By Phil Wilayto
Braving temperatures just above freezing and dire forecasts of a life-threatening winter storm, more than 200 people rallied Jan. 12 at the Virginia State Capitol to demand justice for the state’s prisoners and changes in its criminal justice system.
It was the second year in a row that the prisoner-led Virginia Prison Justice Network had organized a rally to draw public attention to issues in the state’s prisons and the need for criminal justice reform. With nearly 38,000 state prisoners in 38 facilities, Virginia has the 14th highest rate of incarceration in the country,
PRISONERS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES
While last year’s rally featured representatives from advocacy organizations, this year’s focused on the voices of prisoners themselves, with co-chairs Lynetta Thompson and Joseph Rogers of VAPJN-Richmond reading statements sent in from prisons across the state. Half the statements were from women, who make up the fastest growing segment of the state’s prisoners.
J. Blake wrote that, unlike in men’s prisons, the cells in the women’s prisons at Fluvanna and Goochland County do not have toilets. When nature calls, the women have to use an intercom to call a guard to be let out to use a bathroom. She said the guards don’t always cooperate, and as a result, “I have been forced to defecate in a trash bag in lieu of using an actual toilet more times than I can count. It has been the most degrading, humiliating and dehumanizing experience of my life! The [Virginia Department of Corrections] currently has no policy in place to address this issue, nor is there any such law to prevent this from happening.”
“Mass-incarceration is not a catch-all solution,” wrote Julie Calahan. “Each individual has a different need that needs to be addressed, not looked over like week-old produce.” Chanell Burnett described having to choose between feeding her children or breaking the law. Another woman, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote about how she wound up in prison as a result of postpartum depression.
Several men wrote how, while still teenagers, they got drunk or high and committed crimes that resulted in decades-long sentences, with no chance of earning an early release because Virginia is one of 16 states that have abolished parole. Terence, at Nottoway Correctional Center, pleaded for more re-entry programs. Others, also from Nottoway, about serious injuries being dismissed by medical staff.
Read by his godmother, Henrietta Trotter, was a statement from Jermaine Doss at Sussex II, 18 years into a life-plus-38-year sentence after being framed by a crooked cop now doing time for extorting defendants.
Also presenting in person or by written statements were VAPJN co-founders Margaret Breslau of the Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg; Askari Danso of Prisoner of Conscience, now at the notorious Red Onion “supermax” prison in Wise County; Hassan Shabazz, also of VAPOC, at the Augusta Correctional Center in Buckingham County; Lillie “Ms. K” Branch-Kennedy, Executive Director of Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised (RIHD), along with Willie S. Brown, recently released after 40 years confinement; and Ashna Khanna, the legislative director for the Virginia ACLU.
HOW IT WAS BUILT
The driving force behind turnout at the rally was Virginia prisoners themselves. At Buckingham Correctional Center, with a population of just over 1,000, prisoners mailed some 300 letters to friends and family members urging them to attend the rally. A notice was posted on a bulletin board at Sussex II. Prisoners at Augusta, Nottaway, River North, and Red Onion were enthusiastically promoting the event. Meanwhile, more than 1,200 people had indicated interest on the event’s Facebook page.
In the end, weather conditions undoubtedly hurt the turnout. News reports warned people not to drive, with good reason: by the next morning, hundreds of accidents had been reported in the Greater Richmond area, with three fatalities, while some 9,000 people had lost power in their homes. Under those conditions, the turnout of 200 was a strong indication of much broader support.
THE NEXT STEPS
Following the rally, about 30 organizers and attendees gathered at historically Black Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church to strategize on promoting prison and criminal justice bills in the 2019 Virginia General Assembly.
The emphasis was on three issues: restoration of parole; an end to the use of solitary confinement; and addressing the situation of hundreds of prisoners sentenced between 1995 and 2000 when juries were not allowed to be told that parole had been abolished and so recommended long sentences under the false impression that the prisoners would not serve their full time. (These are the so-called Fishback cases, named for the court case that finally ended this practice.)
The next steps: VAPJN affiliates RIHD and Bridging the Gap Virginia, along with the Virginia ACLU, are keeping people informed about General Assembly committee meetings that need to be packed with reform supporters. Discussions also are taking place about holding more local town hall-type meetings, called Prison Justice Speak-Outs, along with efforts to strengthen the network’s infrastructure.
The day’s watch word was Solidarity. When rally organizers learned that an important Richmond Women’s March and Expo was being planned for the same day, they contacted the organizers and moved the rally’s starting time so people could attend both events, promoted the women’s actions along with their own and joined the morning march. For their part, the expo organizers invited the network to have a table at the expo, invited longtime prisoner rights advocate Janet “Queen Nzinga” Taylor to speak at the expo rally and urged people at that event to also show up at the prison justice rally.
At Capitol Square, recently released prisoners of all races were joined by family members and supporters. Despite the near-freezing weather, spirits were strong, and several hundred dollars were donated to help support the network’s newsletter.
BIRTH OF THE VAPJN
Last January 20 saw Virginia’s first major rally for prison justice in memory. That gathering, also held at the state’s capitol, was initiated by the prisoner organization Prisoners of Conscience and organized by the Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg and the Richmond-based Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice Equality. Seeing the need to link up prisoners, ex-prisoners, families and advocacy groups, the three organizations launched the Virginia Prison Justice Network, which now has 15 affiliated organizations.
In 2018 the network created a website and Facebook page; started a monthly newsletter now read by prisoners in half the state’s facilities; and held three local Prison Justice Speak-Outs, in Hampton, Roanoke and Richmond, where ex-prisoners and family members exposed the ongoing inhumane conditions overseen by the state’s Department of Corrections.
The network now has three major focuses:
Service – responding to inquiries and posting updates on the status of criminal justice reform legislation; publishing the monthly newsletter (this work is handled by the Coalition for Justice); responding to letters from prisoners and taking action on grievances; and publishing a blog of prisoners’ writings.
Legislative – Promoting and sometimes creating state bills dealing with prison and criminal justice reform; and mobilizing people to attend committee meetings held by the state legislature. This work is led by RIHD and Bridging the Gap Virginia, along with the state ACLU.
Mass Organizing – Local public meetings, protests and the now-annual Prison Justice Rally, organized by the Virginia Defenders.
With national interest in prison and criminal justice issues on the rise, especially with the recent bipartisan efforts on sentencing reform, the time is ripe for an intensified campaign here in Virginia.
For more information and to offer your support, contact: Virginia Prison Justice Network at VAPJN1@gmail.com. On the web at vapjn.wordpress.com.
A video of the rally can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbcTuWzIaWQ.
Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender and was lead organizer for the Jan. 12 Prison Justice rally. He can be reached at DefendersFJE@hotmail.com.