Civil Rights Advocates Settle Lawsuit With PA Department of Corrections Over Legal Mail Policy

 

March 25, 2019
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Andy Hoover, media@aclupa.org, 717-236-6827 x213
Miracle Jones, communications@alcenter.org, 412-346-6537
Rebecca Susman, rsusman@pailp.org, 412-434-6004

 

HARRISBURG – The team of public interest lawyers who brought two federal civil rights challenges against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for its policy of copying and storing legal mail announced today that they had reached the final terms of a settlement with the department. The settlement was finalized in a filing with the federal district court overseeing the cases.

“We are excited to return our resources to providing confidential legal advice to the thousands of people in DOC custody.” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “Legal mail is a vital form of communication, and we look forward to working with the department to ensure it is reaching our clients in a confidential and efficient manner.”

The lawsuits were filed in October after the department changed its process for handling mail between lawyers and people who are incarcerated in state prisons. Under the new policy, legal mail was opened and then copied in the presence of the prisoner. The prisoner was given the copy while the original was stored in a locked container, which was accessible to prison staff.

Four prisoners’ rights groups – the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project – filed one of the challenges, arguing that the policy compromised confidentiality between lawyers and their clients in state prisons. The second lawsuit was filed by a person who is incarcerated in a state prison. He is represented by lawyers from the four public interest organizations and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

“This policy was a bad idea from the start,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “In the department’s process, there was too much risk that prison staff could read mail between lawyers and their clients. And the department never provided credible evidence that legal mail was a serious source of contraband. We’re grateful that we persuaded the department to step back from this policy.”

In February, a hearing convened before federal Judge John E. Jones III in Harrisburg, and after one day of testimony, settlement talks between the challengers and the department began. After two days of discussions, the department agreed to stop copying and storing legal mail within 45 days.

Today’s filing memorialized the agreement with additional terms. The department has agreed to stop copying prisoners’ legal mail by April 5. The department will also implement additional verification systems for lawyers and courts, which do not raise the same confidentiality concerns as the challenged policy did, according to the plaintiffs. And the organizations that challenged the policy will be allowed to monitor the new legal mail system for two years to ensure that it does not infringe on attorney-client confidentiality or otherwise interfere with attorney-client communications.

“Attorney-client confidentiality should not be collateral damage of the DOC’s war on drugs,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “This legal mail settlement is a necessary first step in ensuring incarcerated persons are able to exercise their constitutional right to counsel without worrying about privacy concerns or their personal information being stored. The DOC should now review their general communication policies to allow loved ones of those who are incarcerated similar possibilities.”

More information about the case, including a copy of today’s settlement agreement, is available at aclupa.org/PILP.

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Media Release: PA Superior Court Urges PA Supreme Court to Review Whether Avis Lee can Challenge Life-Without-Parole Sentence Imposed at 18 years-old

For Immediate Release

Friday, March 1, 2019: The Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a unanimous en banc decision today disallowing Avis Lee the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of her life without parole sentence, which was imposed for her role as a lookout in armed robbery 39 years ago that resulted in a homicide. The Superior Court held that it was “constrained to affirm” the lower court’s dismissal of Ms. Lee’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Petition on the basis that only the Pennsylvania or United States Supreme Court could permit a consideration of the constitutionality of Ms. Lee’s sentence. In reaching this conclusion the Superior Court wrote: “We would urge our Supreme Court to review this issue in light of the research [on adolescent social and neuro-development] available even since Batts II was decided in 2017.”

Ms. Lee brought this challenge to her decision in March 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that the right established in the 2012 decision of Miller v. Alabama that prohibited mandatory life- without-parole sentences for children younger than 18 years of age applied retroactively to older cases. In Montgomery, the Supreme Court found that the right in Miller was substantive, not merely procedural, and that it prohibited a sentence of life-without-parole – commonly referred to as “Death by Incarceration” – upon any defendant whose crime “reflected the transient immaturity of youth.”

In the Superior Court, Avis was arguing for the right to make an argument, to be heard on the merits on this issue for the first time, as she has never had the chance to argue that her sentence is unconstitutional under the new constitutional standards of Miller and Montgomery. On October 23, 2018, counsel for Avis argued in front of a 9-judge en banc panel that she deserves at least that one opportunity to challenge her sentence under current law, and there is nothing in state or federal law to prohibit that. The Philadelphia courthouse was packed to overflowing with the family members of those serving DBI sentences.

The offense Ms. Lee is currently serving a death-by-incarceration sentence for occurred in November 1979, when she agreed to serve as a lookout in an armed robbery. When the victim attempted to resist her co-defendant and older brother shot him, resulting in his death. Ms. Lee was convicted of 2nd degree felony murder, which in Pennsylvania is defined as a homicide that occurs in the course of another felony. The offense does not require any intent to kill on the part of the defendant, and it carries one penalty – death by incarceration.

Ms. Lee’s 2016 PCRA petition argued that a sentencing court should be required to consider the factors identified by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller and Montgomery in order to determine if her sentence amounted to disproportionate punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The petition contained extensive discussion of the poverty, trauma, and violence that Ms. Lee had been exposed and subjected to since she the very first years of her life. The petition also included copious examples of her exemplary prison record, including going without any prison misconduct for more than a quarter of a century, and her involvement in numerous volunteer and service projects.

Ms. Lee is also widely known and admired for her irrepressible optimism, which she maintains in spite of her circumstances. When informed of today’s opinion, she said: “Thank you for standing by me and continuing to stay strong, because I will [too]. Eventually we will prevail.”

The Abolitionist Law Center represents Ms. Lee, along with Duquesne Law School Professor Tiffany Sizemore and University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Jules Lobel. ALC legal director, Bret Grote, said

We are not surprised by this outcome and have always recognized that ultimately it is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that will determine whether the PCRA statute should be read consistent with its text and purpose and permit Ms. Lee the mere opportunity to argue this issue on the merits. It is beyond dispute that Avis, beloved and respected by all who know her, is serving a sentence that lacks any social or penological purpose. To read the law in such as a way as to keep the courthouse doors forever closed to meritorious claims against permanent punishment is to enshrine a tortured and incorrect formalism over substantive justice. We intend to appeal.

Abolitionist Law Center Communications Director, Miracle Jones, added:

When it comes to fighting against Death-by-Incarceration at the ALC defeat is not an option. We are part of a powerful and growing movement that will not rest until every person sentenced to DBI has the opportunity to return to their families and communities, until the right to redemption becomes the North Star of the justice system.

#FREEAVISLEE


Press Contact:

Miracle Jones
(She/Her/Hers)
412-346-6537 (google voice)
Director of Communications
Abolitionist Law Center
communications@alcenter.org