UPDATE Jan. 11, 2022: Since the initial publication of this story, the Virginia Department of Corrections said the re-entry program participation requirement has been rescinded for Stephens’ release. The Virginia DOC said it does not establish pardon conditions and does not have the authority to rescind pardon conditions.
Once an in-state home plan for Stephens is reviewed and verified by the Virginia DOC, Stephens will be processed for release.
HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — On his third day of freedom, after 20 years behind bars, Darnell Nolen has a message for the people who righted a wrong in Virginia’s criminal justice system.
“It’s a blessing and I just thank everybody involved in this process,” said 38-year-old Nolen as he surveyed the Phoebus section of Hampton with his mother Linda, Attorney Rebecca Winn and Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the Hampton NAACP at his side.
Nolen was only 17 years old when he participated in a home invasion robbery in York County. According to court documents, the crime was organized by a white male who was Nolen’s supervisor at a local seafood restaurant. A total of five people were involved in the crime. According to Nolen, only he and fellow Black co-defendant 18-year old Lawrence Jacob Stephens were armed during the hold-up. No shots were fired and no one was injured.
In an interview, Nolen recalled the genesis of the crime.
“I actually was approached to do a robbery; I was approached by a couple of guys who was actually the manager[s] at Harpoon Larry’s,” he said.
His attorney Rebecca Winn added a clarification: “Your employer,” said Winn.
“Yeah, he approached us [saying] I got a robbery for you… such and such,” said Nolen.
Nolen, at the age of 17, was already involved in crime and says had his own weapons.
“It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. You know at 17 years old, you don’t know no better; you just think you know,” said Nolen.
The process of getting his conditional pardon started last year when the NAACP investigated the case of co-defendant Stephens who was sentenced to 1,823 years for his role in the crime. Under sentencing guidelines, Stephens should have received no more than 13 years behind bars.
Court documents show the believed mastermind of the crime received 10 years in prison, two other white defendants got little to no time, while Nolen received 35 years and Judge Prentis Smiley sentenced Stephens to a staggering 1,823 years in prison.
Stephens was conditionally pardoned by Gov. Ralph Northam in mid-December; Nolen was conditionally pardoned last week and was freed on Friday, Jan. 7.
However, Stephens remains behind bars at Sussex I in Waverly, Virginia, because he must complete a mandatory re-entry program.
Nolen calls the conditions inhumane. Advocates are demanding answers, saying the re-entry program at Sussex I is essentially non-existent due to COVID-19 infections.
“They have him sleeping on a gym floor with many other prisoners. He has been sleeping on a hard gym floor for 10 days now. It is cold in there. COVID is spreading, there’s an outbreak there… He is now being held in a level-five maximum-security prison. He is enduring more punishment than he was prior to the pardon happening,” said Winn, who is also chair of the Hampton NAACP legal redress committee. Winn represented both Nolen and Stephens in their petitions for a conditional pardon.
Kanoyton, the Hampton NAACP president, is reaching out to state officials to once again, call for a wrong to be righted.
“We are going to reach out to the governor’s office, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and the Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran,” said Kanoyton.
Late Monday, a prison official — Benjamin Jarvela, who is the deputy director of communications for the Virginia Department of Corrections — responded to 10 On Your Side’s questions about conditions in the prison and the re-entry program.
“There were some inmates at that facility who were provided mattresses and bedding in the gymnasium as a temporary response to the COVID-19 situation there. These are the same items the inmates are provided in their normal housing units. They were not sleeping on the floor itself. These inmates were moved to that area as a short-term precautionary measure in order to separate them from others with positive COVID-19 test results.
“Mr. Stephens has already been transferred out of this area and into a general population housing unit, pending his beginning the aforementioned reentry program. The facility he will need to be moved to in order to complete this program is currently a COVID-19 ‘yellow zone’ and we are awaiting the results of the latest round of point prevalence testing for that facility to determine how to proceed. Once it is safe to do so, he will be moved to that unit and begin the program immediately.
“It is important that all of our facilities adhere to the Department’s COVID-19 safety protocols. We take the safety of our inmates and staff very seriously and we appreciate everyone’s patience as we navigate these challenges.”
Late Monday night, Winn forwarded a letter to 10 On Your Side that she had sent to the governor’s office.
In the letter, Winn demanded her client be allowed to immediately start the required re-entry program, or that Gov. Northam issue a new order for a conditional pardon that does not require re-entry programming.
Winn added that Nolen’s pardon from the governor did not require re-entry programming.