LOCAL News :: Civil & Human Rights

Prisoner rights talk at Info Shop

On the evening of December 10th, 2005 a forum was held at Paper Street Info Shop in Richmond to discuss the condition of the prison system in the United States. A racially diverse crowd of about 30 people were in attendance. Earlier in the day a group of protestors gathered outside the Richmond City Jail to bring attention to abhorrent and unsafe conditions that the inmates are forced to endure. Both of these events were part of International Human Rights Day.

Several activists, some local some not, discussed the current state of prisons in Virginia and abroad.
The speakers covered a variety of topics from documenting prisoner abuse to creating viable alternatives to the prison industrial system. The first speaker was Phil Wilayto, editor of the independent newspaper The Defender, who spoke about the conditions in Richmond City Jail. Overall Mr. Wilayto said that the prison is in a state of disrepair to the point where it is dangerous to the prisoners. He alluded to a beating that took place within the last couple of years where an inmate simply left his cell and entered the cell of another man and beat him to death. On top of this Mr. Wilayto said that there is no air conditioning in the prison which means in the summer times the heat is often unbearable, while in the winter time some cells have snow blowing into them. He also pointed out, that contrary to the stereotypes, a good portion of the prisoners are there because of misdemeanors, or because they are awaiting trial.

Etta, from a group called Fed Up!, discussed documenting prisoner abuse. She said that the Fed Up!, based out of Pittsburgh acts a clearing house where inmates write to have their concerns documented. She said that they get contacted about issues such as a prisoner being denied food for several days to prisoners being mistreated and threatened by the guards. The information that is gathered is included in both a radio show and a newsletter that the group produces. She shared several anecdotes about successes Fed Up! has achieved by publicizing the treatment of the prisoners such as prison guards at one institution being less violent with the inmates.

Another presenter, Lillie from Resources Information Help for the Disadvantaged (RIHD) touched on the importance of the state legislators taking an interested in what is happening in the prisons throughout Virginia. Ms. Kennedy said that currently one prison in Virginia is privatized, but there is an interest in privatizing all the prisons in the state, and if that would happen the public, and the state, would lose their ability to monitor what happens inside the prison walls. She also spoke of an instance of financial misconduct that she has dealt with where the prison charged an inmate several thousand dollars for copies he had requested, then anytime his family gave him money to use for calling home the prison put that towards his debt instead of letting him make cheaper phone calls.

The other speakers, including a mother whose son is currently incarcerated, talked about what life is like for prisoners. In some prisons inmates are in there cells for 23 hours a day and only allowed outside for one hour, and at the same time they aren’t allowed to watch television, read books, or listen to the radio. It was also mentioned that typically inmates have to buy televisions and radios from a private supplier at inflated prices while they work for $.09-$.11 per hour. There was also discussion of current legislation that would reduce an inmates time if they chose to participate in voluntary rehabilitation classes, a bill that came before the legislature last year but died.

The final two presenters touched on what society might look like if prisons no longer existed. They questioned the law enforcement system overall, and painted a picture of a society where communities would police themselves, and call out harmful behavior.

The evening ended with a lengthy question and answer session, and the organizers announced that they would likely return to Richmond in the near future for more actions. For more information about the prisoner abuse, and protesting the prison system check out the following website: www.signalfire.org/Dec10/