Published in the Richmond Times Dispatch, May 6, 2018, by Patrick Wilson
A politically active Virginia prisoner who organized inmates to file grievances about medical care, staffing and water quality was recently transferred to a high-security prison and placed in solitary confinement. Supporters and his wife fear he is being unjustly punished for activism.
Askari Danso, whose legal name is Dale Lee Pughsley, promotes black history and Rastafarian groups in prisons and recently organized a petition asking for better medical care and staffing at Sussex II State Prison, where he formed a human rights committee for prisoners.
After he left the Sussex II law library on April 24, he said he and his cellmate were handcuffed and moved to Sussex I, where they were each put in solitary confinement.
His cell has a stool, toilet and mattress, no pillow or hygiene products, and no TV or reading material. He can see trees out the window. Danso said he’s being punished for political speech he says could save prisoners’ lives in understaffed prisons.
“You’ve got these prisons that are bursting at the seams,” he said in a phone interview Thursday after spending 10 days in solitary confinement at higher-security Sussex I. “They’re not open to the idea of prisoners being political, even if it’s democratic.”
Danso, 38, has served 20 years in prison stemming from a 1999 conviction for second-degree murder and firearms charges in Lynchburg when he was 18. He fatally shot a man in the neck during an argument over drugs. His projected release is 2046.
Danso said he’s been transferred three times since 2016 for reasons he believes are political.
“He’s raising these issues about the problems of the system as a whole,” said Phil Wilayto with activist group Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. “He hasn’t disrupted anything.”
A Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman declined to comment.
Here is the story of Danso’s transfers, as he describes it:
He spent four years at Buckingham Correctional Center, where he was a facilitator for black history and Rastafarian programs and worked as a treatment aide helping lead groups on anger management and substance abuse. He educated prisoners that they are legally entitled to be treated with dignity.
After a warden reduced the annual Black History Month celebration from three days to one and reduced inmate involvement in organizing activities, inmates wrote complaints.
The warden had Danso brought to his office, where he told him he’d transfer him if he found inmates were writing complaints because of him.
In September 2016, Danso was told he was being transferred. He was moved to Augusta Correctional Center and was accused of trying to organize prisoners to stop working, which Danso said is untrue.
At the new prison, he found no black history program, no Kwanzaa celebration and no Rastafarian class, and wrote complaints. The warden allowed a black history program with outside guests.
Danso helped organize a rap talent show in the prison yard with lyrics to be focused on political conscience, love and family.
A counselor at the prison liked the idea, but a higher-level official stopped it and organizers were punished. A Department of Corrections investigator referred to the plans as “an illegal black supremacy meeting.”
Danso has recorded podcasts about prison justice that were posted to a blog.
“We need to let the citizens out there know what they’re paying for,” he said.
He got a Rastafarian program started at Augusta, arguing it was a religious freedom issue. But days before it started, in March of this year, he was told he was being transferred again.
Back in December, he had been given two charges, which he said were his first in nearly nine years. One was a violation of postage rules. He said DOC officials also alleged that a phone conversation he had with his wife 13 months earlier used coded language — that when they discussed DVDs they were actually talking about Suboxone, a drug used to treat people addicted to opioids.
His transfer in March was to Sussex II, which has higher security than Buckingham and Augusta.
“It is the worst prison in Virginia,” Danso said. “They call it understaffed. Conscious prisoners call it overcrowded.”
He and other inmates at Sussex II organized a human rights committee with a goal of getting citizens involved in lobbying for better inmate conditions.
As Danso was escorted in handcuffs to a watch commander’s office on April 24, supervisors and a prison dog followed. A lieutenant told him they’d been given strict orders to get him out of Sussex II. DOC staff drove him in a van that evening to Sussex I, an even higher-security prison.
After a few days in solitary confinement, an investigator told him the DOC was investigating “a Blood-Crip petition and potential riot.”
After searching his old cell at Sussex II, DOC staff found a petition that had been circulated to inmates related to prison grievances, Danso said. He was charged with encouraging others to participate in a group demonstration, a serious charge given to inmates who try to start a riot, he said.
Danso said the petition is an excuse by the DOC to justify moving him from Sussex II to Sussex I. The petition was a collective idea from the inmate human rights committee, he said.
Gregory Carter, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said the department does not discuss inmate transfers, security-level changes or assignments to restricted housing because records on them are exempt from mandatory disclosure under Virginia law. The department declined an interview request with Tracy Ray, the warden at Sussex II, about why Danso was transferred.
“The DOC wardens do not share the offenders’ personal information with the public,” Carter wrote by email.
The department does not release information on staff vacancies at its prisons. But in response to a recent request, the DOC released data showing that the region of 12 facilities that includes Sussex I and Sussex II had a 15 percent vacancy rate as of Jan. 31.
The Richmond-based Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality and the Blacksburg nonprofit Coalition for Justice, of which Danso is on the steering committee, are among prisoners’ rights groups alarmed about Danso’s transfer to solitary confinement at Sussex I. They alerted their members to call Sussex I to ask why Danso was transferred, ask for him to be removed from solitary confinement, and ask that he be given access to his personal property.
Margaret Breslau of the Coalition for Justice said Danso has never been interested in gangs and she doubted the validity of the charge against him.
His wife, Nicole Pughsley of Lynchburg, said she’s worried about what will happen to her husband.
“He’s just trying to wake a lot of the young black men. He’s just trying to wake everybody up, and they don’t like that,” she said. “They just want them to be quiet and do their time.”