I was 17 years old when I went to jail and 45 when I came home.
Having spent more than twice as much time behind bars as in the community I came from, I can bear witness to the truth of what many others have said about the U.S. prison system: It’s designed to break you down, to dehumanize you, to slowly kill you in a thousand different ways.
In Virginia, that’s not news.
Seventy years ago, seven black men were executed for the rape of a white woman—a miscarriage of justice that even Virginia Gov. Northam acknowledges today. And as a letter last month to the governor requesting their posthumous pardon makes clear, it will remain a “raw wound” as long as the fundamentally racist nature of their prosecution is unrecognized.
That especially matters now as the Virginia legislature is being asked to consider abolishing capital punishment.
I hope that happens, just as I welcome the posthumous pardon.
But ending the death penalty in one state doesn’t address the dehumanization we experience as Black men living behind bars.
Take a look through my eyes on my journey, and you can see how we get to this place.
On my indictment it says Kevin Varner vs. the United States.
To a 17-year-old, that sent a clear message: “Kevin, you have nothing coming. For who can beat the United States?”
Once in prison, I lost my name. I became a number. For all intents and purposes, I wasn’t a person any more since, if you don’t have your prison ID number you cannot do anything.
They ask, “What is your number?” for everything, if you don’t have it, or if it’s not on your armband, you might as well not exist.
Not for mail, health, visits, commissary. No number, no access.
Next, they take your clothes and dignity. They make up reasons to strip you naked, hot or cold, day or night, alone and with others. It is constant. They look at you like this should be normal.
It destroys a lot of us.
You are treated as an animal: shackled, chained, and put into a cage. It wasn’t lost on me that a dog would get more protections than me when I was in prison. The living quarters are small and tight, built for one individual, but housing two. There is no color on the walls, floor, beds.
Just bland, sensory deprivation.
It’s bad enough that you are treated this way. But the lack of humanity is extended to your loved ones. If they want to come see you, they must also suffer these indignations. They also must agree to be harassed, searched, often stripped, to spend an hour with you.
Whether or not these processes are purposefully designed to break your ties to family and society, that’s exactly what happens.
All these indignities and humiliations add up to a system without checks and balances. This “death by a thousand cuts” damages us, steals our light and our lives away, whether we are on Death Row or not.
These indignities make it easy for society and the courts to see us as non-human, in the same way the Martinsville 7 were seen.
It’s easier to execute someone if you don’t see them like you—as human.
By all means, Gov. Northam should sign a pardon for those men. It’s one simple step to take; yet a critical one in restoring the humanity for those whose lives the state stole so effortlessly.
But he and all the others should not forget those who are still alive―and losing their humanity daily in the custody of the state of Virginia.
Kevin Varner is a Washington, D.C. native, father and grandfather. He was prosecuted at the age of 17 in adult criminal court and released in 2020 after serving 27 years. He served time in federal Bureau of Prison facilities which included Sussex II as a contracted Virginia state prison.
He describes himself as a “Poet Ambassador,” aiming to use his lived experience to provide hope and healing to underserved youth. His dream is to start his own organization dedicated to helping Black youth find belonging and belief in themselves. This is an edited version of an essay he wrote for Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments from readers, and can be reached via email@example.com.