1/17/21

Defying fear, VAPJN caravan demands COVID-19 protection for Va. prisoners

Staff Report - The Virginia Defender - https://virginiadefender.org

RICHMOND, VA, Jan. 17 -- Three days before the presidential inauguration in nearby Washington, D.C., a state of emergency has been declared in Virginia. The FBI has warned of possible attacks this weekend on all 50 state capitols, including in Richmond. There was a bomb threat yesterday at the Virginia Supreme Court. And thousands of angry “gun rights” activists are expected to converge on the city tomorrow. Tensions are so high that even some county “militias” are saying they’re skipping that event out of safety concerns.

And yet none of that prevented nearly 50 cars from joining the “Not One More Death!” caravan that drove through downtown Richmond yesterday to demand protection for the state’s prisoners from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organized by the prisoner-led Virginia Prison Justice Network, the mobilization attracted former prisoners and family members from around the Greater Richmond area and as far away as Stafford to the north and Suffolk to the south.

Led by the Richmond organizations Community Unity In Action and Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, the mobilization was joined by members of Incarcerated Lives Matter VA, Bridging the Gap Virginia, Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised (RIHD), Richmond For All, New Virginia Majority and anti-eviction activists, among others.

While people gathered in the parking lot of the Black-owned Supreme Flea Market in Henrico County, VAPJN organizer Lynetta Thompson explained the caravan demands:

1 - Outside oversight of the state’s prisons and jails by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a similar agency.

2 - Classification of prisoners on the same level as residents of nursing homes for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

3 - Rapid expansion of the state’s early-release program to include a much wider pool of eligible prisoners.

Thompson and Defender Charles Brown then read statements from the three VAPJN prisoner leaders: Hassan Shabazz, incarcerated at the Augusta Correctional Center in Augusta County; Chanell Burnette, from the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy; and Askari Danso, at River North in Independence. (The statements are posted on the VAPJN website: https://vapjn.wordpress.com.)

Defender Phil Wilayto then went over the logistics of the day and the ground rules for participants. (Richmond For All video of the presentations is here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CKHX67LlxRs - To view, cut and paste onto your browser.)

After drivers taped posters to their vehicles, the caravan set off, headlights on and blinkers flashing - a militant, defiant funeral procession paying homage to the 51 Virginia prisoners who have died from COVID-19, along with two prison staff members. Altogether, nearly one-third of the state’s 25,000 prisoners have contracted the disease. Many also have died in local and regional jails.

Once the caravan reached downtown Richmond, it turned north and made two swings by the Richmond city jail, which did not begin testing inmates until four months after the pandemic had hit Virginia, and then only after multiple protests by local prisoner advocates. By that time, one out of every eight inmates had been infected, with 90 percent showing no symptoms.

“The most impressive part for me was when we circled twice in front of the city jail and we all could see how many of us there were,” Thompson told the Defender. “And by the time we went around the second time you could see faces in the jail windows.”

Then it was back onto Broad Street and past the State Capitol, which has been shut down and fenced off, with plywood covering its windows. This is where the VAPJN has held rallies of hundreds for the past three years. The caravan continued through the Broad Street shopping area, the arts district and Virginia Commonwealth University campus, and finally past the Science Museum of Virginia, where the state legislature’s senate is meeting during the current General Assembly session. (The House of Delegates is meeting virtually.)

“The reaction from the people on the street, reading the signs, ‘Not One More Death!’ - it was amazing,” Thompson said. “We got a lot of fists up and ‘yeahs,’ and the cars just kept coming with their lights flashing - it was very impressive.”

“Despite the tensions, it was really important to be out on the streets,” Wilayto said. “We’ve been planning this since well before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and to have called it off or postponed it would have sent a very bad signal about the strength and determination of the progressive movement in Virginia. We considered all the possible dangers, prepared our security accordingly, and are very happy with the results.”

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Editor’s Note: The Defenders put out $128.00 for a van rental and $150.00 for posters and route maps. To make a donation to help cover the costs, please click the “Donate” button in the top right menu of this page. 

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