Yesterday, Reginald “Neli” Latson, an autistic man currently imprisoned in Virginia, pled guilty to assaulting a correctional officer in exchange for a six-month sentence – the statutory minimum. Although the Autistic Self Advocacy Network applauds the efforts of Neli’s attorney in this case, justice is still not served. We call on Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant Neli a conditional pardon so that he can finally escape a cycle of incarceration and arrests and begin to heal from his years-long ordeal.
The incident leading to this plea deal should never have happened, let alone resulted in criminal charges. At the time, Neli was in prison because he had been prosecuted for behavior during a mental health crisis. Because the prison was ill equipped to accommodate Neli’s disabilities, it placed him in long-term solitary confinement – an unconscionable response that further exacerbated his behavioral difficulties and led to a suicide attempt. At the time of the incident, Neli was being led to an even more restrictive solitary cell with no mattress and a hole in the floor for a toilet. As a prison guard attempted to physically force Neli’s hands against a wall, Neli panicked and lashed out.
There was no serious injury to anyone in this incident other than Latson, who was shot with a Taser and bound for hours in a restraint chair. Nevertheless, Stafford County prosecutor Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen insisted on bringing yet further charges against Neli, at first pushing for a several-year sentence.
As a result of the tireless advocacy of the disability community, Neli’s attorney was able to secure a plea that would allow Neli to serve only six months, not several years. Moreover, he has now been moved out of solitary confinement. We are glad that Neli is no longer spending his days in torturous solitary confinement and that his days in the prison system will soon be at an end.
Nevertheless, we feel that even six months more of prison time is inherently unjust. Neli’s response to long-term solitary confinement is no reason to extend the cycle of unjust incarceration even longer. We hope that Governor McAuliffe will pardon Neli so that he can leave the prison system and begin receiving appropriate rehabilitation services, including re-entry services and behavior supports.