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VA Repressive Sentencing Law Results in Uprisings

The feature attraction in this summer's media/political crime-hype circus in Virginia was the coverage of "Proposal X," Republican Gov. George Allen's repressive new sentencing bill. The bill, signed into law by Allen on October 17th, 1994, calls for tougher sentencing, the abolition of parole, and the construction of 22 - 25 new prisons to warehouse the expected tripling of Virginia's current prisoner population (20,000) over the next ten years.

The new sentencing law, which will take effect January 1, 1995, increases sentences by 100% for violent first-time offenders and 300%--700% for repeat offenders. Citizens convicted under the new law will serve a minimum of 85% of their sentences. In order to qualify for even a 15% time cut, prisoners will be required to participate in "rehabilitation" programs, though legislators failed to earmark any money to fund such programs. In fact, the 140 member state legislature approved only $36 million to fund the bill.

Gov. Allen, when asked by reporters at the signing ceremony, was unable to explain where the money will come from to finance the estimated $2.2 billion required to implement the bill's provisions. When pressed, Allen said he can generate some of the funds from budget cuts and selling surplus state lands. The "budget cuts" would almost certainly severely impact state funding for education and transportation. These fears were echoed in a statement issued by 22 pastors, rabbis, bishops, and other church officials in Virginia. They said the plan's "exorbitant costs will mortgage our children's future and rob us of the resources needed to address the underlying causes of crime."

When the legislature returns in January, lawmakers will look at issuing general obligation bonds for specific prison construction projects, each to be approved by voters. The first bond referendums are expected to appear on the November, 1995 ballot. It's ironic that state politicians cash in on the rich "political capital" garnered by passing a fashionable "get tough on crime" bill, but leave the responsibility for raising the financial capital to the already tax-strapped state voters. It will be interesting to see if (and how) voters will be goaded into putting their money where their politicians' mouths are. And what will state politicians do if the voters balk on the bond issues?

The state's leading Democrat, Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer--not to be outdone by his Republican counterpart--proposed that the bill should retroactively abolish parole for all prisoners already in the state's gulags. Virginia State Attorney General, James S. Gilmore, issued an opinion stating that retroactively abolishing parole would most certainly violate the federal constitution's prohibition against imposing ex post facto laws. Beyer then announced that his proposal could be accomplished by revising current parole and good-time guidelines, making it next to impossible for current prisoners to he paroled.

As is often the case when the political winds fan the flames of crime-hysteria to dizzying heights, professionals within the "corrections" industry start to get a little edgy. They know the score. There is usually a price to be paid when the boot presses down too hard on prisoners' necks. One week before Proposal X was to be voted on, the warden of the prison at Powhatan, VA ordered the prison locked down because a "kitchen knife disappeared." At about the same time the prison at Nottoway, VA was put on lock down status because of a "suspected plot" by prisoners to kill a guard.

A few days later Frank E. Saunders, a retired prison administrator in Richmond, was quoted in a Virginia newspaper article saying, "If you don't give them [prisoners] any kind of a sentence that offers any hope at all, this state is going to be one riot after another. And I predict that before the summer is over, after this parole commission has their meeting [to tighten current parole guidelines], there will probably be a series of riots throughout the state."

On September 19th, four days after that news article appeared, the legislature met in a special session to vote on Proposal X. On that same day prisoners at the Greensville prison in Jarratt Va. revolted. Numerous fires were started, equipment destroyed, suveillance cameras trashed, and fences torn down. Prisoners controlled several buildings and the recreation yard for several hours. The Prison Emergency Response Team (PERT) launched a counter assault, pumping tear gas, brandishing clubs and using attack dogs, eventually regaining control of the prison about five hours after the revolt started. The same day, prisoners at the overcrowded Norfolk jail rebelled, setting fires and trashing the place. It took jailers about five hours to quell that uprising.

Incredibly, prisoncrats and the mainstream media played down both disturbances and tried to assure the Virginia voters the rebellions had nothing whatsoever to do with the special session of the legislature voting on Proposal X that same day! Gov. Allen said the Greensville riot was "no big deal " And State Public Safety Secretary Jerry Kilgore said it "did not cause any damage to speak of." Prison spokesman Wayne Brown said it was "unclear if the legislative action triggered the disturbance."

Norfolk County Sheriff spokesman, George Schaefer, claimed that prisoners in the jail rioted because "they were upset about the food." He went on to assure reporters that there was "no apparent relation between the jail disturbance and the parole [Proposal X] issue."

But a 10-year veteran guard at the Greensville prison, who insisted on anonymity, said that tensions have been mounting at the Greensville prison and other prisons in the state ever since Gov. Allen's Proposal X was first publicized. The guard said of the disturbance. "It's long overdue, and it's going to happen again and again" at other prisons.

As of this writing, a PLN reader at Greensville reports that prisoners are still locked down 24 hours a day. They were not allowed to shower until ten days after the rebellion even though many of them had been heavily exposed to thick smoke and tear gas. All work, educational, and recreational programs have been halted. Visitation and phone calls have been suspended indefinitely. There is no sick call. The law library is closed, and photocopying is allowed only for "verifiable pending legal issues with a deadline within 30 days." The photocopying of legal documents is done by the Deputy Warden. Prisoners cannot buy food or tobacco items from the commissary, only hygiene items, stamps, and writing materials can be purchased.

The fact that Virginia DOC and prison officials would want the prisoner rebellions downplayed in the press and portrayed as unrelated to the crime bill is understandable. Proposal X will initiate the construction of 22 - 25 new prisons. That will result in the creation of huge numbers of "corrections" jobs. Those currently employed by the DOC will enjoy a tremendous opportunity to advance their careers quickly. During the prison expansion, as the DOC swells its ranks, avenues for promotion will quickly open up.

It is understandable that the press would downplay the prison rebellions. After all, they are in the business of gathering news. "News" is not that easy to come by. Most of the "news" they get is dispensed to them at press conferences by government officials. No prisoners were interviewed or quoted by the mainstream press in any of the numerous articles we reviewed leading up to and after the prisoner rebellions. If government spokespersons want to give a certain "spin" to a story, that is exactly the version of events they dispense to the news hounds who come to them for their daily ration. The news hounds know better than to bite the hand that feeds them.

It is also easy to grasp why the media is so fond of hyping crime. Ratings. Circulation. The media is in the business for profit. They have to compete with each other. They have discovered that whether or not the threat of rising crime is real (as they know it is not!) the more shocking and hysterical their coverage of crime becomes, the more they out-sell the competition.

It's not surprising that the public is scared witless and clamoring to rid themselves of crime and criminals. It is also not surprising that people consume the crime-hysteria peddled to them by the media. They are afraid. But what they fail to understand is that fear itself is a narcotic. They gulp down crime stories the way an alcoholic gulps down a bottle of cheap wine, seeking solace in the media, not understanding that the "news" they so desperately seek is the very source of their unrealistic fears in the first place.

With the voters whipped into a crime-fear frenzy, its no wonder that local, state, and national politician's jump on the crime-wagon. Their constituents almost demand they pass draconian crime legislation. It's a simple way for politician's to get voters lined up behind them. "Criminals" and prisoners have no special interest PACs to oppose legislation like Proposal X. By focusing attention on the "crime" issue, politicians capitalize on (and further inflame) the voting public's fear of crime. At the same time they are able to deflect attention away from the failings of government in other critical areas such as education, health care, and unemployment.

All of the above are isolated viewpoints, separate threads of a larger cloth. Each thread, when examined by itself, can appear to make some kind of sense. But when all of them are woven together into the fabric of society, the resulting garment appears more and more like a straight jacket.

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