Monday, June 5, 2017

A Blind Poet, At 70, Still Yearns For Release

Incarcerated for 45 years
At 5'9" and 141 pounds, Minor Junior Smith, legally blind since age five, is a 70-year-old inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center, a men's prison located in Dillwyn, a small town an hour and a half west of Richmond.

Minor is a quiet, mild-mannered man affectionately known by many of his friends as "Smitty". He has been working in food services nine hours a day, six days a week, since 2004. During BKCC's quarterly lockdown he works at least sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. 

Smith was incarcerated May 11, 1972, and first worked in the furniture repair shop and as a chapel janitor at the old Richmond Penitentiary, then in book binding at Powhatan Correctional Center, in food services from 1982 to 1990 at Staunton Correctional Center, in 1990 to 2002 as a teachers aide for LIP students at Augusta Correctional Center, and from 2002 to 2004 as Pod Librarian at Sussex II State Prison, all before being transferred to Buckingham Correctional Center. He also volunteered as a Braille Transcriber at the old Richmond Penitentiary and at Mecklenburg Correctional Center from 1979 to 1982. 

On February 7, 1977, he was certified by The Library of Congress as a Braille Transcriber and he currently receives books on cassettes from The Library and Resource Center in Richmond. On May 2, 1983 Smith received a GED Certificate. Shortly afterwards Smitty published a book, ABUSED, about his hard life as a child, which was copyrighted in 1983. He is also a prolific poet and writes about his life experiences and travels throughout the US.

Like most parole eligible inmates Minor is careful not to break any rules at his overcrowded prison, which currently houses roughly 1,152 prisoners in a facility designed for 608. Smith's prison case file shows that he has come a long way from the reckless twenty-five-year-old young man who was arrested for murder in August, 1971. 

At the time Minor was led to believe he would some day be released on parole given his progress and accomplishments while behind bars. He was first eligible for parole release January 31, 1986, and has currently received thirty annual "not grant" decisions from the Virginia Parole Board. 

Forty-five years after that eligibility date, and many unsuccessful parole hearings later, Smith is still locked up, and with little hope of gaining freedom anytime soon. As of June 30, 2014, he was one of roughly 4,656 prisoners in Virginia currently serving a sentence with the possibility of parole. Known as "Old Law Prisoners," these prisoners represent only about 12% of the entire DOC population in the state, many of them lifers such as Smitty serving time for first or second degree murder. 

Some of these have committed heinous acts of violence. Others were caught up in gang and drug related crimes that resulted in a homicide they did not directly commit. Still others were convicted under the state's three-strikes law, which for some offenders mandates life sentences after three felony convictions. As of June 30, 2014, Virginia DOC housed 303 prisoners under this law. These parole-eligible prisoners. like Smitty, have served their minimum sentences and are eligible to be released on parole. But they remain confined to prison, trapped in a system that critics say is unnecessarily cruel.

Under state law, a parole board, made up of Board members appointed by the governor, decides whether an individual is "suitable" for release. The law requires the parole board to release eligible prisoners when they are no longer a danger to society. Members are also supposed to remain unbiased and must not deny parole to a prisoner only because of the severity of the original crime(s).

But interviews with currently incarcerated parole eligible prisoners, their family members and criminal defense attorneys, along with an extensive review of parole data, paint a picture of harsh and arbitrary decisions that force people to stay locked up for many years after they have been rehabilitated.

From a policy and economic standpoint, experts have increasingly scrutinized this sector of the state prison system, one that plays a major role in overcrowding and is incredibly costly to taxpayers. And from a personal and emotional standpoint, the cruel legal twists of the parole process can excessively punish reformed men and women while also inflicting immense pain on the lives of loved ones on the outside. 

People who committed crimes decades ago when they were young and immature are regularly denied second chances even when it seems they've done everything right in prison. Mr. Smith is an example of such a person.

The above is an edited version of a piece written by Mr. Smith's current cellmate, Charles Zellers, Sr. Here's a link where you can find a sample of his poetry: 
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