This month's newsletter highlights the many aspects of our work. Leading off, is a one minute video of a dedication of a banner at the Congregational Church of Austin. Following are reports about the legislation on solitary passed in the recent Maryland Legislative session, our work with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in DC, and correspondence with 30 prisoners at the two maximum security prisons in Virginia, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge.
Watch the Congregational Church of Austin, Texas Dedicate Its Banner
IAHR Wins Its First Legislative Victory in Maryland
HB 1180/SB 946-Reporting Bill Passes by Large Majority
Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) applauds the Maryland Legislature for passing SB 946/HB 1180, the Reporting Bill on Restrictive Housing, which mandates that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services report to the public annually the number of inmates who have been placed in restrictive housing during the preceding year. In addition, the bill requires the Department to report the following:
- The total inmate population of each correctional facility;
- The number of inmates with serious mental illness who were placed in restrictive housing;
- The number of pregnant inmates placed in restrictive housing;
- The average and median lengths of stay in restrictive housing;
- The number of incidents of death, self-harm, and attempts at self-harm among inmates placed in restrictive housing;
- The number of inmates in restrictive housing released directly to the community.
It took three years of educating legislators and the public and working ever more closely with the criminal justice organizations in the state to get a reporting bill on solitary. This is an important first step toward transparency about how isolation is used with the aim of eliminating the overuse of this practice in Maryland prisons.
As of this writing we are awaiting the Governor’s signature to make the bill into law. Bill signing takes place over the next month until May 19. To view the bill online, click here.
We have deep gratitude for the clear-eyed legislators who saw that transparency is key to accountability. Kudos to those leading the effort in the legislature: Senators Lisa Gladden and Michael Hough and Delegates Jill Carter, Trent Kittleman and Kathleen Dumais.
There are so many to thank for this success:
- All of you who called, emailed or texted your legislators,
- The ACLU with their on-the-ground expertise,
- Out for Justice, bringing returning citizens to the discussion and as strong advocates,
- Members of the Baltimore Area Grass Roots Criminal Justice Network, Pax Christi and Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR),
- More than 20 other Maryland grass roots organizations, as part of the Prisoners’ Rights Coalition in Maryland,
- The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun for offering a compelling narrative of the abuses of this system of isolation to their readers.
We commend as well the new Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), Stephen Moyer, for beginning to implement reforms in the use of isolated confinement.
IAHR also strongly supported other criminal justice legislation, most notably, the Justice Reinvestment Act, an omnibus bill to reduce mass incarceration in Maryland state prisons, save money for the state and reinvest monies saved for services for re-entry and diversion programs. You can read the bill in its entirety by clicking here. The conference committee took the legislation down to the wire, but ultimately passed what was primarily the House version of the bill which we believe is a good outcome. This bill also awaits the Governor’s signature. Thanks again to all who contacted members of the legislature to support this important legislation.
Striking Reports of Abuse of Solitary Confinement in Virginia Prisons
During the last year, Gay Gardner, Virginia resident and Secretary of the IAHR Board, has corresponded with approximately 30 inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge State Prisons.
Red Onion is one of six prisons built in Virginia between 1995 and 2000. Red Onion is a supermax state prison located in Wise County, Virginia, near Pound. Operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC), it houses about 800 inmates. The prison opened in August 1998 and was the primary model for Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap.
Red Onion was built to house prisoners in solitary confinement, or “segregation,” although the state has taken steps to reduce the use of long-term isolation through its Step Down Program. Prisoners in segregation are alone 23 to 24 hours a day in 7’ x 12’ cells with slats for light. Food and medicine are served through tray slots in the cell door. Opportunities for education and work are more limited than in most prisons; however, Red Onion offers janitorial work, a GED program, and a literacy program. The prison uses a video education system which allows the playing of pre-recorded video files over 5" CCTV screens.
The facility was designed to minimize contact between guards and prisoners as well as among prisoners. Most locations in the facility have gun ports open to the perimeter, allowing armed guards to shoot into prisoner areas from behind a barrier.
Since its opening, many have protested human rights abuses at Red Onion. In May of 2012, a group of inmates went on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions. The hunger strike lasted for about a week. At that time the Virginian-Pilot reported that 500 of Red Onion’s 750 prisoners were held in solitary. Last summer, WCYP reported (Bristol, VA) that the number of inmates in long-term segregation was now 160.
According to the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), disciplinary segregation is limited to 30 days (per Operating Procedure 861-1), but administrative segregation is not time-limited. Disciplinary segregation is imposed when an inmate has violated clearly stated rules. Administrative segregation is imposed when prison staff decides that an inmate is a threat to others or himself. Even though the VDOC’s operating procedures and policies state that administrative segregation is not used as punishment, periods in administrative detention exceeding 30 days appear to be a frequent outcome of certain disciplinary charges, including some category II (less serious) infractions. Thus, prisoners experience administrative segregation as punishment.
Below you will find a sampling of cases of different inmates. Their testimony is very disturbing.
Jacob Shouse was transferred out of Wallens Ridge in late 2015. Before this, however, despite a history of depression and suicide attempts, he had been held in segregation multiple times since completing the Step Down Program (after 10 years in segregation), including for 53 days (June 11 to August 3, 2015) after a category II offense. (A letter from Elizabeth Thornton, Corrections Operations Administrator, in response to an inquiry from Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR), stated that there were “no records indicating” that he was in segregation longer than 30 days.)
William Griffin, another person who completed the Step Down Program, was held in segregation at Wallens Ridge from June 13 to August 13, 2015, after being charged with a category I offense. (The same letter from Elizabeth Thornton also stated Mr. Griffin had received “a disciplinary sanction” of 30 days in segregation.) This indeed is reflected on his Disciplinary Appeal form, but in fact he remained in segregation for 62 days.
Khalif Abdul-Mateen was in segregation at Wallens Ridge for 93 days (from May 15 to August 15, 2015) after a category I disciplinary charge. He had completed the Step Down Program after spending 9 years in segregation.
Inmate P was placed in segregation at Red Onion for non-compliance with the grooming policy in May 2015. He has mental illness, for which he takes psychotropic drugs, and has attempted suicide multiple times. IAHR has not been able to determine when and whether he may have been released from segregation.
Bradley Maxwell was placed in segregation following a July 19, 2015, disciplinary charge for a category II offense involving use of gang hand signals, which he strongly denies. His Disciplinary Offense Report shows that the resulting penalty was 25 days of disciplinary segregation. However, Mr. Maxwell remained in segregation until September 10, 2015, (53 days). He was again placed in segregation on October 4, 2015, and had not received the required 90-day status review as of late February 2016.
Placement in administrative segregation is not consistently documented; prisoners often do not know how long they will be in segregation; prisoners are not consistently allowed to attend due process hearings regarding their status, even though that is required by VDOC Operating Procedure 830-1.
William Griffin says he was never given a document or allowed to attend a hearing about his placement in administrative segregation. The only paper he received was documentation of his release from segregation. It is clear from a letter he sent on July 14, 2015, that he was not expecting to be in segregation more than 30 days because that was the penalty assigned at his disciplinary hearing, and he never received any further information about his segregation assignment, which lasted 62 days (see above). He met with Warden Leslie Fleming, who told him that he could expect to be released within 30 days, but that did not happen, and he was never told why.
John Ray Gullion claims that he was given a paper that he was required to sign, documenting his change in status to segregation, on August 17, 2015, nearly 3 months after his disciplinary charge and placement in segregation at Keen Mountain. He was transferred to Wallens Ridge and remained in segregation for 122 days, until September 28, 2015. He states he was never given an opportunity to attend a hearing about his status in segregation. He has no knowledge of any 90-day review that may have been conducted regarding his status. Records show that he filed a grievance on August 31, 2015, and that the grievance was rejected on September 28, 2015, the same day he was released from segregation.
Charles Harris was in segregation for 5 months in 2014 following an incident at Greenrock Correctional Center in which he says he was assaulted for failing to follow an officer’s order. He appealed to the warden (then Carl Manis) who did not respond within the 20-day deadline. Mr. Harris claims that he signed a paper when he was released from segregation (by which time he was at Wallens Ridge), but never saw any other paper documenting his placement in segregation and no other paper showing that his status in segregation had been reviewed at or around the 90-day interval. He says he was never given an opportunity to attend a hearing about his status in segregation.
Khalif Abdul-Mateen says he was never given an opportunity to attend a due process hearing while in segregation, nor was he ever given documentation of his placement in administrative segregation. His Disciplinary Offense Report of May 5, 2015, indicates that he was found guilty of “inciting a riot/acting in a manner that disrupts the operation of the facility” and that the resulting penalty included 30 days in disciplinary segregation, but, as indicated above, he remained in segregation for 93 days with no additional documentation or information regarding how long his stay in segregation was likely to last.
Bradley Maxwell (see above), a Rastafarian, was held in segregation since 2001 for refusing to comply with the grooming policy. After a 6-month release from segregation, he has been returned to segregation multiple times more recently, which he believes is retaliation for lawsuits he has filed. As noted above, he was in segregation for 53 days following a disciplinary charge of using gang signals, even though the Disciplinary Offense Report related to that charge shows that the penalty assigned to him was 30 days in disciplinary segregation, and Mr. Maxwell says he received no other documentation relating to his status in segregation and did not know when he was going to be released from segregation in that instance. His latest stay in segregation has lasted more than 5 months.
In addition to these concerns, we have received numerous allegations of abuses that particularly affect prisoners in segregation. These include assaults, tampering with and withholding of food, abusive use of restraints and K9 units, withholding of recreation and showers, destruction of prisoners’ personal property, use of abusive and racist language against prisoners, and interference with access to the complaint and grievance procedures. IAHR is continuing to look into these allegations and press for effective action by appropriate officials.
Summary of Issues that the DC Task Force on Reentry is Addressing
The DC Task Force on Reentry is consists of representatives from governmental agencies and non-profit civil and human rights groups. The Governmental agencies represented include the Public Defenders’ Office, Corrections Information Council (CIC), Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), Representative Norton’s Office, and the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs (MORCA). Some of the Non-Profits include IAHR, Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, University Legal Services for the District of Columbia,.
DC Residents convicted of a felony serve their sentence in a federal prison. 5300 DC residents are in federal prisons around the country. 75% of them are in prisons within 500 miles of the District. 25% are prisons farther than 500 miles from DC. Many DC residents are imprisoned in California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida. DC residents are very isolated from their family and community. Being from DC, they are also isolated in the prisons.
Goals for Change
The DC Reentry Task Force is presently negotiating with the Federal Bureau of Prisons on the following issues.
1. The DC Jail includes the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). It houses women and juveniles. The CTF has many empty beds. One objective of the DC Reentry Task Force is to house DC prisoners in the CTF when they are 180 days away from release. This will give the District an opportunity to prepare the inmate for reentry into the community. We need to exert public pressure both on the DC Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to effect this change.
2. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) operates a halfway house in the District called Hope Village. Hope Village houses approximately 300 men. Men are released to the halfway house for six months. The Halfway House is supposed to provide job training, preparation for job interviews, and help looking for employment. The Halfway House is supposed to provide medical and mental health services. According to many reports from Hope Village residents and their families, Hope Village fails miserably in providing these services. See a Washington Post article, “To some, D.C. halfway house is more like ‘Hopeless Village’” written by Justin Moyer and published on August 29, 2013. A private company has operated Hope Village for the last 19 years. It comes up for renewal in 2017. The DC Reentry Task Force needs more public pressure on the BOP to find a new company to operate Hope Village and to negotiate different terms for its contract.
3. DC Residents really are an afterthought for the BOP. The DC Reentry Task Force is asking the BOP to assign a high level administrator whose job description will be to serve the interests of DC residents and their families.
4. The DC Reentry Task Force is heavily represented in a group who are writing a solitary bill for the DC Jail. This bill will put real restrictions on how many consecutive days any prisoner can be put in isolation, severe restrictions on how long any person with a history of mental illness can be put in isolation, and how long juveniles can be put in isolation. It is a very thorough and ambitious bill which will be introduced in the DC City Council in May or June of this year. We need public support in DC to pass the bill.