March 24th Newsletter

This is our second Coronavirus issue in a week.  In this issue, we urge you to write to our regional leaders regarding conditions within our prisons and jails.  We also have another action alert on the condition of Randall Via, who is incarcerated at Red Onion Prison in Virginia.  Given the increased isolation of the prison population,  IAHR is looking for more pen pals.  Finally, you can a read an account of our legislative efforts in Maryland this spring. 

The Threat of the Coronavirus to Regional Prisons/Jails 
Sample Letters to Governors Hogan and Northam, Mayor Bowser
IAHR Pen Pal Project
Action Alert: Randall Via
2020 Maryland Legislative Recap

The Threat of the Coronavirus to Regional Prisons/Jails

By Rabbi Charles Feinberg, IAHR Executive Director

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During the last week, IAHR has signed off on multiple letters to regional and national leaders regarding the threat of the coronavirus to the health and safety of prison staff and inmates.  While some jurisdictions have stopped prosecuting minor crimes such as illegal drug sales and prostitution (City of Baltimore), these actions have been scattered and not universal.  Others have indicated a willingness to release elderly inmates but have discovered that there are many obstacles in doing so: e.g.,finding safe shelters for them and resistance from different local jurisdictions (not in my backyard).  While jail and prison populations may be reduced, this will not happen quickly or consistently in the region. 

We are now asking governmental leaders to upgrade sanitation and hygiene within prisons.  The letters below include this request as well.  Please, please continue to send these letters.  Governor Hogan and Northam have scheduled daily press briefings on the threat of the coronavirus to their stage.  But the press briefings rarely include addressing the threat of the coronavirus to the staff and inmates of their state prisons and regional jails.  They need to hear from the public that the health of everyone is at stake, including prison staff and inmates.  


Sample Letters to Governors Hogan and Northam, Mayor Bowser

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Dear Governor Northam or Hogan:

I am a resident of (Maryland or Virginia).  I am very concerned that (Maryland or Virginia) prisons are especially vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus.  I am asking you to use your executive authority to reduce the number of people incarcerated in state prisons and county jails.  You can release incarcerated people who are awaiting trial and who not been convicted of a crime.  You can also release elderly incarcerated men and women who no longer are a threat to society.   You can also eliminate revocations of parole or probation for technical violations. 

I am also asking you to make sure that appropriate sanitation and hygiene actions are being taken.  Hand sanitizers, soap, and cleaning supplies should be made available to staff and inmates.  Please act quickly.  Lives are at stake.

Sincerely, Your Name

Dear Mayor Bowser:

I am a resident of the District of Columbia. I am very concerned that the DC Jail is especially vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus.  I am asking you to use your executive authority to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the jail.  You can release incarcerated people who are awaiting trial and who not been convicted of a crime.  You can also release elderly incarcerated men and women who no longer are a threat to society.  

I am also asking you to make sure that appropriate sanitation and hygiene actions are being taken.  Hand sanitizers, soap, and cleaning supplies should be made available to staff and inmates.  Please act quickly.  Lives are at stake.

Sincerely, Your Name

Dear Attorney General Barr:

I am a resident of (Maryland, DC, or Virginia).  I am very concerned that federal prisons are especially vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus.  I am asking you to use your executive authority to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the Bureau of Prisons. You can release incarcerated people who are awaiting trial and who have not been convicted of a crime.  You can also release elderly incarcerated men and women who no longer are a threat to society.   You can also eliminate revocations of parole or probation for technical violations. 

I am also asking you to make sure that appropriate sanitation and hygiene actions are being taken.  Hand sanitizers, soap, and cleaning supplies should be made available to staff and inmates.  Please act quickly.  Lives are at stake.

Sincerely, Your Name


IAHR Pen Pal Project

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Sign-Up Now to be an IAHR Pen Pal!

The Coronavirus is isolating most of us from having regular in person contact with each other.  But it is also further isolating the men and women who are incarcerated in our prisons and jails.  All in-person visitation has come to end in prisons and jails. In some circumstances, inmates are being allowed to made video calls to their loved ones and friends.  As of this date, this opportunity is not being offered to everyone.  Thus, it has become more important than ever to reach out incarcerated men and women in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and regional prisons and jails. 

Two and half years ago, IAHR launched the pen pal program for DC residents who are incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  DC residents who are convicted of a felony serve their sentence in a federal prison. Over 4000 DC residents are scattered around the country in 122 prisons.  They are very isolated.  At this time IAHR has a waiting list of over 30 men.  We need more pen pals.  If  many more volunteer, then we can expand the program into Maryland and Virginia State Prisons. 

We ask pen pals to write at least once a month for at least a year.  In order to join the pen pal program, everyone needs to participate in an online orientation which we hold monthly. The online orientations last an hour.  At that time, we will ask you to send us certain basic contact information.  After receiving the information, we will send you a catalog of possible pen pals. The catalog includes a brief description of each incarcerated person requesting a pen pal. You will select a person from the catalog to write to.   

If you are interested in the Pen Pal program, please contact John List, IAHR vice- chair, who is the main organizer of the project. You can contact John at listfam@gmail.com

The Pen Pal Project also sponsors at least two group meetings—one in the fall and one in the spring.  During the group meetings, pen pals have a chance to share experiences and raise issues with the group.  In addition, there is time designated for a guest speaker who has been affected by the criminal justice system.  

Help end the isolation of the incarcerated!  Become a Pen Pal!


Action Alert: Randall Via

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Action Alert: Concern Regarding Conditions Of Confinement And Lack Of Medical Care For Randall Via

By Gay Gardner, Senior Advisor for Virginia

Here is an update on the condition of Randall Via as of March 19, 2020.

We hope you are all staying safe and well in these challenging times.  Of course, we are all especially concerned about the potential impact of the Covid-19 virus on our incarcerated brothers and sisters, whether they are in state or federal prisons, jails, or immigration detention facilities. We and our partner organizations are monitoring this as best we can, and hopefully will share important information in the days and weeks ahead.  

Meanwhile, the same issues that have long affected incarcerated people in Virginia continue to need attention.  We are asking for your help with one of these, described below.

Urgent Need for Medical Treatment for Randall Via

Randall Via needs our help.  Please contact the officials listed below with courteous messages urging them to ensure that Randall receives prompt and effective treatment for the tumor in his leg.   Please continue to send messages and/or make phone calls until further notice.  Here are the details.

Background

Randall Via #1084857, who is incarcerated at Red Onion State Prison, continues to experience extreme pain from a large tumor in his leg that first appeared in the late summer of 2017.  Although doctors eventually determined that the tumor was benign, it has been painful, and Randall asked that it be removed.  However, the only treatment he has been permitted to have is aspirin.  The tumor has continued to grow.  When it was last measured, it was 12 centimeters long (about 4.7 inches).  Randall estimates that it has doubled in size since then.  He reports that his leg burns constantly and he has great difficulty walking.  The pain is so intense that Randall now wants his leg to be amputated, but he has been told that will not be possible.

During his most recent appointment with a prison nurse, he was told that she will request a new x-ray to assess how much the tumor has grown.  It is unlikely, though, that he will be permitted to receive more effective pain medication.

The Department of Corrections has a responsibility to provide appropriate health care for people in its custody.  Please urge VDOC officials to ensure that Randall receives effective pain relief and access to appropriate medical experts who can assess whether the tumor can be treated surgically.

Please Write Or Call:

Harold Clarke, Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections. harold.clarke@vadoc.virginia.gov, 804-674-3000

A. David Robinson, Chief of Corrections Operations. david.robinson@vadoc.virginia.gov, 804-674-3000 

Henry Ponton, Western Regional Operations Chief, henry.ponton@vadoc.virginia.gov, 540-561-7050 

Steve Herrick, Director of Health Services. steve.herrick@vadoc.virginia.gov, 804-887-8118.

Jeffery Kiser, Warden, Red Onion State Prison. Jeffery.kiser@vadoc.virginia.gov, 276-796-7510

Brian Moran, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.   brian.moran@governor.virginia.gov, 804-786-5351


IAHR- 2020 Maryland Legislative Session Recap

By Kimberly Haven, IAHR Legislative Liaison

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The Maryland General Assembly adjourned at 5:00 p.m. on March 18, 2020. The last time the Maryland General Assembly Session was cut short was during the Civil War.

The legislature will reconvene in late May to take up urgent legislation related to the economy and the impact of COVID-19.   This special session will not be for bills that just ran out of time but may include veto overrides.

During the last week of this truncated session, the Maryland General Assembly, legislative staff, and advocates faced unprecedented barriers navigating the legislative process. In most circumstances, members of the public, including lobbyists, had very limited access to being physically present at hearings and voting sessions. The majority of the work had to be done remotely – utilizing all channels of communication:  email, cell phone, texts, social media, and other messaging platforms.  After the dust settles, legislators, the public, and advocates will be reviewing this challenging experience – We expect that there will be lessons learned that can utilized if we are ever faced with a similar situation in the future. Public access and involvement are the cornerstone of the legislative process and while this is a unique situation that we find ourselves in, our citizen democracy failed to work this session.

With regard to the two bills that IAHR worked on this year, we are disappointed to report that our bills did not pass out this session. While we certainly wish that this was not the case, it was also true of virtually every other criminal justice reform legislation that would have had a significant impact.  As session wound down, the bottleneck of good bills was too large and with the impending deadline, they simply did not move. 

All this said however, there were other factors that also hampered us – factors that were not fair to advocates and communities, and factors that demonstrated once again that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services failed to negotiate in good faith. 

What happened:

HB 740 – Direct Release – we had the votes in the committees of both chambers to move this legislation.  DPSCS however raised the issue of their compliance with the American Correctional Association standards – as a result, we continued to put forth amendments that would allow them to not oppose our legislation.  This included adding in the “step-down” program provision of the standards to our bill.  We continued to fight for this all the way up to the very end.

HB 742 – Serious Mental Illness – this we knew was going to be a heavy lift – we as advocates settled on the definition of SMI based on the American Psychiatric Association (APA)t – this was done in conjunction with IAHR and our mental health allies. The current definition does not apply to a correctional facility.   As the bill made its way through the session, DPSCS objected to the use of the APA definition. They were adamant that the definition of the ACA be used – which is a correctional definition and not a healthcare definition.  One of our allies was opposed to this language and in conversation with IAHR Executive Director and bill sponsor, it was decided that we would go with the ACA definition in order to:

  1. Pass the legislation that would codify the standards and hold the department accountable
  2. Totally eliminate the fiscal note.

We agreed to also remove the assessments and evaluations that we had included (again it would eliminate the fiscal note) and to simplify the reporting. We kept and held firm to the 15 days.  This was the bill that was working its way through up until the end.

What went wrong:  In short, several things went wrong in addition to the shortening of the legislative session: 

1. The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) resisted. When the public and lobbyists were excluded from Annapolis, the Department organized every manager of each division to call every legislator and say the fiscal note was too large (there was no fiscal note)

2. Further, DPSCS stated that they would not be able to be in compliance with the legislation’s effective date. Our lead sponsor, Delegate Jazz Lewis, agreed with them to push off the effective date, yet this was not acceptable to the Department.

What we are doing moving forward – legislatively

As a result of the actions of DPSCS, Delegate Lewis has secured the support of the chair of the Judiciary Committee and the chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to pre-file and introduce our legislation again next year.  There is a commitment to move them and get them voted out and passed – without negotiation with DPSCS.  We will be re-introducing our original legislation without amendments.  We have been shoring up support for our strategy with co-sponsors which is not proving difficult.

In conclusion:

While our legislation did not pass this year due in large part to the truncated session and the resistance of DPSCS, sponsors feel that in 2021 we will be successful.

If you have questions about IAHR’s strategy and tactics during the 2020 Maryland Legislative session, please email Kimberly Haven at kimberlyhaven@gmail.com.  


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