Monday, February 8, 2021
The Virginia General Assembly is now considering two bills that would restore voting rights to all returning citizens. You may remember that Gov McAuliffe by executive order restored voting rights to 173,000 returning citizens who had been convicted of a felony. The Virginia Supreme Court struck down Gov. McAuliffe's executive order declaring it was unconstitutional. Gov. McAuliffe then restored voting rights individually to over 200,000 returning citizens. Clearly, the right to vote should not be dependent on the political orientation of the Governor. Everyone who has served his or her sentence should be free to vote without exception. Please support the General Assembly's work on restoring voting rights. Read more about the two bills being considered in yesterday's Richmond's Post-Dispatch.
Former Norfolk inmate spent 16 months in solitary confinement. A new Senate bill aims to prohibit it.
February 4, 2021
Please read a very good article about IAHR Board Member David Smith and chair of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary in the Virginian-Pilot. The article highlights David's time in solitary while he was incarcerated. The article describes SB1301, sponsored by Senator Joseph Morrissey and how the bill will end prolonged isolation in Virginia State Prisons.
Virginia Residents: Write your Senator asking him/her to support SB1301 which was a creation of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary. The Coalition Partners include IAHR, ACLU-VA, S.A.L.T. (Social Action Linking Together), and Virginia-CURE. If you don't know offhand your Senator or Delegate click here. Just enter your mailing address and the names of your Senator and Delegate will come up.
February 1, 2021
Virginia Friends: We need your help! SB 1301 passed its first hurtle. It was voted out of the Virginia Senate’s Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee. SB 1301’s next step is to pass out of the Virginia Senate’s Finance & Appropriations Committee. Please support our legislation in Virginia by contacting Our bill is scheduled to have a committee hearing on Tuesday or Wednesday, February 2 or 3. It is important that all the letters are sent in by this Tuesday, February 2.
Maryland Friends: Thank you for sending your letters in support of HB 131 which mandates the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to provide transitional services to people in restrictive housing (solitary) six months prior to release. HB 131 had a hearing at the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee Tuesday, January 26. The bill will be voted on by the full House of Delegates sometime within the next ten days. We are asking you to send a letter of support to your own delegate. See below for details.
See below for the details on the Virginia and the Maryland bills, the link to the bills, and what we need you to do. We have an opportunity to make a difference!
Action Item: Support Virginia Bill SB 1301
The Virginia Coalition on Solitary is advocating for SB 1301 whose patron is Senator Joseph Morrissey (D., District 16).
Some of the major provisions of SB 1301 include the following:
- No prisoner can be placed in solitary confinement except for providing medical and mental health treatment.
- The bill mandates that a prisoner receive an initial medical/mental health evaluation within eight hours of placement in isolated confinement and comprehensive medical and mental health evaluation within 24 hours.
- A prisoner shall be placed in isolated confinement for up to 48 hours. A prisoner may remain in isolated confinement for another 48 hours only if he or she poses an ongoing threat of physical harm to another person, for a maximum time in solitary of 96 hours.
- Prisoners placed in isolated confinement for their own protection shall receive opportunities for activities, movement, and social interaction.
- Prisoners who are neither in isolated confinement nor in general population shall be offered a minimum of three hours of out-of-cell programmatic interventions or other congregate activities, such as classes, work assignments, or therapeutic treatment.
- No juvenile shall be placed in solitary confinement except for the purpose of providing medical or mental health treatment.
- No juvenile shall be placed in solitary confinement for longer than 24 hours.
- If a juvenile continues to pose an ongoing threat of physical harm to another person, the juvenile can be placed in solitary for another 24 hours or a maximum of 48 hours total.
- All juveniles who are neither in solitary confinement nor in general population shall be offered a minimum of four hours of out of cell programmatic interventions such as classes, work assignments, or therapeutic treatments.
SB 1301 would effectively end prolonged isolation in Virginia State Prisons for both adults and juveniles!
What We Need You to Do
- The bill will be discussed and voted on in the Virginia Senate’s Budget & Appropriation Committee on Tuesday or Wednesday this week. The chair is Janet Howell (D., District 32).
- Please send an email letter (sample following) to Senator Howell and to the following Senators who are committee members: Richard L. Saslaw, Thomas K. Norment, Jr., Emmett W. Hanger, Jr., L. Louise Lucas, Stephen D. Newman, Frank M. Ruff, Jill Holtzman Vogel, George L. Barker, John S. Edwards, R. Creigh Deeds, Mamie E. Locke, J. Chapman Petersen, David W. Marsden, Adam P. Ebbin, Jennifer L. McClellan well as to David Smith, IAHR Board Member and Chair of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary.
We will gather the letters and present them to all the members of the committee at the appropriate time.
Dear Senator _______________:
Please support SB 1301 that effectively ends prolonged isolation for both adults and juveniles in Virginia State Prisons. Prolonged Isolation for longer than 15 days was defined as an act of torture by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Moreover, numerous medical and psychological studies have determined that prolonged isolation (longer than 15 days) can damage the mental and physical health of a person. Correctional authorities can manage behavior without resorting to prolonged isolation.
Sincerely, Your Name
Action Item: Support Maryland Bill HB 131: Next Step
- Please write your Maryland House Delegate asking for his or her support for HB 131 which mandates the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to provide transitional services to those in restrictive housing (solitary confinement) six months prior to release. The bill directs the Department to provide a step down program in a multi-disciplinary approach so that no one is in restrictive housing at the time of release. Releasing people directly to the community from solitary is a threat to public safety!
- To identify your Delegate, click here. Enter your address in the upper left hand side of the page and your Legislator’s names will appear. Click on the name and the Legislators page will appear with their contact info.
Please support HB 131 which mandates the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to provide transitional services to anyone in restrictive housing six months prior to release.
HB 131 meets the standards of the American Correctional Association which is the professional organization of correctional officers and wardens.
Releasing to the community incarcerated men and women directly from restrictive housing is a threat to public safety.
Sincerely, Your Name
January 27, 2021
IAHR signed on to a letter being circulated by Amnesty International, The Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, the ACLU, and other organizations asking the Biden Administration to put an end to executions by the Federal Government by commuting federal death sentences. Here is the letter I received:
I’m reaching out to ask for your organization to join a coalition letter already supported by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, ACLU, Amnesty International USA, and LDF calling on the administration to commute federal death sentences and take further executive action to erode this racially biased, ineffective, error ridden, arbitrary, and irreversible punishment, that is the death penalty. The deadline to join this letter is Monday, February 1. Click here to add your org.
Over six months, the Trump administration executed 13 people, more than three times as many people than were executed by the federal government in the previous six decades. President Biden made clear that he will work to pass legislation to end the federal death penalty. While it will take legislation to abolish the federal death penalty, there are executive actions at the president’s disposal that could go along towards this end.
In addition to the calls for clemency for those under federal sentence of death, the attached letter calls on President Biden take further executive actions to, dismantle the federal death chamber, cease to seek any death sentences, withdraw authorization for pending death penalty cases, and issue a moratorium on federal executions. Please note this letter is for national organizations. To add your organization to this letter please complete this google form.
Feel free to email me at [email protected] if you have any questions.
Kristina Roth | Union Strong
Criminal Justice Program
Amnesty International USA
600 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 20003
Tel: 202-509-8182; Mobile: 202-945-2021
Preferred pronouns: She/Her
January 10, 2020
The events of January 5 and 6 have laid bare the bankruptcy and moral corruption of the national Republican Party. The Republican Party has no vision for our country and no real program to address the many serious issues that we face as a country: namely, the unchecked spread of Covid-19, the ongoing economic distress, the brutality and racism in our criminal justice system, the lack of access to medical care for millions of our residents, the ongoing threat of climate change, and the crumbling of our infrastructure. The Republican Party is divided not about how to address the challenges we all face but how to hold onto power for power's sake. One faction believes in raising all kinds obstacles to people registering to vote such as possessing a special id, banning mail-in voting or making it exceedingly difficult, making it difficult to register, limiting the number of polling places---the list goes on and on.
The other faction really does not believe in democracy or politics by questioning the integrity of elections, and by believing the opposition party is illegitimate. Too many critics of the Democratic Party and of Democrats believe that the Democratic Party is not legitimate. Too often they paint the Democratic Party and Democrats with a broad brush using such terms as "socialist", "communist", and the "far Left." Therefore, according to them a Democratic victory at the polls should not be possible or justified.
All this has been laid bare by the election in Georgia of Rev Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and the attack on the Capitol the following day. The election of the two Senators from Georgia and the election of Joe Biden to the Presidency has revealed that the amount of fraud or mistakes in our national election is miniscule. All the Presidential recounts in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona revealed a remarkably mistake and fraud free election. Electronic ballots were matched to paper ballots over and over again. Challenges to signatures came up mostly empty. Whatever mistakes that were revealed did not in any way change the final result of the presidential election.
The elections did reveal that when voters were given multiple ways to cast their ballot--early voting, mail-in voting, numerous and accessible polling places--the public responded in record numbers. We had one of the greatest turnouts in an election in recent American history. Access was expanded without compromising the integrity of the election.
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