Time for Maryland and Virginia to end solitary confinement

 

Regarding the Oct. 14 editorial “Easing the torture of solitary”:

"While it may be true that nationwide, the number of incarcerated people in solitary is decreasing, Maryland and Virginia are significant abusers of solitary confinement.

In fiscal 2017, 50 percent of the Maryland prison population was in solitary at least once. The average length of stay was 45 days. Moreover, more than 500 people were released directly from solitary to the community. These statistics are reported by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in its annual report.

In Virginia, the public does not know how many people have been placed in solitary nor what the average length of stay is. However, Interfaith Action for Human Rights has gathered significant anecdotal evidence that many individuals in Maryland and Virginia prisons have been in solitary for months and years. No judge sentences a person to solitary; it is always deployed at the discretion of the warden. Moreover, a number of states, such as Colorado, have effectively ended putting people in isolation. 

It is time for Maryland and Virginia to put an end to this abuse of incarcerated people." 

Charles Feinberg, Washington

The writer, a rabbi, is executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights. Click here to view the article.


Forum in Annapolis


20 Years in Solitary: A Personal Testimony

John Robert Ashby is incarcerated at North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD. North Branch is a maximum-security prison and it has over 1000 inmates. Mr. Ashby has written a series of letters to Rabbi Feinberg and has given Rabbi Feinberg permission to edit them and publish them via the IAHR website and communication channels.


There was a Supreme Court Ruling: Miller vs Alabama. This ruling stated that the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional. And, it’s being argued in Maryland that because the Governor doesn’t sign parole papers that those sentenced for crimes when (they were) juveniles are essentially doing life without parole! The State of Maryland doesn’t parole lifers. Governor Parris Glendening in the 90s took a hard-cold stance because someone on parole committed a murder. He said he would no longer parole anyone by signing (and being the final signature) on his parole papers. After he left office, all other governors have taken this hard, cold stance.

In Mr. Ashby’s own words:

I have been in some form of isolation since 1999 December… I have been incarcerated since October 16, 1989, since the age of 17… I am serving a life with parole sentence for murder and other related charges. I am almost in my 30th year in prison and almost 20 years of being in some form of isolation while in prison! 

Editor’s note: On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court, in Miller vAlabama, ruled that imposing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

 

Part Two

Editor's Note: Part two of a three-part series shares excerpts of letters from John Robert Ashby who is incarcerated in North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD. Last week’s letter introduced John’s experience of being incarcerated at 17 and how he’s spent 20 of his 30 years behind bars in solitary.

I was attacked by an inmate. I defended myself against his weapon (which I) was able to get from him and use on him. I was sent to what was Maryland’s Supermax. I did 4.5 years; I was charged with murder. I was going to court for the death penalty. I beat all charges.

I was sent back to Jessup (state prison in Jessup, MD), what was then the Maryland House of Corrections-Annex in 2004. Once there, I was placed on administrative segregation. After three months, I was let off into general population—only to be placed back in administrative segregation in 2005.

I was sent here to this institution (North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD). We were isolated (placed in solitary confinement) because this institution wasn’t finished being constructed.

On January 6, 2006, a mass disturbance occurred on the tier I/we were housed on. Several assaults on staff occurred; 16 of us were issued prison infractions.

At the hearing, I requested a video footage because it would show I didn’t do anything. The hearing officers says (sic-said) he (had) seen it but I can’t see it, which is my right.

I was given 6/12 years of segregation time.

I also was charged with assault charges and riot. During trial it was exposed that this hearing officer never reviewed a tape because at the time it wasn’t (uncertain word) available!!

Also, a guy (another prisoner) testified that I didn’t assault an officer on the blurry videotape. In fact, he stated it was him, all to no avail.

I was found guilty of assault and aiding and abetting assault. They say I was running around. Of course I was, because the entire tier was fogged up with mace and other chemical agents.

I was given nine years in Alleghany Correct(ional) house.

In August 2007, I along with 20 others were sent via ICC to the State of Virginia. We were held at Red Onion State Prison for a little over a year; we were brought back in August 2008. I did not want to return because I knew the ongoing abuse would continue, which it has.

I was placed back in segregation.

I have requested to be sent back to the State of Virginia. I have filed a lawsuit (see John Henry Ashby vs. Bobby Shearin). I have refused to come in from recreation cages in a peaceful protest(s) to get some justice from this administration.

Only to keep being told we are not letting you in general population…

 

Part Three

Editor’s Note: The third and final part of a three-part series shares excerpts of letters from John Robert Ashby who is incarcerated in North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD.

In his own words:

Have I protested peacefully since I was returned from out of state, from Pound, VA, Red Onion State Prison in 2007-2008? Yes, I have. I have protested 2 times by refusing to lock in from outside cages.

My argument was why was I Brought Back to this State and I am being told continuously even after all (these) years of segregation are over, I won’t be placed in general population. Is this a fact, then please send me BACK OUT OF STATE?! That was my argument.

I have been on administrative segregation which means an investigation is pending.

It is supposed to last for 1 year. Outside of the years on disciplinary, I have been on administrative segregation for 3 years…

All because staff is saying I have too much INFLUENCE. Rabbi, my last infraction was refusing to come in from RECREATION CAGES IN 2013. In fact, except for buying another guy’s watch, I haven’t had an incident (report) in five years and that is considered a GOOD category.

Why does the REVIEW every month say NO CHANGE, you have too much INFLUENCE? Why haven’t they sent me back out of state if I am a VERIFIED LEADER IN DISRUPTIVE ACTIVITIES as they say?

REHABILITATION has become a farce. It’s now about PRISON LABOR, EXTREME ISOLATION and BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION EXPERIMENTS… (It is also about) monitoring of medicines, foods, and non-human contact REACTIONS…

 

John’s experience is not unique.

Can you hear the frustration and desperation in John’s words that I hear?

Do you believe that isolation and segregation is counterproductive to rehabilitation?

Are you ready to take a stand to protect the human rights of prisoners in state facilities in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia?

Interfaith Action for Human Rights works to change the culture, policy and practices that violate the human rights of prisoners held in correctional facilities.

Guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the wisdom of our respective faiths, IAHR advocates for more just and compassionate laws and policies.

To make a donation to IAHR, click here.



Reducing Segregated Housing: But – What Else Can We Do?

By Susan Hills Rose, IAHR Contributing Reporter

The serious consequences of extended segregated housing – both for the prisoner  subjected to it and for the public safety of his or her future community – have been well    documented. But some would say there is no alternative; prisoners misbehave, and they  must be punished. What else can we do to maintain order in our prisons?

 Three major approaches have evidence and experience behind them. Here’s what we can do instead:

 

1. Use a range of graduated sanctions.

Because of its devastating impact on mental health and social skills, segregation should never be the first option for responding to behavior issues. Lower levels of infractions that do not involve violence toward others can be dealt with through temporary, less severe sanctions. Here are some of the many alternatives to disciplinary segregation identified by the U.S. Department of Justice [1]:

  • Forfeit “good time,” which reduces sentence length
  • Loss of privileges, such as visiting and phone calls
  • Move to less desirable housing
  • Loss of participation in a program or group activity
  • Impound personal property, such as a CD player or musical instrument
  • Require extra duty, or
  • Delay parole date.

Does this mean correctional officers will be less safe? When Colorado reduced its use of extended solitary confinement, it found that prisoner-on-staff assaults actually declined [2].

2. Reward positive behavior.

Public safety-minded correctional systems are increasing incentives for positive behavior rather than spending their scarce resources responding to discipline problems. For example:

  • Kevin Kempf, Director of Idaho’s Department of Corrections, has allowed prisoners who have gone 3 months with no disciplinary offenses to buy pizzas from a local partner [3].
  • Kempf is also partnering with local school districts to set up “art in the yard” events where prisoners can display and sell their art to the community.
  • In Ohio, some segregated housing units were converted to “limited privilege unit” that allowed more out-of-cell time and privileges. Prisoners can gain early release by participating in pro-social activities such as anger management and problem-solving programs (ASCA, 2016).
  • Privileges such as time to work out, access to desirable food, job opportunities, and more desirable housing assignments can be offered to prisoners who have good records.


3. Reduce the conditions that make prisons less safe.

Many states are taking a hard look at conditions within their prisons that lead to hopelessness, anger, violence, and self-harm. Then they are developing innovative programs to change those conditions. If they are successful, prisoners will be more successful in finding jobs and rejoining their families when they re-enter communities. In the short term, prisons will be safer places for both correctional officers and prisoners.

Offer effective programs to help prisoners with mental illness

For example: Prisoners with mental illness, especially severe mental illness, often have difficulty complying with prison rules. They may also have a range of challenges in social interactions. Long periods in segregated housing can make even healthy persons develop mental problems; for people who already have them, they just get worse. What can be done?

  • In South Carolina, the Department of Corrections is developing a program to screen and evaluate prisoners to identify those in need of mental health care. It is also developing a training program to help staff intervene appropriately when there is a crisis (ASCA, 2016).
  • In Colorado, prisoners with Serious Mental Illness were moved from segregated confinement to residential treatment units where they are offered 10 hours of therapeutic interventions and 10 hours of recreational programming weekly (ASCA, 2016).

Teach ways to de-escalate conflict

Vera Institute of Justice also urges prisons to “use communication and de-escalation techniques to resolve conflict [4]." Both prisoners and correctional officers can learn techniques to dial-down conflict situations that can lead to threats and violence. In a striking example:

  • In Colorado, prisoners in restrictive housing have access to “de-escalation rooms” that may offer soothing wall colors, dim lights, and a comfortable chair. People can listen to calming music, use exercise balls, or participate in art therapy (ASCA, 2016).

Improve conditions in restrictive housing

Prisons and jails can also decrease the likelihood of permanent harm to individuals’ mental health as a result of extended segregated confinement. For example:

  • The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department in Massachusetts distributes preprogrammed MP3 players to people in restricted housing as a reward for positive behavior. The players have self-help programs, music, nature sounds, and audio books (Vera Institute, 2018).
  • Prisons can give prisoners a date certain on which their confinement will end unless there is a serious infraction and keep their word.
  • In Oregon, people in segregated housing can view nature videos in a “Blue Room” – an innovation that both staff and prisoners say has led to a “calmer atmosphere in the unit” and fewer disciplinary infractions (Vera Institute, 2018)

Kristi Jacobson’s HBO film is Nominated for Two Emmy Awards


Solitary, directed by Kristi Jacobson

Solitary, directed by Kristi Jacobson (2016 Breakthrough Filmmaker Award recipient) was nominated for Outstanding Investigative Documentary  and Outstanding Editing – Documentary.

Solitary investigates an invisible part of the American justice system: the use of isolation and segregation in US prisons, commonly known as solitary confinement. With unprecedented access inside a prison, Ms. Jacobson explored this issue by interviewing both incarcerated men and correctional officers.

IAHR promoted the film in DC, Richmond, and Alexandria.  IAHR Board member, Gay Gardner has been corresponding for almost three years with a number of the men who were interviewed in the film.


Second Forum on Solitary in Maryland Sparks Renewed Concern

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

 

Over 30 people attended IAHR’s second forum on solitary confinement in Maryland in Frederick on July 24.  The forum was held at Frederick Friends and was cosponsored by Unity in Frederick, Social Action Committee, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, and the Baltimore-Washington Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries.

Several things stood out in this month’s forum.  First, Wendell France whose career was devoted both to law enforcement and corrections, spoke about how prison authorities get so much wrong. The reason he said is that no one asks the prisoners how to run the prison better!  Indeed, if feedback from those incarcerated was taken seriously, the prisons would deliver services that would truly meet their needs. This would mean delivering real education and training to the incarcerated consistently, better medical care, and better communication with loved ones.  The result of this is that those leaving prison would be better equipped to re-enter the community and live as law abiding citizens. 

Second, Munib Lohrasbi (who was a last minute replacement for another speaker who could not come) spoke eloquently about the research he is conducting for Disability Rights Maryland.  Munib spoke extensively about how people in solitary are mistreated and have to endure difficult if not horrible conditions: cold in the winter, intense heat in the summer, broken windows, and indifferent medical care. 

Third, the energy in the room rose when Suzanne O’Hatnick spoke about how people could get involved.  IAHR plans to introduce new legislation on solitary confinement in the 2019 session of the Maryland Legislature.  We will be announcing that legislation this fall.  But we need people to volunteer now.  Please click here to see the different volunteer opportunities. 

Our next scheduled forum on solitary confinement in Maryland will be held on September 20 in Prince George’s County.  Time and location will be announced shortly.


2018 Solitary Confinement Reform Act in Maryland

Here is IAHR's and the Maryland Prisoners' Rights Coalition Bill on Restrictive Housing which will be submitted to the 2018 Session of the Maryland Legislature. 

Correctional Services - Restrictive Housing – Limitations 

This section applies to facilities operated by a correctional unit, as defined in Correctional Services §2-401(b). 

Definitions

  1. “Vulnerable inmate” means an inmate who:
    • Is 18 years of age or younger;
    • Is 65 years of age or older;
    • Is pregnant, in the postpartum period, or has recently suffered a miscarriage or terminated a pregnancy;
    • Is or is perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex;
    • Has a diagnosed serious mental illness; or
    • Has an intellectual, developmental or physical disability, or traumatic brain injury.
  2. “Substantive infraction” means an act committed inside a correctional facility that constitutes a violation of Maryland criminal law.
  3. “Administrative infraction” means an act committed inside a correctional facility that does not constitute a violation of Maryland criminal law.
  4. “Incident report” has the meaning defined in COMAR 12.02.27.02(B)(21)(b)
  5. “Alternative disciplinary sanction” means the penalties identified in COMAR 12.02.27.39 (D) 1-4

Graduated sanctions

1. An inmate who has been found guilty of an administrative infraction may be subject to:

For a first infraction, no more than a verbal warning;

For a second infraction, no more than an incident report;

For a third or subsequent infraction, no more than an alternative sanction;

2. An inmate who has been found guilty of a substantive infraction may be subject to:

For a first infraction, no more than 15 days in restrictive housing;

For a second infraction, no more than 30 days in restrictive housing;

For a third and subsequent infraction, no more than 45 days in restrictive housing

3. An inmate may not be subject to more than 15 consecutive days or a total of 90 days in restrictive housing in a one-year period in restrictive housing, unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the inmate poses an immediate and substantial risk of physical harm to the security of the facility, to the inmate, or to others.

Prohibited bases for restrictive housing

  1. An inmate may not be placed in restrictive housing for:
  • Non-disciplinary reasons;
  • Refusing medical treatment; or
  • Self harm behavior, unless the inmate’ placement in restrictive housing is temporary and has been ordered by a medical professional in a clinically designated and supervised area

Vulnerable populations

Unless there is a facility–wide lockdown, vulnerable inmates may not be placed in restrictive housing until alternative disciplinary and informal sanctions have been attempted, documented and have failed to mitigate the risk of physical harm to the security of the facility, to the inmate, or to others.

Conditions of restrictive housing

1. Inmates in restrictive housing shall be provided:

Weekly comprehensive physical and mental health assessments by a member of the evaluation team, as defined in correctional services §4-101(f), to determine if the inmate may be released from restrictive housing;

The same standard of access to phone calls, visits, mail, basic necessities, including, but not limited to, food, water, showers, clothing and bedding, sanitary conditions and medical care, including, but not limited to, any appropriate preventive and emergency care, that are provided to inmates not in restrictive housing; and

Maximized access to recreation, education, and programming

2.  Failure to comply with this subsection shall be recorded in the inmate’s file

3.  An inmate may not be released directly from restrictive housing to the community, unless it is necessary for the safety of the inmate.

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"We are Jonah"

On September 30 which was also the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Rabbi Feinberg gave a sermon at the Hill Havurah, a Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. This is the text of the sermon. 

Jonah’s Story

The story of the Jonah the prophet is an essential text for the Jewish observance of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.  The story is read during the afternoon service.  The story is actually one of the 15 prophetic books in the Prophetic section of the Hebrew Bible.  Here is a summary of the story. 

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh; instead he hops a ship to Tarshish, which is in the opposite direction.

Jonah falls asleep in the bottom of the boat while a storm brews.  The storm intensifies and the sailors perceive that someone has offended the gods.  They cast lots and Jonah comes up short.  The sailors want to know who Jonah is. 

He tells them he is a Hebrew and that he fears the God of Heavens who made the sea and the dry land. 

The sailors are very afraid and ask Jonah what they should do since he seems to be responsible for the storm.  Jonah says to them to throw him overboard.  The sailors are pious and don’t want to offer up Jonah to his God.  They call out to God begging him not to destroy them.  They don’t want to spill innocent blood. But Jonah instructs them to throw him overboard in order to save themselves as well as the passengers and animals on the ship.  

After the sailors throw Jonah overboard, the storm passes and the sea is calm.  The sailors again are filled with fear and awe and offer up a sacrifice to God and make pledges of future offerings to the God of Israel.

God invites a large fish to swallow Jonah.  Jonah prays to God and after three days and nights the fish spits Jonah out. 

God then instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh and to deliver a message: “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Lo and behold, the people of Nineveh declare a fast and dress in sackcloth.  The King also rises from his throne, dons sackcloth, and sits in ashes.  Everyone fasts: young and old as well as large animals.  Even the animals fast! 

The people repent for their evil ways and the violence in their hands.  The implication is that they have shed innocent blood.

God’s anger dissipates and God decides not to do to them what He had promised.  That is, for the time being God forgives them.

Jonah is furious at God.  Jonah says to God I always knew that you were a gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, full of loving kindness, and renouncing punishment.  Jonah believes that we should not forgive sinners and evildoers until they are punished.  The people of Nineveh did terrible things, they have blood on their hands! How can God let them off the hook without punishment?!

What does Jonah do?  He walks to the east of the city.  God causes a squash plant to grow over him providing shade.  God then causes the squash plant to shrivel and up and die. He brings the east wind and raises the temperature to 100 plus degrees.  He asks Jonah, “Is anger good for you?”  Jonah says “anger is good for me until death.”  God says “you did not nothing to cause the squash to grow.  It came and went.  Should I not have compassion for a city with 12,000 residents and much cattle?”

The story raises many questions but two are most salient for me today: Why is Jonah so angry and why did he go sit in the sun on the east side of the city? 

Jonah is angry at God for forgiving the people without punishing them and without being sure that their Teshuvah (repentance) is sincere.  So what does Jonah do?  Jonah decides to travel to the eastern side of Nineveh.  There Jonah sits and waits.  What is he waiting for?  He believes the Teshuvah (repentance) is insincere and is waiting to see the city recidivate.  He wants to tell God, “I told you so!”  He believes that all the rituals of repentance—sackcloth, ashes, fasting—were a sham.  Jonah doesn’t trust that the people will continue to act justly.

The Story of Michelle Jones & Reginald Dwayne Betts

Let me tell you two modern stories that I believe are connected to the story of Jonah.

Michelle Jones served 20 years in prison for a heinous crime: murdering her 4-year-old son. During her two decades behind bars, Ms. Jones compiled a record an extraordinary record of accomplishment. She published a scholarly article on the first prisons for women in the United States. She wrote a play that will open in December in an Indianapolis theater. She led a team of incarcerated women whose efforts won the Indiana Historical Society’s prize for best research project for 2016. Not the best research project by prisoners, but the best project. Period.

But Ms. Jones’s stunning record wasn’t good enough for top administrators at Harvard University. In a rare move, they overturned the history department’s admission recommendation and rejected Ms. Jones.  However, NYU did accept her and she recently started a doctoral program there.

Ms. Jones’s remarkable story put me in mind of a similar one — that of Reginald Dwayne Betts, the Yale Law graduate whose initial application to the Connecticut bar was recently rejected. Mr. Betts, who was convicted of carjacking in 1996 when he was 16, went on to astonishing success after his release in 2005, including publishing two books, earning BA and MFA degrees, and being accepted by Yale Law School. Mr. Betts passed the Connecticut Bar Exam and he is now employed as a Public Defender in Connecticut. 

There is one catch.  The Connecticut Bar refused to admit him even though he passed the exam.  According to the Bar, all attorneys have to be of good moral character.  Because he is a former felon, there isn’t a presumption of fitness to practice law. He has to prove it with “clear and convincing evidence.” As he continues to pursue admission to the bar, it’s clear that what matters most is the crime he committed as a teenager.  Very recently due to public pressure, the Connecticut Bar admitted Mr. Betts. 

What is the connection between the ancient story of Jonah and the modern stories of Michelle Jones and Reginald Dwayne Betts?

Harvard and the Connecticut bar are Jonah. And more importantly, too many of us are today’s Jonah.  Even with punishment we don’t believe people can change and renew their lives.  Better said, we don’t trust that the people who have committed violent crimes have really changed. Remember Jonah was angry at God because God forgave without punishing.  But our society punishes like no other on earth. And still we have a hard time being ready to forgive men and women who have done bad things, often violent acts, who have served long prison sentences, but who have also done Teshuvah and are ready to renew their lives.

I have experienced these things myself. I have made friends with returning citizens.  Some of them committed violent crimes.  One man I know who is now a leader in the DC Reentry Community was convicted of murder over 30 years ago.  He served a 25 year sentence. He reports to me that there are people with whom he associates who are afraid to invite him into their homes. We are Jonah!  We want people to be punished!  Not only that we have a very difficult time forgiving and accepting people who have done bad things but who have done Teshuvah. 

Ms. Jones and Mr. Betts are very accomplished people.  They are clearly very smart and capable.  What does it say about us that people who are not only brilliant but have also changed their lives have to overcome such obstacles?  Do their stories just serve to undermine the efforts of tens of thousands of incarcerated people to change their lives?  “If two such brilliant people have such trouble convincing liberals that they have changed, what chance do they have? Especially, if they have little education and are not skilled? How can they persuade others that they have truly changed?”

We often lament the fact that over 2 million Americans are in prison; that 30% of all the women in prison in the world are in American prisons.  Yet we—you and I—are the reason for this.  We tolerate brutal prisons, with extraordinary rates of men and women committed to solitary confinement, who are not given proper medical or psychological care, who are isolated from their family and community and with limited educational opportunities. 

Then when these men and women are released from prison, we make it next to impossible for them to find work or housing.  Then we shake our heads and are surprised that so many recidivate.

What Can We Do?

20 years ago, the District was in bad financial and political shape.  At that time the District and the Congress decided to take away from the District most of their criminal justice responsibilities and obligations.  Federal prosecutors prosecute all the felonies committed in the District.  The Public Defender Service is funded by Congress.  The District closed its prison in Virginia.  Any DC resident convicted of a felony serves his or her sentence in a federal prison.

Today, approximately 4600 DC residents are incarcerated in 122 prisons around the country.  DC residents are in prison in California, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, to name a few states. 

This means that DC residents are doubly isolated.  They are isolated from their community and family.  The majority are poor and their families cannot afford many trips out west or south to visit them.  They are also isolated in these prisons.  They are from a city that is often demonized in many parts of our country. 

Much research indicates that the rate of recidivism is a function of whether a prisoner is in touch with his family and community.  The more isolated she is, the more likely she will return to prison after her release. 

To address this issue in one way, IAHR has launched a pen pal project.  The aim of the project is to connect those of living in the District or in the suburbs with a DC resident in prison.  We are asking each pen pal to write at least once a month for one year. Then you can decide if you want to continue or not.  Many of the prisoners have access to email.  So you don’t necessarily have to write a snail mail letter.  In addition, we are planning an orientation for pen pals. We have guidelines that we want everyone to abide by.  In addition to the orientation, we plan to hold periodic meetings for the pen pals so they can share experiences and talk about any issues that may come up. 

IAHR has advertised the program in 10 different federal facilities. We have received a very strong response.  We need your help in order to make this program a success. We have flyers promoting the program.  If you want to get involved, you can contact me.  My contact info is on the flyer.  If you are interested in helping organize part of the program, please talk to me during the break. 

On one level, this is a program to reach out to lonely isolated DC residents who are scattered around the country.  On another level, I hope that those who become pen pals will begin to view the person they are writing to not only as a number, not only as a convicted felon, but as a person with a soul.  I hope and pray that people like you and me will learn about the conditions in our prisons.  You will understand that many of those residing in our prisons want to do Teshuvah and want to renew their lives.  By reaching out to these men and women, we can begin to change the culture that usually wants to write these people off. 

Join with me in reaching out to the incarcerated.  Join with me in saving souls!  


Virginia Coalition Opens Talks with Gov. McAuliffe's Office

RICHMOND, VA - June 21, 2017 – Solitary confinement is torture. In American prisons, more than 50,000 people suffer in long-term solitary confinement, many with no clear expectation of release into general population.

Members of the Virginia Advocacy Group (VAG), the Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) and advocacy partners met today with Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration to present a petition of nearly 20,000 signatures gathered in the case of Kevin Snodgrass, a Virginia prison inmate housed in isolation for almost four years. Research has found the cruelty of isolation has long-term psychological and psychosocial effects on inmates, including despondency, depression, and even suicidal tendencies.

The group advocated at the meeting for prisoners with mental illness and other disabilities, related the IAHR’s position condemning solitary confinement in Virginia, and urged the administration to establish guidelines for its use modeled after the U.S. Department of Justice’s Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing. The group also addressed the lack of structure and clarity of the “Step Down Program”.

Specifically, VAG asked the governor, through his representatives, to:

  • Limit the use of solitary confinement to when it is absolutely necessary and other alternatives are unavailable;
  • Provide prisoners in solitary confinement with a written plan for returning to less restrictive conditions as soon as possible; and
  • Stop placing inmates with serious mental illness or mental, physical or intellectual disabilities in solitary confinement.

Collectively, the Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR), National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), Virginia Council of Churches (VCC), Social Action Linking Together (SALT), the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU-VA) and Virginia CURE have been advocating for reform as part of their long-standing mission to eradicate solitary confinement.

Virginia Advocacy Group meeting attendees included:

  • Charles Feinberg, executive director IAHR;
  • Gay Gardner, secretary, IAHR;
  • Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, mother of Kevin D. Snodgrass #1203403, board member, IAHR;
  • Rev. Dr. Jonathan Barton, general minister, VCC;
  • Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications, ACLU-VA; and
  • Carla Peterson, director, Virginia CURE.

Representatives of the governor’s administration present at the meeting included Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, Deputy Secretary Victoria Cochran, Policy Director Jennie O’Holleran, and Counsel to the Governor Carlos Hopkins.

“The bottom line for us is that prisons and jails have to become transparent so that their leaders can be held accountable,” said IAHR Executive Director Rabbi Charles Feinberg.

“Solitary confinement is a cruel, ineffective and costly practice that causes great harm to the individuals who are subjected to it while failing to make incarcerated people, prisons or the communities to which inmates eventually are released any safer,” said ACLU-VA Director of Strategic Communications Bill Farrar.

“In the case of my son, Kevin Snodgrass, the efforts of VAG and advocacy partners led to global support of his petition, but for most others there is no clarity on what guidelines are set forth that would ensure proper treatment of inmates,” said Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass. “In many cases prisoners have been in solitary confinement for decades.”

About the Interfaith Action for Human Rights

Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a mid-Atlantic coalition of faith communities. We seek to change the culture, policy or practices that cause torture or violate human dignity. Our guide is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the wisdom of our respective faiths.

About the Virginia Advocacy Group

The Virginia Advocacy Group is working to minimize the use of prolonged isolated confinement and related abusive treatment in the Commonwealth of Virginia prisons.

###

For VAG member media interviews:

  • IAHR, Charles Feinberg, 240-324-9160, Iahr.cfeinberg@gmail.com, @iahr_dc
  • IAHR, Gay Gardner, 703-627-6482, gaygarden@msn.com
  • VCC, Rev. Dr. Jonathan Barton, 804-321-3300 x-102, barton@vacouncilofchurches.org.
  • ACLU-VA, Bill Farrar APR, 804-523-2156, bfarrar@acluva.org, @vachangeagent
  • Virginia CURE, Carla Peterson, (703) 272-3624, carla4vacure@gmail.com
  • IAHR, mother of Kevin Snodgrass, Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, (703) 855-7871, iahr.ksnodgrass@gmail.com, @kimjsnodgrass


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