Prison Staff Shortages Hurt Inmate Reform

Kevin Sherill--February 5, 2024

(Kevin Sherill is incarcerated at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberand, MD. The article was edited for clarity.)

Recently I have learned of many articles being written about the prison staff shortages throughout the United States. I live this fact daily as I am incarcerated in Maryland, USA. Since the beginning of the Covid Crisis most of my days consist of only being out of the cell one hour on average daily per shift. Shifts that allow movement are from 8 am to 4 pm and 4 pm to 12 midnight, although there is rarely any movement out of the building during the second shift. 

During the day shift is when any programming like school, vocational classes, and factory occur. Inmates get to participate in them if they are assigned that particular job assignment. School, vocational classes are job assignments and are sanctioned by the Maryland Department of Education and the Maryland Department of Labor and Resources. 

To the outsiders who look on the website of the Maryland Department of Corrections or of a particular prison, they would think "wow" and would be impressed that such rehabilitative opportunities are afforded the inmates. For example, I am held at WCI in Western Maryland. My assignment is to be a student in vocational shops. These shops include graphic arts, welding, building maintenance, and carpentry. My class hours are two days a week from 8:30 am to 10:30 am and then a short break, followed by a second round of classes from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Fridays are make-up days, a day rarely used.

Since October 2024, I have attended less than 80% of class assigned days due to staff shortages. At least this is the excuse that is told to the participants. Classes for the young men, who are in school anticipating the opportunity to earn their G.E.D, go to school twice a week but their classes are routinely cancelled. However, during these cancellations, the gym is open so inmates can play handball, lift weights, and attend a cardio session. What a shame gym activities are given priority over education! Posting an officer at gym instead of school is ridiculous.

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Hunger Strike at Red Onion Prison

December 27, 2023

Introduction: Rashid and comrades declare hunger strike

Despite extreme measures to prevent his contact with the outside world, well known prison policy influencer Kevin “Rashid” Johnson and a group of comrades have reached supporters to announce they began a hunger strike on Dec. 26, 2023 “to protest and shed light on VADOC’s continued practice of long-term solitary confinement. He is urging all of us to share this with our contacts,” writes the supporter who for years has faithfully transcribed his stories.

Several participants who have severe health conditions make this hunger strike particularly dangerous for them, Rashid noted, but they believe in this issue. The prisoners involved are Kevin “Rashid” Johnson (1007485), Jason Barrett (1092874), Rodney Lester (1429887), Charles Cousino (2213403), Eric Thompson (1208012), Joe Thomas (1193196) and Nguyen Tuan (1098070).

During the strike, it is being asked that supporters contact the Virginia Department of Corrections as well as the governor of Virginia to demand an end – in fact as well as theory – to this controversial practice. Tell the officials that the hunger strikers have our full support. 

All readers who believe in freedom are asked to read this story and then contact the following Virginia officials:

–  David Robinson, VADOC Central Administration, P.O. Box 26963, Richmond, VA 23261, 804-887-8078, [email protected]

–  Virginia DOC Director Chadwick S Dotson, 804-674-3081, [email protected]

–  Rose L. Durbin, VADOC Central Administration, 804-887-7921, [email protected]

–  Beth Cabell, Division of Institutions, 804-834-9967, beth.cabell@vadoc

–  Gov. Glenn Youngkin, 804-786-2211, [email protected]

This is Rashid’s list of demands:

“1. To stop the censorship of my writings and correspondence, especially with publishers and media people, which many of my correspondents are.

“2. Stop manipulating policies, statuses and circumstances to keep me incommunicado.

“3. Return me to Sussex 1 State Prison where I can receive medical care for symptomatic chronic heart failure and chronic edema.

“4. Remove me from solitary confinement and referral to ROSP’s long term segregation/step down program.

“5. Remove me from ROSP and Wise County, where clearly I am targeted with vendettas from past confinement and resistance to exposures of abuses. Recall I was held in illegal solitary confinement here at ROSP and Wallens Ridge State Prison for 14 years (by many of the same people still working at these prisons and over this western region who are now ranking officials).

“6. Stop retaliation for my writings exposing abuses of prisoners within VDOC prisons.”

by Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson

There was much fanfare about a new Virginia law that went into effect on March 23, 2023, that set specific limits on the use of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons. (1) Long before this law was enacted, Virginia prison officials and politicians had been lying to the public claiming solitary confinement no longer existed in their prisons.

These lies came in response to public protests of the long standing use and abuse of solitary in the state’s prisons, (2) which followed on the heels of the 2011 declaration by the United Nations that solitary confinement constitutes torture and its use should not exceed two weeks.

In February 2012, I was transferred out of state after spending 18 years in solitary in Virginia’s prisons myself – 14 years of which I’d spent in the state’s notoriously abusive and racist supermaxes Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) and Wallens Ridge State Prison (WRSP). Only months later, in September 2012, Virginia created the “segregation reduction step-down program” at the very same prisons. The lie put to Virginia’s claims of not practicing solitary confinement by a federal class action lawsuit brought by 12 Virginia prisoners challenging the step-down program (3). In its 2020 and 2021 rulings the federal court explicitly found that the program constituted solitary confinement and went on in its rulings to find that the conditions of the program amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment and violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and Constitutional due process. (4) The prison official defendants appealed and the federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision (5). The case is still pending.

But here’s the clincher: The new Virginia law passed earlier this year totally invalidates the authority for and existence of the so-called step down program, which exists solely at ROSP and WRSP under a secret local policy called the “Restorative Housing Reduction Step-Down Program,” (6) created in these prisons and not by the director of the Virginia Department of corrections (sic!) [VDOC]. Under the new Virginia law, all policies governing “Restorative Housing” (the euphemism Virginia officials use for segregation and solitary confinement) are to be created by the VDOC director and he shall incorporate the law into these policies. (7)

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Longing for Contact

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.  





Letter from Mr. Sterling Fisher-Bey

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.


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"[1] 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[2] (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.

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Nepotism at Keen Mountain Correctional Center

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. 


Letter from Anthony: "Solitary Holds Hands with Torture"

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.

Sincerely, Anthony