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What's behind the culture clash in Virginia prisons?

RADIO IQ, Dec. 7, 2023.

RADIO IQ | By Sandy Hausman

Shaheed Omar is a prison activist from Roanoke. For more than a decade he’s corresponded with inmates about prisoners being abused – receiving letters like this one.

“Thomas Edward Plummer’s hands and feet were shackled. He was face down on the floor. A correctional officer was banging the inmate’s head against the floor. Another officer kneed Plummer in the back, and a third kicked him in the side."

"This is the kind of letters that I would get from inmates," Omar explains. "What I would do – I would copy this letter, send it to the director, send it to the ACLU, CNN and different people to see if I could get a response.

And what kind of response did he get?

Omar sighs. “Actually,” he says, “nothing.”

Others, like Daniel Phillips, report frequent verbal abuse.

“You’re like – ‘Dude. Stop yelling at me. I’m 40 years old. Why are you yelling at me like I’m a child? Please stop yelling at me like I’m a dog!”

He’s convinced that abuse of Black prisoners by White guards is proof of racism, a view shared by inmate Jermaine Pickett, who claims guards have used the N word when addressing him, and he thinks western prisons show favoritism based on race in assigning jobs and imposing discipline.

“There will always be a conflict, because we don’t understand one another’s cultures," he explains. "When we address the issue with the officers, we will just get a cold shoulder – like, ‘Okay, that’s the way it is up in these mountains.’ They would tell you that. And all that we ask is a little more respect!”

Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News thinks it’s more complicated than that. In some cases, he notes, race is not the issue.

“We have reported extensively on the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, the New Orleans Jail in Louisiana, the Washington, D.C. and the Baltimore Jail – these are all cesspools of brutality, corruption, murder and mayhem, and they’re all being run by Black people.”

And Greg Holloway, operations chief for the western region of Virginia’s Department of Corrections is adamant, claiming he has not encountered instances of racism in more than three years on the job.

Askari Lumumba has been behind bars in Virginia for more than 20 years. He calls himself a jailhouse journalist, observing and writing about what he sees. He and Pickett believe the culture clash could be rooted in poor training of officers.

“They actually have dehumanized us with the way they’ve been trained, and I say that because I’ve been to lower security prisons, and the staff – they just don’t have the attitude that they have in this region,” Lumumba says.

“They’ve been taught, in training, that these guys are the worst of the worst,” Pickett adds. “They look at you as less than human. Because you made a mistake in your life, they will treat you as if you are the scum of the earth.”

Finally, Lumumba thinks what’s happening in prisons is a reflection of what’s happening in society at large.

“You have a staff that’s made up of typically working-class people who are frustrated with their own social grievances, and they bring those problems into work. They, themselves, are dealing with psychological stress, and we are an easy outlet – an easy punching bag if you will.”

He says abusive behavior gets worse, because correctional officers promote a culture of silence, refusing to report cruel treatment of inmates. This former guard agrees, although she says she would report wrongdoing.

“I want to keep everybody safe, and I would hope that everybody else would, but I know there are some people who consider that being a snitch and would not report.”

There is no easy solution to this problem. With so many prisons located in remote areas with limited media access, Virginia has yet to see sizable public support for reform. On the other hand, with Democrats again taking control of the legislature, fiscal conservatives fretting about the high cost of corrections and a new director in charge of state prisons, 2024 could bring change.