Testimony at Special Session of VA Legislature
August 6, 2020
This morning IAHR Chairperson, Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass and IAHR Senior Advisor submitted testimony to the special session of the Virginia Legislature. Here are their testimonies:
Good morning Chairpersons Hope and Herring, and honorable committee members.
My name is Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, and I speak as a Virginia resident, a veteran, an advocate, and, more importantly, the mother of a beloved son who is currently wrongfully incarcerated. I am committed to the Black Lives Matter movement and bringing good trouble to the state legislature!
As to your agenda focus today, I do support an end to no-knock warrants, creation of civilian oversight at the state and local levels, and establishment of severe penalties for misuse of force by police officers, including de-licensure. Also, as chair of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, we stand in solidarity with our advocacy partners. Supporting eliminating Virginia private prisons, paying a reasonable wage for mandated prison labor, earned sentence credit, reinstate parole, and criminal cases; sentencing reform.
I want to spend most of my time discussing a topic that is not on your agenda but is, without a doubt, just as urgent a matter of reform to our criminal legal and corrections systems, which disproportionately and permanently harm Black people.
As you are aware, the practice of solitary confinement in Virginia’s prisons, as well as local and regional jails, is far too prevalent and causes irreparable mental and physical harm to those upon whom it is inflicted. Solitary confinement is barbaric and has been condemned by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and other human rights organizations.
Depriving a person of human contact and other normal stimulation for 22-24 hours a day is inhumane on its face. Too often, however, it is imposed by corrections officers as retaliation or punishment for behavioral or mental health issues not related to one’s criminal sentence.
Continuing use of this torturous and potentially fatal practice during a global pandemic is even more unconscionable. Extended placement in isolation weakens one’s immune system and increases contact with guards who themselves may be infected. The Virginia Department of Health has recommended that solitary confinement units not be used to house people for medical isolation, but the Department of Corrections has not yet said if it will avoid doing so.
If the Virginia General Assembly didn’t have enough reasons to legislate an end to solitary confinement already, the need now is greater than ever. We can’t count on the DOC to do the right thing! Please take this opportunity now to end solitary confinement, which places Black people and others at even higher risk of harm during this on-going pandemic.
Thank you for your time.
TESTIMONY FOR AUGUST 6, 2020 ON PRISON REFORM
My name is Gay Gardner. I currently serve as a volunteer Senior Advisor for Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR), a nonprofit organization that advocates for humane treatment of incarcerated people in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. I am in touch with scores of people in Virginia detention facilities and many of their family members.
What I would like to bring to your attention today is the need for independent oversight over the Department of Corrections (DOC). There is currently no entity specifically charged with ensuring the DOC is accountable to Virginia taxpayers. What follows is a sampling of the kinds of issues IAHR is aware of that have not been addressed effectively because of this void.
Allegations of violent assaults by inmates and officers have gone without any discernible effort by the DOC to investigate them. In some cases, DOC investigators have pressured prisoners to withdraw their complaints.
Dogs have been allowed to maul completely subdued and compliant inmates, resulting in serious injuries, including permanent nerve damage.
Men have sometimes been kept in cells with no water or functioning toilet for hours, days, or weeks on end. (Mr. H. was kept in a cell with a toilet he could not flush for more than a month (March-April 2020) at Wallens Ridge State Prison. He reported having to stack books on the seat in order to keep from touching the accumulated fecal matter. He has identified investigators and other staff who allegedly knew about this and did nothing.)
IAHR continues to receive complaints from people placed in isolated confinement for many weeks and months without being informed of the specific reasons why they are considered to be a security threat.
People with a credible case for protective custody have instead been kept in prolonged solitary confinement and subjected to unnecessary and punitive restrictions.
People with serious medical conditions are not provided with appropriate care.
- Mr. S. at Wallens Ridge has epilepsy. He "checked himself into" segregation because his condition was not recognized and treated properly by staff. His cellmates have ridiculed, mistreated, and assaulted him.
- Mr. V. at Red Onion is not being permitted to obtain a diagnosis of the cause of his significant loss of bone tissue in his leg over the last 3 or 4 years. Without a diagnosis, he cannot receive treatment.
- Prisoners with sickle cell anemia have not received effective pain management and are not being adequately protected from the coronavirus even though they are known to have severely weakened immune systems.
The grievance procedure available to Virginia prisoners does not afford them a genuine opportunity to challenge disciplinary charges against them. There is no way for prisoners to compel the review of security video, and their requests for witness testimony are often denied as not relevant, without explanation.
These and many other examples show the need for an independent, impartial entity to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely. When allegations turn out to be false, the DOC will be vindicated. Any allegations that are substantiated should lead to corrective action. This is the result citizens of the Commonwealth and those incarcerated in its prisons deserve. Whatever crimes they have committed, prisoners do not deserve to suffer from neglect or injury that is not part of their sentence and which the Commonwealth has a responsibility to prevent.