Reginald Dwayne Betts' NY Times Essay on Criminal Justice

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.   

BOP Halfway House in DC

October 23, 2020

This property (3701 Benning Road NE) was recently bought by CORE DC for the purpose of developing a halfway house that would serve DC residents released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  For many years HOPE Village located in Southeast DC was the halfway house that DC residents returned to from the BOP.  HOPE Village was privately run and managed. Over the years the feedback from returning citizens was overwhelmingly negative about conditions at HOPE Village and the the services they received. For years, advocates in DC urged the BOP to end its relationship with the private owners and offer a contract to a different vendor who had a proven track record of running halfway houses. When the coronavirus hit, HOPE Village was unable to provide safe space for its residents and it closed in April, 2020.  CORE DC another private vendor who manages a halfway house for returning citizens in Brooklyn, NY was awarded the contract for DC. Advocates have been encouraged by CORE DC's presentations and looked forward to CORE DC building a half way house on Benning Road (picture above)

But now a new obstacle has arisen. Members of the community through their ANC have filed an application to designate the building as an historic landmark. This application prevents CORE DC from beginning to develop the property for a halfway house. The DC Historic Preservation Review Board will review this application on November 19.  It is hard not conclude that several factors are prompting this application for historic status. Members of the community don't want returning citizens near them. They complain that the facility will be too large because it will house up to 300 residents. Additionally, real estate developers and local politicians see this property as place to develop. If the Historic Preservation Review Board accepts the application for historic status or even if it takes it time to make a decision, DC may never have a half way house.  The BOP will decide to find another site outside of the District. DC residents returning home will find themselves once again displaced. 

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IAHR's Letter to the DC Jails and Justice Task Force-Local Control

October 14, 2020

Recently, I submitted the letter below to the DC Jails and Justice Task Force, Local Control Committee. The letter supports the Mayor and the DC Council taking back control of parole which has been in the hands of the U.S. Parole Commission for the last 23 years. The President of the United States appoints people to be Commissioners on the U.S. Parole Commission. The Commission is not accountable in any way to the residents of the District. The letter below outlines the important values and principles that should be the basis for a DC Parole Commission.   

October 12, 2020

To: DC Jails & Justice Task Force, Local Control Committee

Re: Local Control of the U.S. Parole Commission

Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) supports the District taking control of the U.S. Parole Commission at the end of its 2 year mandate from Congress in 2022. 

IAHR has been an active participant in both the DC Reentry Task Force and ReThink Justice DC coalition for the last five years.  IAHR participated in the discussions that led to the publication of The Parole Revocation Process in DC: What DC Could Accomplish with Local Control.

IAHR also was involved in the creation of the Report, “Establishing Principles for the Creation of a Local Paroling Authority in Washington, DC.”

IAHR especially supports the following recommendations of these two reports:

  1. Not allowing the paroling authority to incarcerate an individual for “technical” violations;
  2. Reduce jail incarceration during the revocation process.
  3. Minimize reliance on incarceration as a sanction.
  4. Involve community, advocacy and subject-matter expert participation in revocation hearings.
  5. Mandate data collection and transparency.
  6. Reduce time on supervision for parolees and individuals on supervised release.
  7. Adjust the hearing schedule to reduce jail incarceration and encourage alternatives to revocation and incarceration.

IAHR also strongly believes that the Parole Commissioners should be drawn from the residents of the District of Columbia and appointed by the Mayor with the approval of the DC Council.

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As N.Y.C. Jails Become More Violent, Solitary Confinement Persists

October 13, 2020

In this morning's NY Times, there is a news article about Rikers Island, the New York City Jail. The city has done a remarkable job of reducing dramatically the number of incarcerated men and women at Rikers.  This chart shows the reduction in numbers at Rikers Island:

Year Total Incarcerated In Solitary
2013 62,955 5,472
2014 58,206 4,992
2015 52,040 3,214
2016 49,575 2,444
2017 46,142 1,729
2018 37,972 1,758
2019 31,480 1,703
2020 7,214 935
A couple observations. County, Regional, and City Jails can reduce their populations dramatically.  It is striking that NY City was able to reduce the population at Rikers over the course of nine years from over 60,000 people to 7,214 people. It is not hard to conclude that most of the people released were not judged a threat to themselves or to the public.
On the other hand, it seems that Rikers did hold onto people who were judged a threat to public safety or to themselves; thus the need between 5 and 7% of those remaining to be placed in solitary confinement. The article does not give any figures about the average or median length of stay which is critical. It is one thing if a person is put in isolation for a day or two; it is another if that person is in isolation for weeks or even months.  
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Covid-19 Outbreaks in Virginia State Prisons

October 9, 2020

Gay Gardner, IAHR's Virginia Advisor, has been reporting that there has been a serious outbreak of Covid-19 at the Fluvanna Women's Prison in Virginia.  In late September it was reported by the Fluvanna Review that "at least 115 inmates and 10 staff members at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW) have tested positive for COVID-19  since early September, and two are currently hospitalized."  Needless to say women with underlying medical conditions are frightened about the prospect of coming down with the virus.   

Cynthia Scott and Melissa Atkins are two women with underlying medical conditions at Fluvanna Women's Prison that Gay has been in touch with and has tried to help.  They've been going through an especially hard time during the COVID pandemic. They and their families have posted a petition on urging Governor Northam to grant them immediate release.  Please consider signing their petition and sharing it with others.

In addition, it was reported today in the South Boston News & Record and Mecklenburg Sun that there has been a renewed flare up of the virus at the Baskerville Correctional Center. "As of Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Corrections reported 87 offenders who have contracted COVID-19 are being housed at the Baskerville prison. Four employees there also have been infected. One employee — 66-year-old prison warden Earl Barksdale — has died of the disease.

One offender at the multi-custody facility is currently hospitalized, but the other 86 infected inmates are housed either at the prison visitor center, or inside another pod designated as a quarantine area for those with the virus."

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31 Have Died from Covid-19 in Virginia Prisons

September 29, 2020

I was away last week for some time off which I really needed.  This morning's news article in the Richmond Post-Dispatch reports that 31 incarcerated people have died in Virginia State Prisons! 17 have died at the Deerfield Correctional Center, which houses many geriatric prisoners. There has also been an outbreak at the Fluvanna Women's Prison with 115 cases. Fluvanna is the largest women's facility and houses the most seriously ill prisoners.  The 265 active Covid-19 cases at Deerfield account for over half of the 474 total cases reported in Virginia State Prisons. Deerfield has a large geriatric population. More of these men should have been released when the pandemic hit last spring.  Instead, Virginia has released a relatively few prisoners. Certainly the older prisoners at Deerfield would not pose a threat to public safety. Not enough has been done to release prisoners from facilities that are hothouses for the coronavirus.   

Prosecutorial Misconduct

September 17, 2020

Both the Washington Post and the NY Times published major news stories on government misconduct which has led to innocent people being convicted and incarcerated or to be falsely accused.  This morning's Washington Post has an article on page 2 titled: Study: 54 percent of exonerees faced misconduct.  The study was commissioned by the National Registry of Exonerations.  It reviewed 2400 exonerations between 1989 and 2019. Close to 80% of exonerees were originally convicted of violent felonies. Of the 2400, 93 were sentenced to death and later cleared of any wrongdoing prior to their executions. The study found that police and prosecutors rarely faced any consequences for their misconduct.  

Police and Prosecutor misconduct is one of the many terrible injustices that too often goes on routinely in the United States. But what really makes me angry is that both police and prosecutors are never punished in any way for holding back exculpatory evidence or for perjury. Too often we hold only some people accountable for crimes--often poor people--while we turn the other way when people in power commit crimes. This is why so many people have so little confidence in our criminal justice system.  

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Deerfield and Fluvanna Correctional Centers

September 16, 2020

This week we learned of two serious outbreaks of Covid-19 at two Virginia prisons. The most serious outbreak was at Deerfield Correctional Center in Capron, VA. According to news reports, 407 inmates have been infected with the coronavirus, 22 have been hospitalized and 2 people have died. At Fluvanna Women's Correctional Center in Troy, VA, 41 inmates have been infected with no deaths reported. These reports indicate how serious the threat of Covid-19 is to prison populations in Virginia, Maryland, and in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, only one half of all the state prison systems require staff to wear masks and only one-third of all states require inmates to wear masks. Virginia is one of the states that requires both inmates and staff to wear masks. However, Maryland does not require either staff or inmates to wear masks. 

Even with the wearing of masks, Virginia has experienced serious outbreaks of the coronavirus in two major prisons. Virginia has been very slow to release inmates who are over 60, who have serious underlying medical conditions, or are within a year of release. If more people could be released even under house arrest monitored electronically, prison officials would have more flexibility to separate prisoners and enforce social distancing. In too many prisons, social distancing is inconsistent at best.  

IAHR is monitoring both outbreaks through correspondence with inmates. As more becomes known, we will keep you posted.  


Curtis Flowers Goes Free!

September 9, 2020

We advocates of criminal justice reform note with bittersweet satisfaction that Curtis Flowers was released the other day in Mississippi.  Mr Flowers is a black man who was tried 6 different times for a ghastly and brutal murder and served 23 years in prison.  You can go to CNN, Law & Crime, or the Washington Post to read details about Mr. Flowers' ordeal.  I, however, would like to focus in on Doug Evans who tried Mr. Flowers 6 different times.  Mr. Flowers was condemned by the Supreme Court of the United States for discriminating against Mr. Flowers by striking every potential African-American witness from the jury pool. During each of these trial--several which ended as mistrials--there was not one African American on the jury!  The Supreme Court decided that Mr. Evans purposely excluded black Americans in order to get a favorable verdict.  Yet Mr. Evans never was held accountable for his deliberate attempts to pervert justice.  We want justice for the victims of violent crimes. But too often, there is no justice, no accountability for the prosecutors who hide exculpatory evidence from the defense, who know that police are committing perjury, or who stack the jury against the accused. Everyone needs to be held accountable, including the police, the prosecutors, and the correctional officers.   

Letter from Prison

September 4, 2020

Today, we posted our monthly letter from Marqui Clardy who is incarcerated in a Virginia prison. I urge you to read his letter which is entitled "Herd Immunity." In my previous blog, I incorporated data recently gathered by the Marshall Report that described that over 100,000 incarcerated people had been infected with the coronavirus. In Mr. Clardy's letter you will see how slow and lax measures helped spread the virus through much of the prison that he resides in. It seems that "herd immunity" has been the de facto way of containing the virus in at least one prison.  

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