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The shape of the state of Virginia filled with a maze
Illustration by Sarah Rogers

With regard to executive clemency being granted to prisoners in the Commonwealth of Virginia, there is something that many people do not know about the process.

As with everything else involving freedom in the state, my experience is that there is really only one condition in which a pardon will be granted. If there is no extraordinary circumstance, a pardon for their release will be denied.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the word extraordinary is “(1) going beyond what is usual, regular or customary” or “(2) employed for or sent on a special function or service.” 

After reading and completing a nine-page packet containing what is basically our entire life story, we are then forced to wait one year or more for the investigative process to take place. Some people wait for more than two years, only to receive a letter stating that their petition was denied. It’s a spirit crusher when they realize how futile their attempt was. It’s also a waste of the beautiful trees that made the pages the application was printed on.

So what must we do in order to be able to return home to our loved ones? What circumstances would permit such a thing? 

In my observation, the special service required is none other than becoming an informant, or, in street terms, a snitch — the lowest of the low of humans as far as the streets are concerned.

It was reported to me that a certain woman was able to reduce her sentence by agreeing to be an informant. The state of Virginia sent this woman out, dressed in disguise, in exchange for a lesser sentence. She infiltrated the organization of a major narcotics dealer and brought down his entire enterprise. 

In essence, you do something for them, and they will do something for you. 

The second definition of the word “executive,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “designed for or related to carrying out plans or purposes.” In other words, help them perform their job duties, and they will have the “disposition to be merciful.” That is also known as clemency.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.