Lawmakers in Virginia have approved a draconian budget measure from Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin that takes aim at inmates’ eligibility for early release. The new law prevents so-called “violent offenders” from applying credits earned for good behavior towards their early release. Even inmates who have already earned early release are being affected, with some families learning at the eleventh hour that their loved ones will no longer be allowed to come home. Prison reform activist Chari Baker, whose spouse is also incarcerated, recently confronted Governor Youngkin over his cruel decision to prolong the separation of families on the verge of being reunited. Baker joins Rattling the Bars co-host Mansa Musa to discuss the new Virginia law and what advocates, families, and incarcerated people are doing to fight back.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. And before we get into the interview, let me update y’all on Eddie Conway’s health and his recovery. Eddie is doing great. He’s back to being the old Eddie that we know and love. And hopefully he’ll be imminently released from the rehab place where he’s undergoing medical rehabilitation.
When we think about the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, and we know that it’s the new form of slavery, very rarely do we see the extent of the brutality and the viciousness of the policies that exist around keeping men and women incarcerated. Virginia, for example, in 2020, they passed a bill, a law that says that inmates could get their sentence reduced, the time that they’re serving while incarcerated reduced by participating in a program. And they could have their sentence reduced to almost two years off after completion of the program. It affected the entire prison population in the Virginia Commonwealth.
Recently, Governor Glenn Youngkin had, with the backing of Republicans and Democrats, amended this law that affected everybody in the prison system. Amended it at the 11th hour when men and women were expected to be released. And amended it, cutting off their ability and opportunity to be released early.
Here to talk about this is Miss Chari Baker. Chari Baker was captured on the news when she confronted Youngkin about this arbitrary, capricious, and racist amendment. Chari, welcome to Rattling the Bars.
Chari Baker: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Mansa Musa: Chari, tell our audience a little bit about yourself.
Chari Baker: Basically, I started a prison reform group called Fighting for Reform. I have a passion for prison reform as a whole, not just one particular area. Just me being married to someone that’s incarcerated, the more time I spent going in and out of different facilities, it just drew me into a world that I really didn’t know existed the way that it did, to the magnitude in which it did. And so with that fuel and inspiration, I was like, there has got to be something done. Is there anyone fighting for these men and women on different types of levels, and different types of policies? And so that’s when I formed Fighting for Reform, just to get involved as a whole.
I also have a soft spot for people that I met inside. I know some that are lifers, for lack of a better term. When I originally started Fighting for Reform, I started a program for the lifers called On the Books. And I would sell these t-shirts, and whatever we made off of those t-shirts we would divide it up and put money on their books. We just wanted people to know that you’re greater than your worst mistake, and somebody on the outside cares, whether we know [you] or not. We want you to know that you’re still human and somebody cares.
It ran for a good two years. But then when COVID hit, everybody’s pockets were affected by that. So the program itself has slowed down. However, the passion for prison reform has been consistent as things develop further, as going forward is something new all the time.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Let’s talk about the current repressive policy that’s taking place in Virginia in the form of allowing men and women to earn [inaudible]. I was incarcerated, and as a result of diminution credit – Well, that’s what they called it in the state of Maryland – As a result of diminution credits, my period of incarceration was reduced by a number of years. Had I not had that opportunity, I would probably be getting out sometime in ’25. But when did y’all, when did they make the prisoners aware? More importantly, if you can talk about first, or talk about what the policy is. And then tell us, when did you become aware, or when did they make people aware that they were not going to benefit from the 2020 law?
Chari Baker: Well, I was there from the beginning where it was just a hearing where you’re allowed to go before the senators and the delegates and voice your public opinion on the matter. So that’s where I came in. I started from there, down in Richmond. Was able to attend the bill hearing and speak in favor of it. And that was in 2020… No, actually I think that was 2019. It actually formally was introduced to the general assembly, I believe 2020, and it passed in 2021. And so it was to be effective this year, July 1, which it did.
However, the bill was written that those that have obtained good behavior while incarcerated, depending on what level you were in their system, what level you’re at, you could get more credits off your time. So the higher the level, the less credits. The lower the level, the more credits. And so it allowed anywhere from 30 days off your sentence per month. It was a system that they had set up. It was initially written in favor for those who had good behavior and for those who either had violent or nonviolent charges. But the catch to it was good behavior. And so lawmakers still found an issue with that because if I am incarcerated and I have good behavior before there was ever an incentive in place, am I not displaying rehabilitation?
Mansa Musa: Right.
Chari Baker: And all of these men… And the bill was actually written to be retroactive back to 1995. When time began to be calculated, a lot of people were getting years off, six years off, seven years off. Accumulating a lot of time off because they have been incarcerated for a long time. However, they had good behavior.
Mansa Musa: That’s right. And therein lies the problem. How do they justify ignoring good behavior? Because as I look back on it, like you say, it was a criteria. So if I meet the criteria, I’m meeting the criteria based on what you say the policy is. The policy being that if I exhibit good behavior, then my levels drop based on my good behavior. So how did they reconcile that this good behavior no longer became a prerequisite for the reduction?
Chari Baker: Well, then at that point, they begin to chop the bill up with charges. Well, these are violent charges and these are non-violent charges. So we’re potentially letting out murderers and we’re potentially letting out rapists and we’re potentially letting out pedophiles. So that’s how they start to pick it apart. And it was like, well, let’s remove a certain group of people from the bill. And then it went from we’re going to exclude a certain amount of charges. They just kept picking it apart.
This bill had been through the House and the Senate. And so both sides approved of the bill. But now the governor wants to say that it was written incorrectly. Well, did they all not read it? Did it not go through the necessary steps to become a final approved bill? I even think that term, that it was written incorrectly, is just an easy statement to make to a group of people who don’t understand. If you really don’t know the ins and outs of a bill becoming law, it’s easy to say that statement and people go, oh, okay.
Mansa Musa: Right. All right, in terms of, let’s talk about the impact that it had on the men and women that were expected to be released. Because you were captured or confronting Youngkin about this arbitrary, racist, and capricious act on the part of the Virginia government. But let’s talk about that. Talk about the impact that it had on the family members that were expected to come out.
Chari Baker: It was a shock. It had such a huge impact because you had people who were definitely prepared and ready for their loved ones to come home. You had certain family members who were older, elderly, and they’re waiting to see their son or their daughter free for the first time since being incarcerated, of course. And as a parent, their voice is, I just want to be alive when you come home. I dealt with a couple specifically where the father was sick, and he just wanted to see his son before he passed away. And thankfully he’s still here today in this moment, because it just happened, the bill being halted. Well, I’m saying him being eligible for the bill just happened, ineligible for the bill. And so it was a disappointment to that family in particular because that was him and his father’s thing, they wanted to see each other before he could potentially pass because he is sick.
Outside of that, it sends a message that it doesn’t matter if we participate and vote on a bill. If you could find a way to use the budget to legislate law in Virginia, it sets precedent that this can happen with any bill, not just this one.
Mansa Musa: Right. And I think that therein lies the danger is that, like you say, now you can look at, oh well the bill is relegated to providing people a bunch of equity. And say, well we don’t want this money to go to this income or this class of people. We want the money to go to the more affluent class of people. Or as it comes down to, like women’s issues, we don’t want the money to go. We legislate this particular act for equity and then with abuse, but then we turn around and say, well then again, no, we’re going to water down the language.
But talk about do you think it was illegal? Or do you think it’s a legal redress? Because it stands to reason that if this was made law – And I’m not familiar with Virginia’s legislative process, but I know once something becomes law in Maryland, unless the law had been declared illegal by the court, the law takes effect.
Chari Baker: Yeah.
Mansa Musa: From your investigation, have you looked into the legality of this act or the illegality of this act?
Chari Baker: In all honesty, and just my opinion, I feel it is because it was legislated through the budget, I feel that it is a thin hairline of being illegal. I really feel like it’s illegal. I’m saying that because in law there’s all types of loopholes. I’m not well knowledgeable when it comes to law, depending on certain things. But I do know that it was a backhanded thing to do. And it was something that it was like… It was basically, I’m going to comb this out and figure out a way where I could make this look legal without making it look too illegal, if that makes sense? And I think they prey on the ignorance of us not knowing the law to that degree. So if you throw some fancy words in there, it sounds like it’s great, it’s a budget amendment.
But I just think it was a loophole that was used. And I do think it is illegal. I know that there are some organizations that are working some things behind the scenes to where there are maybe lawsuits coming. We haven’t got a lot of detail on that, mainly because I think they’re really waiting to solidify or get an airtight argument before they start opening up and sharing with the public, which makes sense. But I definitely have heard from other advocates or organizations that are working on some things behind the scenes.
Mansa Musa: And your husband in particular, but in general, and you say you’re in this space in terms of being involved in what’s going on within the prison-industrial complex in Virginia in particular. How are the people that’s affected by it, your husband in particular, how are they responding? What’s their morale like?
Chari Baker: For one, when it comes to prison reform and that lifestyle, the morale is already low. When you get something like this, that it started out as hope and then it actually became real. You can only imagine how harsh of a blow that was, that 10 days prior to this going into effect, it’s no longer real to some anymore. And there’s grave disappointment. It’s a lot of people that have lost hope. We had feedback from some of the members in the group where their loved one was considering suicide. But they really thought that they were going home.
And one of the things that I always say is that you can’t grasp or understand someone’s mental capacity being behind bars from day-to-day. And some of these men and women, they might not have another 365 left in them, mentally. And so something like this where I was receiving feedback like that is just crushing. And then a lot of the wives, they were afraid to even call the facility because they didn’t want their loved one be placed in the hole because of suicide watch. Because the last thing you want to do is isolate them when they’re already feeling like that.
So, they were just like, what do we do? What should we do? So a lot of people had various different reactions, but the main ones was grave disappointment, depression, suicide. And just saying, Virginia’s never going to do anything. Virginia’s never going to do anything for us. Like I said, this was the closest we’ve ever gotten. Even with the bill passed in 2020, it was still like, oh my gosh, this really finally happened.
Mansa Musa: Right. How long have y’all been fighting for it, to get this particular bill passed?
Chari Baker: Since 2020. But they told us that, they told the people that they needed two years to calculate everybody’s time in the system. [inaudible] to me, I know they’re not. Yeah. But that is what they said. I’m almost interested to see how accurate that is [crosstalk].
Mansa Musa: Were they like, were they one, two, three? Oh, wait a minute, hold up. One. Yeah. Right. Because I read in the article that, with the support, that it was able to get this amendment done with the support of the Democrats. And it was passed under a Democratic majority and governorship. It was passed on a Democrat majority with the governors. That’s how it was initially passed. But Youngkin came in, and I think you might be correct in that he brought in, with him came a title wave of Republican senators and delegates, right? Let’s talk about what’s y’all’s next step? What are your organization looking at doing in terms of organizing around educating people about it and possibly trying to get it changed?
Chari Baker: Yes. Well, pretty much I just did, I was asked to speak at a rally on Saturday. And the main purpose of that was really to encourage people to vote and become active in this. You can’t just sit by and wait for somebody else to do it. And so we were encouraging them to become familiar with who is running for what office. No matter what it is, you have to know where they stand on prison reform. It’s important. One of the main reasons why I had that encounter with the governor was because in my support group, we go live at 9:00 PM on Thursdays talking to everybody, we have certain topics or something. And I brought it up. I said, if there’s a delegate or senator in your area, go there. No matter if you know them or not, show up, because they work for us.
Seize that opportunity to ask them what it is that you want to ask them, because essentially you’re going to vote for them or you’re not going to vote for them. So challenge them. Find that opportunity. It’s all about timing. And it just so happened that the governor was going to be in my area. And I was like, I got to do this. We try to encourage people to vote, to become active. Do whatever you can, network, ask questions to try to understand this a bit more. I’m really big on passing accurate information as much as possible when it comes to stuff like this, because I never want to give off false hope to anybody on the inside. And so a lot of stuff in which I do say in my lives or whatever, I make sure that is accurate because they’re going to repeat it. They’re going to pass it back to their loved one.
Outside of that, we’re also doing another RAT. We’re doing a protest, actually, on the 24th of July. And that protest is going to be geared to the outrage of this earned sentence credit. I feel like even though what has happened has taken place, I’m not going to stop talking about it. See, they’re waiting for it to die down. That’s how everything happens, but we’re not going to let it die down. My biggest thing is it’s really getting the people out. It’s really getting the participation. Because when you take a blow like this, it knocks out half of the people that go, what’s the point of me showing up?
Mansa Musa: But the reality is that, like you say, they dehumanize us. They marginalize us, and they define us as being less than human. Which gives the public the sensitivity to say, oh, well, or become insensitive to what’s going on with us. I think that right now, as you mentioned, the most important thing that can be done is that people, family members of the prisoners become more involved. And what kind of response are you getting from the family members? Because they say over 8,000 people were affected. And that was only in its current way, they would’ve been coming out. If the Department of Correction or Division of Correction would’ve got a better calculator, it probably would have been more. So, what are they using to add? But the reality is that it’s an astronomical number that’s inmates or, excuse me, or prisoners that are affected by it, men and women. What’s the response from the family members? Or do you have any gauge on that?
Chari Baker: Yes, I get a lot of response. The best thing that, since this has happened, is that a lot of family members have been coming towards the group like, what can I do? It actually increased a lot of our followers, this situation. And I’m glad that it’s happened because it’s like, okay, now that I have you here, let me educate you. Let me show you that your voice matters. So it’s really given them that incentive. It’s given them that extra inspiration that your voice is more powerful than you think. And the only reason why they’ve gotten away with this for so long in prison reform as a whole is because we never really put foot on their necks. We never really called them out on the things that they’ve done because we’ve always felt defeated.
The system is designed to make families feel defeated upfront from the lawyer, from the whole process. And so you feel like there’s nothing that you could do. And actually, that’s a lie. And so I tell people all the time, I don’t take no for an answer. I don’t care what it’s said to me. I’m just going to shoot my shot in every avenue until I open up a door. And that’s the main thing that I try to inspire them. I’m like, use your voice. You have authority. These people are in their positions because of us.
And family members do need to become more active. So I also try to explain that you can’t have the mindset that they got a bed and three meals a day. Oh, no, baby, let me let you know what’s really going on in the inside. Like what their day-to-day lifestyle is really like. So bringing awareness to the general public is also needed, because they just don’t understand. Like you said, Virginia doesn’t believe in rehabilitation.
Mansa Musa: No. And the reality is that this is the law. According to law, the sentence is the punishment. The punishment is not your imprisonment.
Chari Baker: Thank you.
Mansa Musa: Once you give me the sentence, that’s my punishment. From that point on, everything beyond that point is to change me so when I return to society [crosstalk].
Chari Baker: And it stops there.
Mansa Musa: But when it [crosstalk] in their mind that the sentence is the punishment and your imprisonment is a reinforcement of the punishment. And your confinement is like a marriage vow, til death do you part. Or you will die before you leave. You will die before you depart.
But on a more personal [note], how’s your husband doing in regard [to this]? And what was his situation? I know you don’t want to make it a personal thing, but what was his situation in terms of him being affected by this particular bill?
Chari Baker: First, when he got the news that he was eligible, that was in April. It was like two days after our fourth anniversary. And he found out that he was eligible, so we were really excited because I was pushing for the bill anyway, but I didn’t know that he would be eligible. So we found out a year later that he was eligible, which happens to be this year. And I was like, oh wow. So we’re included. And so then in that moment it became a scary thing because I was like, oh, I hope they’re right. I hope his counselor has the right information. Because sometimes these counselors just be saying anything. And found out that it was true. And he was set to be released, or be in the second wave, which would be between August and September.
Even when I had to tell him, I remember that day when he called me on the 17th of June, and it was actually the same exact day in which the budget amendment was approved by the governor. I remember he was in such a good mood. In that moment I said, I just can’t tell him right now. I didn’t want to, it was just the mood he was in, which is very rare. So I was like, I’m just going to go with the mood that he’s in. So it wasn’t until the following day where I had a face-to-face visit with him at visitation, I expressed to him what happened.
And he just sat there for a minute in silence, almost like a disbelief. He looked off a little bit and he said, are you serious? I said, yeah. He said, well, what happened? And I had to break it down to him, what happened. He’s like, man, that’s not good. It’s going to be a lot of us. That’s how he was just shaking his head. He was like, it’s just going to be a lot of us. He had so many questions like that. Like, what about the letters? I’m like, babe, they don’t mean anything.
Mansa Musa: Right, right. And that’s the other part of this, the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, it’s the new plantation. It’s the new form of slavery. And as we know, slaves didn’t have no rights to redress. Slaves didn’t have no rights to advocate on their behalf. Slaves had no rights whatsoever. And this is the same thing going on now when we find ourselves in situations like Virginia.
Because I recall my own personal experience when we had a case come out, that affected… I was serving my life sentence and it affected lifers. And the case came out in our favor. And when it came out in our favor, it meant that all the lifers that were tried between 1960 and 1980 would be released or retried. The racists in Annapolis had gotten the judge to allow for reconsideration of a case that was decided in our favor to reconsider it and reverse it. It took eight years of appeals to get it to come around in 2015. I’m talking about like in 2000, I’m talking about 1980-something, 1998. It took all that time for it to work its way through the courts and for us to get out as a result of that.
But Chari, you got the last word on this here. What do you want people to do, that’s maybe not in Virginia, but supporters of any type of advocacy when it comes to abolishing the prison-industrial complex and ending mass incarceration? What do you want people to do? And make sure you give your information on how you can be contacted, how your group can be contacted, so we can support the efforts that are being made on behalf of the brothers and sisters in Virginia.
Chari Baker: Honestly, really the biggest thing, being in advocacy for four, going on five years, the biggest thing that I would want is more participation. We have so many people that were affected by this one particular bill, over 8,000. And as many as families are incarcerated in Virginia, there should be more participation from family members. I just want them to understand how much their participation is needed, because we really can do a lot of work together. And also we’re removing the selfishness when it comes to advocacy. Some people only get involved because, oh, well my loved one falls under this bill. That’s all I care about. But as you can see, because we didn’t care enough for one another, there were some people that were always focused on certain things, and this was allowed to happen because there wasn’t unity as a whole. We need each other. It doesn’t matter what. Prison reform is prison reform.
You can’t be about one side and not be about the other. So I think a lot of people see that now. And so I would want more unity, more conformity, more activeness, all that. Just get involved, really get involved. That’s very important. Show up to these rallies, stop making excuses. Come out. You got a loved one that’s incarcerated, learn about the lifestyle that they’re dealing with on the inside. Yes, they got in trouble, but they’re greater than their worst mistake. And family is what helps them when they come home. And they need that, they need that support.
Mansa Musa: There you have it. Chari Baker, Rattling the Bars, the real news about racist Virginia policies that’s affecting over 8,000 men and women that were expected to be released. It was a system they put in effect. It was a system that they passed. And when we played by the rules, they changed the rules at the 11th hour. There’s no way we can win. But we will win if we unite, as Chari said, join forces and demand that they reverse this arbitrary, capricious, and racist act. It’s affecting hundreds of family members.
And more importantly, support the efforts of Chari and the brothers and sisters that are out front trying to reverse the 13th Amendment as we know it in the form of racist Virginia prison policies. Thank you, Chari, for joining us. And we really appreciate you taking your time out to educate our viewers and our listeners. And we hope that at some point in time we can join you in attending some of your activities down there in Virginia.
Chari Baker: Yes. Thank you so much. And for anyone listening, it’s Fighting for Reform on Facebook, Fighting for, F-O-R, Reform. And you can find us there. You’ll see the logo, the hands with the cuff. And you can join us on Facebook.
Mansa Musa: All right, there you have it. The real news, according to Chari Baker.