Monday, November 30, 2015

Inmates Keep Up Their Struggle For Justice

Mr. Charles Zellers, Sr. (front left), with some friends
In light of worsening and ever more crowded conditions within Virginia's Department of Corrections I continue to be impressed by the resilience of so many of the inmates I hear from. Instead of succumbing to hopelessness they continue to do whatever they can to improve their own lives and to advocate for justice and a second chance for themselves and others. One such person is Charles Zellers, Sr., whose concerns appear below:

In light of recent news that some kinds of meat cause stomach and colon cancer, I would like to know how bad the grade D processed meats are that they serve us here. There are a lot of inmates I know who have diabetes and/or high blood pressure, including myself. DOC just came out with a new meal menu, and it looks like they have cut foods to save money and here the portion size are less then the menu calls for. DOC "sausages" are awful. We are served "Salisbury steak" that we call Meat Rot. Most times food service does not feed what is on the Standardized Menu. Just today I was told by an inmate kitchen worker that they save meats and beans that are left over from other meals and keep them in the freezer. I do not think we are being given a healthy balanced diet daily nor are we getting proper vitamins.

They've also changed from exchanging our worn out laundry every three months, to every six months. And Keefe commissary prices continue to increase several times a year but they never increase our pay. Keefe charges outrageous prices and gives the DOC a kickback, just like GTL and JPAY (phone and email services). Why are taxpayers paying to incarcerate inmates when the DOC is profiting from inmates and their families?

Prison jobs and pay have been cut to save money. By not having enough jobs for inmates to work to buy their wants and needs is going to cause more inmate on inmate robberies and stealing. It has not been bad here but I am afraid all of this will change.

The General Assembly passed a bill a few years back that Delegate Thomas C. Wright, Jr. sponsored which allows DOC to take ten percent of any money a prison inmate receives and hold it in an account until the inmate is released from prison. If they was really trying to help the inmate, why wouldn't they allow the inmate to draw interest on the money they are holding? Is the DOC profiting from keeping all of that money in their bank account? One thousand dollars held in an account for every state inmate is a lot of money. There are over thirty thousand inmates in prison. 

Inmates used to receive money from people at their prison, now they have to send the money to the JPay company and they charge a fee to wire transfer to the inmate or for free they will send it snail mail, where it takes several weeks to receive it.

And why should we have to pay $5.00 for a medical visit and $2.00 for each prescription and $2.00 for each tooth worked on? Are we not still wards of the state?

If the Governor, Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security and Parole Commission truly wants to reform the uncultured and uncivilized Virginia criminal justice system, they should do the following:

Step 1. Mandate that all interrogations with a suspect or convicted felon are video recorded by a private company and treated as confidential legal documentation. This would protect everyones' rights.

Step 2. Mandate that every convict felon has a high school diploma, GED certificate or have been exempted per DOC policy prior to release from prison.

Step 3. Mandate that every convict receives treatment for alcohol, anger, drug, mental health, sexual or whatever issues related to the offender's crime requires.

Step 4. Mandate that every convict receives training in at least one Vocational trade prior to reentering society.

Step 5. Mandate that the main goal of Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) is to keep inmates and staff safe from sexual or violent assaults.

Step 6. Mandate that every inmate in prison has a job if they want one. This is key to the safety and well being of all.

Step 7. Stop outside companies from profiting from inmates and their families. Most are poverty stricken already.

Step 8. Mandate that all state funded agencies are required to offer assistance to ex-offenders upon their release. This includes but is not limited to: food, clothing, shelter and job opportunities.

Step 9. Publicize on Virginia television that inmates who have been in prison long enough to pay for their crimes will start being freed when they have done all they could to change while in prison and are ready to reenter society. We can no longer keep these individuals locked away. Their treatment has been barbaric for far too many years. We must treat each other civilly and with respect.

Here's a link to contact the Governor and the Department of Public Safety. Ask for a reply:

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Black Friday To Remember

Engine 734, photo by Western Maryland Scenic Railroad
We never shop on the day after Thanksgiving anyway, but yesterday's family trip from Cumberland to Frostburg on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad was an alternative to remember. Partly because of all the memories it evoked from my childhood.

My father always loved trains. And I remember hearing the distant whistles of locomotives making their way across the Kansas prairie on quiet nights when we lived there from the time I was four until nearly seven.

Also, our move from Garnett County, Kansas, to the Shenandoah Valley was by train, some still powered by steam engines, with my mother herding all eight of us children in and out of passenger cars and through railroad stations for a journey of over 1400 miles to far off Stuarts Draft, Virginia. My father traveled in a separate freight train, in a rail car especially designed for such moves, taking care of several head of livestock and the farm machinery and household furniture packed inside.

On our Stuarts Draft farm we were within pleasant earshot of the whistle sounds of trains along the Norfolk and Western line, a railroad company that continued to use coal-fired steam engines long after most other lines converted to diesel. The coal industry was highly dependent on N&W for shipping coal from West Virginia and Kentucky mines.

Our three local grandchildren with us yesterday will grow up with a different set of memories, some of a day like yesterday and some of stories passed on from earlier generations involving, among other things, trains lumbering across the landscape at a slower pace and at a different time.

Yesterday some of us were able to interact with four of the five crew members on board the train, the conductor, brakeman, engineer, and the person making announcements--all but the fireman. And we'll take with us new memories of sights and sounds and conversations along the 32-mile round trip by rail, and including some time spent at the B&O Canal Museum on the ground floor of the Cumberland railroad station and of the Carriage House Museum and railroad turntable at the Frostburg Depot.

No amount of shopping in crowded malls could ever compare.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Pilgrim Violence And The First Thanksgiving

19th century wood engraving of the 1637 slaughter of 400 Pequots, Granger collection (NYC)
What has come to be known as the first American celebration of Thanksgiving in the New World took place at the time Pilgrims were waging war against the native Pequots. As many as 400 men, women, and children of that tribe who were gathered for their annual green corn dance were mercilessly slaughtered and/or burned to death. 

The following is a first hand account by an actual participant, John Underhill, as quoted in a Wikipedia piece:

"Captaine Mason entring into a Wigwam, brought out a fire-brand, after hee had wounded many in the house, then hee set fire on the West-side where he entred, my selfe set fire on the South end with a traine of Powder, the fires of both meeting in the center of the Fort blazed most terribly, and burnt all in the space of halfe an houre; many couragious fellowes were unwilling to come out, and fought most desperately through the Palisadoes, so as they were scorched and burnt with the very flame, and were deprived of their armes, in regard the fire burnt their very bowstrings, and so perished valiantly: mercy they did deserve for their valour, could we have had opportunitie to have bestowed it; many were burnt in the Fort, both men, women, and children, others forced out, and came in troopes to the Indians, twentie, and thirtie at a time, which our souldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword; downe fell men, women, and children, those that scaped us, fell into the hands of the Indians, that were in the reere of us; it is reported by themselves, that there were about foure hundred soules in this Fort, and not above five of them escaped out of our hands."[3]

This Thanksgiving, while we recognize the need for civil authorities to maintain order within their borders through just laws and the use of a well regulated police force and a fair court system, may we never support or condone terrorist and violent acts on the part of any nation against another, whether by means of air or drone strikes, suicide bombers or by armed troops on the ground. Rather, may we all pray for and work towards a world in which war is denounced and nations everywhere "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks".

For a more detailed account of the early Pilgrim story, with footnotes, see
Also learn more at:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why Refugees Flee Their Homes

Austin Bachand photo, courtesy of Daily News-Record
The following poem was read by UN refugee worker Myriam Izaz of Lebanon at last evening's vigil at Court Square. The person on the left is Evan Ajin, whose father immigrated from violence ridden Guatamala. He urged us not to turn people away today who need sanctuary as we did Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust in the 30's and 40's.

by Somali poet Warsan Shire:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won't let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it's not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn't be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hungry
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don't know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Former Drone Operators Send Disturbing Letter To Obama, Carter and Brennan

Brandon Bryant, Michael Haas and Cian Westmoreland in a recent press conference 
You can read more about this in the November 18, 2015, Guardian. The following is from the November 19 press release and the Intercept:

"U.S. DRONE OPERATORS are inflicting heavy civilian casualties and have developed an institutional culture callous to the death of children and other innocents, four former operators said at a press briefing today in New York. The killings, part of the Obama administration’s targeted assassination program, are aiding terrorist recruitment and thus undermining the program’s goal of eliminating such fighters, the veterans added. Drone operators refer to children as “fun-size terrorists” and liken killing them to “cutting the grass before it grows too long,” said one of the operators, Michael Haas, a former senior airman in the Air Force. Haas also described widespread drug and alcohol abuse, further stating that some operators had flown missions while impaired. In addition to Haas, the operators are former Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon Bryant along with former senior airmen Cian Westmoreland and Stephen Lewis. The men have conducted kill missions in many of the major theaters of the post-9/11 war on terror, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We have seen the abuse firsthand,” said Bryant, “and we are horrified.” ...The group also denounced the program yesterday in an interview with The Guardian and in an open letter addressed to President Obama.."

Here is their letter:

Dear President Obama, Secretary Carter and Director Brennan:

We are former Air Force service members. We joined the Air Force to protect American lives and to protect our Constitution. We came to the realization that the innocent civilian
s we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay. This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.

When the guilt of our roles in facilitating this systematic loss of innocent life became too much, all of us succumbed to PTSD. We were cut loose by the same government we gave so much to,­­ sent
out in the world without adequate medical care, reliable public health services, or necessary benefits. Some of us are now homeless. Others of us barely make it.

We witnessed gross waste, mismanagement, abuses of power, and our country’s leaders lying publicly about the effectiveness of the drone program. We cannot sit silently by and witness tragedies like the attacks in Paris, knowing the devastating effects the drone program has overseas and at home. Such silence would violate the very oaths we took to support and defend the Constitution.

We request that you consider our perspective, though perhaps that request is in vain given the unprecedented prosecution of truth ­tellers who came before us like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. For the sake of this country, we hope it is otherwise.


Brandon Bryant
Staff Sergeant
MQ­1B Predator Sensor Operator
SERE Instructor Trainee
USAF Joint Special Operations Command
3rd Special Operations Squadron
Disabled Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran
Founder of Project RED HAND

Cian Westmoreland
Senior Airman
RF Transmissions Systems
73rd Expeditionary Air Control Squadron
Disabled Afghanistan Veteran
Project RED HAND's Sustainable Technology Director

Stephen Lewis
Senior Airman
MQ­1B Predator Sensor Operator
USAF Joint Special Operations Command
3rd Special Operations Squadron
Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran

Michael Haas
Senior Airman
MQ­1B Predator Sensor Operator Instructor
USAF Air Combat Command
15th Reconnaissance Squadron
Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran

Friday, November 20, 2015

Letters of Lament From A Virginia Prison

Every week I get heartbreaking letters from state prison inmates, especially from older men who were incarcerated twenty or more years ago (before parole was abolished) and/or those who are eligible for Geriatric Release, men who have tried their hardest to earn their release. Mr. Pack, the writer of the first letter, is on the left in the photo below. Next to him is John Bennie Williams, 82 and blind. He has been in prison 39 years, and turned down for parole 27 times.

Dear Mr. Yoder,

I want to thank you for all you are doing for me and all the others in and out of prison. It feels so good to have someone on our side who cares. Here are ten stamps for you. I know its not much but I thought you could use them in some way. Thank you.

I'll be 66 years old March 17. I'm originally from West Virginia but came to Powhatan, Virginia in 1981. I got locked up in 1992 and lost everything because the devil was after me. I am not a bad person but I've made some stupid mistakes. I have accepted Christ into my life and I have a church to attend at home. My pastor is a very good man, and he was my parents' pastor before they passed on. 

Since I've been in prison I've lost six family members. I do still have some brothers and sisters who do care and are going to help me get on my feet. I also have a son and daughter who live in Ohio. God has blessed me with five grandsons since I've been in prison. I have only seen pictures of them, but we will get together when I get out. We stay in touch with each other a lot.

I go up for parole again November 30. If I make parole I hope to go back to West Virginia. I have a home and a job, and I hope to work at least five years or more. I know in my heart if I get parole I can build myself up again. The longer we stay in prison the harder it is when we are finally released.

All I ask for is a second chance. 

May God bless you with good health and in everything you do, and I pray you will all have a happy Thanksgiving. 

- Kenneth R. Pack #1063803, BKCC, P. O. Box 430, Dillwyn, VA 23936

I received the following the same day this week:

Dear sir:

I was given your address so I decided to write to you on behalf of my petition for Geriatric Conditional Release.

I was given 22 years on two counts of aggravated sexual battery 12 years ago. At first the charges were dropped because the Commonwealth had no evidence and the girl didn't want to testify. At the trial she and her mom lied.

I have pulled over half of my time and I have cancer. I have to be operated on to see if they can remove it.

So if there is anything you can do, I'll be 63 on November 22, and I am the youngest in my family out of 12. Seven have already died. I would like to see them again as a family. 

The girl lied. I never did anything to her or hurt her. The next day the police took her to the hospital to be examined and the doctor found no evidence of sexual harm done to her.

 My counselor here told me I go up again for a parole hearing in December. I think my cancer has spread. I'm in poor health and have high blood pressure and am a diabetic.

- Sylvester Pannell #1087964, P.O. Box 670, 1522 Prison Road, Dillwyn , VA 23936

Update: In this morning's paper I see that the Governor's Commission on Parole Review has decided against recommending the reinstatement of parole at this time, another heartbreaking development. Here's a link to contact the Governor to express your concern:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

From A New "Reversed Standard Version"?

Because of the fear of Communist infiltration the US turned away thousands of Jewish refugees in he 1930's and 40's.
Much of what I hear from so-called Christians who are against taking in refugees from war-ravaged Syria makes me wonder if they are reading from some completely different version of the Bible.

Here are some examples of what the Bible doesn't say:

"The Lord your God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widows as long as they are proven Christians, but he turns away from strangers and aliens, denying them food, clothing and shelter. In the same way you must reject the alien, even though you once were aliens yourselves." 

"For God is our protection, who has created secure borders and dividing walls meant to keep people of other nations from seeking asylum with us."

"Be wary of offering hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have entertained terrorists unawares."

Here's what texts like the above really say:

"For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
- Deuteronomy12:17-19 NRSV

"Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’"
                                                                                                                   - Matthew 25:34-36 NRSV 

"For he is our peace; in his body he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." 
                                                                                                                       - Ephesians 2:14 NRSV 

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured."
                                                                                                                        - Hebrews 13:2-3 NRSV

Monday, November 16, 2015

Caging And Confining God's Creatures

You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries.
But I decided that was an idea way before its time.
Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing… oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage.”
Maude <Harold & Maude>

I recently attended a meeting in which a jail administrator made the point that the reason they had to take such extraordinary measures to deal with inmates is that they are extraordinarily prone to devious behaviors. To make his point he passed around an album of photos showing deadly weapons made out of combs, utensils and other materials, of jail cells being utterly trashed by irate inmates and many other depictions of dangerous and destructive behaviors.

Obviously, the speaker had a point. Some who are incarcerated do have a history of deviancy that result in a special set of misdeeds when behind bars.

But how might the "cruel and unusual" effect of incarceration itself help produce such behaviors? Being involuntarily confined to small quarters for long periods of time is, after all, so unusual and so unnatural that it could contribute to all kinds of pathologies.

In the animal world, some zoos are resorting to the use of psychotropic medications to manage abnormally ritualistic or aggressive behaviors resulting from the stress of confinement. In the nineties, a polar bear named Gus became well known for endlessly swimming in a figure eight patter in his pool habitat, sometime for 12 hours at a time, resulting in his being put on Prozac and dubbed the "bipolar bear". This and many other examples of strange "mental conditions" in confined animals are highlighted in a book by Laurel Braitman called "Animal Madness" and noted in a recent article in Slate magazine.

Next to experiencing the loss of a loved one, the stress of incarceration is without a doubt the most depressing and debilitating things humans experience.

In the not so distant future I believe we will look back and see our present overuse of incarceration as barbaric and unconscionable.

Along with being both cruel and crazy making.

Friday, November 13, 2015

My Family's Hard Times in Drought Stricken Oklahoma 1939-1943

A story about my brother's (and my) first years
The crops were ruined. There was nothing to do about it, The shocks were beaten to the ground. The grain heads were shattered to a pulp. Everyone stood in the barnyard and looked over the fields. Dad stood with his hat in his hands. Mom stood with her arms folded tightly against her chest. The girls stood with eyes and mouths open wide. Eli and Sanford stood with their hands in their pockets and did not say a word.  

Dad pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. Eli knew what he was thinking--the payment. Some of the money had already been used to buy Pedro and Gray. Eli crouched up and buried his face in Bowser's fur. Torn maple leaves lay thick around his feet. Splintered elm leaves littered the yard.

The storm had shoved over the outdoor toilet and ripped part of the barn roof away. It had torn shingles from the roof of the little house, and several of the windows were broken. The wind had shaken the farm like a wild beast shaking its prey.

Dad rubbed his hands over his eyes. His face and arms were covered with nicks and cuts, but he did not seem to notice. He lifted his head. "It's going to be all right," he said, and he smiled at them all.

This is from the first of three books written by my niece Judy Yoder about her father and my next older brother Eli's childhood, a saga that begins in eastern Oklahoma and later continues in eastern Kansas and then in Augusta County, Virginia. This first of the series has just been published by Christian Light Publications as a book for children, but my wife and I found ourselves unable to put it down once we started reading it, partly because it reveals so much about my family's story.

I was three, the youngest of the eight children, and my brother Eli was six when the fierce hail storm described here devastated our farm and injured everything and everyone in its path. It also dashed my parent's hopes of being able to make their farm mortgage payment that year. Due to recurring drought in Nowata County this was one of several years when they were able to come up with only enough money to pay their annual interest on their mortgage.

Reviewing all this has made me marvel all the more about how my parents kept their faith and hope alive through the Great Depression and later years of severe drought. For the rest of his life I heard my father repeatedly say that the Nowata years were when he felt closest to God and to the struggling Amish community that stood by us and each other through hard times.

Niece Judy Yoder has written numerous books, including Vera's Journey, the life story of a rural Valley Mennonite mother and grandmother who became deaf at age 38 and who lived to be 102. This hard cover book, also published by Christian Light, offers intriguing details of local Valley history and has sold over 6000 copies.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

An Open Letter To Governor McAuliffe: Repatriate Jens Soering To His Native Germany

Governor McAuliffe
Dear Governor McAuliffe:

Jens Soering, 45, a former Jefferson scholar at the University of Virginia and the son of a German diplomat, was sentenced to two life terms in prison in 1990. He pled guilty to the first-degree murders of his then girl friend's parents in Bedford County in 1995, he insists, only in a misguided attempt to save her from getting a death sentence for the crime. As it turned out, they were both sentenced, she to serve a 90-year term.

There is no physical or DNA evidence linking Jens to the scene, and he says he was far from the scene at the time the terrible murders occurred. He says he naively assumed that he could plead guilty and would be extradited to Germany for a trial where he would be exonerated on the basis of a false confession or at least get a lesser sentence.

As you are aware, former Governor Timothy Kaine, at the end of his administration in 2010 and at the request of the German government, approved Soering's return to his homeland and asked the Justice Department to transfer him to Germany to complete his sentence there. Incoming Governor Bob McDonnell, however, at the urging of then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, blocked the transfer, noting that in Germany he could be eligible for parole in two years.

Jens has no history of any kind of violent behavior in his background, and has maintained an impeccable record while incarcerated. During the nearly three decades he has spent behind bars, Soering has had nine books published, including The Convict Christ: What the Gospel Says About Criminal Justice, the first place winner of the Catholic Press Association's 2007 awards. 

Governor McAulliffe, whether you consider Mr. Soering innocent or guilty of the crime for which he was convicted, I call on you to demonstrate compassion for a fellow human being who has worked hard for for nearly three decades at demonstrating he can be a creative and productive member of society. 

Here's a link to an earlier post on Soering, with a list of some of the books he has authored.

More informative and supportive articles can be found on the following website:


Express your concerns to the governor regarding this case:

November 2016 Press Release Regarding Jens Soering

German native Jens Soering

NOVEMBER 10, 2015

Press stories in the past week have distorted the facts about Jens Soering’s efforts to be repatriated to his home country.

Mr. Soering has not sought a personal meeting with the Governor, or any other extraordinary privilege on grounds that he is the son of a man who, many years ago, had a job with the German diplomatic representation to the United States. Mr. Soering is a German national who has served more than 28 years in prison on a Virginia sentence. He seeks transfer to the German prison system pursuant to the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons (the “Treaty”).

The Treaty—to which the United States and Germany are signatories—commits countries as a matter of comity to assist one another in appropriate circumstances by transferring prisoners to their home countries in the interests of social rehabilitation. Not just any prisoner can seek action under the Treaty – only those who whose home countries signed the Treaty and whose home countries consent to their return. The Treaty had wide bi-partisan support when it was signed by the United States.

The Governor has the sole authority to act on behalf of the Commonwealth with respect to a request for transfer of a Virginia prisoner under the Treaty. Upon the Governor’s consent on behalf of Virginia, Mr. Soering’s application would then be considered for approval by the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”). Guilt or innocence, or the nature of the crime, do not factor into the repatriation decision.

We believe that Jens Soering’s renewed application for repatriation should be advanced for consideration by the DOJ under the terms of the Treaty because:

 Consent is in the best interests of the citizens of Virginia. The public safety of Virginians as well as their financial interests are well-served by transfer. Upon transfer, Mr. Soering would be removed to Germany immediately and could not return, as he is subject to a deportation order in the United States. In addition, the Commonwealth will be saving the costs of incarceration, future medical care, and any probation costs in the event of his eventual parole.

 Consent is in the best interests of the United States. The DOJ and our diplomatic corps regularly hear from US citizens in their families who are desperate to bring their loved ones home who have been incarcerated abroad. A 2013 report states that, each year, roughly 6,000 Americans are arrested in foreign countries (not limited to those countries involved in a prisoner transfer treaty or agreement). Given the broad geographic areas covered by prisoner transfer treaties with the United States, it seems likely that thousands of Americans have been convicted of crimes and are incarcerated in those jurisdictions. How can we expect them to be returned to the United States if we do not send prisoners like Mr. Soering home?

 Mr. Soering is not requesting special treatment. He is requesting that the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia approve his transfer pursuant to the Treaty, in accordance with the same procedures available to any other foreign national imprisoned in the United States whose home country has signed a transfer treaty. The United States is a party to prisoner transfer agreements with fifty-one countries around the world. As of September 2010, the U.S.DOJ had approved 2,203 applications by U.S. prisoners to be transferred to their home country. Between 2008 and 2010, transfers from the U.S. to members of the European Union accounted for 11% of the total approved international prisoner transfer applications.

 Mr. Soering’s transfer to Germany will advance his ongoing, remarkable social rehabilitation. Mr. Soering, has served 28 years in incarceration, and, perhaps is unique among Virginia prisoners in having not a single disciplinary demerit in all those years.

He has good Virginia Depart ment of Corrections evaluations and has used his time constructively, becoming recognized as an author, religious scholar, and zealous advocate for prison reform. If he is to see his father before his father dies and is to ever make a re-entry into his native country and culture, now is the time. To the best of our limited information there are only two or three German nationals incarcerated in Virginia in addition to Mr. Soering. We understand that German officials consider his case completely different from the others in that: the crime occurred when he was very young; he has served a very long sentence and without repatriation has many more years to serve; he has a stellar disciplinary record; and his talents and his support system bode well for his reintegration into German culture and his prospects for a productive life in Germany.

Gail Starling Marshall
7393 Shooter’s Hill Road
Rapidan, VA 22733
(540) 672 3506

Richard B. Zorn
Mercer Trigiani
112 South Alfred Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 837-5000

Of counsel:

Hogan Lovells US LLP
Patricia A. Brannan
555 13th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 637-8686

Express your concerns to the governor regarding this case:

Attorneys for Jens Soering

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Good Marriages Require Some Serious Assembly

Four-part harmony
One of the metaphors I've come up with for relationships is that of a jigsaw puzzle. There are lots of puzzling parts to put together to create a beautiful finished work. Fortunately, all of the needed parts are there, and with the exercise of diligence and God-given perseverance we can eventually fit them all together. But good marriages don't come already framed and fully assembled.

When it comes to putting a puzzle together it's important to keep checking the picture on the cover of the box. The "Shalom Marriage" shown above is one in which spouses are in a close and equal relationship and in which each is taking full responsibility, with whatever help they need, for their own personal growth and respectful behavior. They don't expect their marriages to be healthier than the wellness each brings to them.

Shalom couples also spend as much time as possible together in their problem-free area--working, playing and being affectionate together. They never minimize whatever gets in the way of that happening, but are able to file those issues for later times of regularly addressing them (in their mutual problem area) and to arrive at win-win solutions.

The Hebrew concept of shalom suggests a harmony in which nothing is marred and nothing is missing. That's the God-given picture we need to keep in front of us.
Dissonance, discord, disconnection

In the "Disordered Marriage" shown here, partners are still having some assembling to do. In times of stress their relationship seems to be in disarray and they may find themselves detached and distanced from one another. At such times ones partner is often perceived as having more stature and power than the other. Also, much of what should be being celebrated in the couple's problem-free area is overshadowed by the many unresolved conflicts in their mutual problem/growth area.

At such times problems, both personal and shared, may come to dominate and define a couple's relationship, and they enjoy less and less tension-free and problem-free time together.

In summary, in shalom marriages each partner gives top priority to fixing what is in their own problem/growth area rather than focusing on trying to fix the other person. Each recognizes that not all problems in their marriage are marriage problems, but are individual problems and bad habits that negatively impact their relationship. And if, God forbid, the marriage were over, each would take those problems with them.

Shalom marriages also accept shared problems as normal, and see working at them as having potential for bringing about positive growth and change that may have never happened had there been no challenges to deal with.


So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness.       
- Colossians 3:12-15 (the Message)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Model Prisoner, 47, Denied Parole Seven Times

Mr. Zellers (front left) with some of his friends
Charles Edward Zellers, Sr., was born April 10, 1968, in Mecklenburg County, and was incarcerated at age 25. At the recommendation of his court appointed attorney he entered an Alford Plea, being led to believe he might get the death penalty if he had a jury trial. He was also told by his attorney that he would likely be released on parole after seven years if he maintained a good prison record. 

I do not post details about any inmate's case unless at their request or with their explicit permission, but Charles clearly takes responsibility for his past and is eager to do whatever he can to make a positive contribution to society and to his family. He especially wants to be able to help his widowed mother in her declining years and his two younger sisters, one a single mother with four children who also very much need his help and support.

In his own words:

"I agreed to the Alford Plea only because of the coercion of my court-appointed public defender. He was actually my second attorney in this case. The first one came to the jail in the middle of the night and verbally offered me a plea for, I think, 50 years. If I had known then what I know now, I would have accepted it. I would be mandatorying my sentence in two more years. I knew I had not committed what I was accused of so I had faith that the truth would come out. I was so trusting, stupid and gullible. I even petitioned the court to allow me to withdraw the Alford Plea but the judge refused. I appealed to the Court of Appeals based on ineffective assistance of counsel but it was so corrupt the court appointed the same Public Defender that I was filing against."

The following record of his achievements demonstrates his commitment to being model citizen:

*PIEDMONT REGIONAL JAIL (January 25, 1993 to March 22,1994)
Charles served 421 days there and completed numerous Bible classes while there and corresponded with a pastor who visited him, the Rev. Zada Lovelace.

Here Charles  earned his GED November 29, 1994 and completed numerous other biblical courses,. He was a model citizen there and also attended AA and church services plus completing the A+ program. 

Upon arrival at ACC Charles was provided a job in yard maintenance and was given an inmate job performance review that stated that he was "an excellent worker and his achievements consistently far exceed the position's objectives." Later while at ACC Charles went to work on a special inmate work crew created by then Assistant Warden Mr. Jack Lee to complete special projects such as building retaining walls, segregation recreation cages, VCE loading dock, kitchen loading dock, concrete drains, and hanging fences with razor wire, painting housing units using the firetruck boom, replacing tiles in the showers, and many other projects. He completed more biblical courses while there and was a model citizen.
Charles did receive two disciplinary actions: 1). 2/7/1995 - 213 - Failure To Follow Count Rules - Reprimand (he said he did not hear the officer announce count because he was asleep). 2). 3/14/1995 - 224 - Possession of Contraband - Reprimand. Since it was his first time in prison, he innocently bought a calculator from another inmate which violated policy. 

Charles completed many more biblical courses while there and received his first job as a temporary concrete worker installing a sidewalk around the recreation yard. He signed up and completed the masonry vocational program on March 30, 1998 and his supervisor Mr. Shrader liked his work ethics so much he hired him as a masonry tutor and was assigned special institutional projects to complete like the sign "Welcome to Keen Mountain Correctional Center" and the circular brick structures in front of the KMCC support building. Mr. Shrader noted in his performance review that he was an excellent worker and his achievements exceeded objectives and that he continued to improve his skills. His major job responsibilities were to assist in the daily operation of the Masonry Class. On February 8, 1999, Charles completed CustodialMaintenance Vocational trade. 

Charles received five DISCIPLINARY ACTIONS while there. 1) 1/2/1997 Commit Fraud By Mail/Phone - 2 Days in Isolation. The mail room staff opened his outgoing mail which had numerous letters sealed in envelopes all in one manilla envelope so his sister could mail the letters for him because lacked money for stamps. 2) 9/20/1997 Failure To Follow Count Rules - 30 Day Commissary Loss. (Charles did not hear officer announce count time). 3) 2/1/1999 Possession of Contraband - 30 Days Commissary Loss, suspended for 120 days of good behavior. Involved wire my cell mate used on Christmas tree lights. He did not want to lose his good time because of the charge so he told Officer it was Charles's even though it was found on his cell mates bed. 4) 3/7/1999 Possession of Contraband - 15 Days Lost Good Time. Officer charged him for rubber bands, paper clips and a highlighter. 5). 3/1/2000 - 201 - Disobeying Direct Order - 30 Day Telephone Loss. An inmate had been requesting an Emergency Grievance and he told the rookie officer but he never took it upstairs to the inmate so Charles got it and gave it to the inmate. The rookie officer was angry and wrote the charge.

Charles was hired April 22, 2002 in his unit for Housekeeping. He cleaned the showers which is a job not every inmate wants. While he was there Charles received the following certificates:
1). 2/6/2001 - Associate of Biblical Studies
2). 3/6/2001 - Graduate of Biblical Studies
3). 3/28/2001 - Bachelor of Biblical Studies
4). 5/1/2001 - Master of Biblical Studied
5). 5/2/2001 - Dr. Robert L. Johnston wrote the following letter.
"Charles has been a student with the PMI Center for Biblical Studies only since September 2000 and has already completed five academic years of study. His work habits are well disciplined, with a positive attitude and a steadfast commitment... I can say unequivocally that Charles E. Zellers, Sr. is one of our top students." 
He had no infractions.

Charles worked as pod laundry man and completed many biblical courses, a money management course, a fathers course, the Productive Citizenship Program, a history course, a seventeen-week substance abuse psycho-educational program, and an exercise and relaxation course in 2004. No infractions.

Charles was hired to work in the kitchen. In less than a month he was promoted to lead man in the tray room where he supervised other inmates. On 9/29/2004 he completed the Breaking Barriers Program. He continued going to church and completed more biblical courses. No infractions.

Charles started working a pod Houseman and then in the Virginia Correctional Enterprise Sheet Metal Shop. He started in janitorial then relocated to the Drawer Section where he was promoted to supervisor.
On March 2005 he completed the Captivities Course, on July 29, 2005 he completed the Sex Offender Program Action Committee (SOPAC), on 10/2/2007 he received the Preventing Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault Training Class Documentation and on August 17, 2011 he completed the Preventing Recidivism by Educating for Parole Success (P.R.E.P.S.).
Charles also completed biblical courses here and continued to be a model inmate with the lowest Class Level Assignment one can get.

From 1995 to 2002 Charles also worked continuously on his family history tree. He has since learned a lot about Microsoft Applications and has proposed a program for inmate education using Microsoft tablets.

04/22/2005 - Decision Not to Grant Parole - Helen F. Fahey
Serious nature and circumstances of crime
05/05/2006 - Decision Not to Grant Parole - Helen F. Fahey
Serious nature and circumstances of crime
07/06/2007 - Decision Not to Grant Parole - Helen F. Fahey
Serious nature and circumstances of crime
06/18/2008 - Decision Not to Grant Parole - Helen F. Fahey
Serious nature and circumstances of crime
Defer case for 3 years
04/26/2011 - Decision Not to Grant Parole - William W. Muse
Serious nature and circumstances of offense
Crimes committed
Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime
Risk to the community
Defer for 3 years
07/08/2014 - Decision to Not Grant parole - Karen D. Brown
Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime
The Board considers you to be a risk to the community.
Serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s).
The Board concludes that you should serve more of your sentence prior to release on parole.
05/14/2015 - Decision to Not Grant parole - Karen D. Brown
Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime
Crimes committed
Serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s).
The Board concludes that you should serve more of your sentence prior to release on parole.

Here is a link to some more posts associated with this inmate:,+sr

Address concerns about parole reform to who will forward them to members of the Governor's Parole Review Commission. They will not be review anyone's individual case, however. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

We Are All Sex Offenders

Jesus with the woman caught in adultery
Most of us will likely avoid ever having our names listed on the National Sex Offender Registry, but virtually none of us is without sin in this area. Whether in word, deed or in X-rated imagination, we have compiled our own record of secret (or not so secret) wrongdoing we'd rather not have exposed.

And we are not alone. In the Bible, even the patriarch Abraham shamelessly lies about Sarai being his wife and makes her available to another man in order to save his own life. His nephew Lot offers his virgin daughters in the same inexcusable way.

King David is guilty of both voyeurism and outright adultery with Bathsheba, then arranges to have her husband die undefended in battle in order to cover up his reprehensible behavior. And both he and his heir to the throne, King Solomon, used their power to gain and to dominate multiple wives and mistresses. These are dark and troubling stories.

The other side of the Biblical narrative is about God's mercy and forgiveness. Thank God that whenever there is genuine repentance there is also amazing grace, grace not only to erase sexual and other sins sins from our record but to keep us from repeating them.

Our legal system is seldom so forgiving, and in the case of offenders not turning away from their wrongdoing, it shouldn't be.

But can people committing even sexual wrongdoing get the help they need to experience genuine change? Does the 19 year-old who has sex with an underage 15 year-old girl friend need to be branded a terrible person for the rest of his life? Must everyone who sexually misuses or abuses another be forever considered unable to return to some kind of normal life if they do everything necessary to become transformed into decent human beings?

Or are sexual sins in a category totally different from others, out of the reach of God' grace and others' help?

I vote for grace, but not cheap grace. I support forgiveness, but not forgiveness as in "let's pretend this never happened". True forgiveness is God's kind of response to a demonstration of a 180 degree about face and a commitment to strict and ongoing accountability, one that insures that everyone is safe, including the former perpetrator.

If that is never possible, there is no hope for any of us.