January 5, 2021
Sadly, we live in a time when our leaders are actually followers. Our so called leaders compete by seeing who can best indulge the fears and fantasies of the people they are supposed to lead and instruct. We see this playing out now with President Trump and many Republican leaders denying that Joe Biden won the presidential election fair and square. They seem to believe that it was not possible for President Trump to lose. Certainly, Trump himself, cannot believe he lost and thus makes up all kinds of fabulous and false stories of how he was robbed, how the election was stolen, or how there was massive fraud. A real leader would speak hard truths to his followers. He would describe how he and his supporters fell short and what they need to do to win another time.
The corruption and bankruptcy of leadership doesn't affect only Republicans. It also affects Democrats and Independents. A glaring example is how poorly most Governors have responded to the spread of Covid-19 in their state prisons. Governors have been slow to release inmates who are elderly (over 60), who have serious pre-existing medical conditions, or are a year within release. State prison systems have failed in curtailing the spread of the virus; one in five prisoners has been infected. Over 1700 inmates have died because of Covid-19.
Taking effective measures to curb the spread of Covid in prisons requires strong leadership. Many people believe everyone in prison is capable of committing terrible violent crimes. Many people believe that people in prison don't have any basic rights. They believe that people in prison should suffer. It takes strong leadership to teach the public that it is in their self-interest to curb the spread of the coronavirus in prisons. Prisons become hot houses for Covid and then it spreads to the rest of the community. It takes strong leadership to teach the public that the risk of releasing significant numbers of prisoners is relatively low.
Now comes the question of whether incarcerated people and correctional officers should have higher priority to be vaccinated. Prisons are very similar to nursing homes and other long care facilities. Since so many staff and visitors come in and out, they breed the virus. If there is an Covid outbreak in the prison, then it can quickly spread to the surrounding community and further. So it makes sense to vaccinate correctional officers, other staff, and inmates along with front line medical personnel and nursing home residents.
Over the weekend, we read reports of how Governors and other state officials are having second thoughts about giving priority for vaccinations to prisons. In Colorado, Governor Polis (a Democrat) caved in to public outcries when it was announced that the prison population would have priority. Instead of standing up to the pressure and explaining why it was in everyone's interest to give priority to vaccinating prisoners and prison staff, Gov Polis caved and said that in "“no way” the limited supply of shots would “go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime.”Read more
December 21, 2020
We received some good news over the weekend. As part of its deliberations to pass the Covid-19 Relief Bill and pass a Budget, Congress lifted its ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated people. In the 1994 crime bill, Congress banned incarcerated people from applying for Pell Grants to pursue college education while in prison. This ban effectively ended the possibility of pursuing educational opportunities post high-school for most incarcerated people. Some colleges and universities introduced some college courses in selected prisons in their geographical area. For instance, Georgetown University, under the direction of Prof Marc Morje Howard, teaches a course at a Maryland State Prison in Jessup. 15 Georgetown students join 15 incarcerated men for a semester long course. Goucher College has a program at the Women's Prison in Jessup. These programs are not comprehensive and cannot reach most prisons because they are so many and because they are often in isolated regions. You can read more about this in Politico by clicking here.
The State of Maryland announced that incarcerated people and prison staff will have priority in being vaccinated against Covid-19. The online newspaper, Maryland Matters reported that former Health secretary Robert R. Neall, who retired on Dec. 1, listed “People in Prisons, Jails, Detention Centers and Staff” among six priority groups to receive the vaccine in Maryland’s Phase 1 distribution, according to a draft plan submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Oct. 16. The estimated population of the inmate and staff subgroup is 54,460. The Health Department did not provide an inmate-staff breakdown of the subgroup when requested. Click here to read the whole article.
While Maryland has taken steps to limit the spread of Covid-19 in its state prisons and has announced that incarcerated people and staff would have priority in being vaccinated, Virginia has not done well in limiting the spread of Covid-19. According to a report in the Marshall Project, 1 in 5 incarcerated people have been infected with Covid-19 in Virginia Prisons. The State of Virginia has not stated that incarcerated people and staff will have priority in being vaccinated against Covid-19.
We need more public pressure on Governor Northam to arrest the spread of Covid in Virginia prisons and to make staff and incarcerated people a priority in receiving the vaccine.
December 9, 2020
Part of IAHR's work is to ask prison administrators to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. Though the thorough and heroic work of Gay Gardner, IAHR Special Advisor on Virginia, IAHR receives numerous allegations of correctional officers or other prison staff abusing inmates. IAHR realizes that these allegations could be exaggerated or not factual at all. We often ask wardens and other Department of Corrections administrators to make an investigation of the allegation that is fair and thorough. Fair and thorough means that individual corrections officers should be interviewed privately as should the individual making the allegation. We also ask that if there is security camera video of the incident that it be shown both to investigators as well as to the person making the allegation. We have found, however, that prison officials routinely deny the viewing of video footage to the prisoner making the grievance. We also have reason to believe that the investigation is not fair or thorough.
Recently these issues have become public in articles in the Richmond Post-Dispatch. An incarcerated person was transferred from Wallens Ridge to Red Onion State Prison. This person dubbed, "Mr. A" alleged that he was beaten after his arrival at Red Onion State Prison. A spokesperson for the VA Dept of Corrections released video footage to the reporter claiming there was no evidence of "Mr.A" being abused. The video shows Mr. A arriving at Red Onion and being escorted to his cell without incident. However, Mr. A alleged that he was beaten after his arrival at Red Onion not during his arrival, a crucial difference.
IAHR believes that it is in the interest of prison staff and administrators to be transparent. It is disappointing to see the Virginia Depart of Corrections release video that is not relevant to the allegation.
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Frank Green of the Richmond Post-Dispatch published a news article in today's paper regarding IAHR's allegations of human rights abuses at Wallens Ridge State Prison (See the November 30th blog post). Here is the article:
Advocacy group, inmates and their families allege abuse at Virginia prison
A Black prisoner says he was beaten by white officers at Red Onion State Prison on May 19 and attacked again that same day after he was driven across Wise County to Wallens Ridge State Prison.
Benjamin Forrest Carter, 25, said it started when an officer at Red Onion called him a racial slur. In response, Carter said, “I knocked him out.” Prison officials said the officer was severely injured, requiring numerous surgeries.
Carter said he suffered untreated eye and ear injuries. For the following six months, Carter, who has been diagnosed with various mental health issues, was held in what he and his family call “the hole” — which prison officials call restrictive housing and critics refer to as segregation or solitary confinement.
On Nov. 24, four days after Carter was interviewed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the alleged assaults, he was transferred from Wallens Ridge back to Red Onion, where his family says he has been placed in restrictive housing in the same building with the same officers as before, and has been assaulted again.
Red Onion is in Pound and Wallens Ridge is in Big Stone Gap at opposite ends of Wise County in Southwest Virginia. An advocacy group is investigating complaints from inmates and their families about alleged assaults and other abuse carried out by Wallens Ridge staff.
Bernadette Lark, an advocate for Carter and other inmates, said Carter’s family fears for his life. Carter’s mother, Yvette Williams, said, “I’ve been taking my son to the psychiatrist since he was 11 years old. ... He’s mentally ill.”
“We need somebody to intervene and to get him out of that hole and to get him the mental health assistance that he needs — but he needs to get out of the hole. That’s not doing his mind any good,” said Williams, shortly before he was moved back to Red Onion.
Carter is one of a number of inmates who were held at Wallens Ridge State Prison to allege unwarranted assaults from staff, coercion, prolonged segregation, the withholding of food and other abuse at the hands of staff at the prison, prompting an inquiry to state officials from the Interfaith Action for Human Rights.
In response to earlier inquiries regarding Carter, the group was told in an email from prison officials Monday that “the inmate is receiving appropriate care. His allegations were all investigated. ... He has pending street charges for assaulting staff and will remain in RHU until that is finalized.”
Nothing was said by the prison about any staff members being disciplined as a result of the investigation.
Online court records show that Carter was indicted by a grand jury in Greensville County Circuit Court for an alleged July 31 assault on a corrections officer, a felony. Department of Corrections records show Carter was being held at the Greensville Correctional Center, in Jarratt, at the time.
The Department of Corrections said it will be up to Wise County authorities to bring any charges in the alleged May 19 assault on the officer at Red Onion.
On Monday, Rabbi Charles Feinberg, the executive director of the Interfaith Action for Human Rights, wrote an email to Brian Moran, the Virginia secretary of public safety, complaining about the alleged abuse of inmates at Wallens Ridge.
Feinberg wrote that the “Interfaith Action for Human Rights is extremely concerned about multiple reports of beatings and harassment of inmates at Wallens Ridge State Prison that we have received over the past several months, including very recently.”
“Time and again, IAHR and others have brought these types of allegations to the attention of the VADOC, to no avail. We are told that the allegations will be investigated, but neither we nor the prisoners themselves nor their families are ever provided with any information that indicates a serious, thorough, and impartial investigation has actually been conducted,” Feinberg wrote.
Monday, November 30, 2020
This morning IAHR sent the following letter to Brian Moran, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security in Virginia:
Dear Secretary Moran:
Interfaith Action for Human Rights is extremely concerned about multiple reports of beatings and harassment of inmates at Wallens Ridge State Prison that we have received over the past several months, including very recently. Brief descriptions of some of these incidents follow. Time and again, IAHR and others have brought these types of allegations to the attention of the VADOC, to no avail. We are told that the allegations will be investigated, but neither we nor the prisoners themselves nor their families are ever provided with any information that indicates a serious, thorough, and impartial investigation has actually been conducted. At most, we receive a reply from Rose Durbin that simply denies the allegations but does not address them specifically. The prisoners and their families receive nothing. Virtually all of these men (and many others) report interference with their ability to use the complaint and grievance procedure to address the abuses they allege.
Jerry Harper #1201006 reported being subjected to prolonged harassment and physical (including sexual) assault by staff because he is a Caucasian Muslim. VADOC documents show that he was given a disciplinary charge for harming himself after attempting to hang himself. We raised our concerns about his treatment in messages to VADOC officials in May of this year. The harassment abated somewhat after that. However, despite repeated urgings to thoroughly investigate Mr. Harper's allegations, there has been no indication that the VADOC undertook a serious investigation. More recently, after speaking with a journalist, Mr. Harper was pulled out of his cell to speak to his Unit Manager about a grievance he had filed regarding harassment he had experienced for attempting to pray outdoors during his recreation time. He states that, on the afternoon of November 20, 2020, he was pressured into withdrawing his grievance. He fears further retaliation.
Benjamin Forrest Carter #1591524 is in long-term segregation and was recently transferred from Wallens Ridge to Red Onion. He has reported being severely beaten by guards at Wallens Ridge and during an earlier period at Red Onion. He claims that he was beaten with belts, maced, kneed in the groin, punched, and called racist epithets, and that guards spit in his food. He states that he was tormented with an electric belt during his transfer from Red Onion to Wallens Ridge. He reports that he was deprived of a mattress for two days after arriving at Wallens Ridge, had no change of clothing for three weeks, was deprived of a shower for 41 days, and had empty meal trays put through his slot. Despite repeated requests, he has been given no ICA documents related to decisions made about his housing status. Although he has been in "restrictive housing" since January of this year, he has been given no information about the possibility of transitioning to general population. Upon his recent transfer back to Red Onion, his family reports that he was placed back in the same unit with the officers who had beaten him before, and he was beaten again.
Devon Banks #1405518, according to the reports we have received, became upset on October 25, 2020, about his lack of access to recreation and jumped or climbed down from the top tier in his pod. He reportedly was subsequently severely beaten by officers, including in the medical unit while cuffed and shackled. He was placed in isolation immediately after this incident, did not receive medical attention, and was deprived of some of his meals. He has since been released to general population. His loved ones report that he has had money removed from his personal account, including $30 for a commissary purchase that he never made and never received.
Mr. D alleges being beaten on camera, sexually assaulted, and starved by staff. One of these assaults occurred in August 2020, during which his hand was broken. He states that this attack was witnessed by a nurse who was afraid to intervene. He was deprived of medical attention for 3 days. Officers subsequently entered his cell with a shock shield and maced him. He reports being threatened by officers since then and accuses officers of planting knives in prisoners' cells. He spent more than a year in segregation.
Mr. X is also in isolation. On October 21, 2020, he reported being dragged, beaten, maced, and verbally abused. He expresses fear for his safety and reports having his meals withheld, even though his charts are likely not to reflect this. After he had tried to reach out to advocates on the outside, he reports that an officer came to his door and said, "Don't even bother with calling those people. They are nobodies, they can't save you."
Russell Edwards #1189068 had filed complaints about being kept in "restrictive housing"/segregation but was concerned that his complaints were not being processed. He reports being threatened repeatedly by an officer since July of this year to stop filing complaints. The officer allegedly stated on one occasion, "“Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll have my staff shake you down and I’m sure they’ll find a knife in there and then beat your ass for resisting. . ." The officer coerced him into recanting his complaints in a phone call to his fiancee.
Mr. A reportedly was severely beaten by three or more officers on November 21, 2020. He was subsequently transferred from Wallens Ridge to Red Onion and was allegedly beaten again after arriving at Red Onion. We are still trying to learn more; initial reports indicated that he may have initiated the conflict by striking an officer. Of course, if true, that is unacceptable, but cannot justify the kind of assault by multiple officers that was reported to IAHR.
We believe these reports are sufficiently credible on their face to warrant intervention at the highest levels to ensure there is a serious, thorough, and impartial investigation, including interviews with any and all witnesses and examination of relevant videotape and other evidence. Any staff found to have engaged in abusive conduct must be held accountable. I look forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely, Rabbi Charles Feinberg
November 17, 2020
As some of you may know, IAHR is a participant in the ReThink Justice DC Coalition. ReThink participants advocate for reforms for issues related to the D.C. jails, such as re-entry services for returning citizens, halfway houses, taking back DC control of its legal system, and planning for replacement of the jail. Galen Baughman was one of the original organizers First Friday of what became the ReThink Justice DC Coalition. He was the group’s first administrator, until his incarceration in Virginia three years ago based on a technical violation of his parole. I visited Galen several times while he was incarcerated in the Arlington, VA jail.
Galen remained incarcerated for nearly three years while awaiting the trial and disposition of the Virginia Attorney General’s petition to have him civilly committed. In August 2020, the court released him to intensive supervision, including 24/7 monitoring and prohibitions on the use of most forms of social media and communication, pending appeal of his civil commitment order.
Galen is now facing lifetime incarceration as a so-called “sexually violent predator (SVP),” even though he has never been accused of an act of violence and his only conviction dates back over 15 years ago. The Attorney General’s office of the state of Virginia is trying him to get him civilly committed to a state mental hospital prison for an indefinite period of time.
The case of Galen Baughman highlights how our society through its laws fails to discriminate among people who are accused of being sexual predators. Yes, there are people incarcerated who have committed serious crimes through sexual abuse. But there are others who are accused and convicted of sexual acts that are not violent at all but are punished severely. Galen Baughman is an example of someone who is being unjustly pursued by the Attorney General of Virginia. This Washington Post article tells Galen's story very well.
Fortunately, his appeals case has attracted a good deal of national support.
The recent support for Galen’s appeal case comes from the Center for HIV Law and Policy who recently filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of Virginia in support of Galen. The brief describes the deep homophobic bias embedded in the civil commitment assessment process and in the drive to confine him in the absence of credible evidence.
Thursday, November 5, 2020
I was a 14 year old high school freshman when JFK was inaugurated on a very cold January day. I remember Robert Frost trying to read a poem in the bitter cold while his glasses got fogged up. But I also remember Kennedy's stirring words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." It seems that half of the voting populace has turned Kennedy's works inside out and upside down. It seems the motto of those who voted for President Trump and his Republican supporters and allies is "I don't want anything from the country, and I don't want to do anything for the country." They don't want the government to guarantee a right to all Americans for health care, they don't care if immigrants and the poor suffer, and they certainly think that there is not any endemic or structural racism in the country. Wallace Shawn, the actor and author, wrote very insightful essay on this point in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. Shawn contends that previous generations of Americans bought into and accepted the idea that what made American special were our democratic ideals and our concern for the oppressed. Today, he argues, half of the country has given up on our ideals and regards the U.S. as no different than any other country. "We are not special; we do bad things like everyone else. Get over it and don't think we can become better"---is the belief. It makes sense then that Vice-President Biden's campaign argument that he was fighting for the soul of America did not move or persuade half of the country. We have become two nations: one half believing in trying to realize our ideals and the other half saying we never really believed in those ideals.
November 3, 2020
The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) publishes timely essays, reports, and briefings on a whole host of issues facing U.S. prisons and jails. Last week (October 28), PPI published an eye opening report on how parole violations is an important factor in increasing the prison population. PPI did an analysis of parole and probation in the District of Columbia to show just how parole and supervision violations can cause a returning citizen to go back to prison. Returning citizens who are being supervised because they are on parole or probation can be sent back to prison for violating anyone of these rules:
Burdensome conditions of release
In D.C., people under supervision can get a technical violation for behaviors such as:
- Not reporting to their CSO
- Not allowing a CSO to visit their home
- Leaving the “judicial district” without permission
- Not working regularly
- Not attending training, school, or drug treatment
- Not notifying their CSO of a change of address or employment
- Going to places where illegal substances are sold, used, stored, or administered
- Associating others who are “engaged in criminal activity” or have felony convictions
- Not notifying, within 2 days, their CSO of a new arrest or mere questioning by police
- Acting as an informant or special agent for law enforcement without permission
- Not adhering to any other general or special conditions, like curfew or GPS monitoring
- Not submitting a sample for drug testing
- Not paying fees that are a condition of release
According to the PPI report, 1 and 7 held in the DC Jail are due to violations for one or more of the above rules. According to PPI, "Nationally, 45% of annual prison admissions are due to supervision violations, and 25% are the result of “technical violations” — noncompliant but non-criminal behaviors, like missing meetings with a parole officer. The sheer number of people held in jail for mere violations of supervision exemplifies the gross overuse and misuse of incarceration in the U.S."
The PPI report reveals why bringing parole back under local control of the DC government is so important. Currently, parole is supervised by the U.S. Parole Commission and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency of the District of Columbia, otherwise known as CSOSA. By bringing parole back under the authority of the DC government, advocates and activists hope to have a hand in creating a Parole Board in the District whose focus will be on rehabilitation, providing medical and psychological care for those who are in need, and supporting returning citizens to return to the community. We are working on a Parole Commission that will not set up returning citizens for failure by being overly punitive for violation of technical or supervisory rules. Click here to read the PPI Report, Technical difficulties: D.C. data shows how minor supervision violations contribute to excessive jailing.
October 29, 2020
Here is a summary of an article from the Marshall Report. They surveyed incarcerated people asking them what interventions would have kept them out of prison. What would it take? Here is their answer:
Our second survey of incarcerated people this year asked what interventions would have helped them stay out of prison. Their number one response: mental health counseling. A close second: access to affordable housing. Formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely to be homeless than those who have never been to prison. Meanwhile, almost 90 percent of incarcerated Black men support the idea of moving funds from the police to social services like mental health or after-school programs. Three-quarters of incarcerated White men agree, including 64 percent of Republican White men. That’s amazing. In the general population, only 5 percent of Republican White men want to move funds away from the police. Published together with Slate, this story and our previous survey in March are the first comprehensive efforts to ascertain the political opinions of people behind bars. Read some of their responses here.
When advocates and activists speak about "defunding the police", one of things they mean is transferring money from law enforcement to support an array of mental health services. The percentage of incarcerated people with some mental health illness is significant. We have seen this year what happens when the police are called to intervene with a person on the street who is threatening and out of control. Force is applied and sometimes the offender is killed. This is what happened this week in Philadelphia. An out of control man who was threatening others with a knife was shot and killed by police officers. The victim had a long history of mental illness. Trained mediators were needed to calm the threatening man. Instead force was applied and another black man is dead.
October 27, 2020
In the Sunday, October 25 NY Times Magazine, Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote a compelling essay on the messiness, the conflicting feelings that he and many others have about the criminal justice system. Mr Betts was convicted at the age of 16 for carjacking and served time in Virginia prisons for nine years. After he was released his mother confided in him that she was attacked and raped while waiting for a bus. Mr. Betts had to confront his conflicted feelings: his own experience of the harshness and brutality of incarceration when just a teenager while at the same time wanting justice for his mother. Justice for his mother meant a harsh and uncompromising sentence for her attacker.
Mr Betts is a celebrated poet and author. Here is a summary of some of his accomplishments taken from his website:
Reginald Dwayne Betts transformed himself from a sixteen-year old kid sentenced to nine-years in prison to a critically acclaimed writer and graduate of the Yale Law School. He has written three acclaimed collections of poetry, the recently published Felon, Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm. When awarded Betts the PEN New England Award for poetry for his collection Bastards of the Reagan Era, judge Mark Doty said:
“Betts has written an indelible lament for a generation, a necessary book for this American moment.”
His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, is the story of a young man confined in the worst prisons in the state of Virginia, where solitary confinement, horrific conditions, and the constant violence threatened to break his humanity. Instead, Betts used the time to turn himself into a poet, a scholar, and an advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system.
The significance of Mr. Betts' recent NY Times essay is his confronting wanting punishment for a person who clearly did a terrible and harmful act and at the same time wanting to reform if not radically change how we punish people who commit violent crimes. His essay reminded me of how I felt about the murder of George Floyd. I wanted Officer Derek Chauvin to be sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet as I thought about the calls for the maximum penalty for Officer Chauvin, I also remembered my belief that most people should not be in prison for the rest of their lives. I remembered that I believe that people can change, that a person who committed a crime at the age of 30 or 40 is not the same person when he or she reaches the age of 65. What would it take for us to act mercifully toward Derek Chauvin or for the rapist who attacked Mr. Betts' mother? What does it mean to act mercifully/. These are questions we need to confront and answer.