IAHR Newsletter for April 14, 2017

In this week's edition of the IAHR newsletter, you will find five articles:

Community Vigil at Little River United Church of Christ 
Call for Volunteers for Ecumenical Advocacy Days
Sign a Petition to Release Kevin Snodgrass from Solitary Confinement
Maryland's 2017 Legislative Session
Report on Visit to Red Onion Prison

Community Vigil at Little River United Church of Christ 

Little River United Church of Christ, as well as the neighboring Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, were vandalizedMonday night, April 10 (the first night of Passover) by one or more individuals defacing the property with hate messages and swastikas. Damage included destruction of the church's banner bearing the message "Honor God -- Say NO to Anti-Muslim Bigotry."  

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To read more about these incidents and the arrest of the alleged perpetrator, click here

The community is invited to a vigil this Saturday, April 15, at 7:30 pm at Little River UCC, 8410 Little River Turnpike (Duke St.), Annandale, VA.  People of all faiths and of no particular faith are welcome. Members of several faith traditions will help lead the service, including members of the Jewish Community Center.  Pastor David Lindsey hopes this service will help our community -- Little River UCC, the JCC, and all of our neighbors -- begin to heal.

Call for Volunteers for Ecumenical Advocacy Days

Ecumenical Advocacy Days is a movement of the ecumenical Christian community, and its recognized partners and allies, grounded in biblical witness and our shared traditions of justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Our goal, through worship, theological reflection and opportunities for learning and witness, is to strengthen our Christian voice and to mobilize for advocacy on a wide variety of U.S. domestic and international policy issues.

Each year Ecumenical Advocacy holds a national gathering at a hotel in Virginia.  This year the gathering will take place from Friday, April 21 to Monday, April 24, 2017 at the Doubletree Hotel Crystal City, 300 Army Navy Drive, Arlington. 

IAHR has a table at this event.  We will be displaying our banners so that attendees will have an opportunity to purchase them.  We will also be sharing our agenda in order to solicit more support from the Christian progressive community. 

We need volunteers to staff our table on any one of the days.  We are asking volunteers to be at the table for a minimum of two hours.  If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Rabbi Feinberg at rebchuck@interfaithactionhr.org.  In addition to your email address, please also leave a phone number at which you can be reached.   For more information about Ecumenical Advocacy Days, click here.

Release Kevin Snodgrass from Solitary Confinement

Kevin Snodgrass has been in solitary confinement at Red Onion State prison in Virginia since 2013. Nobody will give him or his family a clear answer why. IAHR needs your help to get answers and help restore Kevin’s basic human rights.

Kevin’s parents are veterans of the U.S. military and are proud of their military service. They are even prouder parents. When Kevin was wrongfully targeted and convicted of a crime they believe he did not commit, it was the worst day of their lives. “But we knew Kevin was innocent, and we started on a journey to clear his name.”  

Things got worse when Kevin, who’s facing 38 years in prison, was placed in solitary confinement — a practice that isolates a person from human contact for 22-24 hours a day. It’s a practice that often results in substantial, often irreversible, damage to someone’s physical and mental health. There is a growing worldwide consensus that it is ineffective and should be banned, let alone that it should not be used for a period as long as Kevin has endured.  

Why does Kevin continue to be in solitary confinement? The reasons are unclear, documentation is inconsistent, and calls to state officials go unanswered. Kevin's parents are always directed back to the very people depriving their son of his basic human rights.

The Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) cannot police itself. They need people like you to speak up. Kevin’s parents started this petition to amplify their voices and let the VDOC know we demand Kevin be released from solitary confinement.  Kevin’s parents have been told he could be in solitary confinement until 2020. 

Remember that no court ever sentences anyone to solitary confinement.  Solitary confinement is always an administrative decision made by prison officials. It is appalling that anyone has to stay in solitary for more than a few weeks let alone for many years.

Please sign and share IAHR’s petition demanding the Virginia Department of Corrections end Kevin Snodgrass’ solitary confinement.    As of this date close to 20,000 people have signed the petition!  Please post this link on Facebook, twitter, and other social media.  

This petition will be delivered to:

  • Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia
    Terry McAuliffe
  • Lieutenant Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia
    Ralph Northam
  • Counselor to the Governor
    Carlos Hopkins
  • Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security
    Brian Moran
  • Director, Virginia Department of Corrections
    Harold W. Clarke
  • Attorney General of Virginia
    Mark Herring

Sign the Petition to Free Kevin Snodgrass by clicking here

Maryland's 2017 Legislative Session

Suzanne O'Hatnick

Many thanks to those who were able to participate in IAHR’s second Advocacy Day, termed Prisoners’ Rights Advocacy Day this year. Our coalition supported bills on solitary, bail reform and removal of the Governor from the parole process for lifers eligible for parole. Volunteers from The Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR) joined IAHR and the Maryland Justice and Safety Alliance (MJSA) in this year’s Advocacy Day.

Solitary Confinement

Following the revelations that 68% of prisoners in state prisons in Maryland spent an average of 50 - 60 days in solitary (called restrictive housing or segregation) in 2016, State Senator Susan Lee proposed legislation to limit the use of this isolated confinement, especially for youth and the mentally ill, and also to set up civilian oversight. IAHR, the ACLU, MAJR and the Maryland Justice and Safety Alliance supported the legislation, but we found that we could not get enough votes for passage and Senator Lee withdrew the proposed bill.  This is not surprising in the first attempt for a bill - Maryland’s average is three years to passage. 

Advocates will be strategizing over the summer and fall, meeting with the Secretary of Corrections (DPSCS) and members of the legislature well before the next session to craft a new bill. At a minimum, Corrections officials are on notice that there is strong concern among advocates about the overuse of solitary.

Lifers Bill

This bill would remove the Governor from the parole process for lifers eligible for parole. The current practice means that NO lifers eligible for parole actually get parole because over many administrations going back over 20 years, with few exceptions, no Maryland Governor has permitted it, despite recommendations of the Parole Board.  Senator McFadden was the key sponsor and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative was the key lead advocate.

This bill failed. The ACLU was especially engaged in support and IAHR moved our Advocacy Day up two weeks to highlight the Lifers Bill. We will be assessing next moves. Maryland is one of only three states that has the Governor involved in parole decisions.

Bail Reform

Maryland currently has what in effect is a debtor’s prison where the poor, even those charged with minor crimes, often languish in jail awaiting trial because they cannot pay bail. Recent rule changes will require that judges take into consideration the financial circumstances of defendants. Bail was a hot topic in the legislature this year with MAJR taking the lead in proposals for bail reform. So many additional bills were introduced that focus turned to attempts to kill bad bills supported by the bail bond industry - a very powerful force in Maryland.

The worst was a bill that would reverse the recent Court Rules that indicate judges must take into consideration the ability of defendants to pay bail. Advocates across the state joined us in fighting successfully against this bill.  IAHR and our coalition partners salute Speaker Michael Busch, Delegate Kathleen Dumais, and the Legislative Black Caucus for their leadership in supporting bail bond reform. This is something we can celebrate! 

Report on Visit to Red Onion Prison

Rabbi Chuck Feinberg

On Thursday, March 30, 2017, I and four other concerned citizens and activists visited Red Onion State Prison in Pound, VA.  Meeting us at the entrance were Randall Mathena, Director of Security Operations for Virginia prisons, Jeffrey Kizer, the warden of Red Onion, and Henry J. Ponton Jr., Regional Operations Chief.

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After passing through security, we met with most if not the entire senior staff of Red Onion in a conference room.  There we viewed a power point presentation on the mission and current rehabilitative process of the prison.  During the power point presentation we learned the following:

  • The prison was opened in 1998 as a maximum security prison.  Its mission was to receive the most difficult and dangerous inmates who had acted out in other state prisons.  The mission and plan was basically to put them in segregation.
  • The mission of keeping most of the prisoners in segregation had many negative consequences including increasing incidents of violence and acting out, poor staff morale, high staff turnover, and a negative image of Red Onion in the eyes of the community and public.
  • In 2011 a new program was introduced which would provide a structure in which prisoners could transfer out of segregation into general population.  This program is usually referred to as the “step down” program. 
  • The step down program is divided into two sections.  One is called “SM” for special management and the other is called “IM” for intensive management.  Prisoners who are labeled “SM” have acted out in different ways and have been disrespectful of themselves and others but are not perceived as dangerous.  “IM” prisoners have acted out but are also perceived as dangerous.  Both SM and IM go through the same step down program.  The step down program has at least six different “steps” or stages to pass through.  In the SM program each stage takes 30 days.  In the IM program, each stage or step takes 90 days.  We were also told that prisoners do regress and have to repeat steps or stages.  Thus prisoners can be in the step down program anywhere from a minimum of six months to more than two or three years. 
  • The power point presentation included statistics indicating the success of the step down program.  The statistics pointed to increasing numbers of prisoners in general population, decreasing numbers of “incidents”, decreasing staff turnover, higher staff morale, and improving image of Red Onion in the eyes of the public. 
  • We also learned that the staff who lead the step down programs go through the program themselves.  We learned that training for the entire staff is ongoing.  We also learned that newly hired staff go to a special training institute to learn the basics of the program. 

During the power point presentation, our group was able to ask many questions with the different members of the staff responding.  Toward the end of the power point presentation I had presented the dilemma that we activists face.  I said that the prison presents a successful program which has resulted in fewer men in segregation, a way out of segregation, and improved staff morale.  On the other hand, we have heard many stories from prisoners and their families which do not conform to what was presented.  We know of prisoners who have completed the step down program and then were told to start over.  We know of prisoners who were in segregation for years without any obvious reason, etc.  We know of prisoners such as Kevin Snodgrass who was told he would remain in solitary confinement until 2020. Outsiders can never hear the prison’s side of the story. 

Mr. Mathena responded to this by saying that he understands our dilemma.  He tried to assure us that an important part of his job is to follow up on every incident report to determine if the facts in the incident report are accurate.  He also went on to say that prisoners will often tell stories to their family or friends that are not accurate or are grossly exaggerated.  Mr. Mathena said that prisoners have the option of filling out release forms that would allow family members to talk to the warden or other prison officials directly about their loved ones.  He said that prisoners routinely fail to fill out these release forms.  Mr. Mathena implied that the prisoners really didn’t want their family members to know the real truth. 

When I wrote Mr. Mathena requesting a copy of a release form, he wrote back that he would not or could not send it to me.  Families of prisoners have said to us they didn’t know there was a possibility of filling out a release form. 

After spending over an hour viewing the power point presentation and asking many questions, we visited most of the major sections of the prison.  During the tour of the prison, we actually visited a step down class in which a corrections officer was working with three prisoners.  While the posters in the class rooms emphasize the importance of confidentiality, the c.o. had no trouble asking the prisoners in our presence about what happened to them during the previous week.  I thought making them “perform” in our presence was humiliating.

We also saw the “cages” in which prisoners in segregation sit during the step down program.  The staff was very proud of the cages even though again we wondered how necessary it was to put prisoners in cages during instruction.

We toured the wings of the prison with segregated cells as well as the general population area.  We saw that there was no difference in the cells from one area to the next. The big difference is that in general population two prisoners are housed in the same small segregation cell. 

We asked about prisoners with disabilities. We learned that several prisoners are in wheel chairs and that there a few prisoners with severe visual and hearing deficits.  We also learned that over 60% of the prisoners are men of color.  We didn’t see any staff member who was an African-American or a person of color. 

We visited the area where there are classrooms. We learned that once prisoners are in general population they can work to get their G.E.D. as well as take some other courses. We also saw the library which has many books. The prisoners can never visit the library.  Instead, lists of books in the library are distributed so that the prisoners can order books that they see on the list. 

We left the prison close to 1 p.m. and then had lunch with the chaplain who works part time as the prison chaplain.  The chaplain is in the prison two days a week for a total of 20 hours.  The chaplain had little to say about the step down program.  He told us that he makes rounds and is able to do one on one counseling with the prisoners. However, he said that much of his time is spent administering the religious services and needs of the prisoners.  For instance, the chaplain makes arrangements for different services to be held including Muslim, WICCA, and Catholic services.  The chaplain is given no administrative support so he has to spend a lot of his time doing administration.  The chaplain emphasized how the work in the prison often undermines the mental and spiritual health of the corrections officers. 

During our conversation with the chaplain we learned that over 90% of Wise County residents are white.  There are very few people of color living in far southwestern Virginia.  The chaplain said that since the salary for corrections officers is so low, only local people can really afford to work at the prison.  

After we met with the chaplain, we also visited with Sister Beth Davies.  Sister Beth visits Kevin Snodgrass and perhaps one other prisoner at Red Onion.  She also counsels a number of residents in the area including corrections officers and their families.  She emphasized that corrections officers and their families suffer from depression and other mental illnesses.  She felt that it would be very important for us to interview corrections officers.  We asked her to assist us introducing us to a few corrections officers who would be willing to speak to us.  

Key findings of the trip: a better understanding of the step-down program; how long it takes for an inmate to go through the program, the importance of the public image of the prison for prison officials, the deleterious effects of prison life on both inmates and staff; the racial divide in prisons between staff and inmates; and the sterility of the physical environment in the prison. 

IAHR does feel it important to continue to be engaged with the Virginia Department of Corrections and will continue to look for new ways to end the abuse of solitary confinement.


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