People locked up in at least 17 prisons around the country are in the midst of a three-week strike – organizing sit-ins, refusing to work or eat. Virginia says no prisoners hereare taking part, but Buckingham prison is on lockdown, and one inmate at Red Onion is in solitary confinement after trying to organize a prison reform movement from the inside.
Dale Pughsley turned 39 this summer but it wasn’t a happy birthday. He’s spent more than half of his life in Virginia prisons and could very well die there for something he did when he was a kid.
“I was 18 years old, and it was a crack deal. I was selling drugs," he recalls. " I grew up selling drugs to my father. I was in a real dysfunctional household. I’m not making excuses, but that was my life. That’s what I knew. I had been in and out of juvie since I was 14 years old. I mean I was a career criminal by the time I was 14 ”
And that meant being able to protect himself.
“I had a gun – a 25 automatic. Me and a guy got to arguing over crack," he explains. "He was refusing to pay me. I pulled out the gun really to intimidate him, and he tried to take it, and I shot him and killed him. I say accidentally, because it wasn’t my intention to kill him.”
Pughsley was charged with second-degree murder. Sentencing guidelines for the crime dictate a prison term of 5 to 40 years, but Pughsley got 58. The jury might have assumed he would be eligible for parole, but it had just been abolished in Virginia, and courts were not telling juries about the change.
Pughsley settled in at Red Onion Prison in Wise County and began the education he didn’t get outside.
“I came at a time where older guys were giving you books. Conversations were happening back then. What does it mean to be a black man in America? What does it mean to be a prisoner in America? How much should you be held accountable for being a victim of certain circumstances? Does society owe us anything?”
One of them lent him the Selected Works of Vladimir Lenin, but Pughsley wasn’t much of a reader. He asked his mentor for a simple explanation – a summary.
“He’s like, ‘Hell no! Take my dictionary. I don’t give a damn if it takes you three days to read three pages. You read it, and you come back and tell me what it means to you, man.’ Now I read and study all the time by myself, and I try to pay it forward to some of the younger guys.”
He was transferred to a lower security prison in Buckingham County, where he worked with professional counselors to help fellow inmates manage anger and address substance abuse, and he talked to them about the way Virginia handles people convicted of crimes. A 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trust found on average this state has the fourth longest prison sentences in the nation.
“There’s something wrong where you only have 9% of the general public that’s African-American male, but 65% of the system is African-American male.”
After he started organizing other prisoners around these issues, Pughsley was transferred to the Augusta Correctional Center. There he continued his work -- pointing out that inmates make less than a dollar an hour to manufacture license plates, furniture and clothing for a state-run corporation.
“They’re able to exploit our labor, because we’re not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, and we’re not protected by Virginia’s minimum wage act, and we’re talking about an agency that makes nearly $100 million a year from prison labor.”
The state was spending less than two dollars a day to feed each inmate, it had been sued and lost in court for providing inadequate medical care, and Pughsley said the staff was not large enough to ensure prisoner safety. The Department of Corrections refused to discuss Pughsley or his complaints with us – his claim of understaffing, but it recently offered to pay prison guards an $8,000 bonus if they would transfer to a job in Augusta. As for Pughsley, he’s been transferred five times in the last 20 months, and he claims to be stuck in solitary confinement for speaking out. We’ll explore that charge in our next report.
Dale Pughsley has changed over the years – read history and philosophy, learned the law and tried to educate fellow prisoners about social problems in America. He’s also changed his name – now going by the Swahili Askari Danso. The Department of Corrections won’t talk about his case, but Danso says his activism got him transferred from Buckingham Prison to Augusta and then on to Sussex II, which he calls the worst prison in Virginia. The food is bad, he says, the tap water is brown, the medical care and security inadequate. As a result, he claims, people are dying.
“Boggess Davis, Tennessee, Chinaman, Cupcake -- human beings who’ve just died as a result of staff negligence, misconduct,” he concludes.
The state confirms one man died of a drug overdose, another – aged 62 – had a cardiovascular disease, and a third was denied life-saving medication for Hepatitis C.
“This guy was filing medical clemencies, trying to make parole. He was doing this for over two years, and his hepatitis was getting progressively worse. A couple of days after he had made parole he passed away,” Danso says.
And then there was 47-year-old Johnny Tran, murdered by another prisoner in his cell. Danso was so upset that he organized a human rights committee and circulated a petition.
“And the idea was that we were going to send it to many grass roots organizations and post it online with the hope that we could get people to go to the Department of Corrections on our behalf and speak for us,” he explains.
Fifty-five men signed the petition asking for better medical care, clean water, an effective grievance procedure and improved conditions for visitors. Danso was again transferred --- this time to Sussex I, where he was placed in isolation.
“I spent 22 days with no soap, no toothpaste, no books – just staring at the wall,” he remembers.
Officials reviewed the petition and concluded doing what Danso wanted would disrupt the operation of state prisons.
“In all the years that Askari has been advocating for prisoner rights, there has never been a disruption,” says Margaret Breslau, chair of Virginia’s Coalition for Justice. “He has never been in a fight. He has never engaged in behavior against a guard. Never!”
She thinks it’s a mistake to punish a man who’s had a positive impact on fellow prisoners over the years.
“A lot of them will tell me, ‘Oh yeah. Askari was the first one who told me to go to the law library. Askari was the first one who told me about black history and how you can’t imprison your intellect. You have to learn. You have to use this time . What better use of their time than to educate themselves, to take a little pride and dignity so that when they get out they’re going to be better people for it?” she claims.
Nevertheless, the state transferred Danso once more – this time to the supermax prison Red Onion where he’s confined in a cell the size of a parking space for at least 22 hours a day with no natural light, limited visitation and few privileges. His wife, Nicole, says he’s again being punished for speaking out.
“He wrote an e-mail just saying that Sussex I is really no better than Sussex II," she explains. "They’re understaffed. They stay in the cell most of the day. They had been reading his e-mails, listening to all his phone calls, and they loaded him up on the bus and shifted him to Red Onion -- threw him back in solitary again.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says there are at least 242 men at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge in solitary confinement for 2.7 years on average. Studies show the isolation can cause mental illness or make it worse, and the ACLU is asking Governor Ralph Northam to follow United Nations guidelines so no one is in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days.