Reflections from Our Executive Director
As Black August unfolds, we at the Abolitionist Law Center celebrate, grieve, and recommit ourselves to the struggle for liberation of all community members from the carceral state and racial capitalism. We draw from the lessons of George Jackson and the prison struggles before us to guide our world-building in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and across state lines: the project of abolition knows no borders.
2020 was a year of tremendous struggle and growth. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic that has left our community members vulnerable in their homes and within the walls of the punishment system. And we continue to see the responses to a national Black Uprising against policing and state violence: counter-insurgency, co-optation, and fearmongering mythologies of “a crime wave.”
Last year, perhaps more than any time in our lifetimes, we were exposed to the fact that we live in a failed state. However, in 2020 we also saw the incredible strength and power of oppressed and colonized peoples. We are proud to fight alongside Black and brown communities in the struggle against white supremacy and state violence.
ALC has expanded our litigation to include lawsuits against police abuses in the wake of last summer’s racial uprisings. We’ve focused on developing a powerhouse legal arm in Philadelphia to mirror our base of strength in Pittsburgh. The scope and reach of what our Court Watch program has achieved has smashed our expectations. We’ve enhanced our organizing, communications, and fundraising capacities. We launched Straight Ahead, our 501 (c)(4) legislative wing to bring this fight to the PA state capitol in Harrisburg. And to make all of this – and more – possible, we’ve made powerful additions to our hardworking staff and board.
Midway through 2021, and as I mark my first year as ACL’s Executive Director, what I’m most excited about is that we have developed and embraced our true identity as an abolitionist law project focused on dismantling state violence in all of its forms. We’re confident that we will continue to grow stronger. Ultimately, we will win.
– Robert Saleem Holbrook
ALC Executive Director
Updates from ALC Court Watch with Josh Palmer
In early 2020, ALC launched our Court Watch program. This new initiative led by volunteers focuses on observing and documenting the courtroom proceedings of local judges in the Pittsburgh, PA region and analyzing racialized trends in arrests and bail decisions that impact community members across Allegheny County. In the 18 months since its launch, over 80 trained Court Watch volunteers have observed hundreds of remote virtual hearings, analyzed thousands of court dockets, and published two groundbreaking reports that illuminate how the anti-Black systems of policing and judicial discretion in the county constitute “racial apartheid” as defined by international human rights law standards.
ALC Court Watch Volunteer Coordinator, Josh Palmer, writes, “In addition to the docket reports, we led the movement calling for the resignation of racist judge Mark Tranquili. Facing six counts of judicial misconduct, he resigned before his misconduct hearing after mounting public pressure. We’ve worked with the courts to build out a virtual court watching infrastructure during the pandemic and placed significant pressure on the local punishment system to end cash bail and grow calls for pre-trial freedom. This happens by showing up to court and letting the judges know that we’re keeping tabs on them.”
As physical courtrooms re-open for public observation, ALC Court Watch continues to expand their volunteer base. ALC Court Watch made headlines in March, when they sued Judge Anthony Mariani for his chambers repeatedly denying Court Watch volunteers access to his virtual hearings, and then again in May, when a volunteer witnessed a defendant endure brutal harassment and detainment by his arresting officer during a preliminary court hearing. That defendant, Alex Horrel, lost one of his eyes from a rubber bullet fired by Pittsburgh police on May 31, 2020 during a Black Lives Matter protest. Our movements to protect community members in the streets, in the halls of prison – and in the courtrooms – continues.
From Our Client, Friend, and Mentor, Avis Lee
Avis Lee was released from prison on February 12th, 2021 after serving over 41 years of a death by incarceration sentence. We started working with Avis in 2016 as her attorneys, calling attention to the unconstitutional conditions of Pennsylvania’s “felony-murder” mandatory sentencing scheme, and the cruel and unusual punishment of young community members in the face of Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana (Avis was 18 years old at the time of the crime for which she was convicted). Unfazed, unrelenting, Avis believed in her own freedom; she is her own liberator.
We caught up with Avis to see what she’s been up to: “I want to thank all of my supporters for believing in a brighter day for me. I’ve been working for Let’s Get Free (LGF), as the reentry coordinator for five and a half months now and am finding a lot of valuable resources for returning citizens. One thing I am noticing, surprisingly, is that there are a lot more resources available for women and/or women with children than there are for men – even though there are a lot more men in prisons, and therefore, a lot more men reentering the community.”
Avis attended Let’s Get Free’s Annual Retreat a few weeks ago and is looking forward to being able to attend LGF’s Annual Art Show “in person” and “on the outside, for the first time this November.” She started taking driving lessons and will be moving into a 2-bedroom apartment this month.
“As you can see I like to keep busy and try new things.” She has a new favorite spot for Caribbean cuisine on the outskirts of town. “I usually get my food to-go and take it to the park to eat while overlooking the city of Pittsburgh.”
ALC is proud to have played a role in supporting Avis’ quest for freedom. Our communities on the outside continue to be enriched by her presence.
Full Throttle: Major Gains in The Struggle to End Solitary Confinement
Over the last three months, our communities made momentous strides in the movement to abolish solitary confinement once and for all.
In May, our friends at the Alliance for Police Accountability celebrated a historic victory as Allegheny County voters passed the grassroots org’s referendum to ban solitary confinement at the local jail.
In June, the Solidarity Not Solitary (SNS) coalition launched their mutual aid fund, providing commissary support to community members in solitary confinement. SNS also held a joint press conference with state reps at Philly’s Eastern State Penitentiary: the birthplace of solitary confinement and the blueprint for modern prisons. The group announced Pennsylvania House Bill 1037, which would cap the maximum number of days in solitary confinement at 15, and prevent pregnant and LGBTQ+ people, and anyone over the age of 70 and under the age 21 from being held in solitary confinement in state prisons. The passage of HB1037 would mark a huge legislative win for community members across the Tri-State Area: New Jersey passed a bill limiting solitary confinement in the state prisons in 2019; New York ended solitary confinement for more than 15 days in state prisons and jails this past April.
In July, we worked with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) to amplify the demands of a successful 10-day hunger strike led by the Vaughn 17 and other prisoners held in solitary confinement at SCI-Phoenix. After months of broken promises by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC), strikers were finally granted a handbook for the “Intensive Management Unit” (IMU) step-down program, that would finally create a pathway off of the “Restricted Release List” (solitary confinement) and back to general population. The PADOC’s decision to finally develop an IMU handbook and begin moving some members of the Vaughn17 off the Restricted Release List came about because of powerful inside-out coordination between the strikers and their supporters who made calls, sent emails, worked with local media to expose the failures of the PADOC’s IMU program, and the protested outside SCI-Phoenix on July 6th.
There is tremendous momentum for abolishing solitary confinement and growing public support for victims and survivors of the archaic practice like we’ve never seen before. We look forward to taking the lessons learned from this summer’s organizing to build a campaign against solitary confinement in Philadelphia jails and continuing to urge elected officials to follow through with meaningful abolitionist legislation against the torture known as solitary confinement.
Help ALC sustain our abolitionist organizing and litigation this fall!
When you support ALC with a tax-deductible contribution, you’re playing an active role in resisting state violence and smashing the racist, classist systems of policing and mass incarceration. Your gift fuels this collective work towards liberation, and powers the transformative change we’re fighting for in the courts and in the streets, behind bars and on the outside.
We need your active partnership to keep the pressure on, and we appreciate your contribution of any amount. There’s so much more to do in this struggle. Join us by making a gift in solidarity today!