By Uhuru B. Rowe
Updated November 11, 2018
“Greensville Correctional Center will enhance the qualify of life in the Commonwealth by improving public safety. We will accomplish this through reintegration of sentenced men in our custody and care by providing supervision and control, effective programs and re-entry services in a safe environment which fosters positive change and growth consistent with sound correctional principles, fiscal responsibility and constitutional standards.” — Offender Orientation Manual (2017-2018)
The words (like the ones quoted above) which line the pages of the various Offender Orientation Manuals (OOM) issued by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) looks good on paper but in reality, they are seldom, if ever, put into practice by prison employees. At least not in the way they are supposed to be.
I was omptimistic when I first arrived at Greensville Correctional Center (GRCC) from Sussex 2 State Prison (S2SP) on October 2nd. GRCC is a lower security level prison than S2SP which means that it should be less restrictive, offer better food, allow more outside recreation, and allow for easy enrollment into programming and services which fosters the type of “positive change and growth” mentioned in GRCC’s Offender Orientation Manual. However, the opposite is true.
In a span of only four weeks, I can bear witness that the same culture of anti-rehabilitation and dehumanization that exist at S2SP also exist here at GRCC. Maybe not as extreme as the culture at S2SP. But the fact it exist at all on a security level 3 facility speaks to the very nature of prisons themselves regardless of what security level is ascribed to them. Which begs the follwing questions: If the VDOC is sincere about “enhanc[ing] the quality of life of the Commonwealth by improving public safety,” then why are prison officials allowed to abuse, neglect, mistreat, and dehumanize the people it incarcerates? Especially when an abundance of evidence shows that incarcerated people who are treated humanely and with dignity and respect, are far less likely to re-offend once released? Could it be that the VDOC isn’t truly concerned about improving public safety or it simply doesn’t know how to? In case it doesn’t, below is a list of proposed prison policy changes I, and many of my peers, believe will further reduce recidivism and contribute to the safety and security of people in society by improving the living conditions of people in prison.
📌1) ABOLISH THE ARBITRARY USE OF GROUP PUNISHMENT OR LEGALIZE GROUP PETITIONS. It is standard practice at all prisons in Virginia (Va) to punish incarcerated citizens as a group because of the misbehavior of one or more people. For example, a small group of prisoners were found to be controlling who accessed the phones. So GRCC officials decided to limit all incarcerated people in Housing Units 1, 5, and 8 to just five phone calls a day. This type of group punishment is unfair given that WE are prohited from organizing/circulating group petitions to redress our grievances and have been punished and retaliated against whenever WE have attempted to do so. If we are punished as a group then WE should have the right to redress our grievances as a group. Therefore, WE demand that either group punishment is abolished or WE be allowed to organize/circulate group petitions to redress our grievances.
📌2) PROVIDE HEALTHY AND NUTRITIOUS MEALS. According to the OOM, page 27, “Offenders assigned to [GRCC] are served meals that are nutritiously adequate …”. This is a blantant lie as the food served to us at GRCC is abysmal. At almost every lunch and dinner meal, WE are served a type of processed meat (known to us and staff as “meatrock”) which is mixed in either rice or noodles. It is common knowledge that a regular diet high in prcessed meats like “meatrock” increases the likelihood that a person will develop cancer and other ill health effects. Additionally, WE are routinely served food portions that are half the portions WE are supposed to receive which is causing us weight loss, lethargy, depression, malnourishment, and fatigue. Because such a poor diet low in calories and nutrients, and which increases our chances of developing cancer, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, WE demand that WE be served meals that are truly healthy and nutritious and are indispensable to the proper functioning of a healthy human being.
📌3) PROVIDE SAFE AND CLEAN DRINKING WATER. Incarcerated citizens in Va are forced to drink water that is brown, foul tasting and foul smelling as a result of it being contaminated with dirt, rust, and high levels of manganese, chlorine, and possibly other unknown contaminants like lead. Each time WE have complained about this water, WE are told it is safe to drink. However, because prison employees are advised not to drink this water and because of the negative side effects we’ve often experienced after consuming it (e.g. nausea, cramps, headaches, diarrhea) this is proof that the water is unsafe and is putting our health and lives at risk. Denying any human being — including those of us in jails, prisons, and detention centers — access to safe and clean drinking water constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. So WE demand that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Va Dept. of Environmental Quality routinely test the water and water filtration systems at all Va prisons to determine if WE are being provided water that is truly free of toxins and other pollutants. Additionally, WE demand that WE be provided two bottles of spring
Part 2 of On the Need for Prison Policy Changes
📌4) ABOLISH THE CAPITATED FINANCING SCHEME WHICH INCENTIVIZES SUBSTANDARD MEDICAL CARE. Medical services at nearly all Va prisons are contracted out to a private, for-profit corporation known as Armor Correctional Health Services, Inc. (Armor). This contract is based on the “capitated financing” scheme which was exposed in the case of Scott v. Clarke, 2014 WL 6609087 (W.D. Va. 2014). Under this scheme, Armor receives a fixed amount of money, per prisoner, from the VDOC regardless of the level or quality of medical care it provides to us incarcerated citizens. Armor knows that the less treatment it provides, the greater its profits. As expected, this capitated financing scheme incentivizes substandard medical care and has resulted in delayed responses to our sick call requests; delays in the diagnosis and treatment of our illnesses; failure to refer us, or the delay in referring us, to outside specialists; failure to carry out a specialist’s prescribed course or method of treatment; and an almost complete denial of dental care due to the absence of a permanent dentist at most prisons. As the U.S. Supreme Court held in Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910, 1928 (2011), “Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A person’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates may actually produce physical torture or a lingering death.” In order to bring an end to our physical torture and lingering death as a result of the substandard medical care provided by Armor, WE demand that the capitated financing clause be stricken from Armor’s contract with the VDOC so that WE can receive full medical and dental care. If Armor refuses to agree to such a restructuring of its contract, then WE demand that Armor’s contract with the VDOC be immediately terminated.
📌5) ABOLISH MEDICAL CO-PAY FEES. Anyone who has ever served time or studied prisons knows that many of the illnesses incarcerated people develop and suffer from are the direct result of poor living conditions like unhealthy food and dirty/contaminated drinking water. Because the living conditions in prison often cause or exacerbates poor physical health, incarcerated people should have access to free health care. Therefore, WE demand that Va Code section 53.1-32, which authorizes the VDOC to levy medical co-pay fees against incarcerated people in exchange for prison health care services, be repealed to allow FREE and FULL health care.
📌6) PROVIDE EQUAL ACCESS TO ACADEMIC/VOCATIONAL/TREATMENT PROGRAMS AND WORK ASSIGNMENTS REGARDLESS OF THE SENTENCE BEING SERVED. According to the OOM, page 3, “There will be equal access to programs and work assignments …”. This is also a blatant lie as incarcerated people serving a life sentence or the numerical equivalent to a life sentence (Lifers) are routinely passed over for enrollment in CTE (Career and Technical Education) and treatment programs in favor of those with shorter sentences. The end result is that most Lifers — who are the majority at most major institutions — have been on the waiting list for CTE and treatment programs for several years. This has created an environment where many of us are left with little to no mental stimulation or constructive activity and too much time spent in idleness where our mental faculties have begun to deteriorate. In order to remedy this problem, WE demand that all incarcerated people, regardless of their length of sentence or release date, have full and equal access to all available CTE and treatment programs.
📌7) REPEAL THE DRACONIAN MAIL AND VISITATION POLICIES. Under the new draconian mail policy which went into effect on April 17, 2017, all incoming letters from our loved-ones, including pictures and greeting cards, are photocopied. The original letters, pictures, and greeting cards are (allegedly) shredded in the institutional mailroom. Additionally, this mail policy places a three page (front and back) limit on all incoming letters from our loved-ones, which includes a copy of the envelope itself. (You can see the mail policy at
Under the visitation policy which went into effect on April 22, 2017, the following are now required: 1) WE are now required to wear a state-issued jumpsuit that zips up in the back during visitation. These jumpsuits resemble those worn by patients in an old insane asylum. 2) Our visitors are required to exit the visiting area and return all the way back to the front entrance in order to use the restroom. If they wish to return to the visiting area, they must submit to another dehumanizing search. Making our visitors return to the front entrance to use the restroom takes away from the already limited time WE have to spend with our loved-ones. 3) Our visitors are now required to pass through a radiation emitting full body scanner which puts them (especially young children) at risk of developing cancer and which reveals the most intimate parts of their bodies. The VDOC’s crackdown on our mail and visitation — under the guise of trying to control the flow of drugs into the prisons — are meant to discourage, if not outright sever, the already delicate social ties existing between incarcerated people and our friends and family. Because these social ties play an integral role in helping us to maintain a positive attitude while in prison and helping us to successfully reintegrate back into society once released, WE demand that the mail and visitation policies implemented on April 17, 2017 and April 22, 2017, respectively, be rescinded.
📌8) INCREASE WAGES FOR ALL INCARCERATED WORKERS. Incarcerated workers employed by the various Virginia Correctional Enterprise (VCE) sweatshops are paid an hourly wage of up to .85 cents. Non-VCE incarcerated workers are paid an hourly wage of either .27cents, .35 cents, or .45 cents for unskilled, semiskilled, and skilled work, respectively. These are all state-sanctioned slave wages as incarcerated workers are not considered employees of the state per Va Code section 40.1-28.9(B)(7). This law was created specifically to disqualify incarcerated workers from receiving, at the very least, the prevailing minimum wage of the Commonwealth of Va. Because the current wage of incarcerated workers is tantamount to a slave wage, and because a minimum wage will allow incarcerated workers to support our families and make restitution to the victims (or the families of the victims) of our crimes which is the highest form of restorative justice and social restitution, WE demand that Va Code section 40.1-28.9(B)(7) be amended classifying incarcerated workers as “employees” of the state so that we’ll qualify for the prevailing minimum wage per the Virginia Minimum Wage Act (VA Code section 40.1-28.10) and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.C. section 206).
📌9) CREATE AN INDEPENDENT GRIEVANCE COORDINATOR/OMBUDSMAN TO PROCESS AND INVESTIGATE ALL PRISONER GRIEVANCES. The grievance procedure as it is presently constructed is inherently biased against incarcerated citizens who utilize it to lodge complaints and grievances to redress staff misconduct and inhuman prison conditions. This is so because in all cases the Grievance Coordinator/Institutional Ombudsman has had a prior cozy working relationship with the same prison employees he/she is tasked with investigating for acts of abuse, neglect, and human rights violations. This obvious conflict of interest has often resulted in our Informal Complaints and Regular Grievances being thrown into the trash and our Regular Grievances being rejected for bogus reasons in order to 1) maintain a strict code of silence and secrecy among VDOC employees; 2) cover up the abuse, neglect, and human rights violations perpetrated by prison employees in order to shield them from accountability; and 3) hinder us from filing/pursuing state and federal civil suits against VDOC employees because in order to pursue such a suit, the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that WE first exhaust all available administrative grievance remedies to their highest level. WE cannot exhaust these remedies if our complaints/grievances are thrown into the trash or if our grievances are rejected for bogus reasons. Because of the high level of corruption inherent in the current grievance system, WE demand that an Independent (non-VDOC employed) Grievance Coordinator/ Ombudsman be established for every prison. Such an Independent (non-VDOC employed) Grievance Coordinator/ Ombudsman shall be tasked with the duty of receiving and investigating any allegation of abuse, neglect, mistreatment, and human rights violation alleged to have been perpetrated by any prison official/employee and shall report any findings of fact and conclusion of any investigation directly to the Governor of Virginia.
📌10) ALLOW CONJUGAL VISITS. The VDOC currently has a ban on conjugal visits. Such a ban contradicts its motto of “Public Safety First” because countless studies have shown that incarcerated people who are able to maintain healthy family relationships — including marital bonds — are less likely to re-offend. So if public safety is truly first on the VDOC list of priorities, then marital bonds between incarcerated people and our spouses would be strengthened and nurtured, not discouraged. Instead, incarcerated people are allowed to marry but are not allowed to consummate that marriage and people who were already married prior to incarceration are not allowed to engage in healthy sexual relationships with our spouses (even in a safe and secure environment) which not only punishes incarcerated husbands and wives but also our law-abiding spouses. The ban on the consummation of marriages and healthy marital sexual relations puts an extra strain on marriages already made fragile by mass incarceration and often leads to the breakdown of such marriages leaving many incarcerated people without a valuable support system upon our release. This runs counter to public safety. Therefore, WE demand that newly married incarcerated people be allowed to consummate that marriage and that conjugal visits be allowed at least on a quarterly basis at all security level 3 and below prisons in Virginia.
📌11) ALLOW THE NEWS MEDIA TO ACCESS ANY STATE PRISON AND CORRECTIONAL FACILITY. Incarcerated people are isolated and hidden away outside of the public eye within a vast network of prisons where there is little to no transparency. This makes incarcerated people vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and other criminal and inhumane acts perpetrated by our keepers. Therefore, WE demand that the print, internet, and television media be allowed unlimited, unrestricted access inside any state prison and correctional facility and be allowed to use any audio, video, or other recording equipment when surveying the inside of any prison and correctional facility and interview any incarcerated person. The implementation of this policy will allow for greater transparency and allow the media to expose to the public what has always been hidden behind a wall of corruption, lies, secrecy, and cover-ups by the VDOC.
Tens of thousands of incarcerated people in Va are released back into society every year. If the VDOC is serious about public safety, it will implement these policy changes. And if you, the People, are truly concerned about your safety and security, WE ask that you to join me in demanding that the VDOC implement these common sense policy changes.