Editor's note: Kevin Sherrill is incarcerated in a Maryland prison. He has been corresponding with one of IAHR's pen pals for the last few years. He wrote this essay for the IAHR website and it is addressed especially to people who have been convicted of committing a crime.
I have been incarcerated since 1998 with a short parole break, as I reoffended due to a relapse. I knew better yet the cycle of addiction I undervalued. While on parole, I was still incarcerated, just doing the time in society--not behind the walls, razorwire, and fences that surround the environment of those convicted.
One of the greatest pains is losing out on family support and friendships. I share this advice as it has been given to me recently. It has resonated so well that it has been a saving grace for my mental health and desire to go on and be better. This for you the incarcerated. I know you want some type of response frome those who are family and friends, but you will probably not get it. I'm always anxious during mail call. You have to face the fact that your past choices have a cost. The loss of contact is one of the costs.
Buddha says, "Peace begins, when expectation ends." Embrace that saying. Write what you need to say, but don't expect anything in return. Don't expect "thank you" or forgiveness. When I write it is because it's what feels right for me, and not expecting anything in return has made me be a better person without bitterness.
It's the same thing for anyone in my life, especially my children. I tell them and other family and friends that I am sorry for whatever I have done or not done. I tell them all that is in my heart. But remember expect nothing back. This is where you find peace because you know that you have done all you can in your present situation.
I have learned to understand that some people don't forgive easily. Some don't forgive at all. That's their cross to bear and it's not mine, not yours. Sure it hurts to know you have lost someone you care about. But it's the price! Accept it and move on. For many years of incarceration, I struggle daily and I'm sure you do too. The loneliness, the pain of making the worst mistake of life.
This thing called LIFE is brutal and I am learning to live with my decisions no matter how unfortunate, but this is how life works. So continue to reach out and love; someone will notice. Ultimately remember Buddha's rule. You'll feel better.
Over the last seven years, Gay Gardner, a founder of IAHR and currently IAHR's Special Advisor on Virginia, has corresponded with hundreds of incarcerated men and women in Virginia's prisons. This correspondence reveals thousands of allegations of inadequate medical care and human rights abuses. Below you will find a letter from Mr. Sterling Fisher-Bey who is incarcerated in a Virginia State Prison. In the letter Mr. Fisher-Bey acknowledges IAHR's assistance in helping him receive medical care for a serious condition.
From: STERLING FISHER-BEY
Date: 6/24/2022 11:22:27 PM
To: Gay Gardner Attachments: Rlg-16-PsRvers_C.jpg
Greetings Ms. Gardner, First Off, I Hope You Are Well Upon Receiving This Brief Missive And All Whom You Care For And Keep Close To Heart Also. I Don't Mean to try Your Patience But I Had To Send This Email So You Would Know How Very Important Your Assistance Really Was To Me.
I Was Called Over to Medical Yesterday, June The 23,2022 By Doctor O. Soon As I Came into The Room He Began Apologizing For The Mix Up And Lack Of Attention To My Medical Needs. I Stayed Calm and Collected And Listened To Him Speak.
He Took Me Through "All" Of My Paperwork And Showed Me That "HE" Had Not Dropped The Ball On Me; It Was The Other Staff's Responsibility, A Mrs. W. Seems As If The Internal Strife Behind The Scenes Is Causing The Inmate Population To Suffer. When We Suffer, "The Angels Come Out In Battle Array." (SMILE) Again He Just Kept Apologizing Shaking My Hand. Finally, We Get Down To Brass Tacks And He Informs Me That The Spot On My Lung Isn't Cancer. The Pains In My Lower Back are Not From A Nerve Issue. What I Have Is A Rare Condition That Isn't Commonly Seen. "MORGAGNI HERNIA" Is What It Is. And It's A Fatal Condition That's Often Misdiagnosed As Pneumonia. The Background Is Too Exhaustive To Write But It's A Very Interesting Read.
The Spot Was in fact A hole In My Lung That Allowed My Intestine To Enter Which Caused My Back Pains And Could Have Killed Me. I Kept Complaining That My lungs Would Not Fill Up With Air And I Could hardly Breath. I Was Told That If I Was Talking Then I Was Breathing. Little Did Anyone (notice) That This Condition Kills By Strangulation/ Suffocation. Had You and Your Organization Not Stepped In, I Hate To Even Think What My End Might Have Been. Doctor O. Said That My CT Scan Results Took So Long To Return Because The Doctors Didn't Know What To Look For. It Took 7 Days Before The Results Came In.
Now Here's The Kicker Ms. Gardner, "I Have Been Scheduled To Go In For Surgery Next Week At MCV (i.e., Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center) To Correct The Problem." I've Been Assigned Two Master Surgeons Also. One Is A Mesh (Hernia) Specialist And The Other A Lung Specialist. When I Tell You That Dr. O. Was" VERY FORTHCOMING" That's Not An Over Statement. I Saw Everything That I'm Now Writing With My Own Eyes. He Let Me Know How Bad My Situation Really Is And How Fortunate I Am To Have Caught This In Time. He Stressed How He Was Going To Take Care Of Me, Nurse Me Back To Full Health. That After My Surgery I'd Be At MCV For About 5/6 Days Before Returning Back Here To Buckingham Corr. Center. Once I've Returned He Wants Me To Remain In The Infirmary For 3/4 Days Before Going Back To The Bldg.Read more
Editor's note: Gay Gardner, IAHR's Special Advisor on Virginia, corresponds regularly with many men and women incarcerated in Virginia State Prisons. Here is an excerpt of a letter she recently received from Josh (pseudonym) who is incarcerated at Keen Mountain Correction Center, Oakwood, Virginia.
The system of safeguards they (correctional officers) have in place to secure themselves against any possible backlash from their own misconduct and wrongdoing is nearly foolproof. It’s nepotism at its finest! Here, in RHU (Restrictive Housing Unit/Solitary Confinement), on one shift we have the floor officer, CO (Correctional Officer) "D". If there’s an issue you have with him, you may take it up with his immediate supervisor, Sergeant "D," his father. If in any case you are not satisfied with the response from Sergeant "D," you may ascend your complaint to his immediate supervisor, Lieutenant "D," Sergeant "D"’s son also. That’s Lieutenant "C.D." Not to be mistaken with the watch commander on that shift, Lieutenant "D. D," also Sergeant "D"’s son. And the other shift it is set up much the same. On 5-1-22 at 4:41 pm we had a CO "O" tell an inmate his "momma raised a nigger!" and was confident there will be no consequences because he proudly let us know that his brother is the captain, Captain "O," and his uncle is Major "O." All written complaints filed on the issue have disappeared.
Editor's note: IAHR received this letter from Anthony on May 12. Anthony will be released from a maximum security prison this fall.
I understand solitary confinement is a major issue inside the United States, and is also a worldwide issue. Throughout my incarceration, I served many years inside solitary confinement. I took it upon myself to study the practice of torture. My reference book is The History of Torture by Brian Innes.
Solitary confinement holds hands with torture; they are family members in a sense. I'm interested in answering any questions or conducting interviews regarding solitary confinement. As I write you, my prison has been in lock-down status since December 2021. We haven't had any outside recreation in five months, and counting.
Once, I'm released, I have positive intentions of creating a support group called "prisoner lives matter2." My main focus is reentry, and the transition of men and women back into society. Just because a person is released doesn't mean they are actually free. when your mind remains locked, you are being released to become a prisoner inside your own home.
I came out alive, but I feel like I died. From a frown, to a smile, my eyes have seen it all. However, one of the hardest things to do on earth is to forgive. I forgive and forgave my oppressors. It's time for me to move on with my life, I will always remember, and never take a second for granted.
Editor's Note: Randall is one of IAHR's pen pals and is incarcerated in a federal prison. He requested that we publish his letter.
March 11, 2022
Dear Interfaith Action for Human Rights,
I am Randall. I am serving a mandatory minimum sentence. This sentence has denied me the chance to take care of my 86-year-old mother while she battled cancer twice. I want to get home and start my work. Get busy to help people. That is what I’m ready to do. That’s what I need to do. Because these brothers are lost up in here.
As an activist in prison who teaches people several ACE classes, I have seen people who want to change. I have seen people who should have been in mental hospitals. I have seen people who can’t read or write. And the K2 epidemic is worse than the crack epidemic. And 90% of these men are homeless with nowhere to go. You see people want the authorities to be hard on crime. But they locking up just any body they can. I have seen men who tell me of deaths in their family month after month, year after year, until there is nobody left.
I know this the living conditions in these prisons are awful. Mold, asbestos, lead, poor air control circulation, second-hand smoke, sanitary issues, drinking water issues, health care issues, food issues, safety issues, rodent issues, drug & alcohol issues, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve seen murders, I’ve seen sexual assaults, I’ve seen racism, I’ve seen people overdose. I never seen any of this in Society. My friend died in the gym off of synthetic drugs.
We need to get our word out. We need people to post what’s going on. Sometimes people’s families don’t believe how we are treated. We need all hands-on-deck. We are sinking in here. See it’s not all about me because I got a plan, I get it. It’s about all those who don’t get it that we have to continue to fight for. Because many of these men will lay down and accept 10 or 15 years. Not try to fight or get back in court. The only way that they have a chance is if activists and organizations like I.A.H.R and others fight to change this Broken System.
Most of the people in the streets, in prison, just needed a hug or someone to tell them they love them or tell them they doing good in school or to just protect them from the hardship.
I have a lot to say but my activist pen pal said I have to keep it short. UHURU-Freedom.
Peter Greer is incarcerated at USP Terre Haute in Indiana. His release date is coming up in November, 2022. Mr. Greer likes to write and has sent us both poetry and prose. We decided to scan his poem, "Voices" and post it with Mr. Greer's permission on Letters from Prison.
October 23, 2021
When most people imagine what it's like being in solitary confinement, they think of an individual sitting alone in a small prison cell that contains nothing more than a twin-sized bedframe, a sink, and a toilet. There's no television to keep his/her mind occupied; no cellmate for social interaction; and no schooling, programs, or institutional activities to break up the monotony. Just 23 hours of boredom and solitude, locked in a space the length and width of an apartment bathroom. This visage alone is disturbing enough to move those with even a modicum of human rights empathy to advocate for more humane treatment for those in solitary. There are, however, several other aspects of solitary confinement that are equally disturbing, yet seldom talked about.
One of these aspects is how offenders housed in solitary are handled when they're removed from their cells to go to medical appointments, recreation, video visits, the showers, disciplinary hearings, etc. On these rare occasions, there are strict transport procedures the SHU correctional officers must follow. While these procedures are ostensibly in place for the protection of the officers and other staff, they don't consider the physical comfort, psychological impact, or common dignity of the offenders being transported. During my stint in solitary confinement, I experienced this humiliation several times. The process always went as follows: When the officers, always two at a time, arrived at my cell, they would open the tray slot (a metal flap located at the center of the door) and order me to stick both of my wrists out. After placing cuffs on them, they'd order me to take two steps backward and turn in the opposite direction. Only then would it be "safe enough" for them to open my cell door. Next, both officers would come in and place a set of shackles on my ankles and wrap a short, metal chain around my waist. My handcuffs would then be fastened to this chain to lock my wrists against my waist. Per DOC (Department of Corrections) protocol, this was the standard way all SHU (Special Housing Unit) offenders were to be secured for transport.Read more
September 25, 2021
As America slowly recovers from the COVID pandemic and struggles to regain a sense of normalcy,
How being padlocked inside those cells have affected him, and how it's affecting others, is a topic
When sharing these experiences, my cellmate's eyes tend to become distant, as if he's shaken
In addition to the mental health concerns, padlocking offenders in their cells poses major safety and
This is what offenders at Sussex 1 and 2 have had to endure daily since the pandemic first began
September 30, 2021
(editors note: After spending a little over nine years in federal prison, Henry A. Goldberg, is currently residing at the Volunteers of America halfway house in Baltimore MD. Mr. Goldberg has seen the injustice and fallacies of the prison system in America and wants to be a voice that leads to change. He feels very fortunate that the prison system was not ruinous for him, thanks to a very strong support system and his deep faith in God. While in prison, Mr. Goldberg took numerous paralegal correspondence courses, and left prison speaking almost four languages. He likes to study all types of history, to learn new languages and cultures, and be an advocate for healthy living.)
My journey in federal prison journey began in 2013 and ended in 2021. That journey has taken me to South Carolina, New Jersey, and ending in North Carolina, with various stops in between. Though I have met people who have been to double or even triple the number of institutions I have been to, I can still paint a vivid picture of the inner workings of federal prison.
I will admit that I had a considerable number of prejudices of what I thought life in prison would be like. To my surprise federal prison was nothing like what television had portrayed it to be. It was not a colorless and abrasive environment in which it was killed or be killed; though I will say, United States Penitentiary prisons are exactly how they are or portrayed on television. Inmates generally view new inmates as a part of the collective struggle, so when you walk through the door, you are usually met with tons of support such as food, clothes, and hygiene. Though prison is extremely segregated, there is a strong sense of community from respective groups, or "cars" as they are known. These cars consist of geographical locations such as DC, Florida, and New York as well as gang, religious, and other affiliations. So, in a nutshell when you enter the prison system, you must tether to your respective group: DC with DC, gang with gang, and Muslim with Muslim, with various sub and splinter groups in between.
These affiliations do not imply formal acceptance by these groups; in most cases you have to provide your paperwork, meaning your case information, to verify that you did not cooperate with law enforcement and/or are not a sex offender. Either one those labels will cause you to request protective custody or at worst be violently attacked and at best to become a social leper. Unlike United States Penitentiaries, in some medium and a lot of low security facility prisons these are non-issues.
When I first became incarcerated in a federal prison, I thought that prisoners run the show on the ground level and every cell, seating, and dining hall arrangements were made the inmate population. I came to this conclusion, because people on the inside advised where to sit during meals, or who I should associate with or even live with.
I was very naïve to believe this for many years. I found out after 4 years of incarceration that the prison security and investigation staff or SIS were behind the scenes pulling the strings and perpetuating segregation between groups in the prison system. It was an illusion of control; the inmates actually thought they ran the prison but that could not be further from the truth. When I arrived at Low Security Correctional Institution (LSCI) Butner, showing paperwork, cell arrangements and segregated dining hall seating were prohibited. Things happen or don’t happen according to how the prison staff see fit. That was just the surface of the federal prison illusion.Read more
According to 8News (WRIC Richmond, Virginia), 23 percent of all Virginia offenders are housed in prisons that lack air conditioning. These are mainly the older prisons that were built prior to 1990, before air conditioning was considered a necessity behind bars. Rather than take the necessary measures to upgrade these facilities, the Virginia DOC announced that they opted to spend more than $2 million dollars this summer on extra ice, water, and fans to keep offenders in these facilities "comfortable." In a response to an email from 8News inquiring about these efforts, Augusta Correctional Center - one of Virginia's non-air-conditioned prisons - stated that each of its housing units has ice machines, ice chests and wall-mounted fans, and that offenders have individual fans in their cells. From the outside looking in, it may appear that the VADOC is doing a satisfactory job of preventing overheating at these prisons, but as someone who has been housed at Augusta Correctional Center, as well as other facilities that lack air conditioning, I firmly disagree. Keeping us "comfortable" isn't the issue; it's about keeping us safe.
Some might consider air conditioning a luxury to which prisoners aren't necessarily entitled. However, with the advent of climate change over the past decade or so, spring and summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees. The temperatures inside non-air-conditioned prison cells are often even higher than they are outside, and we are locked inside of them for up to 24 hours a day. Keep in mind that these are not the types of cells portrayed in movies like "Shawshank Redemption" where the walls and doors are made of bars which allow air to circulate freely. Most present-day housing units are constructed with solid walls and doors made of concrete and metal - which both conduct heat - so there's little to no air circulation. Make no mistake about it: it can be VERY unsafe for offenders to be housed in prisons that lack air conditioning. During my time at those facilities, there were several days I caught severe headaches because it was so unbearably hot in my cell, and just as many nights that I laid in my bunk sweating profusely, unable to sleep because of the sweltering heat and humidity. I've also witnessed other offenders faint, have heat strokes, go into seizures, and have other serious medical issues due to extreme temperatures.