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Update from Dusty - May 29, 2020

After graduating the vocational horticulture course offered here at Greensville Correctional Center and giving the commencement speech (see below) at the 2019 graduation, I was offered the opportunity to continue into the advanced course. Early in 2020, I was hired as an aid to the horticulture course, to help students learn everything from basic sustainable gardening, plant identification and propagation, to greenhouse operations, soil amendments and chemical safety. I am grateful for the job, it is rewarding and I have learned a lot.

Prior to the pandemic impacting America, I met with four teams of law students from the University of Richmond's Institute for Actual Innocence. The Institute, under the sage direction of Mary Kelly Tate, is developing a brief on my behalf. Ms. Tate expects to send this to Governor Northam this summer as a supplement to my petition for clemency filed by my attorney David Hargett.

Since March, this institution has been on "modified lockdown," due to COVID-19. All programs, educational and otherwise, are shut down, visitation is cancelled, all food is being brought to the cells, we are required to wear DOC "sneeze guards," and there has been virtually no movement. Toward the end of May, the National Guard came here to test every staff member and incarcerated person. When the results came in we were then put under even greater restrictions. Hundreds of people at this institution have tested positive and I assume it is only a matter of time before I, too, contract the virus.

Under the recommendation of Governor Northam, the Virginia General Assembly recently passed legislation in an attempt to correct an unfair sentencing practice that existed between 1995 and 2000. During this period, known as the 'Fishback Gap,' juries were not allowed to be informed that parole had been abolished. Therefore, for the first time during my wrongful incarceration I am now parole eligible. Although many of my family and supporters are excited about the possibility of the parole board granting my release, parole is certainly not a suitable or just remedy for my wrongful conviction.

 

Commencement Speech
Greensville Educational/Vocational Graduation
October 3, 2019
page 1 of 2

[Anecdote]
From my earliest memories as a child, my family has always maintained a vegetable garden. We grew all our own veggies. My siblings and I would help plant seeds, pull weeds and bring in the harvest, and my mother would can and preserve for the winter. My father, who passed away seven years ago, taught me the rudiments of gardening.

So, when I arrived here at Greensville and heard there was a horticulture class, I quickly signed up. My ATTITUDE was that, with my experience growing up, "I'll be able to teach these guys a thing or two about gardening!"

However, once I got started in the class I quickly realized how much I didn't know.

I recognized that my teacher, Mr. Williams, is a treasure trove of horticultural and agricultural knowledge. There is so much that can be learned from him.
And Mr. Hudak, the former teacher's aide, this guy could run a full scale greenhouse operation on 4 hours a week!

I 'decided' to change my ATTITUDE.

Today, I have 3 main themes I'm going to speak about. (Can you guess the first?...)
1. Attitude
2. Accountability
3. Action

So, in the horticulture class, I took a new Attitude; one of gratitude and an openness and eagerness to learn. The amount of available information was mindboggling: in addition to the curriculum, there were hundreds of books, countless videos, and two teachers (one incarcerated, one free) with unending horticultural wisdom. I learned about:

proper tool names, pH levels,
soil composition, pest management, fertilizers, micronutrients,
companion planting,
interior landscaping, hydroponics...
it just goes on and on and on. With this knowledge, I could work in a greenhouse or nursery, do interior plantscaping, residential and commercial landscaping, etc., etc.
...
We all came into this room this morning with an ATTITUDE. Did you arrive joyful, anxious, reserved, engaged, agitated, angry? Perhaps your attitude was influenced by someone else or your circumstances? Maybe you didn't enjoy being patted down upon entering the facility; maybe your attitude lifted due to the kind word from a stranger, or you're unhappy because you just found out that we aren't getting ice cream or fried chicken this morning!

I haven't had the opportunity - and likely won't get the opportunity - to experience the other vocational courses. What I do know, however, is that the horticulture course here is impressive. (There is actually a pond near the greenhouse with a waterfall!) Students design their own garden plots and have the freedom to choose various plants, flowers and vegetables. It has absolutely allowed me to feel...human!
Yet, just like with everything in life, what you get out of it depends upon your...ATTITUDE.

I would like to share with you one of my favorite Quotes; it was written by Victor Frankl, a man who experienced tremendous hardship.

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing;
the last of human freedoms -
to choose one's attitude in any set of circumstances,
to choose one's own way."

Those who know me, know that I have every reason in the world to have a negative attitude. Despite the injustices I have endured, however, my attitude is a personal choice - as is yours. Although you may allow your attitude to be influenced at times by others or by your circumstances, it is not dictated by them; you are completely free to chose...

After graduating the horticulture program, I was offered the rare opportunity to enroll in the advanced course - largely due to my ATTITUDE - and I took it.
...
The way we view ACCOUNTABILITY is also largely dependent upon our ATTITUDE.

We have a burden of obligation to those whom we have harmed. Punishment, doing time, and paying fines may count for being ACCOUNTABLE to the state. However, it ignores the importance of Voluntary Participation or the Choice to be personally accountable.

Personal Accountability involves 3 Steps (you may want to take note, as this is important):

1. Taking responsibility for your actions;
2. Understanding the affects of your actions;
3. Taking steps to make things as right as possible.

It is this third step of ACCOUNTABILITY which I am going to touch on today... How do we "make things as right as possible"? We do this through:
Apology
Changed Behavior
Restitution
Generosity

For people incarcerated, there seems to be little opportunity to make up for wrongs committed. Many of us become frustrated, wanting to be accountable to those whom we have harmed (this may include to victims, their families and communities, but also to our own families and communities), yet we might resign ourselves to a feeling of complete hopelessness.

In lieu of direct accountability, there are still ways in which people can be indirectly or symbolically accountable to those impacted by one's harmful behavior.

So, what CAN we do?
"Making things as right as possible" begins right here;
with addressing and changing our own behavior.

We must identify the origin of our poor decisions - and this goes for all of us, not just those of us incarcerated - we must work to modify our thinking and, consequently, our actions, so that we will not make the same mistakes, especially ones which hurt people.

Being personally accountable for our actions is the right thing to do... We cannot undo the past, but we can take steps to repair the harm our behavior has caused.

[Speech p.2 of 2]

Being accountable does not require that you must first be living in the most ideal circumstances...Indeed, helping others has been proven to be one of the best ways to get past the focus on one's own hardships and grievances. There is much you can do to make amends even while incarcerated

And how about people who are serving life or a lengthy prison sentences? The accompanying despair may be overcome through caring for and being important to others.

Regardless of your sentence, it is still possible for you not only to make amends, but to make meaning of your time and in your life through...
- self-improvement,
- spiritual transcendence,
- living restoratively,
- finding ways to help others,
- education,
- mentoring other prisoners, and
- telling your story in a meaningful way.

I have been in prison for more than 24 years, over half of my life, so I can speak with some authority on long prison sentences.

We cannot change what we have done.
What we can do, from this day forward, is transform our ATTITUDE, we can change how we behave, how we treat others, what we teach, and how we can make a difference in the world, which includes the world of the prison.

THIS is how we can begin to be ACCOUNTABLE.


Attitude
Accountability
and...
Action

By 'action' I am suggesting and I am challenging, everyone in this room to DO something more.

[Anecdote]
Last year, I watched a correctional officer approach a guy sitting on the stairs in the pod. I knew how this confrontation was going to go: "Hey, no sitting on the stairs!" This would necessitate a response from the incarcerated guy, and an antagonistic exchange would likely ensue. Instead, the officer engaged the guy in a conversation. I only overheard a little of what was said, a short conversation about where the incarcerated fella was from and something about the negative influences that led him to prison, but the officer spoke to the guy with empathy and compassion. When he walked away, they were both smiling... and the guy got off of the steps.

The most positive transformative events that have occurred in the lives of incarcerated people have not come from instances of punishment or harsh treatment. (Indeed, when people are treated as animals, they tend to act accordingly.)... Instead, incarcerated people have made monumental leaps in their own rehabilitation from instances in which they were treated as normal, equal, human beings. This does not necessitate crossing the line of fraternization, nor relaxing security, nor even specialized training, what it does require is seeing and speaking to incarcerated people as fellow humans.

In addition to this, incarcerated people are never confronted by any staff concerning the behavior which brought them to prison in the first place. Not 'confronted' in an antagonistic manner, but an empathic and compassionate way. If a staff member is using the term "correctional" in their title,... please consider actively contributing to the rehabilitation of those in your care.

Having said this, it should be recognized - and having been down for 2 1/2 decades I do recognize - that the Virginia DOC has made many great improvements in this area.

On behalf of the graduates, I would like to extend our gratitude for recognizing our individual accomplishments with this commencement ceremony. I would especially like to thank...
- Warden...
-
- To the teachers and the teachers aides
- Mrs. Hancock and Mr. Marcovich, for organizing this event

I would also like to thank the guests who came today to support the graduates. Your support means everything to us; incarcerated people need communications with and support from their communities of care, especially if they are going to successfully reenter society.

Additionally, I challenge the guests to explore and advocate for Restorative Justice - a natural form of justice which seeks to heal the harms of crime.
Crime hurts,... therefore justice should heal.

Finally, to the graduates and other incarcerated people. You may have noticed that I have not once used the term 'offender' to describe us. You are not an offender, nor a convict, nor felon, nor any other label which seeks to force you into a role or define you as an 'other'. We are human beings, PEOPLE who are incarcerated. "We are not the worst thing we have ever done." No one in this room wants to be known for the worst thing they have ever done. Words matter; titles and labels matter.
...
What can I contribute?
What does the world need from me?
Who can I help?
What can I teach?

We must make a commitment to be accountable; first and foremost through changed behavior.

To those who have earned the GED; Congratulations! I challenge you not to stop there.
* Enroll in a vocational course,
* Frequent the library,
* Consider further education.

To those of us who have graduated from a vocation; Congratulations! There is always more to learn in your trade or otherwise, if you're unsure ask your former teacher or Mr. Marcovich, the librarian, and he can point you in the right direction.

To all of us, there are additional programs we can enroll in - and if any are unavailable we should begin requesting that the administration make them available.

The various classes, programs, and other resources are what WE can use to to help us change our thinking and, therefore, our behavior.

Accountability is our obligation.

And, it all can start with that which no one, NO ONE, can ever take from us:

The FREEDOM to choose our own ATTITUDE.

Thank you