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LOCAL Commentary :: Prisons

Who Will Argue for the Prisoners of Virginia?

Read the words of Rashid Qawi Al-Amin. He is a Muslim, an African American, an ex-soldier, and a prisoner in the state of Virginia. Al-Amin is a long-time prison justice activist and jail house lawyer. He writes us from Greenville Correction Center, the site of Virginia’s death chamber.
Who Will Argue for the Prisoners of Virginia?
By Rashid Qawi Al-Amin

Over the last few years various reputable newspapers and organizations have featured articles and studies about the declining conditions within Virginia's correctional institutions: the cutbacks in meals served in the prisons on weekends, the corruption within the medical department resulting in less medical staff and less medical care for prisoners. In 2003 the Virginia Pilot reprinted a petition where nearly two hundred prisoners at Greenville Correctional Center, who had been turned down for parole five times or more, implored the state to look at its parole board and their actions. But none of this has caused any alarm of state officials or a great many citizens. It is as if nothing could be done to prisoners that would be outside the scope of their sentences.

Recently in response to an article about Rastafarians and Muslims who are suing the DOC (Department of Corrections) to let them keep their dreads and beards as a part of their religious practice, one VA citizen wrote in to the editorial section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch that "they forfeited their rights to their hair and beards when they committed their crimes." The writer of the original article saw fit to mention that among the eleven Rastafarians that have been in segregation for the last six years, there are a number of them convicted of murder, robbery, drug crimes and other un-named offenses.

It's sad to think that whenever people will look at you that they will always recall the worst things that you did before they decide whether or not to treat you humanely or with any rights. As if they say to themselves or aloud, "who cares if they get three meals a day, adequate medical treatment, fair phone prices, time with their children, conjugal privileges with their wives, or allowances for their religions and so forth. They are only prisoners who are convicted of thus and so, they are not entitled to such luxuries."

I am one of those prisoners now fighting to keep my beard for religious reasons. I am a Muslim.

My knowledge of history tells me that no matter what kinds of people go into prisons, transformed, upstanding, and nobler people can come out of them. See anything on Malcolm X, Charles Dutton, Claude Brown, Don King, Tim Allen, James Brown, and Virginia's own Nathan McCall and Chuck Colson.

My knowledge of history also tells me that it was conditions like these where ordinary citizens had little or no concern for the incarcerated, the poor, or the enslaved, that gave rise to Attica, Watts, and various 'slave uprisings'. It forced those who are trying to be heard to go to extreme measures to do so.

No matter how much any of us would like to, we will never be able to pay for our crimes. Not even after our sentences are complete. All prisoners are similarly situated whether the crime is murder, robbery or for simple drugs. We can't bring people back. We can't take back the fear that we unwittingly imposed. And we can't undo the devastation that drugs can do in a single vial. We too have to live with this. Our consciences are prisons from which we can never escape.

Whatever you do to us as prisoners, food, or lack thereof, should not be a variable Virginia. Ample medical care should not be a toss-up. Unleashing the business community onto our families where they are being charged the highest phone prices to keep in touch with us, the highest prices for our clothes, shoes, and electronics, that cost much less in any other business that is not within the DOC/Kefee exclusive contract deal; and that charge our families the most for food packages to be sent to us, for which we supplement our meals. These things should not be an option Virginia! They are not part of our sentences.

There is a point where "Corrections" stops and something else begins. Where we're no longer talking about the present worth of the people who are behind our prison walls but their original mistakes. And we use that fact to forever dismiss them. To forever step on them. To forever justify anything we do to them or their families.

Take from us Virginia what is rightfully yours. But do not become the monsters of which you condemn. Do not become like we are or have been. For once you become cold, heartless, self-centered, and do not care for the rights of others, you too will make a mistake. And once you do, people may forever dismiss you too.

Rashid Qawi Al-Amin #178990
Greenville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870-9614

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Up the Struggle,
Sean O'Hern
generalstrike17 (at) hotmail.com

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