Cops, Courts & Prisons

PRISONERS, EX-PRISONERS & ADVOCATES SPEAK OUT FOR PRISON JUSTICE

Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 67, printed February 3. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Phil Wilayto

A five-photo gallery depicting the rally's two co-chairs and three speakers; left to right, this consists of a Black woman, a white woman, a Black man, a Black woman, and a white man.
Left to Right: Rally Co-chair Christa Ellison, Executive Director, Freedom Over Everything; Rally Co-chair Kat McNeal, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality; Shakil Ali, Freedom Over Everything; Natasha White, Operations Manager/Coordinator, Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement; David Smith, Chair, Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement. Photos by Phil Wilayto.

Despite threatening weather forecasts, cold temperatures and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 90 people still turned out Jan. 22 for the 5th Annual Virginia Prison Justice Rally.

This year’s event was held at Richmond’s Monroe Park, a traditional site for protests, where the organizers were free to arrange for our own sound system and portajohns, things that are not allowed at Capitol Square, where the first three rallies were held.

In 2021, due to the pandemic, we opted for a car caravan, which drew 50 vehicles. Plans for another caravan this year were called off due to icy roads, but the rally went on as scheduled.

In addition to the speakers pictured above, written statements were read from other scheduled speakers who were unable to attend due to illness or weather conditions. Those were Shantia Nance of Sistah in Prison Reform and Azeem Majeed of the Coalition for Justice.

State Sen. Joe Morrissey, who was scheduled to speak on bringing back parole, did not attend or send a statement.

The entire rally was livestreamed on Facebook and can be viewed here.

A five-photo gallery showing five speakers: left to right, a Black woman, a Black man, a Black woman, a white man, and a Black woman.
Left to right: Kimberly Snodgrass, Senior Advisor for Criminal Justice, Interfaith Action for Human Rights; Richard Walker, Founder and CEO, Bridging the Gap in Virginia; Lillie (Ms. K) Branch-Kennedy, Executive Director, Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged and Disenfranchised; Phil Wilayto, Co-Founder and Steering Committing Member, Virginia Prison Justice Network (photo by Ana Edwards); Ana Edwards, livestreaming, Chair, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project. Photos by Phil Wilayto.

Following remarks by the scheduled speakers, written statements were read from 13 prisoners, from Dillwyn, Fluvanna, Greensville, Lunenburg and River North.

A photo of a crowd of people standing outdoors in Richmond's Monroe Park, holding signs that relate to prison reform.
Most of those attending the VAPJN rally came from the Greater Richmond area, but some had traveled from as far away as Buckingham County, Lynchburg, Newport News, Staunton and Washington, D.C.

The following are the statements from the three incarcerated members of the VAPJN Steering Committee:

HASSAN SHABAZZ

VAPJN Co-founder & Steering Committee Member, Dillwyn Correctional Center

Peace and Solidarity to the People,

First I would like to thank everyone who worked long and hard to make the 5th annual Prison Justice Rally a success, and I would also like to thank everyone who braved the cold weather to support the cause of prison justice. The men on the inside salute you all for sacrificing your time and energy to show support. There is no progress without struggle and this proverb we know all too well.

It took us 26 years to make some of the smallest dents in mass incarceration in Virginia, so we have to realize that there will be no quick fixes in this war for prison justice. I have said before that, “There will be no microwave solutions to problems that require an oven of activism.”

For 23 years my life has been enveloped in the fight for freedom, justice, and equality behind the walls of prison. Now, as I fastly approach my release, I see that struggle as a part of an even greater struggle for liberation from slavery, suffering, and death wherever it may appear. No man/woman is an island unto himself/ herself. We are all connected and if we fail to see it then those who stand to benefit from our inabilities to do so will proceed to remain in positions of control that keep us oppressed. Let us do better, be better, work harder, and work smarter to bring about the change that we seek. Once again, thank you all for your participation and I look forward to seeing you all in the very near future. I leave you as I came, in Peace and Solidarity.

CHANELL BURNETTE

VAPJN Steering Committee, Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center

I can say with certainty that having been incarcerated for the past 16 years of my life, would not have occurred if the eligibility for parole still existed. Throughout my incarceration I have faced many challenges, yet, overcame many obstacles necessary for personal growth. And while I am grateful for this period of incarceration for the betterment of myself, had I been given the chance some time ago, I could have helped orchestrate the movement which could keep people either out of prison or not returning to prison.

Recidivism rates soar as people do not have the knowledge, support of resources for a smooth transition back out into society. True change must come from within and those of us who have made wise use of our time in incarceration deserve the opportunity to step out there and lend a hand to another in need.

Each one, teach one.

ASKARI LUMUMBA

VAPJN Co-founder & Steering Committee Member, River North Correctional Center

Our goal when organizing the first Virginia Prison Justice Rally in January of 2018 was to communicate to Virginians that the system of Mass Incarceration and all of its constituents was active in Virginia.

During that time, the anti-Mass Incarceration forces here in Virginia were too weak to move the pro-Mass Incarceration forces back. In fact, there had been nearly 25 years of essentially unabated advancement by the opposition. So our idea to begin the rally was to build momentum for, and raise awareness around, Prison Justice here in Virginia.

Until that time, pro-Mass Incarceration forces were successful in communicating to the public that criminals were inherently evil and undeserving of dignity or second chances. Since the early 90’s, the narrative around crime and punishment among both liberals and conservatives was that “nothing works” but being tough on crime! As a result, Virginia went from a prison population of roughly 19,000 in 1995 to over 40,000 prisoners by 2012.

Since that rally in 2018, the anti-Mass Incarceration forces have successfully won several reforms to Virginia’s criminal legal system. Still, we haven’t come nearly as close to the transformative change we truly desire to Virginia’s criminal legal system. Not to mention that the campaign messaging of Governor-elect Glen Youngkin and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares shows us that the pro-Mass Incarceration forces want to reverse the progress we’ve made while reducing the momentum we’ve built.

Now more than ever we have to unify and organize our forces in resistance to the assaults they will attempt to mount over the next four years. Our demands for reinstatement of parole, sentencing reform, ending solitary confinement, and development of independent oversight committees are essential to restorative justice here in Virginia.

We are in a critical stage of the anti-Mass Incarceration struggle here in Virginia and we must be more committed and devoted than ever. Without the support of a General Assembly powered by the Virginia Democratic Party, we have to rely more on grassroots political power and our ability to obstruct the opposition’s efforts.

We mustn’t be reactionary to the opposition’s actions, but rather proactive by attacking their plans. Nor should we ever confuse the ideas in our head for the reality that we live – meaning, either we’re resisting oppression or we’re complying with it!

Please help us to continue dismantling Virginia’s Criminal Legal System and participate in the 5th Annual Virginia Prison Justice Network Rally. There are no easy victories!!

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