of hundreds for the past three years. The caravan continued through the Broad Street shopping area, the arts district and Virginia Commonwealth University campus, and finally past the Science Museum of Virginia, where the state legislature’s senate is meeting during the current General Assembly session. (The House of Delegates is meeting virtually.)

“The reaction from the people on the street, reading the signs, ‘Not One More Death!’ – it was amazing,” Thompson said. “We got a lot of fists up and ‘yeahs,’ and the cars just kept coming with their lights flashing – it was very impressive.”

“Despite the tensions, it was really important to be out on the streets,” Wilayto said. “We’ve been planning this since well before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and to have called it off or postponed it would have sent a very bad signal about the strength and determination of the progressive movement in Virginia. We considered all the possible dangers, prepared our security accordingly, and are very happy with the results.”

Editor’s Note: The Defenders put out $120.00 for a van rental and $150.00 for posters and route maps. To make a donation to help cover the costs, please log onto https://defendersfje.blogspot.com and click the “Donate” button on the right side of the home page. 

“NOT ONE MORE DEATH!”JAN. 16 CAR CARAVAN TO SUPPORT VIRGINIA PRISONERS!

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.

In response, the VIRGINIA PRISON JUSTICE NETWORK will be holding a “NOT ONE MORE DEATH! CAR CARAVAN” on SATURDAY, JAN. 16.

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.

BACKGROUND:

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)

YOU CAN HELP BY SHARING THIS INFORMATION AND INVITING YOUR FRIENDS TO THE EVENTS.

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

THE COVID-19 RICHMOND JAIL CRISIS THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED

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.”) 

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