Calvin Arey was incarcerated in Virginia in the 1960s when he became a plaintiff in Landman v. Royster. A landmark civil rights case, it asked the U.S. district court to intervene in a state prison system that was systematically starving, abusing, censoring, and sickening those in its custody. When a federal district court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor in 1971, Landman established the rudiments of a national prisoners’ bill of rights. Before the late 1960s, federal courts had typically taken a “hands-off” approach to incarcerated people, all but guaranteeing that they lacked even the most basic civil rights and were, instead, “slaves of the state,” with no claim to citizenship. In Landman, Arey and his comrades filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, arguing that practices and conditions inside Virginia prisons violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Many of the policies and practices challenged by Arey and his co-plaintiffs endure in U.S. prisons. Lawmakers in Virginia, for example, are only just considering putting an end to long-term solitary confinement. Unsanitary conditions, censorship, and physical neglect continue to define life in prison. But thanks to the efforts of generations of activists like Arey, federal courts are now required to offer some semblance of protection to incarcerated people, under the theory that the Constitution does not end at the walls of a prison, jail, or detention center. Among the rights Arey and his colleagues fought for were the rights to communicate freely with legal counsel and to collaborate with other prisoners in litigation and appeals. Although they recognized that a legal regime based on rights-claims contains myriad problems, they fought for these basic freedoms to build practical power, using litigation as a “strategy for visibility,” in the words of historian Dan Berger.
In December 2022 Inquest editor Daniel Fernandez began corresponding with Arey about his experiences in Virginia’s prisons and his life following his release in the 1980s. Portions of these conversations have been edited to form the following narrative, which describes how Arey became involved in prison litigation, and how he continues to work with people incarcerated in Virginia.
When I was in solitary for the first time, in December 1965, Christmas fell on a food day. Back then, when you were in solitary, the cycle was that there would be one day—a food day—when you’d receive an actual meal, followed by two days when you’d be given only bread and water. So on Christmas I had one of those individual turkey pot pies. To be honest, it was really good, but you’re also really hungry in solitary. You’d basically eat anything they put in front of you.
I knew it was going to be thirty days in solitary that first time. That was the standard length. I knew what I was facing. I knew that other people had survived it. And it’s not like I had much of a choice. You had to do it. You just had to do it.
All of “C” Block was considered solitary, but there were different levels to it. I started off in the basement. It was silent. When they brought me down, they gave me a pair of pants and a shirt. I had a copy of the Bible, too. The cell construction was completely solid. You couldn’t see through the walls or the door, so you didn’t know if a person was across or next to you. If I wanted to try to talk to another person, I had to empty the water out of the toilet, and whisper through the pipes. But the guards would teargas anyone they heard speak, so I didn’t do that very often.
After thirty days, they moved me upstairs to what they called “restrictive housing.” That’s where I met one of my Landman v. Royster co-plaintiffs, Robert “Bob” Landman—in the little exercise yard, which was surrounded by walls. Bob was in C because he had written to a newspaper reporter about conditions at the prison. He’d tried helping guys with their legal cases, too. The officials didn’t like that. They wanted to make things hard for him—to make an example of him. They kept him in C way past when he should have been paroled.
Eventually, we got to talking about my case. I was an alcoholic, and right around this time, the courts had started to rule that alcoholism could be a mitigating factor in sentencing. That hadn’t applied to me at trial, so I asked if Bob could help me write up a petition. He agreed that he would, no charge. I thought it would be best to do this all out in the open—I figured there was no reason to be surreptitious.
I wrote a letter to the prison superintendent, C. C. Peyton, asking his permission. I gave the letter to a guard and asked him to give the letter to Peyton. In a matter of minutes, I was being locked back in my cell. I figured the guards had locked me up on their own initiative—unless they had called Peyton on the telephone, there’s no way he could have known.
That got me pissed off. Here I was trying to exercise what I figured was one of my constitutional rights—to have access to the courts. I didn’t know how to file a petition myself. I had never even seen one at the time. And Bob had agreed to help me for free. It made no sense.
While all this was going on, things started to boil over at the prison. There was a huge work-stoppage strike in the summer of 1968. At the time, the prison system was still segregated. Like in the free world, Black prisoners had some of the worst jobs. They were making something like two cents an hour hauling coal or doing other awful work. People were constantly dying or getting into horrible accidents.
Things had reached a head. People were feeling the passions of the civil rights movement, and even if nobody acknowledged us, we felt that we were a part of that, like we were connected to all these other activists. I remember reading a speech by Bobby Kennedy around this time in which he said, “Every time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” I can still picture the article in the newspaper, and I remember walking back and forth in C yard with Bob talking about it.
While the strike was happening, Philip Hirschkop and Michael Millemann, who were lawyers with the Virginia ACLU, got involved. We were one of the ACLU’s first cases in Virginia. Phil had tried to come over during the strike, and Payton had turned him away at the gate. He said he wouldn’t let an ACLU lawyer into his prison. Phil had to come back with a court order to get in, but he eventually got to talk to me, Bob, and another guy named Leroy Mason (another Landman plaintiff). Leroy was a clerk at the prison’s school. During the strike, the guys had elected him to be their spokesperson, even though he hadn’t actually participated. He’d agreed that he would represent them if they ended the strike and kept things peaceful. But the prison officials didn’t want to negotiate with him or anyone else. They just sent him to solitary. It took a couple weeks for him to get out. While in solitary, he basically did nothing but kill cockroaches and pile them in the corner of the cell they had left him in.
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When Phil came in with Mike, that’s when it felt like things really started to change. It felt like there was a spotlight on the prison. Without that outside pressure, I don’t think officials would have agreed to change anything. They really didn’t want the courts looking over their shoulders. They didn’t want people to know what was going on. And very few federal judges were going to act on their own, without some outside campaigning. There were a few, like Constance Baker Motley—the first Black woman to become a federal judge—who did take a stand. But it took a lot of work to make that happen.
Three years after the strike, we got a ruling in federal court from Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr., that ended a lot of the especially horrible practices at the prison. The decision outlawed segregation, did away with bread-and-water diets, and put some basic safety standards in place. It also got rid of mail censorship and allowed us to communicate with outside lawyers and help one another with writs. Some of the guys even won cash damages from the head of the prison system for what they had been through. Bob was released, but he ended up working on something like 2,000 writs before that happened. I helped him out, and ended up learning a lot in the process. It led to me helping other guys with their cases, organizing letter-writing campaigns to public officials, and creating study groups.
I was planning to take all of this to the grave with me. At least until the pandemic forced me into retirement.
I’m really interested in genealogy, and during the lockdown I was corresponding with someone up in the Yukon, Canada. She told me about Dale M. Brumfield’s book Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History (2008). She said there was someone with my name in the book and she wanted to know if it was me.
I felt like all that history was going to get out sooner or later, and I was retired. So I decided to come forward. But I really wrestled with it. The lawsuits I was a part of are fifty years old now. I was aware of the ups and downs. I recognized that we had made gains, but that courts, prison officials, and politicians had managed to pull things back, even though I don’t think things like bread-and-water diets ever really returned.
When I talk to people about this now, they often ask me: What was the purpose of any of this—these abusive practices? How was any of it supposed to reform somebody, or lead them to a different life? I have to explain that wasn’t the purpose of solitary confinement. The point was to break you, to reduce you, to make you submit. They wanted you to stop filing lawsuits, to stop complaining, to stop fighting the system.
Because of Dale’s book and other articles he’s written about Virginia State Penitentiary, people in Virginia’s prisons have started to hear about my story. It’s been really gratifying to see their reaction, because I don’t want my story to be about the past. I want it to make a difference today, for those ripples to continue expanding. One of the things I’ve been really proud of recently is curating a group of small libraries in honor of Albert Woodfox, who spent forty-four years in solitary confinement. These libraries don’t really exist in a physical space, because the books are always being passed around. But it’s a form of mutual aid, a bit like what I learned from Bob.
There are around ten of these libraries in Virginia today. I get letters all the time from the librarians, who tell me about what a difference these books are making, and how much my experience has resonated. One of the librarians, Shebri Dillon, also works as a legal clerk. She wrote in a letter about how much the story of Landman hit home. She had been protesting conditions at her prison, trying to use these new grievance procedures. She said that what really stood out wasn’t so much the existence of these protections, but the practices we had cultivated working side by side with one another. I got a letter from her recently. She said: “We must heal what is broken in us, apologize and restore what we can of what we ourselves have broken in others, and live a life of service to each other. For each one of us, that looks a little different, but each time we reach out, with each small act, we create ripples.”
Image: National Archives/Inquest