Cops, Courts & Prisons


Originally published in the Winter/Spring 2023 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 71, printed March 22. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For other issues dating back to 2012, see the Full Issues page.

By Phil Wilayto

Editor, The Virginia Defender

For each of the last six years, the Virginia Prison Justice Network has sponsored a Prison Justice Rally in Richmond. Despite being held outside in January, the event has attracted anywhere from 90 to more than 300 people. The rallies always receive media attention, which helps put pressure on state legislators as they are lobbied by a wide range of nonprofits working on particular prison or criminal injustice issues.

It’s obvious that advocates fare better when Democrats are in power, but the Democrats often water down the advocates’ original proposals in order to attract votes from more conservative members. They talked a good game in 2020 when thousands of people were chanting “Black Lives Matter,” but then pulled back when the protests died down. Bills like the Marcus Alert were gutted. This year, despite the best efforts of many advocates, the General Assembly passed a bill on solitary confinement that actually makes that situation even worse. In fact, none of the issues that we raised at the January rally have been adequately addressed.

For the 2023 rally, we reached out to prisoners across the state and asked them to send in suggestions for issues to be raised at the event. We received responses from more than a quarter of the state’s prisons. When you look at all the suggestions together, you realize that there aren’t just a few major issues that prisoners are concerned about – it’s practically everything in the entire system.

In fact, it is the entire system, which historically grew out of the need for plantation owners and factory bosses to control and exploit Black labor, from slavery days to prison contract labor to today’s prison industries.

Fifty years ago, there were around 200,000 people in U.S. state and federal prisons. That’s when workers were needed on the outside for the many factory jobs, which were often unionized and paid decent wages. Today, after the economy has fundamentally changed from one based on manufacturing to one based on information technology on the high end and service jobs on the low end, there isn’t the same need for blue-collar workers. So rather than have millions of anxious and angry unemployed young men and women on the streets, the government came up with the War on Drugs. Today there are nearly two million U.S. prisoners – 10 times the number in 1973. (The number hit 2.1 million in 2019 and has declined somewhat since then.) If you include people under some kind of supervision, it’s five million.

This situation is unique to the United States. No other country imprisons as many of its own people as the “Land of the Free.” With just over 4 percent of the world’s people, we hold 20 percent of the world’s prisoners.

We need to do more to press for Prison Justice. We need to find a way to jump start our efforts. And this year offers a unique chance to change the balance of power.

In November, all the seats in the General Assembly will be up for election. Not only that, but because of retirements and redistricting, as many as a quarter of all seats in the House of Delegates and the Senate may change hands. We don’t know what this will mean in terms of which party will control the legislature, but we do know there will be many new faces.

This is an opportunity for us to really influence the General Assembly by making Prison Justice a central issue in the coming election – and, in particular, in the campaigns leading up to the election: the debates, press conferences and many other opportunities to confront candidates. The goal isn’t just to elect more Democrats, it’s to put so much pressure on the legislators that they’ll support Prison Justice no matter what party they belong to, or how liberal or conservative they may be.

So the idea is to make Virginia’s prisons and jails an issue in the November elections. Right now, prisons and jails are not on the front burner. The way we promote social change is first to make something an issue in the public mind, and make that public awareness so powerful that the politicians are afraid to ignore it.

For a historical example: Richard Nixon was one of the most corrupt, right-wing presidents in U.S. history. But it was Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); expanded Medicare; promoted money for sickle cell anemia research; created the Office of Minority Business Enterprise; called for the expansion of the U.S. Civil Rights code to include sex discrimination; appointed more women to the executive branch than all his predecessors; and, most significantly on the world scale, ordered the U.S. military out of Vietnam.

Nixon was a stone reactionary, but there were millions in the streets militantly demanding change. And that’s what brought about change.

So we need to come up with a more powerful way to put pressure on the politicians. Instead of the annual rally in January, the Virginia Defenders are proposing to hold a major event in October, before the elections, at which we put the whole prison system on trial: a People’s Tribunal on Virginia’s Prisons & Jails.

This would be a well-publicized, high-profile public hearing, held at a prestigious venue, with testimony entered before a panel of distinguished judges on the whole range of issues facing prisoners in the state’s prisons and jails. There would be written and oral testimony from incarcerated Virginians and oral testimony by formerly incarcerated people, their family members and advocates. To hear the testimony, there would be a panel of judges, people with prominence in the areas of law, academia, prison advocacy and more. The whole event would be livestreamed, so people around the state – around the world – could watch.

After the hearing is completed, testimony would be organized and written up as a formal report that would be made public at a major press conference and delivered to every candidate for the General Assembly. Then we would challenge every candidate to take a position on Prison Justice.

We’re suggesting that the People’s Tribunal be held on Saturday, October 7, a month before the elections. Oct. 9 is Virginia Indigenous Day, so the Tribunal should be opened with a recognition that we are meeting on stolen Indigenous land.

Oct. 10 will be the 223rd anniversary of the execution of the great slave rebellion leader, Gabriel, when the Defenders hold an annual Gabriel Gathering. We could dedicate the tribunal to his memory. Before his execution in Shockoe Bottom, one of the country’s first examples of mass incarceration, Gabriel was one of the first prisoners to be held at the now-closed Spring Street Penitentiary.

We’re suggesting that the Tribunal be cosponsored by the Virginia Defenders, who head up the organizing of the annual Prison Justice Rally, and the Virginia Prison Justice Network, the official sponsor of the annual Prison Justice rallies.

Logistically, the Defenders can take responsibility for organizing the tribunal, along with a broader committee we will put together, reaching out to the grassroots prison justice organizations run by the formerly incarcerated.

Financially, we estimate that promoting and holding the Tribunal will cost around $10,000 – renting the venue and sound, providing lunch, publicity and printing the report. The Defenders would provide this funding from a grant we received to support our prison work.

The next step would be to ask for endorsements, organize people to spread the word and recruit people to help solicit testimony.

This year, the People’s Tribunal, would take the place of the annual Prison Justice Rally, held in January. Instead, we’re suggesting we hold a demonstration at Capitol Square on the opening day of the 2024 General Assembly, Wednesday, Jan. 10. It’s a weekday, so our turnout may be light, but we can expand our presence with very large banners. The point would be to keep up the pressure by having a physical presence as the legislators walk into the legislative building.

It will take the work of a lot of people and organizations to pull this off, so we’re hoping to hear back from you as soon as possible. Do you like the proposal? Can you help? Will you endorse it, as an organization or as an individual?

For those of you behind bars, please write to us at: Defenders, PO Box 23202, Richmond, VA 23223.

For outside organizations and individual activists, call or text us at 804-644-5834 or email

Together, we can win!

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