As the Virginia Prison Justice Network (VAPJN) grows, the need for support and participation from prisoners and their families cannot be understated. The truth is that without prisoners as the engine to run this machine, it will not work. This is where the hard work comes in. The difficult part has not been bringing together the organizations that fight for prison and criminal justice reform, the seemingly insurmountable task is getting prisoners to care about the politics and laws that govern them. So why is is so hard to get those that are incarcerated to take interest in their own liberation? From all of the years that I've been incarcerated I have found that most prisoners suffer from a defeatist mentality. After all, approximately 90% of convictions come from guilty pleas which means that you have said, I give up. This turns into an unconscious acceptance of even the things that are violations of their rights while in prison. Somehow they think that just because they are guilty of a crime, in some way they deserve whatever treatment that they get. They don't stand for anything. I have seen this defeatist mentality for many years, and it is something that I don't think will ever completely go away.
Prisoners in Virginia are so far behind the curve as it pertains to prisoners rights and citizens rights that it is absurd. I believe that this is partly due to the fact that the majority of the prisoners that become incarcerated in Virginia bring with them an ignorance of the law and politics that govern them from the street. Many of them are the products of generational ignorance passed down to them from their families and communities. This translates into an inactivity towards exercising rights that they don't know, nor care to know that they
have. The roots to this lack of political awareness runs deep into the consciousness of our communities. I remember when I was younger my Grandfather, from Church Hill in Richmond, Va., was good friends with Governor Doug Wilder, and Doug Wilder had given him a set of books. I had a chance to touch them and inspect them at a young age. I saw certain things and were around certain people growing up that stressed the importance of understanding the politics that govern you. I believe that if a man does not understand the politics that govern him, no matter how free he may think that he is, he is still a slave to that system of governance.
Virginia Prisoner of Conscience (VAPOC) has taken on the task of changing the culture of ignorance that permeates through the prison environment here in Virginia. After all, how can we ever expect those behind the walls to ever become productive citizens if they don't even know what it means to be a citizen or to perform a civic duty. We believe that we can alter the destructive course of our communities from the inside out by educating those in prison and empowering them to then educate their families thereby producing the change that is so much needed. This is how we strengthen the VAPJN. Many organizations have been working for years for the benefit of prisoners and their families.
The network makes available all of the organizations that focus on prison and criminal justice reform at a centralized location where prisoners can get their friends and families to go to become educated about the mission and get involved. It is also a place where prisoners can reach out to the network for the assistance that they need. That being said, although these resources have been made available, it is time that the prisoner does his part. It first starts with the prisoner, then that will translate into the upliftment of his family and community. The goal is to make prisoners realize their worth and connection to the society that they have been away from. If prisoners don't see that connection then they can become radical and rebellious with no direction. That anger, rage, and animosity must be channeled in a positive way and pointed in the right direction. VAPOC aims to give prime examples of what this type of prisoner looks like. I think its way past time to make this a reality, and every prisoner of conscience feels the same.
Hassan Shabazz, Co-founder, VAPOC