By Uhuru B. Rowe
March 1, 2017
WHY THE FREE VIRGINIA MOVEMENT?
A Federal law known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (VCCLEA) includes a provision called the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth in Sentencing Incentive Grants (VOITIS) which provides grants to state and local correctional systems to expand their capacity to incarcerate violent offenders and impose larger and more determinate sentences.
VOITIS, codified in federal law as Title 42, U.S.C.S., sections 13701, 13702, 13703, and 13704, was sponsored by former U.S. Representative Jack Brooks, from Texas, and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton. To qualify for these grants, states were required to pass Truth in Sentencing (TIS) laws which effectively abolished parole and mandated people convicted of Class 1 felonies to “serve not less than 85 percent of the sentence imposed….” (Title 42, USCS section 13704)
Lacking funds necessary to construct more prisons to accommodate its expanding prison population, VOITIS provided Virginia (VA) with an incentive to abolish parole for crimes committed on or after January 1, 1995, and implement TIS. House Bill No. 5001 was introduced by Republican Randy Forbes and passed by former Republican Governor George Allen during the 1994 Special Session of the VA General Assembly at a time when state Democrats controlled both the House and Senate.
House Bill No. 5001 was codified as VA Code 53.1-165.1. Consequently, the amount of “good time” incarcerated people could earn to reduce their period of incarceration for good behavior was dramatically reduced from a maximum of thirty days credit for each thirty days served per VA Code 53.1-201 (before parole was abolished) to a maximum of four and one-half days credit for the same thirty days served per VA Code 53.1-202 (after parole was abolished). Prior to the abolition of parole and the dramatic reduction of good time credits, the prison population in VA was approximately 18,000. In 2013, it reached a record 40,000 people incarcerated throughout the state, many of them coming from poor and working class communities.
ECONOMIC IMPACT OF ABOLITION OF PAROLE AND TRUTH-IN -SENTENCING
Between 1996 and 1998, twenty-eight states that enacted TIS collectively received over $680 million in VOITIS grants, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. Fifteen out of twenty-seven states that received VOITIS grants in 1997 indicated that these grants were either a key or partial factor in their enactment of TIS which requires incarcerated people to serve no less than 85 percent of their sentences, including VA.
Between 1996 and 1998, VA alone received a total of $11,201,786 in VOITIS grants which partly funded this state’s construction of two maximum and two supermax prisons: Sussex I, Sussex II and Red Onion and Wallens Ridge State Prisons, respectively. All four of these new “state-of-the-art” prisons began accepting people in 1997 and 1998, respectively, with Sussex II housing people contracted from the District of Columbia.
Because of laws like VCCLEA and the draconian measures it spurred (e.g., TIS, abolition of parole, Three Strikes), the U.S. prison population has grown to become the largest in the world with 2.5 million poor and working class people confined in its local, state, and federal jails, prisons, and detention centers, which cost tax payers $80 billion annually.
In VA, the corrections operating budget, which exceeded $1 billion in 2014, commands the greater portion of the state budget every year at the expense of urgently needed social justice programs, such as quality childcare, education, health care, food, housing, jobs, and other basic human rights.
The abolition of parole and the implementation of TIS has not prevented, reduced, or deterred crime any more than it did prior to 1995; but has succeeded only in increasing the prison population and the annual corrections’ budget to one of the highest in the country, while warehousing poor and working class incarcerated people for decades.
Since taking office in 2014, Democratic Governor, Terry McAuliffe, sought to correct these injustices with his Executive Order #44, which created the bipartisan Commission on Parole Review as a vehicle to bring together elected officials, community organizations, professionals, faith leaders, and concerned citizens to discuss how parole could be reinstated without compromising public safety. However, state Republicans was so hostile to the idea of parole reinstatement–and the creation of the Commission itself–that Commission members never specifically discussed reinstating parole even though that was the main reason for its creation in the first place. Furthermore, the few recommendations proposed by the Commission did not result in the passage of any laws during the 2016 and 2017 General Assembly Sessions as it relates to much needed criminal legal system reform.
Governor McAuliffe also signed an April 22, 2016 Executive Order which summarily restored the rights of over 200,000 violent and nonviolent felony convicted people who have successfully paid their debts to society and have made great strides towards becoming productive, law-abiding, taxpaying citizens of this Commonwealth. As expected, state Republicans opposed this move, suing Governor McAuliffe in court. The VA Supreme Court, bowing to political pressure, nullified his April 22, 2016 Executive Order, relegating more than 200,000 disenfranchised poor and working class people back to the level of second-class citizens.
Clearly, state Republicans’ fierce opposition to to the creation of the Parole Review Commission, the reinstatement of parole, the restoration of rights, and other forms of criminal legal system reform, is actually a class-war against poor and working class people who are the overwhelming majority of people who are disenfranchised or sent to and warehoused in VA prisons.
Therefore, seeing that five Commission on Parole Review meetings were held where the opinions and concerns of family, friends, and supporters of incarcerated people, and other concerned poor and working class people, in favor of parole reinstatement, repeatedly fell on the deaf ears of Commission members; seeing that the Commission failed to recommend parole reinstatement because of the opposition from state Republicans who have vowed that parole, in any form (including for juveniles sentenced to unconstitutional life without parole sentences) will never be reinstated so long as they constitute the majority in the House and Senate; seeing that Republicans will constitute the majority in the House and Senate for the foreseeable future; seeing that both the 2016 and 2017 Generally Assembly Sessions concluded without the passage of much needed criminal legal system reform; and seeing that mass incarceration, overcrowded and understaffed prisons, draconian truth-and-sentencing sentences, abolition of parole, long-term incarceration with little chance for early release, and cutbacks to CTE and other rehabilitation programs, will persist unabated, it is time for incarcerated, poor and working class people to UNITE, ORGANIZE, and AGITATE under the banner of the Free Virginia Movement which is rooted in the class struggle practice of “An Injury To One Is An Injury To All” and “None Of Us Are Free Until All Are Free.”
The Free Virginia Movement is an Inside-Out/Outside-In inclusive, coalition-based statewide movement and community- and prison-based organizing effort founded and organized by incarcerated people in solidarity with the struggles of poor and working class people, to address inhumane, harsh and unjust prison conditions; racial and class bias in the criminal legal system; the effects of mass incarceration on poor and working class communities; and the myriad of other laws, policies, and procedures which discriminates against felony convicted and formerly incarcerated people. We realize that incarcerated, poor and working class people, are all victims of capitalist oppression and exploitation, Inside and Outside of prisons.
Because nearly every policy or procedure of the VADOC as it relates to incarcerated people are counterproductive, oppressive, punitive, and flawed, we in the Free Virginia Movement refer to the VADOC as the VA Dept. of (In)Corrections to reflect this point.
OUR ORGANIZING STRATEGY
The Free Virginia Movement seeks to unite the struggles of the entire prisoner-class in solidarity with the class struggles of poor and working class people, along with Human Rights and Prison Advocacy Groups, across Racial, Gender, Ideological, and Religious lines into a consensus decision-making, democratically-run longterm coalition, that will meet, serve, address, and champion the needs and concerns of ALL incarcerated, disenfranchised, poor and working class people on a day-to-day basis.
Specifically, we aim to organize town hall meetings, work shops, and other movement-building activities to EDUCATE the people about elected and appointed officials who have consistently voted and acted against the interests of incarcerated, poor and working class people; BUILD a powerful grassroots voting bloc to tip local and statewide elections in our favor; CREATE a network of human rights defenders to pressure prisons, legislatures, and government officials to implement laws and policies that will meet the needs of incarcerated, poor and working class people targeted by racism, capitalist oppression and mass incarceration; and GENERATE streams of phone calls and petition campaigns, mass rallies and mobilizations in order to challenge and change the political and economic reality in the commonwealth of Virginia.
At every stage of the struggle we have petitioned the courts, filed grievances, appealed to the morality and conscience of those in power over us, and patiently waited for the Virginia state government, and its various departments and agencies, to take corrective action in the most humble methods. But just like the institution of chattel slavery, capitalism and mass incarceration are systems of oppression which uses incarcerated, disenfranchised, poor and working class people of ALL races, colors, creeds, and sexual orientations as its nuts and bolts. The Free Virginia Movement seeks to break those nuts and bolts!
Because the oppression and social/population control of disenfranchised, poor and working class people are the motives behind mass and longterm incarceration here in Virginia, the Free Virginia Movement represents and IS the United Front capable of liberating us from the shackles of capitalist oppression, exploitation, and mass incarceration.
OUR GOALS (WHAT WE WANT)
1) WE WANT the Reinstatement of parole for all incarcerated people whose crimes occurred on or after January 1, 1995, and currently serving a sentence under the so-called no parole (85%) law by repealing VA Codes 53.1-165.1 and 53.1-202.3, and reinstituting parole eligibility under VA Code 53.1-201. The above restoration of parole and Good Conduct Allowance must be RETROACTIVELY applied to ALL incarcerated people currently serving sentences under the no parole (85%) law.
2) WE WANT the AMENDMENT and REENACTMENT of VA Code 19.2-303 so that ALL people currently incarcerated in the VA. Dept. of (In)Corrections can petition the court which heard their case for a suspension/reduction/modification of the unserved portion of the sentence after 1) serving a base minimum of fifteen (15) years, and 2) after the completion of an Educational/Rehabilitation/Reentry Preparedness Program. The Amendment and Reenactment of VA Code 19.2-303 must be retroactively applied to ALL people currently incarcerated in the VA Dept. of (In)Corrections.
3) WE WANT the Amendment and Reenactment of VA Code 19.2-298.01 (B) and (F) so that the sentencing court must provide an adequate explanation when it sentences a defendant outside the sentencing guidelines to allow for meaningful appellate review of said sentence. This will promote the perception of fair sentencing and provide an appellate remedy when courts impose sentences of ten (10) years or more outside the sentencing guidelines recommendations. The Amendment and Reenactment of VA Code 19.2-298.01 (B) and (F) must be retroactively applied to ALL people currently serving sentences under the no parole (85%) law.
4) WE WANT the Amendment and Reenactment of VA Code 53.1-40.01 so that the qualifying age for consideration of early geriatric “parole” is 1) the age of 55 or older and who has served at least five years of the sentence imposed or 2) the age of 50 or older and who has served at least ten years of the sentence imposed. The Amendment and Reenactment of VA Code 53.1-40.01 must be RETROACTIVELY applied to ALL people currently incarcerated in the VA Dept. of (In)Corrections.
5) WE WANT the Amendment and Reenactment of VA Code 53.1-43.1. so that ALL income, gains, profits, etc. accumulated as a result of these investments be used solely to create more educational, treatment, work and rehabilitation programs for incarcerated people. Currently, this law allows the VA Dept. of (In)Corrections to profit off of incarcerated, poor, and working class people by investing the interests gained from incarcerated people’s incoming funds (sent to them by family and friends) in stocks, bonds, and federally-insured investments without giving notice as to where this money is being spent!
6) WE WANT the Amendment and Reenactment of VA Code 53.1-43.1 so that in addition to any incarcerated person sentenced to death or life imprisonment, any person sentenced to a practical/de facto “numerical” life without parole term where their mandatory/Good Time release date is past their life expectancy, they must be EXEMPT from the withholding and depositing of ten percent of their incoming funds into a Savings and Hold and ALL funds currently held in these accounts MUST be immediately transferred to their Spend accounts.
7) WE WANT the Amendment and Reenactment of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to remove/strike the Exception Clause, which legalizes slavery for any person convicted of a felony, in the form of the implementation of laws/policies which has a disproportionate impact on poor, Black and Brown communities; the over policing and criminalization of poor, Black and Brown communities; racial bias in the criminal justice system; mass incarceration; felony disenfranchisement laws; exploiting the labor of incarcerated people for profit; private companies like Keefe Commissary, JPay and Global Tel Link overcharging incarcerated people for goods and services; private corporations contracted by the VA State government to build and operate prisons, jails, and detention centers; and the racial disparities in Virginia’s prisons and jails.
7) WE WANT the implementation of a state law that grants every person convicted of a violent felony, upon their release from prison, the automatic restoration of his or her rights. Current government policy requires that a person convicted of a violent felony make a formal request to the Governor to have his or her rights restored five (5) years after the completion of their period of probation and parole has ended. This waiting period, and the bureaucratic red tape associated with it, has a disproportionate impact on poor and working class felony convicted people as it bans them from being recognized as full citizens, relegates them to a permanent second-class status with no rights, and denies them full integration back into society. The implementation of this state law MUST be RETROACTIVELY applied to ALL violent felony convicted people already released from prison
8) The U.S. has ruled in the cases of Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010) and Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), that Juvenile Life Without Parole sentences, which does not provide a meaningful opportunity of release, offends the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, WE WANT the implementation of a state law that will 1) require state courts to re-sentence those sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) sentences to a term that will allow a meaningful opportunity of release, or 2) require the Virginia Parole Board to conduct specialized Youth Offender Parole Hearings on the 25th year of incarceration for those sentenced to JLWOP sentences, taking into account the diminished culpability and hallmark features of youth and subsequent growth and maturity during incarceration. The implementation of this state law must be RETROACTIVELY applied to ALL incarcerated people sentenced to JLWOP and convicted of violent or nonviolent crimes or sentenced to practical/de facto numerical life sentences.
9) The VA Supreme Court has ruled in the case Fishback v. Commonwealth, 260 Va. 104, 532 S.E.2d 629 (2000), that it was trial error not to instruct jurors during the sentencing phase of trial that parole had been abolished for crimes committed on or after January 1, 1995. However, those who were sentenced under the no-parole law prior to 2000 did not have the benefit of the jury instruction now mandated by Fishback. Therefore, WE WANT the implementation of a state law that will 1) require state courts to re-sentence those people who were sentenced between 1995 and 2000 when jury instructions on the abolition of parole was not mandated, or 2) require the Virginia Parole Board to conduct specialized Parole Review Hearings for those people sentenced prior to the Fishback ruling.
10) WE WANT the abolition of any VA Dept. of (In)Corrections’ policy, practice, or procedure which violates the human/constitutional rights and endangers/hinders the mental, emotional, spiritual, physical health and wellbeing, and rehabilitation efforts of incarcerated people including, but not limited to: (A) VA Dept. of (In)Corrections’ Operating Procedure (OP) 601.6(IV)(c)(14) which prohibits incarcerated people from completing more than one Career and Technical Education (CTE) program; (B) O.P. 601.6(IV)(c)(9) which discriminates against incarcerated people with lengthy sentences, who want to participate in a CTE program, by placing them on a separate “long list” where it may take years to enroll in a program; (C) VA Dept. of (In)Corrections’ “cost saving” and counter-rehabilitative practice of assigning one incarcerated person to multiple work assignments to the exclusion and hindrance of others who want “to learn job skills and develop good work habits and attitudes that [they] can apply to jobs after [they] are released,” quoting O.P. 841.2(IV)(B)(4); (D) VA Dept. of (In)Corrections’ “cost saving” practice of denying Hepatitis-C positive incarcerated people FULL access to FDA-approved drugs, like Harvoni and Sovaldi, which are known to have a 90 percent cure-rate; (E) VADOCs “cost saving” practice of regularly feeding incarcerated people cheap, soy, processed, and other synthetic meats which are known to cause various cancers and other serious health problems if consumed on a regular basis; (F) VA Dept. of (In)Corrections’ “cost saving” and counter-rehabilitative practice of not providing practical up-to-date, technology-based CTE programs. Current CTE offered by the VADOC are considered out-of-date compared to similar programs offered to citizens out in society. VA prisons must move towards a technological CTE programming system, and to not do so is a disservice to the communities incarcerated people will eventually return to. Therefore, CTE programs must resemble as closely as possible that of CTE training and programs offered to the average citizen as to prepare incarcerated people for the conditions of normal occupational life; (G) VA Dept. of (In)Corrections’ “cost saving practice” of providing incarcerated people with poor-quality, contaminated drinking water; (H) VA Dept. of (In)Corrections’ racially and politically motivated practice of censoring/disapproving books, newspapers, magazines, etc., which are geared towards an African-American, Leftist, Radical, or Progressive audience; and the VA Dept. of (In)Corrections and, (I) Keefe Commissary Group’s exploitative and profiteering practice of regular price-hikes on all items sold in the commissary.