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.  

Coronavirus in State and Federal Prisons

September 1, 2020

Last week the Marshall Report issued a new report on the ravages of the coronavirus in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  It is not a pretty picture.  The report begins this way: 

By Aug. 25, at least 108,045 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 6 percent increase from the week before.

New cases among prisoners reached an all-time high in early August after slowing down in June. The growth in recent weeks was driven by big jumps in prisoners testing positive in Florida, California and the federal Bureau of Prisons as well as outbreaks in Arkansas, Hawaii and Oklahoma.

Cases first peaked in late April, when states such as Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas began mass testing of prisoners. Those initiatives suggested that coronavirus had been circulating among people without symptoms in much greater numbers than previously known.

The report ranks the prison systems of all the states along with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  The BOP ranks third with 12,525 cases.  Virginia ranks 10th with 2,621 cases.  Maryland ranks 25th with 695 cases.  Another important statistic is the number of cases per 10,000 prisoners.  Virginia has 917 cases per 10,000 prisoners while the BOP has 810 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  Maryland has 364 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  

12 states have more than 1000 cases per 10,000 prisoners with Arkansas leading all the states with 3,153 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  Ten states have less than 100 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  

Some of these statistics reflect the level and the intensity of the virus in that particular state. At the same time, we can infer that some states have done a much better job in taking steps at protecting both prisoners and staff.  


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"In the U.S. Guilty means you are a bad person."

August 25, 2020

I just finished reading a book that really impressed me in its format, its content, and its honesty. The name of the book is The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence by Laurence Ralph. Mr. Ralph explores the history and background to the trial of Richard Zuley. Mr. Zuley was a top Chicago policeman and detective for over 30 years. In his role as detective on the south side of Chicago, he often brutalized and tortured people who were arrested and suspected of committing a violent crime. One of his victims, Andrew Wilson, who was convicted of murdering two Chicago policemen subsequently sued Mr. Zuley for damages incurred during his interrogation. Remarkably after two trials, a jury awarded Mr. Wilson $1 million. $900,000 went to his attorneys and $100,000 went to the families of Mr. Wilson's victims. 

Mr. Ralph, who is an ethnographer and a professor at Princeton University, presented this story as a series of letters. The letters are written to the current police chief of Chicago, to the future mayors of Chicago, to Chicago's Youth of Color, to other policemen who knew about the torture but felt powerless to do anything, and to young black activists who brought a petition to the United Nations charging Chicago police with genocide. Through patient and careful research Mr. Ralph discovered that many people within and without the police department knew about Mr. Zuley's torturing suspects. In fact, the torture could not have gone on for so long if people had spoken up. But other officers were intimidated by Mr. Zuley, others just turned away because the people being tortured were "bad people."  

Mr. Ralph has a remarkable discussion with a Guantanamo survivor, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was tortured often and on for 14 years. Incredibly--or not so incredibly, one of Mr. Salhi's torturers was the same Chicago policeman, Richard Zuley. According to Salhi, Zuley told him and another Guantanamo detainee that "it did not matter to him whether the man was innocent or guilty. It didn't matter because to Zuley, this was a bad guy."  "It seems to me, Slahi went on, "that in the U.S., guilty means that you are a bad person. But is it supposed to mean that? In a democratic country, I thought that guilty is supposed to mean that you did this or that crime.  Does it matter from a legal perspective whether you were a good or bad guy? I don't think so. But this `bad guy' mentality is brought up over and over in interrogations (pp.160-161)."

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A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons

August 19, 2020

The Marshall Project is collecting data on COVID-19 infections in state and federal prisons. See how the virus has affected correctional facilities where you live.  The trends are not encouraging. The number of total cases has been rising since the end of June.  At the end of June there were less than 3000 weekly cases recorded throughout throughout the United States. By the middle of August there were 8,745 cases recorded weekly. Please write your Governor and Attorney General Barr telling them that they should release more inmates who are over 60, who have underlying medical conditions, or are within a year of release.  Urge them to be more consistent (wearing masks, sanitation) in preventive measures.  

CORONAVIRUS  UPDATED 5:45 P.M. 08.14.2020

Since March, The Marshall Project has been tracking how many people are being sickened and killed by COVID-19 in prisons and how widely it has spread across the country and within each state. Here, we will regularly update these figures counting the number of people infected and killed nationwide and in each prison system until the crisis abates.

This reporting was undertaken in partnership with The Associated Press.

By Aug. 11, at least 95,398 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 10 percent increase from the week before.

New cases among prisoners reached an all-time high this week after slowing down in June. The growth in recent weeks was driven by big jumps in prisoners testing positive in Florida, Texas, California and the federal Bureau of Prisons as well as outbreaks in Idaho, Iowa, Oregon and South Carolina.

Cases first peaked in late April, when states such as Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas began mass testing of prisoners. Those initiatives suggested that coronavirus had been circulating among people without symptoms in much greater numbers than previously known.

There have been at least 95,398 cases of coronavirus reported among prisoners.

62,102 prisoners have recovered.

Virginia is in 10th in the nation in the number of cases of Covid per 10,000 prisoners in the state prison system.  It has reported 2406 cases and 841 cases per 10,000 prisoners. 

Maryland is 24th in the nation in the number of cases of Covid per 10,000 prisoners in the state prison system.  It has reported 664 cases and 347 cases per 10,000 prisoners.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons in second in the nation (Texas is number one) in the number of cases of Covid per 10,000 prisoners.  It has reported 11, 524 cases and 745 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  

Click here to read the whole article and the breakdown by states. 

For Further Reading

August 13, 2020

This Sunday I will be giving a talk at one of the congregations/prayer groups I belong to on "Reimagining Criminal Justice in the United States." If you have been following us, you know that we have running a series of webinars on this theme.  Moreover, our virtual gala on September 9 is called "Human Rights at the Prison Door: Reimagining Criminal Justice in the U.S."  The last webinar in the series will be on Wednesday, August 19 at 11:30 a.m. Tyrone Walker, a returning citizen, will be interviewed. I have prepared a reading list for the talk I am going to give in case any of the participants want to do further reading. Here is the list I compiled:

American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer, Penguin Press, 2018.

Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor by Angela J. Davis, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Chokehold: A Renegade Prosecutor’s Radical Thoughts on How To Disrupt the System [Policing Black Men] by Paul Butler, The New Press, 2017.

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, by Elizabeth Hinton, Harvard University Press, 2016.

Hell Is A Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd, The New Press, 2016.

Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth, Basic Books, 2018.

Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It,  by Terry Allen Kupers, University of California Press, 2017.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, The New Press, 2010.

Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism by Marc Morjé Howard, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Waiting For An Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration by Christine Montross, M.D., Penguin Press, 2020.

This list is in alphabetical order by title. The most compelling books are the personal accounts such as Shane Bauer's American Prison. Mr. Bauer went undercover and got himself hired as a correctional officer in a private prison in Louisiana. His description not only of the brutality and disrespect shown to the inmates is matched by his descriptions of how deadening and exhausting the work is for correctional officers.

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DC Residents in the BOP

August 7, 2020

This has been a busy week. Today, I attended the ReThink Justice monthly meeting. At the meeting a representative of Council for Court Excellence (CCE) disclosed the results of a survey of DC residents in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  Here are some of the statistics:

Who was at the BOP on July 4?  3221 DC Code offenders

Demographics: Sex                      Race

                               Female.   71             American-Indian.    2

                               Male.    3150            Asian                     6

                                                              Black                3078

                                                              White                  135

Top Charge & Security Level

Charge                                 Number

Homicide/Aggravated Assault.     1612

Robbery                                       429

Sex Offenses                                 324

Violation of Spv/Parole                   323

Drugs                                             35

Misc                                               33

Who is Coming Home?

1,042 DC Code offenders have release dates within 24 months.  

The full report with analysis has not been released yet. When it is posted on the CCE website, I will let you know and post the link.

Some Preliminary Observations

Most DC residents who are in the BOP have been convicted of a violent crime: homicide, aggravated assault, or robbery. Most DC residents in the BOP are black. If you want to see what mass incarceration means to the African-American community, just look at the demographics: the overwhelming percentage of people in prison are black men. If we want to reduce the number of black men in prison, then we as a society have to shorten prison sentences and invigorate parole. This means that people who have committed a violent crime should not be in prison for 30-50 years. It means helping people who have committed a violent crime make amends through a restorative justice program. It means ending the daily racial humiliations that black people too often experience in this country.