“Something is very wrong here and I need answers; all I’ve received is my sister’s body, a navy blue jumper, and hell to live in for the rest of my life.” – June Everett
June Everett’s sister, Sandra Kenley, died at Hampton Roads Regional Jail on December 15th, 2005 with “no medical treatment for her heavy bleeding [and] no legal help.” Her case was one of the catalysts to the federal investigation into the conditions at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. The investigation found HRRJ to be unfit according to the standards of Immigration Customs and Enforcement, and so ICE pulled out. The conditions at the jail never significantly changed.
Sandra’s case, for those who have been following the jail, is sickeningly reminiscent. After vomiting blood for weeks and filing two desperate emergency grievance requests begging for help, Henry Clay Stewart died alone in his cell on August 16th, 2016. He was there for violating a probation charge for shoplifting. His case had been determined a non-emergency.
Just 353 days before, 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell died of starvation, having been neglected and ignored for months while waiting for a spot at a mental hospital. He was there for taking $5 worth of snacks from a store he believed to be owned by his father while off his medication.
Between these two well-publicized deaths, there were five more at the jail that failed to garner public attention — Mark Goodrum, William Thrower, Christopher Boyce, Ronnie Lee Proffitt, and one anonymous woman, “charged with misdemeanor trespassing, [who] died less than 24 hours after being admitted to a state hospital for a mental health crisis.”
There are 20 humans who died at HRRJ who might very well have lived had conditions been different. How many would have lived if medical emergency response times had been faster? How many would have lived if medical facilities were better? How many would have lived if there had been better translation services offered to them to help them understand their situation?
How many of them would have lived if mental illness and drug addiction were not so often criminalized?
Beyond a seemingly endless string of federal investigations, one corrupt superintendent exchanged for more uncertainty, and a handful of investigative articles, scant has changed and no platform has been created for those who have suffered from HRRJ’s neglect and abuse to share their stories.
This Thursday, we’re hoping to change that — for the first time and for good. The 7 Cities Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has coordinated with the Durham chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC, a committee of the IWW) to host a workshop and community discussion about the conditions at HRRJ and Norfolk City Jail. IWW is partnering with local abolitionist group Humanities Behind Bars, which organizes for the empowerment of formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families. The Portsmouth chapter of the NAACP, which has been instrumental in drawing public attention to HRRJ and calling for the federal investigations of it, will also be in attendance and in partnership with the IWW.
Joe Stapleton and Cynthia Fox of IWOC will share the history of prison struggle, the little-talked-about national prison strikes of last year, and effective tactics for inside/outside prisoner solidarity and support work. Kendrick McCray, a formerly incarcerated activist with Humanities Behind Bars, will share his experiences of torture and neglect at Norfolk City Jail. The discussion will be opened so that any in attendance who have been impacted or have a loved one been impacted by HRRJ, Norfolk City Jail, or any other carceral institution may share their experiences and stories if they would like to. There will be a letter-writing portion of the evening, in the style of the prisoner letter-writing hours that the IWW has been hosting bi-weekly, in which the attendees will be guided through writing a letter to an inmate at either HRRJ or Norfolk City Jail offering emotional support and inquiring into the conditions they are experiencing. And finally, there will be baked goods sold to benefit the organizations and individuals contributing to the event, courtesy of Ericka Gail, LGBT Advocate and Alliance GA of the ODU Office of Intercultural Relations.
In a time when one major political crisis is always on the heels of the last, it can be easy to sink our outrage and empathy into the endless avenues of angry debate, or dissociate from the awareness of unjust suffering altogether just to maintain daily sanity. It can be easy to talk about the prison industrial complex in the abstract in the aftermath of a viewing of 13TH, and forget altogether about the thousands of our brothers and sisters suffering alone and unspoken in our own cities.
It can be easy, in short, to care a whole hell of a lot, and accidentally do nothing about it. I haven’t even come close to finding a strategy that feels satisfactorily revolutionary, accessible, efficient, and intersectional, but I am absolutely convinced that the first step to building the world we long for is naming the rank injustices that happen on our very doorstep, denouncing the actors who benefit from those exploitations, and organizing as a community against them. I hope with all the righteous anger and aching love in my heart that you come this Thursday, and we can start building this together.
The IWOC Intro to Inside/Outside Prison Organizing will be held this Thursday, May 11th, at 6:30 PM at The Venue on 35th Street. No entry fee is required but donations to help defray the cost of the event and compensate the speakers are warmly welcomed! If you would like to share tactics, stories, research or some other kind of contribution, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. To stay connected, here is The Seven Cities IWW, Humanities Behind Bars, and Portsmouth NAACP.