This is an exciting month of transition for IAHR. We will be celebrating Rabbi Feinberg's stewardship of the organization on October 27. We will also be welcoming Rev David Lindsey as the new Executive Director. Rabbi Feinberg will stay on until the end of December of this year while Rev Lindsey orients himself to the organization: its staff, volunteers, and supporters.
We are featuring three important articles for you to read. The first is an opinion piece written by Natasha White, IAHR's Director of Community Engagement. In the article she describes a major obstacle to the study on solitary confinement that the Virginia Legislature commissioned last winter. Stay tuned for further developments.
We are also presenting a beautiful and moving sermon on solitary that Jeanne Marcus, an IAHR pen pal, delivered recently at Church.
Finally, we are featuring an article that Sara Watson, also an IAHR pen pal, pointed out to me. The article describes another pen pal project that the NY Times journalist, Emily Bazelon, initiated to address serious issues that incarcerated people have brought to her attention. The article points out the importance of writing to people in prison.
4th Annual Human Rights at the Prison Door
Introducing Rev. David Lindsey
Promised Study of Solitary in VA Prisons Will Fail to Meet Professional Standard
"Do Not Forget To Show Hospitality to Strangers"
NY Times: The Prison Letters Project
Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) is delighted to introduce the Rev. Dr. David B. Lindsey as our next Executive Director. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC), Rev. Lindsey has worked for a more just and fairer world throughout his two decades of ministry. Most recently, he served as the Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington. Before that, he pastored churches in Northern Virginia, Minneapolis, and Southern California. Throughout that time, he has cultivated a relational and narrative approach to leadership, one that was shaped by his work in grass-roots advocacy work in Minnesota.
Rev. Lindsey became well-acquainted with the criminal justice system in the mid-Atlantic during his tenure as the Senior Pastor at Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia. In 2017, Little River UCC was attacked by a neo-Nazi after proudly and publicly displaying an IAHR banner speaking out against Islamophobia. “This incident was traumatic for the congregation,” Rev. Lindsey writes, “yet we found comfort, hope, and solidarity in the people of so many diverse faiths (and of no particular faith) who rallied around us at the time.” In the months that followed, Rev. Lindsey interacted with local, state, and federal authorities, including police, district attorneys and elected officials. Rev. Lindsey had seen family and friends struggle with the criminal justice system in his native Kentucky, as well as visiting the incarcerated throughout his career, but this experience in Northern Virginia opened his eyes to the systemic challenges in the mid-Atlantic region.
Throughout his career he has been known for his embrace of diversity and his passion for justice. He has extensive experience in social media, communications, development, and the arts. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Claremont School of Theology in California and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Chicago Theological Seminary.
By Natasha White
Virginia Director of Community Engagement
Interfaith Action for Human Rights
Earlier this year the Virginia Legislature opted to require a study of prisoners in solitary confinement in its state prisons in lieu of legislation to restrict such confinement to no more than 15 days. The study, which is required by law to be completed by December 1st, is supposed to be a collaboration of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), formerly incarcerated individuals, and public interest groups as represented by the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement, a group of organizations working to limit solitary confinement in Virginia.. The intent is for representatives of these three groups to interview a minimum of 25 persons currently held in solitary confinement (referred to as Restorative Housing Units or RHU by the Department of Corrections) and report their findings to the state legislature.
That study has the promise of showing the true practices going on inside VDOC facilities by documenting how, why, and when “restorative housing” is being used within their facilities.
In doing studies like this, on what researchers call “human subjects,” both federal and state law require an external review board, which can be an Institutional Review Board (IRB) or a Human Subject Research Review Committee (HSRRC). IRBs and HSRRCs were created for researchers to have third-party reviewers check their work to ensure they are abiding by the highest legal, ethical, and moral standards. These standards were developed out of experience with the Nuremberg trials, the infamous study using unwitting Tuskegee Airmen, and other studies where researchers disregarded the human character of their subjects.
When the Coalition insisted at these meetings that the VDOC study include an IRB to meet acceptable research standards, VDOC refused. The Coalition’s position was not simply a layperson’s opinion but the unanimous agreement of our lawyers and research professionals, including Dr. Robert Kinscherff, Ph.D., JD, Harvard Professor, and Executive Director of The Center for Law, Brain, & Behavior.
VDOC’s position on using an IRB for this important study is in sharp contrast to the response the coalition received from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) on a similar matter. The bill authorizing the study of “restorative housing” also called for DJJ to work with coalition members to document the usage of “restorative housing” in their facilities. The coalition and DJJ were able to execute a plan of study within one meeting, and the DJJ themselves were adamant about the presence of an external review board.
Due to the VDOC’s refusal of an IRB, the Coalition has paused its participation in the mandated study on “restorative housing.” We, unlike VDOC, believe we are legally, ethically, and morally bound to put the safety of incarcerated people first. Foregoing the study, or proceeding with the study without an IRB, denies the Virginia legislature the information they have sought and need to go forward on addressing the dire situation of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons. And, the real-life consequence is that many incarcerated individuals will continue to suffer.
As a formerly incarcerated survivor of solitary, I know from my personal experience the life- time effects of long-term confinement and especially solitary confinement. I know that there will be more preventable deaths and suicides. I know that people will continue to deteriorate mentally, spiritually, and physically. I know that this will make everyday life a thousand times harder for them and their loved ones. I know that when you stand by and allow your government to torture (as the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture defines solitary confinement over 15 days) its own citizens and then release them back into the community, you have not only participated in that torture, but you have damaged the entire community.
If there is going to be a study, it needs to be done right.
September 22, 2022
This article is adapted from a worship sharing given within a small Christian community on September 8, 2022, based on a portion of the Bible
appointed to be read for that week1
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
This scriptural advice to Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, was like an alert light asking me to pay attention. For the last 2 ½ years, I have been writing to several incarcerated men, mostly in Maryland state prisons. Each person has had different experiences and will have different outcomes. One is back home on parole, and is thriving—taking classes at the university, and with a job paying a fair wage. Another will be heading home just after the new year after decades away. I have valued each of these correspondences, and have been blessed by them.
Earlier this year, at the beginning of March, I first wrote to Tyrone. Tyrone is imprisoned at a Maryland correctional facility located in Allegany County in rural Western Maryland. The facility is 135 miles from downtown Silver Spring or midtown Baltimore City, longer to most points in Prince George’s County. It is just a few blocks from a point on Maryland’s border with West Virginia. Allegheny County is 88 % White, 9% Black.
In my second letter, I invited Tyrone to write about anything that was on his mind. He started his next letter to me: He needed to get help to get out of his situation. He is in solitary confinement in that prison.
Since reading this letter, I’ve given a lot of attention to learning about Tyrone’s situation: about the facility in Western Maryland, and about solitary confinement. The scriptural instruction I quoted urged me to remember Tyrone as if I were together with him in prison: it made all I’d learned much more personal—taking it from being cerebral to being more visceral.
The institution where Tyrone is being held has been described proudly as a "hyper-max prison." At the time construction was finished in 2007, it was said to be one of the most technologically advanced prisons in the world.
If I were coming onto the grounds, I would first pass through the outer fence, 15 miles of fence covered with rolls upon rolls upon rolls of razor wire rising out of the flat land. I’d see the master control tower in the middle of the complex. I have read that the control tower has an unobstructed view of every point on the entire grounds, as well as complete surveillance over CCTV of every area accessed by inmates. The tower has control over all security doors, cameras, and even the flow of water into individual cells.
If I were sitting with Tyrone in his cell, we would be in a space that is 60 square feet. This is the size of a very small parking space. That small amount of space is made more claustrophobic by the fact that the cell door is not made of bars: it is made of solid steel. It has a window of bullet-proof glass. There is a slot in the door to pass meals through; or through which guards can shackle a person’s hands.
There is one short wide window to the outside that lets in light but does not allow views of the outside. The concrete cells are constructed offsite so that there are no seams or imperfections that, in theory, could conceivably hide contraband. The concrete is coated with a strong epoxy paint that, it is said, even acid couldn’t break through.
The beds are bolted directly into the concrete and the bolts are rounded down so they cannot be removed. Storage is a space under the bed. The toilet/sink is stainless steel; there is a steel shelf that serves as a table.2
Even imagining that I’m hearing the steel door with the bullet-proof window clanging closed behind me creates anxiety. Not only is there no physical escape, but it feels like the space also seeks to allow no mental escape.
But the horrific thing is: this is the space that Tyrone must remain in for 23 hours a day, each and every day.
1Letter to the Hebrews 13:2-3
2Physical description: Big, Bigger, Biggest. Season 3, Episode 4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRJM0uMljpA
Emily Bazelon knew she would receive more letters after the exoneration of Yutico Briley. With the help of a group of students at Yale Law School, their claims of innocence will be heard.
Yutico Briley was exonerated after corresponding with Emily Bazelon, a staff writer for the magazine.Credit...Ruddy Roye for The New York Times
Last July, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story by Emily Bazelon about the exoneration of a prisoner named Yutico Briley. He was serving a 60-year sentence in Louisiana for an armed robbery he did not commit. The article started with a letter that Yutico sent to Bazelon from prison. As she explained in her story: “Like many journalists who write about criminal justice, I get a lot of mail from people in prison. The letters usually go on for pages, carefully handwritten on lined note paper, sometimes with sentences in smaller print crawling up the margins. The pages are dense with facts, about a conviction or an appeal. They often brim with desperation. It’s impossible for me to read all of them, and though I don’t feel good about it, many go unanswered.”
Bazelon connected Briley with her sister, Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, who fought for his exoneration. Bazelon knew she would receive even more letters from people in prison when the article ran. And she did. Letters written by prisoners to journalists are often an act of last resort. Their cases have wound their way through the justice system or hit procedural walls. And after the powerful demonstration that Briley’s story provided of the prevalence of innocence claims, Bazelon decided to help create a system to ensure that every letter she received was read. So she started a project to answer them, and to amplify the voices of the writers, with the help of a group of students at Yale Law School (where she is a lecturer). The students log portions of the letters that Bazelon receives from prisoners (as well as their advocates) into a public database with the permission and participation of the people who wrote them. The database is hosted by Freedom Reads, an organization that takes libraries and literary programs to prisons, and the Law and Racial Justice Center at Yale.
To give you a sense of the kinds of stories the letters contain, we have highlighted a sampling from a few.
Ruddy Roye for The New York Times
M.D. in Pennsylvania wrote: “I’ve been unjustly incarcerated for almost half a century. According to the Commonwealth’s Prosecutor, I should have served a sentence for Voluntary Manslaughter (5-10 years in PA in 1976). There must be some legal venue available to me for correction of the admitted injustice.” J.S. from Ohio wrote of his case, “The video camera evidence and knife in the photograph evidence all disappeared and/or purposely not collected.” L.F. from New York said, “I sincerely hope you will help me dismantle the rubberstamping of these convictions by reminding the courts what the standards of beyond a reasonable doubt is.” D.M. in Texas wrote, “Since my trial I’ve discovered a report generated by police acknowledging mistakes made surrounding the testing of ballistics evidence.” R.G. wrote from Texas, “Since I was discharged in 2008, I have been back to prison 3 times for not registering” as a sex offender. “The answer I gave them was I will not register to something I am not.” And M.R. said, “I’m an innocent man.”
Tim Young, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in California, sent a poem about living in what felt like “a dungeon/Among condemned men.” Bazelon also received a letter about Young’s case from Golnoush Pak, a recent graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who got to know Young through a class and believes that he has been wrongly incarcerated. As Pak wrote, “Tim’s wrongful conviction is deeply intertwined with the topics you covered in Yutico Briley’s case including failures in the investigation, racial profiling, along with police misconduct and uncredible witness.” In the 2022 spring semester of a popular class at Georgetown University and a related class at UC Santa Cruz, Making an Exoneree, Young’s case was one of five selected to be reinvestigated by undergraduate students. They conducted interviews in California and made a short documentary, “I Am More.” The students managed to get the now-retired trial judge, Ron Couillard, to admit that the evidence room in this case “was just a nightmare.” What was also troubling about this case was that Young has been in prison for 23 years, based largely on the word of a jailhouse informant.
Young, who has maintained his innocence, was appointed an appellate attorney in 2010. After asking 59 times to extend the filing deadlines, the lawyer finally submitted the appeal last March. The claims, drawn from only the trial record, included nothing about the evidence logs or Couillard’s remarks to the Georgetown students. Young, who can’t afford a private attorney, hopes a law firm will agree to take his case pro bono to add this key information to his appeal.
You can learn more about Young’s case and others here, at the landing page for the database. If you’re a lawyer or a journalist who is interested in investigating one of them, or if you’re a prospective pen pal or are just curious, please send a note to [email protected].
The letters may occasionally inspire future newsletters about a case that speaks to some form of injustice, whether a claim of innocence, excessive punishment, prosecutorial misconduct or other systemic problems. John J. Lennon, a prison journalist in New York who is a contributing editor at Esquire Magazine, will take the lead in writing those.