IAHR November 2019 Newsletter

Interfaith Action for Human Rights


 

This month, the IAHR Newsletter features three upcoming events, two of which will be in Richmond, two news stories and a podcast on the horrors of prolonged isolation, and a letter from prison from our friend MarQui Clardy, Jr.

Upcoming Events 
Features and News on the Web  
Letter from Prison 


 "Upcoming Events"

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The ACLU will host a briefing on Capitol Hill on legislation recently introduced by U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond (D-LA). HR4488, the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2019, would establish national standards to limit the use of solitary in U.S. correctional facilities.

The briefing will take place in Room 121, Cannon House Office Building, 27 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC, on Thursday, November 21, from 4 to 6 PM. It is open to the public, but an RSVP is required to attend.

Solitary Confinement in Virginia

A Panel Talk and Discussion about Conditions of Confinement in Virginia       

When: Monday, December 2, 2019

Where: Temple Beth El, 3330 Grove Ave, Richmond, VA

Refreshments will be served.

Panelists:

Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass

Kimberly is a tireless advocate for justice, civil and human rights. Because of her family’s personal struggle to see justice served, she has traveled the country fighting wrongful incarceration. When Ms. Jenkins-Snodgrass experienced the injustice of the system firsthand with her son’s wrongful incarceration, her faith in the system was lost. However, her story is one that far too many American families experience and it has strengthened her resolve to work for equality.  Kimberly is the vice-chair of IAHR and author of “U Can’t Have Him.”

David Smith

David is an alumnus of Mary Washington College with a B.A. in Religion and Concordia Seminary-St. Louis where he earned a Master of Divinity. He served in pastoral ministry for 6 years. In 2013 he was arrested and subsequently spent over 16 and a half months in solitary confinement in Norfolk, Va. He currently works for Allianz in Richmond, volunteers with formerly incarcerated to equip them to thrive, and advocates for change in the Virginia prison and jail system.

Vishal Agraharkar

Vishal joined the ACLU of Virginia as a Senior Staff Attorney in March 2018. He advocates on a broad range of issues to advance civil rights and civil liberties in Virginia, including through impact litigation, non-litigation advocacy, and educating individuals and communities across the Commonwealth.

Before joining the ACLU of Virginia, Vishal was the Cochran Fellow at Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP, in New York City, where he practiced wrongful conviction civil rights litigation. Prior to that he served as a Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, where his work focused on voting rights and elections.

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

Chuck was a congregational rabbi for 42 years. He served and led congregations in Wisconsin, New York, British Columbia, and Washington, DC. During his career, Rabbi Feinberg has been an advocate for Central American Refugees, the poor and the homeless, for interfaith dialogue and cooperation, and for respecting the human rights of both Palestinians and Israelis. Rabbi Feinberg recently began his fourth year as Executive Director of IAHR.

Meeting with VA Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security

On Monday, December 9, members of the Virginia Coalition Against Solitary will be meeting with Secretary Brian Moran and Administrative Officials of the Virginia Department of Corrections.  This is the second in a series of meetings with Secretary Moran and Virginia Department of Corrections officials.  The first was in July 2019.  The purpose of these meeting is to give feedback to Virginia prison officials about practices and incidents that occur on the inside.  The goal is to find common ground so that conditions on the inside will improve. 




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Features and News on the Web

Civil rights attorney Laura Rovner's TEDx talk on “What happens to people in solitary confinement is now featured on the main TED website and has received over 650,000 views. Rovner, who is professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, has represented people confined for decades in the federal supermax prison ADX Florence in Colorado, which she says has “nearly perfected solitary confinement” and managed to bar access to the media and any human rights organizations from observing the conditions.

                        

The isolation so severely starves people of contact with any living being that in one of her client’s cases, Rovner said he lay on the floor for hours waiting to see the shoes of a guard walk past. Ultimately, Rovner characterized solitary confinement as a “prolonged social death,” and called on listeners to “bear witness” to the torture of solitary confinement in ADX and across the U.S. prison system.

 

Making history. The Justice Votes 2020 Town Hall at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was the first presidential town hall moderated by formerly incarcerated people—with more than 250,000 people tuning in to watch the livestream.

Organized by Voters Organized to Educate and presented by The Marshall Project and NowThis News, the event gave justice-involved people a chance to question Democratic presidential candidates on issues seldom discussed on the campaign trail, such as sentencing reform for people convicted of violent crimes. For more on what Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tom Steyer had to say, Nicole Lewis has our story.

 

Indiana Inmate’s 4-Year Solitary Term Costs State $425k

Indiana law says the maximum allowable term in solitary confinement is 30 days, after which prison officials must review the offender to determine whether the inmate should stay segregated. An inmate who spent more than four years in solitary will receive roughly $100,000 for each of those years, the Indianapolis Star reports.

Jay Vermillion, who’s serving a decades long sentence for murder and other offenses, was denied a clear explanation for why he was held in isolation and had his term there extended multiple times, said his attorney, Maggie Filler, of the Chicago-based MacArthur Justice Center. As Vermillion’s case was heading to trial in Indianapolis federal court, his attorneys reached a settlement last month with the state for $425,000, according to a copy of the settlement provided to IndyStar. Indiana Department of Correction spokesman Dave Bursten told IndyStar that the agency agreed to resolve the case to avoid the “uncertainties” of litigation and the expenses that would be incurred. “We continue to deny any fault, wrongdoing or liability with respect to this litigation,” Bursten said in the statement.



Letter from Prison-MarQui Clardy Jr.

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“Checking-into Segregation”
11/8/2019

Last week, I stood in the doorway of my cell, quietly watching as a young, Muslim inmate filled a Segregation transport cart with his belongings. This guy, who I'll refer to as "Ahk," did his best to maintain a demeanor of contentment as he made the back-and-forth trips between his cell and the cart, carrying plastic bags containing his clothing, commissary items, books, and electronic devices. But I, as well as everyone else in the housing unit who were watching him, knew his contentedness was a facade. He didn't WANT to forsake the relative comfort of our general population housing unit for the Segregation Housing Unit (SHU). He didn't WANT to deal with the discomforts of solitary confinement, which would include being stuck in a cell 23 - 24 hours a day; having his TV, music player, commissary, and other personal property items taken away; and losing his visitation and phone / email privileges. After all, he hadn't broken any rules or incurred any institutional infractions to warrant being sent to Segregation. Regardless, he continued packing his belongings into the transport cart, and when he was finished, a correctional officer came and escorted him to Segregation.

What the officer didn't know was that other inmates were forcing "Ahk" to check-in, which in prison is the act of volunteering to be put in Segregation. "Ahk's" dilemma began two days prior when he'd been caught (by a different officer) in his cell using a cellphone. Cellphones are contraband in prison and being in possession of one is a VERY serious offense. Offenders who get caught with cellphones are put in Segregation for at least two months, given a disciplinary infraction, given an extra year or two added to their prison sentence, and they're transferred to a high security prison. So, when "Ahk" was caught with his cellphone and taken to Segregation, no one at this institution expected to see him again. However, the very next day, he was inexplicably released from Segregation and brought right back to our housing unit. He claimed he'd been found not guilty of the cellphone possession offense. Naturally, this raised a lot of suspicion, since everyone knew that a C/O had personally caught "Ahk" caught red-handed with that cellphone. The general belief in prison is that the only way someone can walk away from such a serious offense unscathed is if they've struck a deal with the administration to become an undercover informant and snitch on other prisoners. Fearing that "Ahk" had been sent back into the housing unit for this reason, a group of offenders approached him and told him he had to check-in or he'd be attacked.

There may not be any official statistics on this matter, but a large number of the offenders in Segregation across the U.S. are there because they've checked-in; not because they're being punished for breaking the rules. Prisoners do this for a number of reasons. As in "Ahk's" case, it can be a result of pressure or threats from other inmates. It's common to see sex offenders, homosexuals, prisoners who've been labeled snitches / informants, and prisoners who've been kicked out of gang’s check-in, since their presence in general population is often unwanted. For them, solitary confinement is preferable to being assaulted, extorted, or otherwise oppressed. But just as often, there's no pressure or coercion involved at all. It's also common for prisoners to check-in completely of their own volition. This typically happens when an offender is unwilling to accept certain unfavorable living conditions in general population and choosing to be sent to Segregation is the only other option. For example, an offender may be assigned to a cell with an inmate who is unhygienic and has poor cleaning habits; or if he's a gang member, he may be assigned to a cell with a member of a rival gang; or an offender may be moved into a cell with someone who holds fanatic religious beliefs that create a hostile environment. Rather than accept such housing assignments, these offenders may elect to check-in and take their chances with Segregation.

Every day, offenders choose the onerous living conditions of solitary confinement over being in general population because it’s their only option. The main reason for checking-in is to leave an unfavorable living situation for a more favorable one. The problem is that the more favorable living situation they're going to is Segregation, which isn't a good living situation at all. It's simply the "lesser of two evils," that inmates choose because prisons don't offer another alternative. There are no "transitional housing units" for inmates who check-in. Those would be ideal. Segregation / solitary confinement is designed to punish offenders who break the rules. Offenders who check-in haven't broken any rules, so is it fair to send them there just because they want to escape being housed in an unsafe and uncomfortable place?


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