Early Release

1/11/21

Marqui Clardy

Today, I watched as my friend Maurice was escorted by officers out of the housing unit on his way to those coveted gates that would mark both his exit from penal confinement and his (re)entrance into the free world. The reason Maurice - or Reese, as we called him - needed to be escorted is because he's in a wheelchair. One of the officers ushering him out pushed the wheelchair while the other pushed a cart containing Reese's personal belongings. A smile stretching from ear to ear covered his face as everyone crowded around him to offer parting words and shake his hand one final time. Seeing someone go home is always a celebratory moment in prison, but for Reese specifically, we had even more of a reason to be happy for him. He'd been waiting on DOC to release him via the Inmate Early Release Plan that Governor Northam authorized in April of last year to reduce the prison population due to the pandemic. In fact, Reese was the very first person at this institution to be administratively approved for early release. Yet, like hundreds of other offenders in Virginia - and thousands of offenders across the nation - his approval ultimately meant nothing because DOC never actually released him early. Today (January 11, 2021) is his regular release date from his court sentencing. Technically, he's still on DOC's wait list to be released "early" . . . .

These COVID-19 early release initiatives were created to help protect us by reducing the prison population. The less people in prison, the more other offenders would be able to practice social distancing. And of course, anyone released from prison would be better able to protect themselves from infection on the outside. By now, it's well known that there are a lot of offenders who have preexisting medical conditions that put them at an increased risk of complications from COVID. But the same states that implemented these early release programs immediately undermined the effectiveness of them by setting "eligibility criteria" that automatically excluded the majority of their offender populations. Why would we need to be "eligible" to be protected from COVID? The criteria varied from state to state, but they generally excluded any offenders with recent institutional infractions, those serving time for "violent offenses," and those with more than 12 months remaining on their sentence. With these exclusions, only a small fraction of offenders was deemed eligible for early release, and that small fraction certainly wouldn't reduce the prison population to the degree needed to make prisons safer in light of the pandemic.

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Suicide Watch

Marqui Clardy                                                             December 18, 2020

Although the rate of suicide attempts behind bars far exceed those of the general population, jails and prisons are less equipped to handle this issue. The main reason is that penal institutions are intrinsically punitive, which is counterproductive to the nurturing environment needed to help suicidal patients' needs. There's no better example of this than when offenders are placed on suicide watch. The same way incarceration is designed to deter future criminal behavior by punishing offenders, suicide watch is designed to deter future attempts at self-harm by punishing the patient. It's not comforting or reassuring. It's not designed to address our mental health needs or give us a reason to want to live. We're not even housed in a medical or psychiatric environment. Offenders on suicide watch are inexplicably put in solitary confinement. Instead of being "watched" by staff who are specially trained in suicide prevention, we were placed under the supervision of the regular officers assigned to the solitary confinement unit. Because they're accustomed to dealing almost exclusively with the institution's troublemakers, these are the officers who tend to be more strict and less empathetic toward us; yet they are the very ones tasked with tending to us when we're in our most mentally fragile state.

When I was still in jail awaiting my sentencing, I got so depressed at the prospect of spending the rest of my life in prison that I tried to take my own life by slashing my wrists. Fortunately, another inmate saw what I was doing and alerted an officer, who in turn called a medical emergency. Before I knew it, about a dozen more officers, nurses, and other staff came rushing into my housing unit and surrounded me. I was taken to the medical triage inside the jail where the nurses stitched the lacerations on my wrists and bandaged them. Upon being notified that I had to be placed on suicide watch, I assumed I would be housed somewhere in the medical department. But to my surprise, a set of cuffs were slapped on my wrists (right over the bandages), and I was escorted to solitary confinement. Even in my mental state, I was clear-minded enough to see that what was happening was wrong. Solitary confinement was where inmates who'd committed serious disciplinary infractions were sent. Why, I wondered, was I being taken there? Was attempting suicide considered an infraction?

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Violent/Non-Violent Offenders

Marqui Clardy                                                                                                  November 2, 2020

I'd like to talk about two very different guys in my housing unit who, in regard to criminal justice reform, may be the perfect examples of why a change in perspective is needed in terms of which types of offenders should be prioritized. The first guy's name is Steve. From all of my interactions with Steve, I take him to be a genuinely good person. He's 32 years old and married with a young daughter. He's not a gang member, doesn't partake in drugs or alcohol, stays out of trouble (and away from troublemakers), and has not incurred any disciplinary infractions or ever been placed in solitary confinement. Religious adherence is very important to him. His social circle consists mainly of other offenders who share his spiritual beliefs. Whenever he's not at a table with them studying their religious doctrines, he's usually somewhere reading or writing his own novels. In fact, he has written 11 novels and published five of them. Nothing about Steve's character or behavior says he's a criminal or a bad person. Before being incarcerated, he had a career working for a restaurant and was studying for his bachelor's degree. He wasn't involved in any criminal activity. The crime for which he's currently incarcerated is his first offense.

The other guy is a former cellmate of mine named Carl. Unlike Steve, I do NOT consider Carl a good person. In the three years I've known him, he has caught several disciplinary infractions and been sent to segregation multiple times for fighting, being caught with drugs, and other reasons. It's clear by his demeanor that he has no qualms about breaking the rules. Carl is also a high ranking member of a notorious gang, and the members of that gang are who he's around all day. Instead of spending his time constructively, he's usually gambling on whatever sports games are on TV or at poker/spades/dice games in the day room. He hasn't enrolled in any rehabilitative programs or vocational classes and is adamant that he doesn't intend to unless the administration forces him to. As far as his education, he didn't graduate from high school, nor has he obtained his GED. In several conversations we had when we were cellmates, he told me he doesn't care about getting a GED because he "can get a job without one." Ironically, he's also told me that he has never in his life had a job, which makes my next statement less shocking: At only 35 years old, this is Carl's FOURTH time being incarcerated - once as a juvenile and three times as an adult. He is a token criminal who has no desire to live a positive, productive lifestyle.

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The New Solitary Confinement

Marqui Clardy
9/18/2020

Being placed in solitary confinement was unquestionably the worst experience I've had in my twelve years of incarceration. I spoke in depth of that experience in my essay in IAHR's April 2019 newsletter. 51 days is the total time I spent stuck inside that tiny cell with most of the small "freedoms" I'd previously enjoyed in prison either severely restricted or cut off altogether. Toward the end of my stay, I honestly felt as if I were on the cusp of losing my sanity. But my 51 day punishment was a cakewalk compared to some other offenders I know who have spent as long as a year in solitary confinement. There are even stories of offenders spending decades there. For most, it's unfathomable how mentally torturous that cell becomes as the days, weeks, and months pass by. Even if there's any ambiguity about whether it constitutes a violation of the eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the long-term psychological damage solitary confinement has on people cannot be questioned. But thanks to the hard work of advocates and advocacy groups, including IAHR, some changes are being made to solitary confinement practices.

Some prisons, including the one at which I'm housed, have ended the practice of holding us in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. After serving the initial penalty (the number of days to be served in segregation), we are promptly released back into general population. By contrast, when I spent my 51 days in solitary confinement in 2011, my initial penalty was only 15 days. The extra 36 days I was held were due to arbitrary - and completely unwarranted - administrative extensions. Barring certain major infractions such as extreme violence, this no longer happens. And even in those instances, the Warden or his designee are required to approve of holding us in segregation longer than 30 days. I see guys being put in Segregation all the time. Thankfully, they're usually out within a week or two.

Another recent, important change at this institution has been the implementation of an incentive program that rewards us for good behavior. In Virginia DOC, it is known as the "Step Down Program" (a three-level system that allows offenders housed in solitary confinement to earn extra privileges by following the rules), and it has been implemented statewide. Although I have not been in solitary confinement since this program was implemented, I have spoken to several other offenders about the way it actually works. Everyone who is placed in administrative segregation starts out at Level 1, which maintains the usual restrictions for which segregated housing units are known. These offenders are not allowed to have personal property in their cells, with the exception of religious books and a radio; they're only allowed to order a maximum of $15 dollars' worth of commissary per month, which is limited to hygiene and stationary items, and a very limited quantity of snack items; they're only allowed to make two phone calls per week; they only receive one hour of outside recreation per day; and they must be handcuffed, shackled, and escorted by two officers any time they're let out of their cell, whether they're being taken to outside recreation or even to the shower.

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Herd Immunity

Marqui Clardy

August 19, 2020

Scientists estimate that between 50 - 70 percent of a given population needs to be protected against a virus, whether by vaccine or by having contacted the virus and developed antibodies, in order for the population as a whole to be free from large outbreaks. Since the government has yet to approve a vaccine, this threshold, known as "herd immunity," may be what ultimately ends this pandemic. According to the New York Times, parts of some densely populated cities such as London, Mumbai, and NYC that had record numbers of COVID cases may have already reached the threshold and are on the path to recovery. Well, as someone who's also living in a densely populated environment that was hit hard by this virus and is recovering, I'm witnessing firsthand how herd immunity works.

Over the past two months, the majority of the prisoners at this institution were infected with COVID (editor’s emphasis). The unsatisfactory manner with which this pandemic was handled here - which I expounded upon in previous essays - made a large outbreak inevitable. We were all tested around May or June (before the outbreak exploded), and only a handful of those tests came back positive. However, once those cases began spreading, the virus quickly swept through the entire institution. The problem is that, barring a few serious cases, most of us were never retested, which of course means we were never officially diagnosed with COVID in the institution's records. But, documented or not, I know for a fact that there were hundreds of positive cases here because almost everyone got sick and displayed about two weeks' worth of the exact same symptoms, including: chest and nasal congestion; muscle and bone aches; simultaneous hot flashes and chills; fever, fatigue, and COVID's ultimate telltale signs, loss of taste and smell. Instead of retesting everyone, the medical staff lazily attempted to identify infected offenders by coming into each housing unit and doing daily temperature checks.

 

 

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Covid-19 Essay

Marqui Clardy

Covid-19 Essay

July 15, 2020

As I'm writing this, it's 12:45 p.m. and breakfast is just now arriving to my housing unit. As of late, meals are always served late. Lunch won't arrive until around 5:00. Dinner is usually served just before we lock down at 6:00; sometimes even later than that. This has been our "normal" meal schedule ever since COVID-19 entered the institution and began wreaking havoc. From the day the first cases were confirmed, almost nothing has been running according to standard operating procedure.

The reason we are just now receiving breakfast at 12:45 in the afternoon is primarily because of how heavily this virus has impacted the staff, several of whom have tested positive for it. Not only have they been sent home so that they can place themselves on quarantine; other staff members they've come in contact with and potentially spread the virus to have been sent home as well. As I've stated in previous essays, this institution was already understaffed. Now there's barely enough available to conduct day-to-day operations. Serving meals late is just the tip of the iceberg. Outside recreation has been halted because there aren't enough officers to supervise the rec yard. Some days, we aren't even allowed out of our cells for pod recreation due to a lack of officers inside the buildings. One particular night shift has come to be known as the "lockdown shift" because they're so severely short, the entire institution is always on lock when they're on. Sadly, this staffing issue will likely get worse as the virus continues to spread.

To no one's surprise, offenders here have also began testing positive. With so many infected staff - and the lack of adequate safety measures on behalf of the institution and DOC [we've yet to be issued bleach or ammonia to kill the virus on surfaces, nor have we been issued any new facemasks since April] - this was inevitable. The virus is spreading at such a fast rate that a lot of the officers who are still working are hesitant to make security rounds in the housing units for fear that they might also become infected. There's no separate quarantine area to send infected offenders, so unless they display severe symptoms, they're left in their housing unit. Of the 18 housing units at this prison, all but two contain infected offenders. Thankfully, the unit in which I'm housed is one that has no known cases, but I feel it's only a matter of time before someone in here tests positive. After all, when the officers do make security rounds, they must pass between each housing unit in the building, potentially spreading the virus from unit to unit. Ideally, the administration would contain this by assigning each officer to one housing unit and restricting them from entering the others. But again, they're too understaffed to be able to take such a safety measure.


 

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Letter from MarQui: June 2020

This is the twelfth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

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.

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Letter from Henry: May 2020

This is the fifteenth installation of a column previously composed solely by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

This letter is by Henry Goldberg writing from the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina.

I hope that all is well with you and your staff. I would like to update you on what's going on here since our last correspondence.

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Letter from Chuck B.: April 2020

This is the fourteenth installation of a column previously composed solely by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

This letter is by Chuck Bunnell who is in a federal prison.

Hello IAHR,

I just received your letter dated March 29th. Yes, now that the holidays are past, the mail seems to be getting around better. Though there are new concerns here about the mail. It won't affect you, as you are already doing it. We just got a new warden, and he is being a hard case about contraband on the compound. In here, there are a few things that we take for granted on the streets, that we no longer are able to have. Things like cell phones, cigarettes, thumb drives, and for those who are predisposed to them, drugs.

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Letter from Henry: April 2020

This is the thirteenth installation of a column previously composed solely by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

This letter is by Henry Goldberg writing from the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina.

I hope this reaches you in full health and spirit. I attempted to reach you by phone several times to give you the updated information faster. On March 25th, Assistant Warden Hayward informed each housing unit that an officer somewhere on the Butner Complex tested positive for COVID-19. More strict regulations were enacted, such as units would go to recreation, education and the cafeteria separately. Essential jobs such as laundry, food service, and facility repair would continue at a lesser capacity. When asked about the UNICOR factory (which is not essential) we were told that it would continue to operate. UNICOR employs about one-quarter of the population here, the same people they want to isolate were still working together in close proximity. One inmate asked Captain T. Leslie why hasn't there been a UNICOR stoppage. She responded by saying "I don't know" then rubbed her thumb, index, and middle fingers together and said "money".

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