IAHR’s September newsletter highlights our upcoming 3rd Annual Human Rights at the Prison Door Event and expanding our pen pal program into the Maryland state prison system. Our next pen pal orientation will be on Wednesday, September 29 at 7:30 p.m.
We are presenting our monthly letter from prison from Marqui Clardy. His topic this month is the lack of air conditioning in many Virginia prisons and its effect on the incarcerated.
We are also presenting a 50-minute video that is an interview of Michael Hinckley. Michael was incarcerated at several Virginia prisons spending much of his time at Wallens Ridge in Wise County. Michael speaks very powerfully about his experiences and the abuse that he witnessed.
Finally, we have included an essay by Rabbi Feinberg regarding the connection between restorative justice and the values that the Jewish High Holidays celebrate.
3rd Annual Human Rights at the Prison Door
Pen Pal Program in Maryland
Letter from Prison: Air Conditioning
Interview of Michael Hinckley
The Jewish New Year & Restorative Justice
Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) launched its first pen pal program in 2017 to keep DC residents connected to their communities while serving time in federal prisons around the country. Since then, we’ve connected over 250 inmates and local volunteers who exchange letters at least once a month.
Joining our program is an opportunity to:
- Build a new friendship
- Stay connected to your community
- Learn more about prison conditions in Maryland
- Share your story to inform our work on prison reform.
Interested? We’d love to hear from you! Send us a letter to introduce yourself to Ingrid Johnson, who is helping organize the Maryland Project.
We ask our pen pals to write at least once a month for a year. Most of our pen pals have been writing to their correspondent for more than a year. Most have developed very good relations with their pen pal and have learned a lot about the person, the operations of the Bureau of Prisons, and the criminal justice system.
We ask everyone interested in becoming a pen pal to attend an online orientation that lasts about an hour. The next orientation is on Wednesday, September 29 at 7:30 p.m. If you are interested, please contact John List who is the project chair.
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.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, falls this year immediately after Labor Day, September 7 and 8. Rosh Hashanah then is followed by Yom Kippur (Day of Forgiveness) ten days later on September 16. The values and ideals of these holy days are very much related to the ideals of the restorative justice movement.
Restorative Justice believes that people who commit crimes should be held accountable by directly confessing what they have done and acknowledging that it was wrong to do. The next step is for the offender to express regret for the crime committed. The most important step is for the offender and the victims to come up with a plan that would show the victims and others that the offender is sincere about being sorry for the crime. Coming up with a plan that would satisfy the victims as well as not being impossible for the offender to complete takes time, patience, and often the guidance of a mediator. Finally, after a plan has been worked on, there must be a way to make sure that the offender follows though on what he has agreed to do.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy days that welcome the Jewish new year, provide a ritualistic framework to do similar spiritual work. On Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people come to the synagogue and are urged to acknowledge that they may have sinned against or hurt another person or persons. The hurt that they have caused may have been inadvertent or intentional, knowingly, or unknowingly. During the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, people are urged to do a Heshbon HaNefesh, a spiritual inventory. They are supposed to examine their actions and words that have been uttered during the past year that may have caused harm. During these ten days people are supposed to acknowledge that they have caused harm and resolve not to do it again. They are supposed to approach the person that they have hurt and ask for forgiveness. They are supposed to show that they are sincere in their apology by not repeating the same sin. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Forgiveness, Jewish people come to the synagogue and beg God for forgiveness as well.
We ask God for forgiveness because we acknowledge that everyone is created in the image of God which means that there is a bit of reflected divinity in every human being. By harming another person, we also then show disrespect to the image of God that resides in everyone. We show God that we are sincere in our asking for forgiveness by praying much of the day in the synagogue and by fasting for 24 hours.
Restorative Justice which often replaces long prison sentences is based on spiritual values. It offers the offender and the victim the opportunity to directly confront each other. The victim can directly show and teach the offender how destructive his act has been. The offender can directly address the victim and express remorse. The victim then can have a central role in determining how the offender is going to act on his expressions of remorse. In this way accountability is created. By having the offender and the victim deal directly with each other with the assistance of a skilled mediator, opportunities are created for peace and healing.
The time has come for our criminal justice system to turn away from exclusively punishing offenders. It is time for our criminal justice system to be based on spiritual values, such as confession, repentance, and forgiveness.