Cops, Courts & Prisons


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

The lead banner at the 5th Annual Virginia Prison Justice Rally proclaims the four main demands of this year’s gathering, held in Richmond’s Monroe Park. The rally was the largest of several mobilizations around this year’s General Assembly. Photo by Ana Edwards. SEE STORY ON PAGES 8-9.

There’s a quote at the bottom of this page by the famous Russian novelist Dostoevski: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

More people should visit Virginia’s prisons and jails.

Virginia has seen mentally ill people held in solitary confinement for years on end. Racist guards taunting Black prisoners while spitting in their food. Attack dogs being sicced on Muslim prisoners because they were saying their prayers. Rapes. Beatings. Deaths by medical neglect.

There are dozens of organizations working to bring some measure of justice to Virginia’s prisons. Many were started by former prisoners determined to help those they left behind.

And every January since 2018, just as the General Assembly opens its annual session, the Virginia Prison Justice Network holds a rally in Richmond to bring public attention to these issues.

This Jan. 22, despite the pandemic and dire weather forecasts, nearly 90 people turned out for a rally at Richmond’s Monroe Park. They stood together in the snow and listened to advocates, almost all of them former prisoners or relatives of prisoners.

And after they spoke, we read statements from 13 women and men confined in the state’s prisons. On that day, prisoners spoke for themselves – and they were heard, at the rally and later on the news.

This year the rally focused on restoring parole, which was ended in Virginia in 1995; banning solitary confinement, which the state says it has abolished but which it still practices under other names; establishing independent outside oversight of the prisons and jails; and creating a system for courts to take a second look at long prison sentences.

All these issues and more are being addressed by bills in the General Assembly. Some are good, some not so good, and some may not make it to the governor’s desk in any form.

What’s important is that we continue to build the movement for Prison Justice. The strength of the VAPJN is the unity that is being built between those inside and outside, working together to make real change today and preparing for the day to- morrow when we can not only end injustice inside the walls, but tear down those walls altogether.

If you aren’t already involved with the Virginia Prison Justice Network, see the back page of this Defender, get in touch and let’s work together to make some real change!

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