Cops, Courts & Prisons

ABOUT THE VA. PRISON JUSTICE NETWORK

Originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 59, printed August 23. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

VAPJN prepares for 2020 GA & 3rd Prison Justice Rally. The Virginia Prison Justice Network is hard at work preparing for the 3rd Prison Justice Rally, to take place in early January at Capitol Square in Richmond. The annual rally promotes the network’s lobbying effort at the General Assembly, led by network affiliate R.I.H.D. (Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised). Above: Richmond VAPJN leader Lynetta Thompson addresses the 2019 rally. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

The all-volunteer Virginia Prison Justice Network was launched in early 2018 following a prisoner-requested Rally for Prison Justice attended by 300 people at Virginia’s Capitol Square. Today it has nearly 20 affiliated organizations and a network of prisoners working for change in the Virginia prison system. 

PROGRAM 

There are four aspects to the VAPJN work: 

EducationThe Network maintains a website (vapjn.wordpress.com) that publishes prison news, information about bills in the General Assembly, upcoming events and a Prisoner Justice Blog in which prisoners can post their thoughts and stories. 

Members of the VAPJN affiliate Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg produce a monthly newsletter that is mailed to hundreds of prisoners in more than half of VDOC facilities. The newsletter informs its readers of the work of the network, changes in VDOC rules and provides educational articles. 

The network also publishes articles in The Virginia Defender newspaper. 

Legislative – Each year during the Virginia General Assembly, members and allies of the VAPJN lobby assembly members and attend committee meetings to support or oppose bills related to prisons and the criminal justice system. 

Service – Network members experienced in prison procedures answer many hundreds of letters each year from prisoners asking for help with individual cases or systemic issues.

Organizing – The network sponsors local Prison Justice Speak-Outs to inform the public about issues in the Virginia Department of Corrections and the state’s criminal justice system. It also holds an annual rally at Capitol Square at or before the beginning of the annual General Assembly. 

ORGANIZATION

The Network is coordinated by a Steering Committee composed of the four network co-founders: 

Askari Danso – Co-founder, Prisoner of Conscience, presently incarcerated at Red Onion State Prison 

Hassan Shabazz – Co-founder, Prisoner of Conscience, presently incarcerated at Augusta Correctional Center 

Margaret Breslau – Co-founder, Coalition for Justice (Blacksburg); Editor, VAPJN Newsletter.

Phil Wilayto – Co-founder, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality; Editor, The Virginia Defender 

PRISON JUSTICE SPEAK-OUTS 

A VAPJN Speak-Out is a public meeting in which ex-prisoners, families of prisoners and prisoner rights advocates speak out about the conditions in the facilities operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections. 

Issues addressed include access to medical care, educational and recreational programs, food and nutrition, the grievance system, relationships with corrections officers and the administration, etc., as well as the criminal justice system as a whole. Individual prisoners send in statements to be read, allowing them to directly participate in these meetings. 

Speak-Out Goals: 

  • bring to the public’s attention ongoing issues of prison injustice in order that they can be addressed; 
  • recruit people to attend committee meetings at the annual Virginia General Assembly where prison and criminal justice bills are considered;
  • build the network so that prisoners and their advocates will be better able to work for justice in Virginia’s prison and criminal justice systems. 

Speak-Out Structure: 

The Speak-Outs are held in a community setting: a community center, house of worship, union hall, etc. 

There are usually two co-chairs, who work together to facilitate the meeting. 

The meetings open with a welcoming talk and explanation of the purpose of the event by a VAPJN member. 

Then a member of one of the network affiliates gives a presentation on some issue that we are following, such as ending solitary confinement, bringing back parole, fighting for healthy meals, etc. 

Then there is an open mic for presenting written statements by prisoners and oral statements by former prisoners, family members and advocates. 

Finally, the chairs encourage everyone to stay in touch with the network by signing up on sign-up sheets, and volunteering to attend committee meetings during the General Assembly.

There is also a collection to raise funds for the network’s newsletter.

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