June 2020 Newsletter
This issue includes a new series that IAHR will launch later this month called, “Reimagining Criminal Justice in the United States.” The second article is from the Unlock the Box Campaign detailing how the abuse of solitary has expanded dramatically due to the threat of Covid-19. Our third entry describes the Virginia Department of Corrections’ slow response to the court order to release prisoners who are not a threat to public safety and the Department’s response. Our fourth entry is our monthly letter from Marqui Clardy. This month he describes the everyday brutality in prison life.
Reimagining Criminal Justice in the United States
Unlock the Box Report: Solitary is Never the Answer
Delay in Releasing Prisoners in Virginia
Letter from Prison: Officer Abuse Essay
The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain have opened the eyes of white America to how often criminal justice in America oppresses and even kills African-Americans. At the moment, there seems to be public support for reining in police departments and making them accountable. In response to greater public interest in criminal justice issues, IAHR is launching a new webinar series, called “Reimagining Criminal Justice in the United States.” During this series IAHR Director Chuck Feinberg and some board members will be interviewing advocates, practitioners, those directly affected by criminal justice, and those who have studied the issue. We will be asking our guests to imagine a reconstructed criminal justice system in the U.S. What would be different? What would be the same? How would change be affected? What parts of the system need greater accountability? What parts of the system are dysfunctional and why?
This month we will be interviewing an advocate and practitioner. On Wednesday, July 17, 2020 at 11:30 a.m. Nicole Porter will be our guest. Nicole is Director of Advocacy at the Sentencing Project where she manages The Sentencing Project’s state and local advocacy efforts on sentencing reform, voting rights, and eliminating racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Her advocacy has supported criminal justice reforms in several states including Kentucky, Missouri, and California. Porter was named a "New Civil Rights Leader" by Essence Magazine for her work to eliminate mass incarceration.
Since joining The Sentencing Project in 2009, Porter's work has been cited in several major media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio. She has given a number of talks on state sentencing policy, collateral consequences, and racial disparity to various audiences including the League of Women Voters, NAACP, and the United Methodist Women's Assembly.
To register click here.
Richard Van Wickler
On Wednesday, July 24, 2020 at 11:30 a.m. we will be interviewing Richard N. Van Wickler who was the Superintendent of the Cheshire County Department of Corrections in Keene, New Hampshire for 27 years. Mr. Van Wickler is a veteran of the United States Army and served in the U.S. Army Reserve for 23 years. Mr. Van Wickler as superintendent of a county jail limited the use of solitary confinement and introduced many humane reforms into the jail.
Mr. Van Wickler has appeared in the documentary, “Incarcerating US” and has spoken about drug policy reform in many public forums.
Mr. Van Wickler is the past chairman of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). LEAP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit of police, prosecutors, judges, corrections officials, and other law enforcement officials advocating for criminal justice and drug policy reforms that will make communities safer and more just.
Rick was a leader of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty which was achieved in 2019. He is also a Board Member NH ACLU and a member of the New Hampshire Association of Counties Correctional officer Certification Board.
To register click here.
The Unlock the Box Campaign announced on June 15 the release of a new Special Report entitled “Solitary Confinement Is Never the Answer,” documenting the impacts and risks associated with the estimated 500 percent increase in the use of solitary confinement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Special Report notes that the number of people held in solitary confinement in the United States ballooned to an estimated 300,000 people in April, as compared to an estimated 60,000 people held in solitary confinement each day prior to the outbreak.
Unlock the Box, a national campaign to end the use of solitary confinement, is issuing this report in response to the dramatic growth in the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on research and analysis by the national watchdog group Solitary Watch, the report’s findings demonstrate the urgency for federal, state, and local officials to immediately reduce the number of people behind bars, where the coronavirus infection rate is three times higher than in the population at large, and to use safe and effective alternatives to solitary to prevent the spread of the virus among incarcerated people and correctional staff, as well as their communities.
The Special Report, which draws on the expert analysis of leading medical, public health, and correctional health care professionals and criminal justice reform advocates working across the United States, paints a stark picture of the myriad ways in which under-prepared state and federal corrections officials have failed to develop comprehensive plans for containing the spread of COVID-19 inside their facilities, and have instead chosen to systematically respond with torture.
The report’s key findings are as follows:
- COVID-19 has led to an explosion in the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers.
- While COVID-19 presents a grave and growing threat to incarcerated people and correctional staff, the use of solitary confinement will increase, rather than curb, the spread of the virus.
- Significantly reducing prison and jail populations remains the best way to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people, correctional staff, and communities from COVID-19.
- For people left within prisons, COVID-19 can be contained without the dangerous use of solitary confinement through universal testing, the safe separation of positive and non-positive residents and staff, and high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) for all people living and working in these facilities.
- Quarantine and medical isolation in prisons must not resemble punitive solitary confinement, which is an internationally recognized form of torture.
Click here to read the full report.
The Virginia Department of Corrections Continues to Delay Release of Inmates
The ACLU of Virginia sent a notice of noncompliance yesterday to the Office of the Attorney General alleging the state’s failure to follow the settlement agreement in Whorley v. Northam, a lawsuit brought against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), the governor and members of the governor’s administration on behalf of 27 people who are incarcerated in Virginia prisons. The notice outlines four areas of noncompliance:
- Failure to provide documents to assess compliance with the settlement. The settlement entitled the ACLU of Virginia to internal documents regarding policies, procedures and other issues regarding the handling of COVID-19 in VDOC facilities.
- Failure to review candidates for early release. VDOC agreed to make all reasonable efforts to review candidates eligible for early release and stated a capacity to review 20-30 cases each day. Its latest data report showed fewer than 30 candidates reviewed in a full week.
- Failure to accurately inform people of their eligibility for early release. The ACLU of Virginia has received multiple reports that officials are telling people who are incarcerated that they are no longer processing early release applications.
- Failure to provide any documents or information on conditional pardons. The settlement required the governor to expedite consideration of conditional pardons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration has claimed executive privilege and refuses to produce any documents to show compliance with the agreement.
“Since we initially filed suit, nine more people have died in Virginia’s prisons from coronavirus. We had an understanding that the Northam administration and VDOC were acting in good faith when they claimed to care about release people who are incarcerated to stop needless deaths. We have yet to see them show it,” said Elliot Harding co-counsel and the Charlottesville attorney who originally filed the lawsuit. “Our attempts to get confirmation that they’re living up to our agreement have been met with no sense of urgency. People who could have been released weeks ago are still sitting in their cell waiting for help as COVID-19 continues to spread.”
Here is the response from the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC):
The DOC has been fighting this pandemic around the clock. The success of those efforts can be seen in our falling COVID-19 case numbers. The doctors, nurses, and medical staff at the DOC are working tirelessly to test and provide care to offenders during this pandemic and there is no doubt that their efforts have saved lives. Security and operations staff are carefully managing offender movement and adhering to the Department’s extensive medical epidemic/pandemic sanitation plan. Our medical team continues to work hand in hand with the Virginia Department of Health and our excellent university hospital partners, following CDC guidelines for corrections.
The DOC has been able to test for the novel coronavirus on a scale that most congregate settings, from prisons to nursing homes, have been unable to do. The point prevalence surveillance testing being done by the DOC involves testing asymptomatic offenders and staff, rather than only testing as a response to symptoms. This enables the DOC to monitor and treat positive cases sooner, rather than after symptoms develop, and to keep asymptomatic staff and offenders from spreading the virus. To date, VDOC has been able to provide testing for over 20,000 offenders in VDOC custody, representing over two-thirds of the inmate population. Only a fraction of those offenders has tested positive for COVID-19, and of those offenders who did test positive, the overwhelming majority have recovered and been declared symptom-free.
It's unfortunate to see the Virginia branch of the ACLU struggle to remain relevant by attacking what by any objective measure has been amazing work. As the Virginia ACLU knows, the DOC is under no legal obligation to release any certain number of people pursuant to the budget amendment passed by the General Assembly on April 22. Each case must be carefully and substantively scrutinized to ensure that VDOC only approves the early discharge of offenders whose release is compatible with the overall public interest. The DOC didn’t receive additional staff or funding with the budget amendment, so the same staff who process regular offender releases on a full-time basis are now also processing the additional early releases.
Nonetheless, to date, 765 offenders have been reviewed for early release, and a great deal of work has gone into this in order to do it responsibly. To be considered for early release, offenders’ files must be audited, their home plans approved, and the Early Release Plan criteria met. Simply opening the doors and letting offenders out would be the easiest thing to do, but it would also fly in the face of our duty to safeguard the well-being of our offenders, and that of all Virginians. For example, we've reviewed many offenders who have extensive violent offenses, including violent sex offense histories, and those offenders will not be released early. If the Virginia ACLU wants the state’s prisons emptied, they must take that up with the legislature. We, however, must follow the law.
IAHR has received many complaints of poor medical care, of medical teams not taking proper sanitary precautions such as wearing gloves, of not enough masks, and not sufficient enforcement of wearing masks. While steps need to be taken to review each inmate’s record and if they have a place to live if released, more effort and resources could be directed at releasing people with underlying medical conditions and people over the age of 60. Everyone should realize that 765 prisoners are less than 3% of the total prison population of approximately 30,000.
More needs to be done. Please call (804) 786-2211) or write (P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, VA 23218) Governor Northam urging him to act on releasing more prisoners and improving sanitary conditions in state prisons.
Letter from Prison
Officer Abuse essay
Last month's killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers is the most recent, high profile example of excessive use of force by law enforcement, and as a result of it, the topic of officer aggression has been brought to the national forefront. Far too often in recent history, we have seen officers show unnecessary force. As if the murder of George Floyd wasn't incendiary enough to Americans who increasingly feel antagonized by the very people tasked with making us feel safe, fuel was added to the fire when EVEN MORE instances of officer aggression and misconduct occurred at a number of the subsequent protests across the nation. Protesters were met with squads of officers clad in black riot gear with paintball/pellet guns, batons, shields, tasers, stun grenades, and tear gas who, on several occasions, opted to engage rather than mediate. At a protest in Buffalo, New York, officers pushed a 75 year old man onto the sidewalk, leaving him bleeding from one ear. Officers in Atlanta inexplicably tased two college students who were fully complying with them. Officers in Asheville, NC terrorized a medical tent that had been set up to help protesters. These incidents and others have left many Americans fed up with the police's oppressive behavior and demanding systemic changes in law enforcement.
What isn't being talked about is the use of excessive force by the other law enforcement officers; those who work inside jails and prisons. While notable, those instances of unwarranted officer aggression seen in street protests are rare. However, this happens on a regular basis behind bars. The difference is that there's no mass demand on behalf of us for an end to it. This is another clear example of society's indifference to the treatment of incarcerated individuals. Being confronted by officers in riot gear with the same paintball guns, batons, shields, tasers, stun grenades, and tear gas is a regular occurrence in here, and the threshold for these officers to use force against us is much lower than in society. The purpose of riot gear is to contain riots. But between 2010 and 2019, there were only 10 notable prison riots in the entire nation, which begs the question: Why is riot gear used so frequently in here?
Officers "gear up" behind bars for a number of reasons, most of which in no way justify riot gear or weapons. One such reason is to conduct basic cell searches. While I was in jail, the officers would shakedown the cellblocks once every month dressed like a SWAT team, yelling at us and ordering us around. "MOVE IT, MOVE IT, MOVE IT! HURRY UP! GET IN FORMATION! EYES AHEAD! NOBODY BETTER MOVE!" If we were sleeping, they would snatch us out of our beds. If we weren't moving quickly enough, they would push us with their shields. They would taunt us for their own entertainment, telling us we stink, we're dirty, we're trifling, etc. They would tase us, shoot us with their paintball guns, and roughhouse us without provocation. Talking while in formation, reacting to their commands too slowly, or simply looking behind you were all grounds to have force used against you. In fact, some of the officers seemed to be ITCHING for a chance to violently engage.
During one shakedown that I remember vividly, the spot in which I'd been ordered to stand was directly beside an AC vent. Cold air from the vent was blowing into my ear, which was extremely uncomfortable, so I angled my head sideways. Seeing this, two officers rushed toward me, yanked me off my feet, and slammed me to the floor. Just for angling my head away from the AC vent. During another shakedown, I witnessed a Hispanic, immigration detainee tased and dragged out of the cell block by officers because he wasn't obeying their commands to turn around. The officers didn't know that the guy couldn't understand English. Another inmate who was asleep when officers came to search had his shoulder dislocated when the officers snatched him off the top bunk, causing him to fall to the floor.
It seems not to matter if they are performing shakedowns, dispersing a crowd [crowd gatherings are a violation of prison rules], breaking up a fight, or doing something as simple as getting a mentally unstable inmate under control, jail and prison officers don their riot gear, grab their riot control weapons, and use force against us with near impunity.
Not only is abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers - whether in prison or in society - a betrayal of their duty to maintain a safe and secure environment; it actually creates and perpetuates an "us versus them" mentality that provokes resentment, rebelliousness, and even unlawful behavior. It is also counterproductive to our rehabilitation, as offenders who resent law enforcement will one day reenter society harboring that same resentment. We are STILL American citizens! Force, or the overt threat of it, should not be used against another human being unless it is absolutely necessary. As protesters have demonstrated this past month, nothing good can come from this sort of oppressive treatment. As law enforcement reforms begin to take place across the nation, I can only hope that they extend to the officers on this side of the fence as well.
Marqui Clardy is incarcerated in Virginia at the Lawrenceville State Prison