I had the chance last week to sit down with Senator Jennifer Boysko (D-33), and talk about her visits to several Virginia prisons, the need for reform, and some of the legislation she’s been involved in to improve conditions for those who are incarcerated as well as those who work in the prisons. The bottom line: we need to continue to decriminalize mental health and substance abuse, to free up resources for more evidence-based programs to focus on the “corrections” in the Department of Corrections. And we need to improve pay and conditions for those who work there.
What facilities did you visit?
I have been to four prisons in the past year. I went to Sussex II State Prison, I went to Deerfield Correctional Center, I went to Lawrenceville Correctional Center, and I went to Nottoway Correctional Center.
What made you decide to make these visits?
I carried the earned sentence credit bill, and over the past three to four years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who have loved ones who’ve been incarcerated, and to build relationships with them and it was really my interactions with those—women, actually, that’s gotten me to continue the conversations around prisons, and how we need to address some of the challenges. I’ve also gotten to know a lot of the people who work at DOC, through my work co-chairing the Joint Commission to Study Staffing Levels, Employment Conditions, and Compensation at the Virginia Department of Corrections. So not only have I gotten to understand what’s going on with the inmates and their families, but also the people who work for DOC, the officers and the support staff there.
Can you describe the process that you personally go through to get into the facilities? Was there a dress code, did you get patted down, go through an x-ray machine, etc.?
As a General Assembly member, I have a much easier time than most people. So I just had to show my ID, get a COVID test. The first time I went I had to wear a mask, the last place I visited I wasn’t required to. I didn’t have to go through any of the searches that you or any regular member of the public would have to go through. I had to leave my ID and my phone number with the front desk. But I was able to bring my personal cell phone. But that was it—I didn’t have to go through any sort of strip search or pat down because I’m a member of the General Assembly.
Did you have to follow any dress code?
It wasn’t even raised with me, but I did wear modest clothing, I wore a pantsuit, I wore closed toe shoes, I didn’t wear high heels, I pulled my hair back. I didn’t have that experience, but I know that there have been other people who have and who have been refused entry because they weren’t following the so-called dress code.
One of the people I know has her husband in prison, and her son. And she was told she could only have one visit a day. And she went to see her husband and then was told because she’d been to see her husband at one facility that she was not allowed to go to another facility to see her son.
Did the facilities have advance notice of your visit?
Even though as a General Assembly member, I have the ability to go visit any facility at any time without giving prior notice or needing anybody’s authorization, however, because I think it’s important to give head’s up, for three of the four visits, I worked with loved ones I know who have someone in prison and I asked those folks to help gather a group of thoughtful, incarcerated people who were interested in sharing with me what their lives are like and who they are. So at three of the four visits, I set up a roundtable just with incarcerated individuals and me. I also let DOC know—I worked with our legislative liaison, gave them the names and inmate numbers of the individuals that I wanted to talk with, and gave them a general time of when I would be arriving. I also asked the DOC folks for an opportunity to sit down with members of the staff. I’ve had roundtables with the officers and support staff, and for some I’ve just gotten a tour with them and done a more informal process.
Do you have any sense of how your visit might have been different if they didn’t have advance notice? Do you get the sense that they prepared for you?
The first one, I am certain they prepared for me. It was when I went to Nottoway, about a year ago. Everything was really clean. They had the people who were taking care of the dogs and training them and rehabbing them, they had them all out so I got to go talk to them. Everybody who was incarcerated had the opportunity to be outside, and it just seemed to be a really nice day. When I went to Lawrenceville, even though they knew that I was coming, they were on lockdown, so I did get to have the roundtable with a small group of people, but nobody was allowed out of their cells outside of this small group. Even when I went into the common room—and I said going in “I don’t want any special treatment here, I just want to see how it really is”—they were all peeking out of their little cell windows, like “what are you doing here?” and I would go over and talk to them but they weren’t even allowed out even in their main congregating area. It had been over a month since they had had any sort of outside time. They’d been stuck in their cells, every day, for at least a month at that point.
It makes it hard to help people move forward, just to have the ability for some exercise, some ability to contact your loved ones, access to healthy food, access to the classes and the courses that they should all be taking. And there was a pretty wide discrepancy—Lawrenceville was the most concerning of all those that I saw; Deerfield, which is for kind of a geriatric population, people who might not have as great health, it’s a level one prison, they had a lot more flexibility, they were out and about more, they were able to move between things. They even had a room that was dormitory style so that they all the ability to talk to one another, to hang out, or to go back into their bed area by themselves. It was like night and day, and I did those two on the same day.
When I went to Sussex II, which is one of the highest security prisons, while I appreciated the hospitality, we were given this really nice breakfast before we went in—and I went as a member of the compensation and staffing group, and then we were able to sit down with the incarcerated folks while they were having their meals, and I can just say that the food level of quality was—you could not compare the two. It was not something that I would have wanted to eat. It just gave me a stark vision of the difference. They give them $2.20 per inmate per day. My cat food is $1.25 a can, and that’s for one meal. I’m going to be carrying a budget amendment to double the amount of money they spend and will also have language that says that you can’t use that money for other things, so if you don’t spend the full amount, you can’t hold it for something else, you need to spend it for the individuals. And $4.40 isn’t much. My understanding also is if you’re a vegetarian, you get a lump of peanut butter or some beans, and that’s like your protein every single day. Again, nobody’s asking for a four-course meal. But you know that health care is really determinate on what you’re putting into your body, and that includes your mental health, your physical health, your ability to learn and to be your best self.
The first one I visited was Nottoway. I met with about six individuals. I asked the officers to leave us alone in the room. And I allowed each of them to tell me their stories, what got them into prison, what life is like living in prison. Each person was respectful and thoughtful and used my time really appropriately, and really humanized their plights. And then I also got to hear from the officers when I went to Nottoway, where they helped me understand that even on their days off, because there aren’t enough people to staff the prison, they are required to call in at 4 in the morning to see if some other facility needs them. Some of them might have to drive 90 miles to get there, and it’s just an untenable situation. They’re not paid very well, and there aren’t enough people to do all the jobs that they need to do, and that really hamstrings everybody from being as functional as possible, and really working on corrections as opposed to just incarceration.
It makes you wonder where that $2 billion is going, if they’re understaffed, underpaid, they’re overcharging incarcerated people for basic goods, the food and healthcare are cheap, low quality, and the facilities are located in the middle of nowhere where land is cheap?
It really does. We would really need to drill down into the budget to see exactly where those dollars are being spent. I know that they weren’t paying them well because the General Assembly sets the fees. So, we just increased that by about 40%. And they were able to offer bonuses to try to get people to join in. But if we’re talking about the profiteering part, which I’ve also gotten involved in, we did a whole study on the profiteering around their commissary (which is where incarcerated people get to buy themselves food or other items), as well as telephone calls, video calls, and emails. I don’t know if people know this, but if I were to call, or you were to call a person who’s incarcerated, that cost is borne on me, to communicate, by a per email or per call fee. I will be carrying legislation this year to eliminate the cost to loved ones for phone calls and video calls and communications. And I’m hopeful that we will be able to implement that. There have been some other states that have done that, and we had a whole profiteering study as well this past year where we brought in members of the DOC but also folks who had worked with vendors in other states and people who have loved ones behind bars as well.
How often are the incarcerated people going outside, and how regularly?
Yeah, with the staffing situation, it’s not consistent at all. I think they’re supposed to be getting four hours a day for regular people. Some are not going outside at all, like at Lawrenceville. The folks that I knew from Nottoway were under lockdown. So, with COVID, the staffing shortages, and with any sort of unrest going on, they are not getting outside. They’re also not necessarily getting to their classes, or their jobs—many of them have jobs at the facility, and many of them are not getting to go to those, or their training, under these circumstances. And imagine, a pod is 250 people, there are instances when they only had two to three people on staff who were in charge of overseeing two different pods. So this is a pretty dire situation, and they just felt it wasn’t safe to allow for transition, because they in most cases have to have an escort. They also in most cases don’t get a shower every day. That might be up to three times a week, and you go in shackles I believe in some of the high security areas.
Are there no repercussions for the facility or for the VADOC if they don’t meet these minimum standards? Is it required by law that they be allowed outside for four hours a day? Is that for accreditation?
I think that in these emergency circumstances, they’re just not seeing any sort of consequence for it. And we don’t have an ombudsman. That’s something that Delegate Patrick Hope has been working on for a long time, and I think Senator Dave Marsden also. An ombudsman would be someone who they and their families could address these kinds of challenges to, as well as staff members could address these to. Even if you are in solitary confinement or restorative housing, you are supposed to get to go outside for one hour a day, and that’s definitely I don’t believe happening. And that’s not all of them. Like at Deerfield, there was wide open access and people had really good free rein to go outside and get fresh air.
How does the health care system work at prisons?
I was able to go into a clinic at Deerfield specifically, which is the geriatric facility. I got to sit down and have a conversation with the chief doctor on call. He’s been there for decades, and had a friendly attitude. There were some people who were very ill, bed-ridden, who I got to talk with. But as far as just your basic aches and pains, there were reports to me from the incarcerated folks, where for example, their glasses weren’t the right prescription, or they’re in some kind of pain and they’re just told to just brush it off. It’s not like they can go to the doctor and feel like they’re getting all the attention they need.
Are they supposed to be getting regular preventative care, routine dental exams, eye exams, etc.?
It’s my understanding that they should be. If somebody is in a lot of trouble, they could be moved into some sort of infirmary, or even hospitalization if they need. I have known of people who have had neck surgery with a herniated disk. But we also know that there have been people that have died from COVID, especially in the Farmville facility, the ICE facility, that I believe weren’t getting the proper medical treatment. And that was one of the bills that I carried that gave the state the ability to have some oversight over that. I think there’s a little bit of disbelief, with staff not believing that when someone tells them they have a problem whether or not choose to believe that or not. It was brought up to me a couple times how much we spend on health care in the facilities and do we want to spend even more?
Tell me about the incarcerated people you met, so we can make this more real.
Some of the guys that I sat down with, a good portion of them, were really young when they were incarcerated. They were barely 18, just had turned 18, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was one person that I spoke with who—and I am not condoning any sort of illegal behavior, I want to make that very clear. There are certain people who I know do things that they intend to be harmful, they intend to hurt somebody and they’re not sorry. Those were not the kinds of people who I spoke to. I spoke to folks who primarily had been incarcerated when they were very young and who have grown up in the system, spending more than twenty years behind bars, and reached adulthood behind bars. One of them had been doing a drug deal, and was not armed when he went in, and the people that he was supposed to be doing the deal with, one of them pulled a gun on him and was trying to rob him, and he pulled the gun out of their hand, and the gun went off, ricocheted on a wall and then went down. And he didn’t even realize that somebody had been shot and killed. Later, when he found out the details, he was horrified.
Another person told me that they were with a group of people, didn’t realize what was going on, a murder was committed, and because the person, who was a young kid at the time was implicated, and most of the other people somehow had attorneys that got them out, and he accepted some sort of a plea deal, and it ended up with him in prison for twenty-something years. Again, I have limited experience, so again, I was talking to people who were primarily very young and naïve, and didn’t have access to a good attorney, or understand what the system even was; people who had not really committed a violent crime, but because the court system either encouraged them to take a plea or because they didn’t have an attorney who was taking care of them, ended up in incarceration for far longer than what somebody who had good representation would have.
Another person that I talked to was severely depressed. He thought—and these are disturbing stories—rather than kill himself, he took a bb gun into a bank and said that he was going to rob it, and was expecting that the police would come in and kill him. Except they didn’t kill him, nobody got hurt, he didn’t fire a weapon at all, and he’s been incarcerated on attempted murder and robbery for decades.
How do incarcerated people get through it, what does their support system look like, how do they cope?
Some incarcerated people have created a really great network of support within themselves. They know who the people are that they need to be concerned about, who are not interested in trying to redeem themselves or grow as individuals. Some of them have started their own programs that are interactively mentoring folks who are younger than them; a group of them have started a blog called Brilliance Behind Bars, where they write about who they are and some of their thoughts. There are family members who are in close contact and who have advocated for their loved ones with folks like me, and are facilitating connections with people.
A lot of the incarcerated people who I spoke with had become leaders in their own facilities; even the guards know that they can come to them for help in getting stuff organized and settled and calmed down because they are thoughtful and respectful and they are there to try to make things better for one another. I was really touched by, in the roundtable specifically, the collaboration you see that seems positive and healthy. Some of them are artists and you’ll see just gorgeous work on the walls.
One guy I met with, he wrote a children’s book, because he said when he was growing up, he didn’t have any role models, and he didn’t think that he could do anything. So he wrote a book [The YOUth Are Our Future], and he got it published. And then, I don’t know why, he felt like he needed to give it to me, and he gave me his only copy. It was so sweet.
I did not have any interaction with folks who were freshly there and not on board with accepting their responsibility; I didn’t have any interaction with folks who are seriously mentally ill and perhaps not able to accept what they’ve done, that’s a whole other story. Most of the people that I spoke with did have some significant loved ones who have made it their mission to care for their folks.
What are the people you interacted with looking forward to? Where do they see the rest of their life going?
Overall, all of them, if they can get out, they want to live a quiet, peaceful life, where they have a home and can be around people they love and who love them, and to be able to do simple things like go to the grocery store, or go to the park, go on a hike, and be able to eat a meal that is not meatrock or something that looks like dog food.
Have you spoken to any of the people who had the rug pulled out from under them, who were scheduled to be released early under the Earned Sentence Credit program, and who had that taken away from them by Governor Youngkin’s budget amendment?
Yeah, I met a couple of them when I went in September, and it was really frustrating. They’re really confused. Like, honestly, they wanted information, like “help me understand who here is going to be eligible, and who isn’t?” And it wasn’t clear to me that even the officers were 100% certain about that. It’s really heartbreaking to talk to the family members as well who thought, they were preparing, they were getting their rooms ready, and making sure that they had the support systems that they needed, and then to be told with a week to go “no, never mind, you’re not coming home.” And I continue to hear from those folks. I have stacks of letters from folks who write to me just heartbreaking letters. You know, there are court cases going through the system right now to challenge what happened. I’m not involved in any of that at all, but some people believe that it will go to the Supreme Court. Those folks specifically, they had their dates set, they were told that they were going home, and then having the rug pulled out from under them. You know how I feel, there are no words for me.
So, you’ve worked pretty closely with at least one person who has gotten out. I think it would be helpful if you could go through the setting up of the home plan (required for release), a place that was acceptable for him to go home to, and what that process looked like.
So, backing up a bit, it was one of the men that I met at Nottoway, and I’ve gotten very close with his best friend from childhood. He was someone who had been incarcerated on a 60-year sentence, he was 18 when it happened, and he had been in for 24 years. Along with a number of individuals, including an attorney with the organization who help folks who really shouldn’t be in prison anymore to get out, we worked very hard and asked for him to be pardoned. And the Governor [Northam] pardoned him, just a couple of days before he left office.
And he had to have a home plan. They were on lockdown at the time, he hadn’t had any interaction with anybody since before Christmas—no emails, no phone calls, no video calls, no letters—and so he had no idea that any of this was going on. I got the news on a Wednesday night, and he was to be released by Friday. He had to have a home plan, but his home plan had him going home to out of state, where he was from, and that wasn’t going to be possible because he has to stay here for a certain amount of time before he goes. So we (me, and some other people who knew about his situation) started calling everybody that we knew who might possibly be able to take him in, people who work as nonprofit leaders who help formerly incarcerated folks, and finally somebody found a place where he could live.
He was informed the morning that he was going home, that morning, his attorney called him to tell him. He was given his belongings in one little box, and taken to the front and the attorney came and picked him up. I met him in Richmond, along with a small group of folks who had been active in this effort. And then I took him out and we shopped, because they didn’t give him anything. So, toothbrush, toothpaste, clothes, shoes, shampoo, those kinds of basics. And then his childhood best friend came and met us, flew down, and then we went out to eat, at a restaurant. The first time he’d gone to one in more than two and a half decades! Watching him being in the car and seeing traffic; getting his first phone and trying to figure out how to use a smartphone; understanding what email was and how to communicate with people; sleeping in a real bed and getting a real shower; those first-time kinds of things, amazing!
One of the most upsetting things for me has been in his efforts to try to get a job, and going through the hiring process over and over and over again, having a great interview, presenting really well, clearly able to do the job, and in the interview it’s very clear that he has been incarcerated and the charge was one that was of a very serious nature, but they’re still continuing the process. And then he gets the message back, “oh, we did the background check, sorry, you’re not eligible.” And then it would start again. There was one company, it was a major company, that is known for trying to allow second chances, who interviewed him a number of times for a number of positions, yet the same outcome came over and over again when they did the background check. For some reason they were not just able to say from the beginning “sorry, this isn’t going to work,” and they gave him false hope a number of times.
Because he was such a leader when he was behind bars, being a peer mediator and someone who could help calm unstill waters, you would think that he would be a sure thing for a peer mediator or a peer recovery specialist, but again, there are barriers—he’s part of that barrier crime group, and so he hasn’t been able to do a lot of that work that I think would be perfect for him.
There’s a sense of isolation probably with all of these folks who are getting out and trying to deal with a whole new world, virtually by themselves. Once they’re out, they do have a parole officer, who they check in with, but it’s very limited in the level of support that they’re getting on just everyday kinds of things. As somebody who’s a mom, I know watching our kids, who maybe have had the opportunity to graduate from college, and had all the resources in the world, they still need a lot of hand-holding and guidance in their early twenties. You can just imagine somebody who went into prison, who was maybe not in the best situation when they went in, not having that usual process of being able to grow with life skills, and then getting out with really nobody there to advocate for them or help them along. It’s a lot, it’s very difficult.
And he’s been doing some advocacy work, testifying in the General Assembly?
Yeah, that’s been the great thing is to watch somebody who has lived experience, who has been a leader inside, being able to turn around and use that experience to be able to help us policymakers and other advocates to understand where the barriers are, where the problems are. Can you imagine you’ve been in prison and you’ve watched this, being helpless, to be able to come out and make statements and testify before a panel of legislators to say “these are the challenges, this would be helpful, this is where we need to go,” and really being an expert witness? I’ve just been so proud of him. And others who have been able to use their experience. And in fact on our profiteering study, we incorporated members of the public who had been incarcerated who could tell us how it is to buy the products, and what it’s like getting those meals and how expensive it has been for their loved ones having to pay for phone calls and other things.
So, pie in the sky, suppose you could just completely design a new system, what would it look like?
So just last week I was at a conference at the Council of State Governments, and I got to sit in on a panel on prison reform. And it’s all about evidence-based practices. We know that people are not going to do their best when they are locked up in a tiny cell, with no opportunity for rehabilitation. If we truly are running a “Department of Corrections,” there has to be a very strong component on rehabilitation, where they are having access to learning, to education, and that includes education outside of the system, by perhaps doing video classes with our colleges and universities here in Virginia. We have to have real therapy, so that they have the ability to understand what has been the problem, why they made bad decisions; drug and alcohol rehabilitation; and then we have to have a way of really helping them move from the most punitive portion of it—which is appropriate—to really moving to self-sufficiency and getting out. 90% of the people who are behind bars right now are going to get out. Do we want them to get out with limited skills and resources so that they’re just going to re-offend and go back in and possibly hurt somebody else, or do we want them to come out healthy, wiser, more adept and equipped to have a peace-filled and successful re-entry into our communities?
There are other countries who do this really well, and I think we should learn from them. Denmark is a great example. Because in the early 80s or 90s people thought building new prisons would be a good economic incentive, I think we’ve really done ourselves a huge disservice. To put these facilities hidden behind the woods, where they can’t be used for much of anything else, and lend themselves no opportunity to really do the kind of rehabilitation that we need. I think that, we’ve worked really hard on broadband to ensure every corner of the Commonwealth has access to broadband, I think we’ve got to use the infrastructure opportunities to bring resources for counseling, for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, but also for learning and education, and really try to develop a program that has its top priority in getting people out to be successful.
And another piece of that is that a lot of the people I met who work for the Department of Correction just fell into the position because it was a job opening; it wasn’t that they felt a calling for this. How do we make this into a job that is something that they can be proud of, in making the world a better place, and have a livable wage?
Another thing we can be working on is that all families have the resources they need, that they have wraparound services, housing policies, that we are really delving into early education and mental health and drug and alcohol help, getting people the tools they need to get out of abusive situations. I’ve been working with the forensic nurses all year, and with the hospital association to make sure that they are actually screening for domestic and sexual abuse everywhere. And so we’re going to try to increase funding there also, because that goes hand in hand with a lot of this stuff.
The last thing is that there are other states who do really neat things with connecting folks behind bars with the public and with leaders; and so one of the things that I’ve wanted to do is get other folks to go in and visit prisons, take that time to go in and talk with them, to understand what their lives are like, for the people who are incarcerated but also the people who work there, so that we’re really making decisions based on accurate information instead of a narrative that is politically expedient. It’s easy to say “bad guys all need to go to prison and throw away the key! Be really afraid!” But I don’t think that serves the Commonwealth the best.
We need to be doing better. I think there are plenty of people who are incarcerated who could be successful members of the community if they were able to have the proper resources and education. I think they want to do better. I think a lot of them have learned their lesson. We have our Second Look legislation coming up, that’s another thing that is being seen as a success around the country, where if you’ve been incarcerated when you were young, you can go back before a judge, have your sentence re-examined based on the current information and the work that you’ve done behind bars, and with proper vetting, let out those who are going to be successful. Nobody is advocating for letting a serial murderer go who is never going to make a difference, never change, but for a lot of these people who got in when they were kids, and they did things, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, I think we could do that.
What are some more immediate things that the General Assembly could be doing?
Going to visit the prisons is probably the best thing that people who care about this can do. Taking the time to go and sit down with folks, to talk to them and understand what their lives are like, talking to the officers who have to do this work every single day, and understanding what the hardships are that they face. The two really have to go hand in hand, because if the officers are living under really extreme pressure and dysfunction—which they have been—it’s really hard for them to be effective and thoughtful in the way they treat the people who are incarcerated; and if the incarcerated people are living under dire situations, they’re going to act out more; and it just makes it worse for everybody. So, the more we can do roundtables, or any sort of exchange program, any sort of debate group or study group.
And anything we can do to help people gain skills, increase their communication skills, their writing skills, the soft skills that so many people are lacking these days, and to build onto that, to be understanding what is expected of them, have people who are out in the community to serve as touch points for them, to say “these are not just numbers, these are human being, who have lives, and stories, that are surprising and are sometimes not at all what we think when we think about the “bad guys.” That’s the number one thing that I would suggest right now, that doesn’t require money, doesn’t require a real change in policy, but it just requires some thoughtful people doing some planning and organizing.
Is prison reform a partisan issue?
Well, I think it shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and it’s not. I know Republicans who are very passionate about this. If we’re talking about fiscal responsibility, having the DOC be [such a giant part of] the budget, that is a fiscal concern that should hit both sides of the aisle. The fact that we chose not to allow compassionate release for people who are probably not going to live much longer, for folks with some of the more serious charges—it’s ridiculous; they don’t have the capacity or the ability to cause harm, they are bed-ridden for the most part. That’s millions of dollars that we spend on their care in those last months of their lives.
The group I just met with through the Council of State Governments has a whole justice system workgroup, and the guy who heads the parole system in Alabama was talking about it, and there was a legislator from Kansas. These are people who are not liberals, who were saying “evidence-based programs make sense.” We all want safety. When 90% of the people who are incarcerated are going to get out, we want safety when they get out. And that means programs that work, a system that actually truly works to get people back on their feet again. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. And in the House at least, there are members who are willing to step up and work alongside those of us who have been doing this work.
I never really felt like I had the ability to make a change on any of this, until I got involved in the earned sentence credit work and then I got to know all the loved ones, and then it was like “okay we can do this.” There are things that we can do. Just regular individuals can do things, any member of the elected body can do things to make a change for positive, and for me that’s been the most empowering.