Sunday meditation: Remember those in prison

God calls us to fellowship with the marginalized. This week, I want to focus our attention on this:

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (‭Hebrews‬ ‭13‬:‭3‬ NIV)

One of the most vulnerable populations in our country is those in prison. Imagine the potential oppression one would face as a disabled person imprisoned by a system that does not understand nor accommodate your basic human needs.

This week, two situations captured my attention. The first, I’ve been reading about for months as it has unfolded, and it involves a young, autistic black man, Reginald Latson, who is in prison after a series of unjust encounters with law enforcement. It started with a visit to his local library, which happened to be closed. Reginald, or Neli as he’s known to his community, was sitting outside, wearing a hoodie when he was approached and interrogated by an officer. The situation quickly escalated, and in an attempt to escape, Neli physically assaulted the officer.

During his sentence for that offense, Neli suffered further abuses. A synopsis from The Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Call for Pardon Statement:

[This week] Reginald “Neli” Latson, an autistic man currently imprisoned in Virginia, pled guilty to assaulting a correctional officer in exchange for a six-month sentence – the statutory minimum. Although the Autistic Self Advocacy Network applauds the efforts of Neli’s attorney in this case, justice is still not served. We call on Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant Neli a conditional pardon so that he can finally escape a cycle of incarceration and arrests and begin to heal from his years-long ordeal.

The incident leading to this plea deal should never have happened, let alone resulted in criminal charges. At the time, Neli was in prison because he had been prosecuted for behavior during a mental health crisis. Because the prison was ill equipped to accommodate Neli’s disabilities, it placed him in long-term solitary confinement – an unconscionable response that further exacerbated his behavioral difficulties and led to a suicide attempt. At the time of the incident, Neli was being led to an even more restrictive solitary cell with no mattress and a hole in the floor for a toilet. As a prison guard attempted to physically force Neli’s hands against a wall, Neli panicked and lashed out.

There was no serious injury to anyone in this incident other than Latson, who was shot with a Taser and bound for hours in a restraint chair. Nevertheless, Stafford County prosecutor Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen insisted on bringing yet further charges against Neli, at first pushing for a several-year sentence.

As a result of the tireless advocacy of the disability community, Neli’s attorney was able to secure a plea that would allow Neli to serve only six months, not several years. Moreover, he has now been moved out of solitary confinement. We are glad that Neli is no longer spending his days in torturous solitary confinement and that his days in the prison system will soon be at an end.

Nevertheless, we feel that even six months more of prison time is inherently unjust. Neli’s response to long-term solitary confinement is no reason to extend the cycle of unjust incarceration even longer. We hope that Governor McAuliffe will pardon Neli so that he can leave the prison system and begin receiving appropriate rehabilitation services, including re-entry services and behavior supports.

There is a petition to ask Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe to pardon Neli so he can get the treatment he needs. You can also call or email the governor, contact info at this link. You can also use the hashtag #freeneli to learn more or advocate online.

The second situation I’ve only recently learned about, and it’s different in that it involves deaf advocates (many of whom do not identify as disabled) who have been working for over 18 months to address a particular prisoner injustice. DC-based non-profit HEARD is asking for help advocating for phone justice for deaf people in prison, and people in prison with deaf family members on the outside. Phone use is a lifeline for those inside and for deaf folks, it is often inaccessible. Deaf people have faced lack of access to usable phones and exorbitant fees/charges for phone use. Read more here and act to help them get justice. If you are hard-of-hearing, deaf, or have family members who are, you can take a short survey about phone use to help HEARD advocate for those in prison.

As always, keep praying for Marissa Alexander (who will thankfully be released in the spring) and women like her who are serving unjust sentences.

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