VCU’s Alpha Gamma Delta sorority chapter’s red, yellow and green lettering flooded the Compass and Instagram with cheery smiles, painted posters of handcuffs and girls dressed in cop/prisoner attire last Wednesday.
The big idea here, aside from a gross display of juxtaposing privilege, was apparently not a new one. AGD’s “Jail ‘n’ Bail” bake sale fundraiser for the Alpha Gamma Delta Foundation and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation is apparently an annual staple in the sorority’s philanthropic efforts.
“GET PUMPED RAMS today is the day!!!” reads one AGD member’s Instagram caption promoting the sorority’s event. “Come by the compass from 12:30-3:30 to support AGD’s annual jail and bail!! All money donated to bail your frands out of AGD jail (hehe) goes towards the alpha gamma delta foundation & juvenile diabetes research foundation AND the organization who wins will get $300 towards their philanthropy AND there’ll be food AND raffles AND ITS A BEAUTIFUL DAAAAY so ya win-win ayooo SO COME HANG FOR A LIL OR JUST STOP BY ~today~ IN THE ~compass~ !!! Can’t wait to see all you Rams.” The post concludes with a red, yellow and green heart emojis.
This student’s flippant disregard for why this fundraiser is hurtful is likely unintentional — but ignorance has never been an excuse for brazen disrespect. And for those of us on campus who noticed this particular spectacle and know the pains of incarceration in any capacity — this fundraiser, and all who participated in it, were profiting by belittling others’ pain.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Bulletin on Prisoners in 2014,” released in September 2015, more than 1.5 million prisoners were held in state and federal correctional facilities in 2014. Of these, 1,508,600 individuals were sentenced to more than one year in prison; 106,200 were women.
Why would anybody get “pumped” to participate in a fundraiser that exploits the existence of the more than 1.5 million Americans in the state and federal system?
36,982 of those men, women and youth are incarcerated in Virginia alone. That’s more inmates than there are students on both the Monroe Park and MCV campuses combined — and just because those 36,982 men, women and youth weren’t there to set the record straight with you, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be too “pumped” about this fundraiser.
They’re probably not too pumped that, once released, they have lost their right to vote — and therefore have no stake in the democratic process outlined by the Constitution that deems us citizens.
They’re probably not too pumped that every one in five people will be homeless shortly after their re-entry into society.
They’re probably not too pumped if they don’t have someone who can put money on their books so they can receive vital medications, doctors visits, commissary, basic hygiene products or phone calls.
They’re probably not too pumped even if they DO have someone who can put money on their books, but has to pay between $2 and $26 for 20 minutes of static, garbled and recorded conversations during a collect-call.
The women are probably not too pumped about awaiting bail or their hearing date or are serving their sentence and have to pay around $4 for eight poorly-made pads when they’re on their period, in addition to paying around $3 a day in rent.
They’re probably also not too pumped about the possibility of losing family members, or giving birth, while institutionalized and never leaving the confines of their cages to say hello or goodbye.
The kids who landed in juvie instead of alternatives like in-school suspension or a rehabilitation program are probably not too pumped that a gaggle of girls, privileged enough to attend an institution of higher education, are parading around the Compass in inmate and cop outfits while they wear the same white cotton underwear day after day inside lock-up.
Ladies, this is not “Orange is the New Black.” Playing dress-up without being properly educated (or having even heard of) the prison-industrial complex does not make you the next badass Ruby Rose wannabe. It’s not cute, sexy, exciting or supportive of anything except your inflated social media ego. It doesn’t make you “bad.”
It makes you shamefully ignorant to the conditions of others that you’ve been groomed to ignore because they do not affect you.
But just because others’ circumstances or lives narratives don’t affect you doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for how you project your privilege upon others. It does not excuse you from contributing to the humorless cruelty of a system that exploits women (your age, or younger), men and people of color who can’t afford an attorney who whips to court in a Benz.
People of color, particularly African Americans, are overrepresented at each stage of the Virginia criminal justice system. In Virginia, African Americans comprise roughly 20 percent of the adult population. In the justice system, they comprise 47.4 percent of all arrests and 60.8 percent of state prison inmates — for every white person incarcerated in Virginia, six African Americans are behind bars. As a result of the figures above, 20.4 percent of African American Virginians have lost the right to vote, isolating them from their communities and civic participation.
In July of this year, three black inmates died within 72 hours of one another at the new Richmond City “Justice Center.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch said the lawyer for Zachary Tuggle, one of the late inmates, said his client was suffering from repeated seizures and was not getting medication to help him.
“(Tuggle) said he needed his medication to stop the seizures, and he wasn’t getting it,” said local lawyer James A. Bullard.
Watch the WDBJ7 video interview with two of the family members of the men who passed. Then ask yourself if pretending to be an inmate is philanthropic.
Before the most recent string of July deaths at the new “Justice Center,” the old Richmond City Jail facility routinely held 1,300 to 1,500 inmates even though it was built to accommodate 880. The old jail also was the subject of multiple lawsuits filed by inmates who were injured or family members of inmates who died of heat exposure or other alleged inhumane conditions while in custody.
Earlier this year, the city settled for $2.99 million in a lawsuit filed by a former inmate who suffered a heat stroke in 2012 in the old city jail’s medical tier, where temperatures were recorded at 108 degrees.
In a July 2012 Richmond Times-Dispatch article, an expert on medical care at the nation’s jails and prisons said the death rate for the inmates at the overheated and chronically overcrowded old city jail was 2.5 times higher than the average annual death rate at jails of similar size across the country from 2000 through 2007.
The Times-Dispatch also reported that from 2007 to 2012, the average number of Richmond jail deaths per year increased, even as average death rates across the nation declined, according to an analysis by Dr. Marc Stern, a former medical director for prisons in Washington state.
Sixty people died in the custody of the old Richmond jail from 2000 through July 29, 2012. Most of the deaths were from “natural” causes, like Zachary Tuggle’s epileptic seizure.
“Cuff me, jail me, make ’em bail me #vcuagd yay philanthropy,” reads another AGD Instagram caption that highlights the tagline for the event, further showcasing a blatant disregard for what any of those three things actually feel like.
Is it philanthropic to get handcuffed too tight before being beaten after chunks of flesh from your face are left on the pavement — like University of Virginia Honor student Martese Johnson last school year? Was it philanthropic of Tuggle, or Shawn Samuel or Javon Antoine Morris to lose their lives inside a cage as their families grappled with loss and the sheriff’s office issued vague statements? Is it philanthropic to anxiously await a bond or bail — that for many, is out of the realm of possibility due to expense?
Greek life’s focus on philanthropy is an admirable one. But when the theme of a philanthropic event makes light of a mass incarceration epidemic that’s clasped this country for decades and affects large portions of our city, it distracts from the cause.
AGD must reconsider the theme for this event in the coming year. Perhaps, too, AGD should consider donating to, not mocking, those disenfranchised and abused by the prison-industrial complex.
Read AGD’s official media response here.