Media Release: Legal Advocates Challenge Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ New Procedures for Legal Mail

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 30, 2018

 

CONTACT: Andy Hoover, media@aclupa.org, 717-236-6827 x213

 

HARRISBURG— The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP filed two federal civil rights lawsuits today challenging the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (DOC) new policy of copying and retaining confidential mail from attorneys to their prisoner clients.  The lawsuits, one on behalf of the four organizations and a related one for a DOC prisoner, claim that the practice violates the First Amendment rights of the organizations’ attorneys and DOC prisoners to confidential legal communications.

 

The new policy follows a 12-day lockdown of all state prisons last month, which the DOC alleges was necessary to protect guards from “unknown substances” that have entered the facilities.

 

In an attempt to prevent these “unknown substances” from entering state prisons through the mail, DOC officials have been confiscating all incoming legal mail and holding it for 45 days, only allowing prisoners a photocopy of their correspondence. This policy interferes with the ability of prisoners and lawyers to discuss legal matters confidentially.

 

“No other corrections institution in the nation screens and duplicates legal mail in this way,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Attorney-client privilege is a cornerstone of legal representation. The Department of Corrections’ new mail policy undermines that privilege in violation of First Amendment protections for both the prisoners and their attorneys.”

 

The two lawsuits, which are separate but are likely to be consolidated, allege that DOC’s changes to processing legal mail are unwarranted and unnecessary because there’s no evidence that legal mail is a major source of illegal drugs.  The suits claim DOC’s new legal mail policy is an “exaggerated, irrational response to a non-problem that deprives Plaintiff legal organizations of an indispensable – and often the only viable — means of communicating with their imprisoned clients, thereby seriously undermining the lawyers’ ability to provide zealous and effective legal representation.”

 

“The DOC concocted an emergency and rolled out all of these policies at once while completely lacking any examples of drugs getting into PA prisons through attorneys and the mail we send to our imprisoned clients,” said Kris Henderson, legal director of Amistad Law Project.

 

The challenged policy is part of a number of new restrictions imposed by DOC on prisoners’ access to mail, visitors, and books and publications. Prisoners are not permitted to receive original copies of any mail and are currently prohibited from ordering books or publications.

 

“These post lockdown policies represent a devastating shift in Pennsylvania’s prisons,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney at Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “By interfering with legal mail, preventing people from holding onto cards and letters from loved ones and limiting their access to reading materials, the DOC has entered a new regime of isolation, further separating incarcerated people from meaningful access to the outside world.”

 

“These new policies, as well as the shock and awe manner in which they were implemented, now place the Pennsylvania DOC as the national vanguard when it comes to repressing the First Amendment rights of the incarcerated and their families, communities, and correspondents,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center.

 

“Attorneys are ethically required to keep communications with their clients confidential, and when that is threatened, they must act to prevent unauthorized access to those communications. Because of these requirements, and the new Pennsylvania policy on legal mail, public defenders, other attorneys and legal organizations have ceased communicating by mail with their incarcerated clients,” said Keith E. Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP. “This is a tremendous hardship and interferes with the attorney-client relationship.”

 

The lawsuits, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project v. Wetzel and Hayes v. Wetzel, were filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. The plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center; Deneekie Grant and Kris Henderson of the Amistad Law Project; Angus Love and Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Danielle Bruno, Stephanie Short, Paul Titus, and Keith E. Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

 

The complaints are available at aclupa.org/PILP.

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MEDIA RELEASE: MOVE 9 Member Mike Africa Released on Parole After 40 Years in Prison

October 23, 2018

Earlier today, MOVE member Mike Africa was released from prison after 40 years of incarceration. Mike was released on parole from SCI Phoenix in Skippak Township this morning.

Mike was imprisoned since August 8, 1978, following an altercation between the Philadelphia police and the MOVE Organization. Mike is one of 9 MOVE members, collectively known as the “MOVE 9,” who were convicted and sentenced to 30-100 years in prison following the altercation.

Mike’s wife Debbie Africa was also one of the MOVE 9. Debbie was eight months pregnant at the time of the incident and gave birth in jail to their son, Mike Africa Jr. Mike Sr. has been incarcerated for his son’s entire life and today was the first opportunity for the father and son to spend time together outside of prison.

Mike Sr. and his wife Debbie maintained their relationship despite both being in incarcerated and separated from one other for 40 years. In June of this year, Debbie became the first member of the MOVE 9 to be released from prison. Today marks the first time that Mike Sr., Debbie and their son Mike Jr. have ever spent time all together.

 

“After being born in jail and never being with my parents, I’m happy to be with my mom and dad at home for the first time ever in forty years,” said Mike Africa, Jr. He continued “But this struggle isn’t over. There are still MOVE members behind bars who deserve to be reunited with their families and loved ones, just like my mom and dad can now be with me and the rest of their family.”

 

Mike Sr. has been eligible for parole since 2008 and went before the Pennsylvania Board or Probation and Parole (PBPP) for the tenth time in September of this year. Mike’s legal team submitted a packet in support of his parole petition, detailing Mike’s exemplary prison record, his educational accomplishments in prison and over 75 letters in support of parole. These included letters from religious leaders, retired DOC staff who knew him personally and former prisoners who described the positive influence Mike had on them. Mike also received recommendations for parole from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), Corrections expert and former DOC Secretary Martin Horn, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

 

One of Mike’s lawyers, Brad Thomson, of the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, said, “Mike’s record in prison was exceptional and demonstrated that he was an excellent candidate for parole. With this decision, the Parole Board recognizes that Mike, like Debbie, and the rest of the MOVE 9, poses absolutely no threat to the community.” Thomson went on to say, “This victory would not have been possible without the decades of organizing and advocacy spearheaded by the MOVE organization and their supporters.”

 

Bret Grote, of Abolitionist Law Center, another lawyer for the MOVE 9, stated, “This historic release of Mike Africa renders the Parole Board’s decision to deny the rest of the MOVE 9 all the more incomprehensible. For example, Janet and Janine Africa have both maintained DOC records that are as exemplary as Mike’s and essentially identical to that of Debbie, yet they were inexplicably denied parole this past May.” Grote and Thomson recently filed petitions for habeas corpus on behalf of Janet and Janine in federal court, challenging their parole denials.

 

In addition to Janet and Janine, three other members of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated, as two (Merle Africa and Phil Africa) died in custody. All five surviving members of the MOVE 9 (Janet, Janine, Chuck, Eddie and Delbert Africa) have been eligible for parole since 2008 and have been repeatedly denied parole when appearing before the PBPP.

 

During the August 8, 1978 altercation, a Philadelphia police officer was killed and following a highly politicized and controversial trial, the MOVE 9 were convicted of third-degree homicide. All nine were sentenced to 30-100 years in prison.

Contacts:

Brad Thomson, bradjaythomson[at]gmail.com ,773-297-9689

Mike Africa Jr., MikeAfricaJr@gmail.com,

 

 

Media Release: En Banc Hearing Granted For Avis Lee

 

For Immediate Release 

October 16, 2018

(Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

On Tuesday, October 23, at 9:30 a.m. the Abolitionist Law Center will argue at an En Banc hearing in front of the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the case is the Commonwealth v Lee, where the petitioner, Avis Lee, is arguing that the right established in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana decisions applies to all adolescents and not just strictly to those who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. This groundbreaking case has the potential to alter the way the Commonwealth treats mandatory life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

The petitioner in this case, Avis Lee, has served over thirty-eight years in prison. Like many people in Pennsylvania, Avis received a mandatory life sentence under a felony-murder charge. At the age of 18, Avis served as a lookout while her brother and his friend attempted a robbery. After a brief struggle, the victim was shot by Avis’s brother and collapsed in a parking lot. Avis flagged down a bus driver in order to get the victim help, but despite her efforts, he still passed away. Avis was convicted and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. Since her incarceration, Avis has completed extensive rehabilitative programming and performed countless hours serving others through her work in the prison and with community groups, including being a mentor and assisting in braille translations.

As described in ALC’s recently published report, A Way Out: Abolishing Death by Incarceration in Pennsylvania, as people mature, they are less likely to engage in criminal conduct. Of the more than 5,300 people serving life-without-parole in Pennsylvania, approximately half committed the offense resulting in their LWOP sentence before the age of 25.

 

This case therefore is representative of hundreds of individuals who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole in their youth but who are currently ineligible to be resentenced due solely to an arbitrary age cut-off.

 

Petitioner has argued to the Superior Court that the same scientific and legal reasoning behind Miller and Montgomery apply with equal force to those who were younger than 18 and those like Avis, who were adolescents and possessed the same characteristics of youth. The Court has decided to take the rare step of hearing the case en banc, meaning that 9 judges will hear the matter and will possess the power to overrule the Court’s earlier cases that upheld a cutoff at 18 years of age.

 

Allegheny County is the place where the crime occurred. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, headed by DA Zappala, is opposing the petition and has not shown a willingness to reconsider the pursuit of LWOP sentences. By contrast, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner came out in support of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 942 this month, legislation introduced by Senator Street that would allow parole consideration for all serving life sentences after 15 years.

 

That Avis Lee, who was 18 at the time of her offense and who had repeated and severe experiences of trauma in her childhood and adolescence, committed her offense during a time of ongoing maturation and development is a historical fact at this point. The question in front of the Court is whether she can proceed to a merits determination as to whether her sentence is excessive in light of Miller and Montgomery.

Contact: Miracle Jones, Abolitionist Law Center, communications@alcenter.org

Media Release: Habeas Petitions Filed To Free Move Members Janet and Janine Africa

October 04, 2018

(Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Today, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Peoples Law Office filed Habeas motions in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of Janet Hollaway Africa and Janine Phillips Africa of the MOVE 9, to appeal the decision of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (board) to deny them parole in May of 2018. Despite maintaining favorable recommendations and receiving no disciplinary infractions for decades, Janet and Janine were denied parole even though others similarly situated were released by the board.

In May of 2018, the board ruled the petitioners should not be granted parole due to their lack of remorse, minimization of the offenses committed, and an unfavorable recommendation of the prosecutor.  One of the many issues the petitioners, through their attorneys, raise is the erroneous justifications used to deny them parole because the board’s false allegations are contradicted in the record.  While the board stated there was opposition to their release, there was in fact support from the district attorney’s office. As such the motion argues the board violated substantive due process rights of Janet and Janine by denying them appeal for reasons that do not include rehabilitative and deterrent purposes. Not only do the petitioners have a favorable recommendation in support of their release, they also have family and community support, employment options, and access to stable housing. Moreover, the petitioners have accepted responsibility for their actions before the board, in their community,and with their advocacy works.

The Parole Board’s decision to deny Janet and Janine was completely arbitrary and lacked any rational basis. The justifications provided by the Board are contradicted by the evidence, including the false claim that the District Attorney’s Office opposed parole. Janet and Janine are well deserving of parole-DOC staff describe both women as model prisoners, they have not had a disciplinary incident in decades and they’ve both participated in community fundraisers, the dog training program and other social programs inside of prison. ~ Attorney Brad Thomson

In addition to Janet, Janine and Mike Sr., three other members of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated, as two died in custody. During the August 8, 1978 altercation, a Philadelphia police officer was killed and following a highly politicized trial, the MOVE 9 were convicted of third-degree homicide. All nine were sentenced to 30-100 years in prison. The six surviving members of the MOVE 9 are all eligible for parole.

 

Contact

Brad Thomson, People’s Law Office, 773.235.0070 ext. 123, BradJayThomson@gmail.com

Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, 412.654.9070,  bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org