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LOCAL News :: Prisons

Citizens of Richmond Seek Justice for Prisoners

The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with more than 2 million Americans serving time behind bars, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Richmond citizens of all ages and colors gathered in Monroe Park last Saturday afternoon to raise awareness of this fact, and bring attention to the many racial and economic disparities that they say plague the criminal justice system.
“They’re beaten down, what we’re trying to do is assist, uplift, and empower them to self rehabilitation, and try and get their spirit going,? said Lillie Branch-Kennedy.

Branch-Kennedy was one of the rally’s organizers and became involved with prison justice issues after her son was sentenced to prison in 2002.

Her son, Donal Allen, was a first time offender when he was charged with accessory to robbery. Branch-Kennedy says that the sentencing report recommended up to eight years, but Allen refused a plea deal.

Allen was finally sentenced to 28 years in prison, and placed in Wallens Ridge State Prison, a super maximum facility in the Appalachian town of Big Stone Gap.

While visiting her son, she noticed the absence of resources and rehabilitative service being offered inmates.

“What we discovered was that entering into the Virginia prison system meant going into more of a warehousing than a correctional facility,? Branch-Kennedy said.

She wanted her son to continue his college education and was able to enroll him in a correspondence course at a community college.

As far as she knows, he was the only inmate taking a class at the time. Other inmates saw him carrying books and completing his course work and expressed an interest in pursuing an education.

She decided to help them as well.

Soon, she was sending newspapers, crosswords, and inspirational literature to inmates at Wallens Ridge. She made brochures that served as how to guides for inmates, loaded with information on how to enroll in classes, invest in stocks and bonds, and obtain legal assistance.

“I decided then whatever, if they ask me for something that’s going to help turn them from a liability to an asset, I will do it so long as I had a way of doing it,? Branch-Kennedy said.

Branch-Kennedy now heads of Resource Help for the Disadvantaged (RIHD), and works full time to make information available to inmates, ex-prisoners, and families. One service they offer is a monthly bus trip to the rural Appalachian prisons of Virginia for families to visit their loved ones.

RIHD recently has shifted gears to raise awareness and encourage direct action to reform the prison system from the outside. Together with VAPrisonJustice and Prisoners and Families for Equal Rights and Justice, Branch-Kennedy helped plan the Monroe Park rally in part to gather support for the Prisoner Good Conduct Mandatory Literacy Bill.

The bill, which has failed to pass in previous sessions, calls for inmates to receive rehabilitation and education from day one of incarceration, and allows them to earn five to 15 days off of their sentence for every 30 days served. The bill’s patron is state Senator Henry L. Marsh.

“Rallies are just one of the many tactics, we felt like we needed to mobilize prisoner families to stand on behalf of their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives,? said Sean O’Hern, a fellow rally organizer of VAPrisonJustice.

O’Hern is no stranger to political activism, and has been a long time organizer for Richmond’s Food not Bombs chapter. In his work with poverty issues, O’Hern says he came to see that prison issues are one of the most fundamental issues in society.

Both O’Hern and Branch-Kennedy argue that the prison boom of the mid 90’s, oversaw by then governor George Allen, has resulted in a need to keep the facilities filled to capacity. They say this has created longer sentences for lesser crimes, and that the abolishment of parole eliminated incentives and opportunities for rehabilitation.

“What we are trying to do is expose prisons as not rehabilitating and not giving them resources and support to better themselves as human beings,? O’Hern said.

Many states have privatized their prisons, generating criticism that the profit motive takes precedence over rehabilitation, prisoner safety, and reducing recidivism. With one exception, Virginia’s prisons are state operated, but contracts for food service, telephone service, and other infrastructure needs are lucrative opportunities for commercial businesses.

Brenda McLaurin is a long time friend of Branch-Kennedy, and is a board member of RIHD. She also has a son behind bars. To her, one of the biggest problems facing the justice system is the high rate of recidivism.

“It’s a vicious cycle, over and over again, once you go, you’re going back. That’s the mentality because you don’t get anything to keep you from going back,? McLaurin said.

The rally attracted about 30 to 40 people though out the day, including some of the park’s transient regulars.

“It has to be something done about the things that happening here that nobody wants to talk about,? McLaurin said.

The prison justice movement got a national boost a few weeks prior to the rally when Senator Jim Webb held a Joint Economic Committee Hearing in Washington to address the social issues associated with mass incarceration.

“With the world’s largest prison population, our prisons test the limits of our democracy and push the boundaries of our moral identity,? Webb said in his opening statement.

Back in Richmond, talk of reforming the prison system remains at a murmur.

“It is an uphill struggle, that is why we need to start a strategy now, get people mobilized now,? O’Hern said.

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