Cops, Courts & Prisons

SUGGESTIONS FROM PRISONERS, FORMERLY INCARCERATED, FAMILY MEMBERS & SUPPORTERS FOR ISSUES TO BE RAISED AT THE 6TH ANNUAL VIRGINIA PRISON JUSTICE RALLY

Originally published in the Autumn 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 70, printed December 14. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For other issues dating back to 2012, see the Full Issues page.

BRING BACK PAROLE!

RED ONION (Spouse): My husband is incarcerated at red onion state prison. I think that parole for the general population should be spotlighted at the upcoming rally.

LUNENBURG: Bring parole back for all offenders and stop discriminating laws to benefit a budget or an agenda. Parole is not privilege to everyone which is why it shouldn’t be a problem to implement it back into the system, especially with the new parole board and their method of evaluation.

BUCKINGHAM: We’ve been fighting to bring parole back to Virginia for a long time and we continue to be sold a bad bill of goods by our politicians. They seek our support and vote and once they’re elected or re-elected our interest is then ignored. I believe we need to take a new approach and that’s allow the people of Virginia to decide. Parole should be placed on the next ballot.

RIVER NORTH: Parole: That’s self-explanatory. The opportunity needs to be extended to all prisoners, not just Fishback, old law, and juvenile. The messaging needs to be much stronger. A narrative has been created and hijacked by far-right conservatives. We must take it back by finding a popular, prominent voice to extol the virtues of parole eligibility.

RIVER NORTH: I have been in prison for almost 24 years. Now I am 54 years old. I think the biggest thing I would like to see changed is that parole would be reinstated. It makes no kind of sense that we do not have a review process in place for inmates to be evaluated for early release. Simply evaluating inmates who have in some cases served decades in prison for potential release should not threaten public safety. Virginia has thousands of aging inmates 50 and older. Many of these men like myself have been in prison for 20 years or more.

GREENSVILLE: We also have to demand this PB is NOT CONFIRMED by that Democratic Senate in the State Capitol. These members aren’t releasing guys and are undermining the Dems agenda and they need to explain to their “constituency” what they are planning to do to protect their legislative POLICIES underpinning FISHBACK and Juvenile parole!

GERIATRIC PAROLE

RIVER NORTH: I would like to see the age of eligibility for geriatric parole lowered from 60 to 55 if the inmate has served at least 15 or 20 years of their sentence. Releasing someone at 55 as opposed to 60 or older gives that person far more employment opportunities. It’s much harder for reintegration into society the older a person grows sitting in prison, especially when these inmates are least likely to reoffend and their health care costs are the highest and statIstics show we are the least likely to offend when released. Not only that, but the 50 and older demographic is the most vulnerable group of inmates. We are often mixed in with the younger, more violent, gang-affiliated guys who are coming into prison with lengthy sentences and no incentive for good behavior. Parole eligibility creates both an incentive for positive reform-oriented behavior, as well as an education process for earned early second chance.

JUVENILE SENTENCES

GREEN ROCK: As an adolescent, I made a series of life altering mistakes. Even more unfortunate it is that lives other than my own were altered. To say I have matured is to speak of maturation as if it is some extraordinary occurrence along the teenager’s path to adulthood. It is reasonable to expect that an adult should see, clearly, the feebleness that marked the thought processes of their youth – undeveloped brain. (Our laws should reflect – in understanding – this reality.) This growth, for me and for most others alike, was not overnight. Nor is it, at any point, without difficulty, under these circumstances. I cannot bypass, without emphatic mention, how incredibly difficult this process (maturation) is in this environment. Though I have lived closing in on half of my life in confinement (15 yrs), I have served not nearly enough time under current legislation – to qualify for any alternative conclusion to leaving prison with very few years of productivity left, further burdening the state. As long as prison is a primary option for our children, we will know a great deal of shame; and, ultimately, we will continue failing to know the highest levels of our potential.

REINSTATE EXPANDED EARNED SENTENCE CREDIT – FOR EVERYONE!

[Relative]: I would like to see if they can revisit the good time law that our Governor went back on when he got into office. I think that was wrong after it was approved.

KEEN MOUNTAIN: All long term prisoners in Virginia serving a life sentence or a lot of time would like to see a bill that would help us to earn some benefits for good behavior that has meaning toward our sentence where we will one day have a chance to get out of prison.

LUNENBURG: The first issue of course is the good time bill, because we can’t let up on that even though Republicans are against. We need good time for all felons (violent and nonviolent) or at least honor what it was at first with the mix charges just to be fair, because we all have to earn it anyway.

RACISM IN PRISON CLOSINGS & RESOURCE ALLOCATION

RIVER NORTH: Why is it that the only areas where prisons are closed or partially shut down are in the eastern or central region? Could it be an issue of race? The western region employs predominately white staff, while the eastern and central employ mostly African American staff. Because of these closings, prisoners are being funneled into the west region and placed in prisons like River North where staffing shortages are rampant. In the last twelve months this security level four prison has never provided the minimum of eight hours of “out of cell activity” mandated by VaDoc for all sL4 prisons. Religious programming is restricted to twice monthly instead of weekly. Outside rec is provided three days out of the week at best, unless you reside in a P.B.U. The administration has provided every excuse, from covid restrictions to staffing shortages. We spend on average 19 hrs in the cell, 18 hrs on a good day. It should be 16 hrs maximum. This prison is labeled a correctional center, but is run like a state prison. Prisoners have tried to address these issues to no avail. The admin does not take our requests seriously.

There is an ongoing investigation into the beatings and K9 assaults, at the hands of officers, of multiple mentally ill prisoners this year. Why does this prison get to stay open? Does the DOC allocate the same amount of money to the other regions as they do the western? Does River North have to perform to a certain standard to qualify for these funds? Is Keen Mountain underperforming also? These are serious questions that must be answered in the interest of equality and fair treatment by the Va Doc, not only of prisoners, but of staff of color in other regions. Maybe former officers from all regions can enlighten us. Thank you for listening and may someone do something.

PRISON LABOR

KEEN MOUNTAIN: There have been 5 states this November on the ballot to Abolish the 13th Amendment to the Us Constitution, which ended slavery. When it was ratified in 1865, states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The exception highlighted in the 13th Amendment created a loophole allowing for involuntary servitude for those in prison. On November 8, 2022, Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont decided whether to remove this punishment exception for involuntary servitude from their state constitutions. All prisoners in the Va system would like for this to be considered in our state of Virginia as well.

AUGUSTA [Spouse]: My husband is currently incarcerated at Augusta correctional center in VA . He has been incarcerated almost 3 years out of a 10 year sentence. He works every day in the tailor shop, sometimes 10 hour days, and only earns 37 cents an hour. This is below slave wages. Thank you for everything you do.

LUNENBURG: Also, the same issues you have been fighting for all the time, which is our pay. We have to be able to take care of ourselves and as fathers and husbands we should be able to provide some form of income to help support our loved ones. We’re living on Slave wages in prison, because of the constitutional mindset of involuntary servitude in exchange for punishment. That is inhumane and our labor should not be an alternative for our crime. The judge sentenced each one of us as payment for what the crime deserves. We shouldn’t be punished twice for the same crime. Incentives or work for pay is a part of rehabilitation which is supposed to be rewarded and expanded according to your work, skills and progress. There hasn’t been a raise in inmate pay since the 1950’s and yet they believe programming and education will prevent criminal behavior. We are living below the poverty rate when poverty is already the ingredient to depression, crime and violence. This is an issue that should never end until something is done about it in the entire VADOC.

WOMEN’S PRISONS

VIRGINIA CORRECTIONAL CENTER FOR WOMEN: As you may know, there are many issues plaguing us on the inside. Much too many to name. However, speaking for the incarcerated women, our voices are not heard often enough. So I speak to amplify them. At times we women feel that our carceral experience does not parallel that of the incarcerated man. There are not nearly enough resources for us as there are for our male counterparts. We are left to fend for ourselves while on the inside, as well as upon release and re-entry into a society that paints us unfit. Let me assure you, we are not unfit. We are the mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters that have been cast aside and seemingly forgotten. So I ask each of you to keep us in your thoughts when considering changes for our next legislative agenda. Thank you, and have a nice day!

OK, that’s my statement. Here are the concerns:

  • Racist Correctional Officers toward Black people.
  • Not providing supplies such as hair care and make-up for different ethnicities.
  • Why does the justice system seem harder on women than men?
  • Why do women have less rights, resources and opportunities than men?
  • Why do addicts entering the system receive no help medically?
  • Why do drug addicts receive harsher sentences than sex offenders?
  • Formulary vs. non-formulary medications.
  • Women do not have places to go or other resources available to them to help with their children upon release.

HEALTH CARE

NOTTOWAY: The medical situation is the worst, and their go-to is they don’t have anyone in certain positions. Like for example, I haven’t had my teeth cleaned since before the covid hit.

MENTAL HEALTH

GREENSVILLE: i think there should be a focus on better mental health care for prisoners. i’m realizing that the d*ug use is on epidemic levels. Truth in Sentencing is weighing on guys. i’ve never seen so many guys involved in heavy d*ug use in here. The state isn’t considering the consequence of having so many prisoners with addiction issues. The long and short term effects. i’d bet anything s*icide and attempted s*icide rates have increased over the last 10 years. Look man, this generation is medicating their pain with d*ugs. They are apolitical and nihilistic! The focus has to be healing the mind and heart of brothers so that they can become aware that they are under attack and have a duty to resist. How you fight the revolution doped up? So we demand: A recognition by the state that being a given and serving a long term (10+ years) sentence is traumatic. Social & Mental health programing and treatment around issues of PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, hypervigilance and antisocial personality. (For example, Family Day events, more visitation time and a more humane setting, more jobs, education (specifically cultural), and recreation opportunities, phones on tablets, g*ng intervention programs with incentives to leave the g*ng and mandatory victim impact programming. i really believe we have to challenge the state to be less Draconian with their penology and get them to explain why they’re so draconian inside the prisons.

MENTAL HEALTH FUNDING

RIVER NORTH: Mental health care funding: In the western region, mental health staff only meet with prisoners if they are suicidal or diagnosed with a serious mental health condition. If you struggle with more minor issues (depression, anxiety, etc), you will be mostly ignored. They are understaffed, so it takes weeks even months to be seen by a QMHP. They can not give real treatment/sessions, they mostly pass out worksheets, tell you to “toughen up” and expect you to figure it out. There needs to be more funding to hire more staff and to provide daily mental health group classes and distance learning (institutional programming).

RIVER NORTH: Prisoner morale in the western region has been low for years. The heightened level of security (k9, guns, etc) and constant micro-aggressions naturally wear down the human psyche. Alcohol consumption and substance abuse are what prisoners engage in to battle depression, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. Prisoners are witnessing other prisoners overdosing, and still take the same substance, gambling with their lives. What does that tell you?

DRUG OVERDOSES

BUCKINGHAM: There is a serious problem that the citizens of Virginia isn’t being made aware of, and that is prisoner overdose. I’ve spoke with different members of the D.O.C admins. and they too agree that it’s a problem, but no one is willing to step up. If we can get some outside help in teaching CPR to a group of offenders, who are truly the first responders to an overdose, then i believe we will reduce the cause of death, and with these classes having a drug counselor come in. The Department needs to acknowledge that it’s a problem and also offer offenders a detox program without any punishment.

JAIL TIME VS. PRISON TIME

KEEN MOUNTAIN: There is a policy that Doc has concerning prisoners in Va that has 40 years or more must serve 20 years on a level 4 prison before they can move down levels, and as it stands right now, their jail time does not count towards the 20 years, but we get our state numbers while we are in jail. So we would ask that the time we serve in jail would be counted towards our 20 years. Waiting to go to DOC because you have prisoners who sit in jail sometimes years waiting to go to DOC and that’s not fair to the prisoners because this is out of his or her control.

PRISON MAIL

[Relative]: You can put five sheets 8×11 in mail for one stamp, 1 oz. The DOC changed mail to inmates to three sheets per envelope, one side of sheet left blank. Costs double to send a five page letter. How do you get Clark and Roberson fired.

200-MILE RULE

[Relative]: Change the 200 mile rule for special visits to 150 or 100 miles. Maybe all disabled people can have special visits, no mileage.

BACKSCATTER X-RAY SCANNERS FOR VISITORS

[Relative]: I would like to see highlighted the use of backscatter x-ray scanners in prisons to scan visitors. These scanners create detailed images of a person unclothed and are used to scan children. Pictures are saved indefinitely in the system, from what staff has said, and can be viewed by anyone with access. I believe these scanners must be removed from use as they were found to be too invasive for airports, but are somehow ok for prison visitors.

TABLETS

LUNENBURG: The tablets that we have are outdated and Virginia needs to get in tune with technology. It’s already a proposal for (rfp 3262-1) contract that will allow us to use our tablets for phone calls, ebooks, legal research, movies, banking and more. However, Virginia is as always dragging their feet when it comes to incentives for us. All they have to do is apply for the federal funding (Digital Equity) so that the vadoc can expand their internet protocol for reliable communication services. This will eliminate a lot of unnecessary violence and conflict between prisoners, especially for those with long sentences.

VENDING MACHINES IN VISITOR AREAS

GREENSVILLE: Vending machines were limited to very few items prior to the pandemic, as a means to keep contraband from entering the prisons. That’s not what happened, because since then, more people in prison have overdosed than ever before, so the machines aren’t the problem. After that, the pandemic came, and the visiting rooms were shut down completely. A few months ago, they were reopened, but with unnecessary restrictions. Our families aren’t allowed to use the restroom during the visit, or the visit will be terminated. There aren’t any machines, so we can’t eat snacks or share meals with our loved ones. Not even bottled water! This takes from the whole experience, as sharing a meal with someone stimulates endearment. A bond is developed, which enhances rehabilitation. Taking all that away does the opposite. My belief is that these tactics are intentional, to discourage families from coming to see us, so that ultimately contact visits can be replaced with video visits, which costs money and will create revenue. Furthermore, we are required to wear jumpsuits backwards when in the visiting room, in efforts to stop contraband from coming into prisons, which as stated, doesn’t work because more overdoses have occurred since these changes than before.

Wearing a backwards jumpsuit is degrading and resembles a patient in an insane asylum. They aren’t taking into account the physiological effects this has on the entire family. The department of corrections have cameras, dogs, metal detectors and officers. The family structure shouldn’t suffer because their resources have failed. Thank you for your concern and assistance.

CONJUGAL VISITS

RIVER NORTH: Conjugal visits for married prisoners: Sponsor a bill that would allow for the development of a plan to set up trailers on specific security level prisons for conjugal visits. It would be modeled after NY and California. This promotes healthy familial relationships. It pays for itself from fees. The vdoc will turn an annual profit.

POST-CONVICTION REVIEW

NOTTOWAY: There is nothing to help people who have been wrongly convicted. The only thing that we had was taken away from us (Conviction Integrity Unit) by Jason Miyares, our Attorney General in Virginia. Now we have to depend upon the same courts that wrongfully convicted us. The legal system is broken and everyone knows. It is all about money or who you know for favors when it should not be that way. It ruins lives for families such as your marriages, relationships with your children, siblings etc. There has to be a change, because if we deal with the same court that wrongly convicted us, we will end up with the same results.

‘TRIGGER MAN’ RULE

LUNENBURG: Another important issue is the trigger man rule. This was brought up only one time I think, but not as its own individual bill. The trigger man rule is only applied in a death row sentence in which the person who pulled the trigger gets the death sentence and his or her codefendant will receive time for participating or accessory after the fact. Why isn’t this rule affective in all felony murders or felony cases, period? The nature of the charge or the act doesn’t change, which means if it applies in a capital or death sentence case it should apply in all cases. However, according to Virginia law, even the co-defendants will get the same charge and sentence as the trigger man, when it’s impossible to share the same malice or forethought as someone else, even in a commission of a felony.

‘CONCERT OF ACTION’ & ‘PRINCIPLE IN THE 2nd DEGREE’

GREENSVILLE: There are two jury instructions that are presented in first degree murder cases. They are “concert of action” and “principle in the second degree.” In my case, for example, the Commonwealth’s theory was that myself and co-defendants attempted to rob someone, and in the course of the robbery one of my codefendants started shooting at the person we were pledged to have robbed, and ended up accidentally shooting and killing someone else. I, along with the actual perpetrator, was charged with first degree murder. I was found guilty and sentenced to 78 years. My issue is that, a first degree murder conviction requires the prosecution to prove two elements: premeditation and malice. It was never proven that I intended for anyone to be murdered. Instead, the Commonwealth used these two jury instructions as a springboard to obtain a murder conviction. In essence, the theory says when two people agree on a crime, however the crime plays out, both parties are equally responsible, even if either party didn’t intend what the outcome was. This theory alone is what convicted me of murder. … The charge isn’t befitting to the offense. Negligent homicide would be more appropriate, which would show my negligent actions led to the outcome. Not first degree murder, which in no way fits my state of mind or actions within this case. With these doctrines, I am being held completely accountable for what someone else did, even though I lacked the same intent.

VOTING REFORM

GREENSVILLE – Passing Legislation for prisoners of sound mind and those with felonies to vote in local, state, and national elections, to aid in creating a progressive, more inclusive means of remedying the ills of society. Virginia has on its case law that the purpose of the disenfranchisement statute that bans the right to vote was intended to “take away the negro vote.” The resulting mechanism has trickled down to disparities in policing, education funding, housing, pollution, crime, lack of mental health care, and the list goes on. As a Virginia prisoner or felon you cannot vote and you are not represented by anyone because you could not use your inalienable right due to statutes and emotional politics subversive of the Constitution. Yet, you and your family are still affected substantially by no parole, no meaningful good time, being charged to talk to your family, overcharged on commissary, job/wage depression creating a criminal element, and that is just inside. On the outside, statutes passed that encroach on your privacy and means of living. Prevention of getting certain business licenses, food stamps, health care, mental health care, unable to voice where local, state, and national funds are allotted, putting you and your children at a higher risk of resorting to crime or being a victim of it because poverty and crime go hand and hand. At this time, the ails of society are too many to address without the unlocking of the voice of all Americans.

OTHER

DILLWYN: We need more programs with rehab. in mind. Drug and behavior modification. Then we need better food. Because I remember reading a book in jail and it said that we have farms but we are fed harshly for punishment. Like the colors and our dress codes. When like Mr. H. Clarke said on tv, that from our first day to the last is supposed to be about rehab. I’ve also read a book before that said my rehab. place is supposed to be conducive for a change to take place. And in prison these days, most are getting drunk or high. You should see the hell I go thru going to college classes. Some nights I have to stay up in the am hours to get the peace to do my finals or book review.

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