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The System Is Broken

Michael Hairston, Buckingham Correctional

A lot of negative attention and publicity has been directed toward the Virginia Department of Corrections and Virginia's prisons as a whole, and rightly so. The truth of the matter is that the drug epidemic and recent surge in inmate deaths can be directly attributed to a lack of hope and belief in the system that is broken and failing. It's common knowledge that good behavior means nothing and following the rules brings nothing positive in return to either the inmate or his environment with regard to ever being released on parole at any point in the future.

The root cause of overdose deaths and disturbances and mounting discontent can be traced to a long-overlooked problem that's been ignored for almost 30 years. The abolishment of parole here in Virginia back in 1995 brought with it a warehousing mentality of "lock them up and throw away the key" mindset. Eventually, many privileges and programs were immediately cut, slashed, and discarded along the way and inmate morale deteriorated in the process.

In spite of the outlawing of parole in 1995, Virginia still has approximately 3000 inmates scattered throughout its prisons that are called "OLD LAW" inmates who were convicted and sentenced prior to 1995. They were "grandfathered" under the statutes that were in place at the time which allow for them to be paroled (under Discretionary, Geriatric, and Fishback laws) and released back to society at some point once they're deemed rehabilitated.

These men and women are referred to sometimes as 'old heads', or 'old-timers' and are more or less the leaders, mentors, and role models who are revered and respected, yet are continually denied parole in spite of their clean and meticulous prison records. They've shown their compliance and readiness to reenter society and it is THIS reason that's a cause for concern and consternation for most prisoners. This has set the tone of belligerence by the sheer lack of hope within the prison community.

These men and women, mostly in their 50's and 60's, or over, are the elders and hierarchy of the prison community and are being met time after time with denials, in spite of complete adherence to their individual treatment goals and case plans. They're complying with all that's required of them by the Parole Board Administrators and demonstrating they're committed, competent, and compassionate enough to return to the communities from whence they came.

Meanwhile, here on the inside it's the middle-aged and young adults who've looked up to these "OLD LAW" prisoners for advice and guidance, but they see up close and personal how the seniors of their community are being treated unfairly and unjust, by not being given a second chance no matter how deserving, or convincing their institutional record reflects. This has a direct impact on why the drug and gang culture has reached epidemic proportions inside Virginia's prisons.

The trickle-down effect is that most inmates have seen enough and are fed up and have become drug dealers, or drug abusers (sometimes both), by coordinating drug buys through compromised staff and family members. They promote and push criminal activities within the Department of Corrections that undermine security and safety for all other staff and inmates alike.

They use their gang affiliations and influence to convince, extort, and intimidate individuals to bring cell phones, perform sexual favors, and even post incriminating behavior on social media while not caring about the prison's rules, policies, and procedures because they feel no need to care since they see no way out. When inmates see no one "going home", they see no hope for themselves. They cease to care and they only live for the here and now.

Let's be clear, that real leadership and role modeling are pointless and mute when the one who's doing the leading is never rewarded for his efforts. Those that he mentors no longer view him as someone to emulate. He's looked down upon as being foolish and weak, to continue being a good and model inmate when "the Man" has no intention of letting him go. This limits and hinders his ability to instruct and influence other prisoners.

As such, in recent years the long-term inmates with decades of time served already, have begun to lose hope as well. With year after year of denials mounting up in spite of good behavior and clean records, they also are turning more and more to drugs(Fentanyl in particular) as a way to cope with the stress and anxiety of continued incarceration. All while complying with conditions that make them ready and suitable for release many times over.

All of this is intertwined with the rampant drug use and the constant threat of inmates who stop at nothing to get high, drink alcohol, and devise ways to breach security to get their hands on weapons, drugs, cell phones, and anything else to help them cope with the mind-numbing sentences they're serving behind bars in Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Corrections promotes itself as the "Healing Environment" that provides a safe, respectful, and ethical atmosphere where all are held accountable for their actions. Well, there's very little accountability by the VADOC, VA Parole Board and their respective employees to combat an epidemic of crisis proportions in it's prisons and institutions. It's still business as usual: Warehousing inmates by locking them up and throwing away the key.

This is my truth and I speak for nearly everyone who's doing time here in Virginia's prison system. I pray this will bring insight and benefit to anyone choosing to inquire and investigate. I am open to all who wish to speak to me as well. Sincerely yours,


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