Four graduate students from Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding played a role in the release of two incarcerated individuals from Virginia state prisons in February 2021.
Conner Suddick, Helen Momoh, Samantha Pearl, and Simelwe Dlova volunteered last winter to work on communications for the COVID-19 Compassion Release Project, led by Ruth Jost, a retired lawyer and former director of Blue Ridge Legal Aid.
Their efforts are linked to Budget Amendment 391, passed in April 2020 by the Virginia legislature, to reduce prison numbers as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Eligible incarcerated individuals must meet specific criteria including conviction for a crime other than Class I felony or a sexually violent offense; within one year of completing their sentence; and with proof of secure housing for several months post-release.
Jost’s own solo work on the project through the spring and summer of 2020 was intense. She spent hours on the phone calling prisons, identifying eligible individuals and staff responsible for early release. Through her efforts in finding sponsors from community members and the support of a nonprofit organization, Bridging the Gap In Virginia, which provides housing and other re-entry services for returning citizens, five individuals were aided to an early release.
But Jost realized more help was needed. She reached out in October 2020 to CJP with the volunteer opportunity.
Suddick, Momoh, Pearl and Dlova took up the challenge. They contacted 35 facilities in Virginia, checking for individuals eligible for release and providing Jost’s contact information.
Each call was logged on a spreadsheet, which included information about students’ experience in the process. The callers reported significant challenges: calls going to voicemail, mailboxes being full, calls being transferred, and information not being obtained due to privacy law.
Momoh, in her second year of the MA in conflict transformation program, said that her determination during these challenges was in “doing something for somebody…that is what our work is all about.” Even when calls went unanswered or straight to voicemail, Momoh kept at it. “This should be a Christmas present for somebody,” she said.
Jost, a lifelong activist, says her initial inspiration for the project came after listening to The Underground Railroad Record (Modern Library, 2019) by William Still. The book includes a collection of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and conversation records of the Underground Railroad experience. Much like the people during this time period, Jost realized that she was living in an extraordinary time, one where she could make a difference in a few people trying to escape their circumstances.
Now that vaccinations are being offered in state prisons, Jost says the project has nearly drawn to a close. But it’s still possible others will soon benefit from this unusual opportunity, thanks to the collective effort of Jost, the sponsors, volunteers and many others.
Lauren Jefferson contributed to this article.