Family Calls for Justice in Death of Tyrone Briggs

Tyron Briggs’ parents Shaleda and Ervin Busbee

Last week Tyrone Briggs, a 29-year-old from Philadelphia, died after Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) staff at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy reportedly used force against him. Mr. Briggs had been incarcerated since he was 15 years-old, and he and his family were eagerly anticipating his release on parole in the near future; instead, his parents, friends, and community find themselves mourning and awaiting answers about why the life of their beloved son, cousin, and friend was taken.

While very little information has been released about Mr. Briggs’ death, there is strong reason to believe that aggressive conduct of DOC staff directly caused it. As the family seeks answers for the death of their beloved son, the Abolitionist Law Center will be representing Mr. Briggs’ parents, Shaleda and Ervin Busbee. We will accompany and fight with them to ensure that Mr. Brigg’s death does not become yet another extrajudicial killing by the state that goes by without justice and accountability.

Tyrone’s father, Ervin Busbee, said: “The lives of the inmates in there matter, they are someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, brother or uncle. They are human. Why are you painting my son as an animal? Tyrone’s life mattered. His Mother will never get to see him again. The last time she saw him was behind glass on a visit, and the next time she’ll see him will be in a box. We took pictures of Tyrone to church every week so our congregation would get to know him and they were awaiting his presence at service when he came home. Now our church will be burying him. Why hasn’t the prison offered its condolences? We want justice.”  

ALC’s Director of Community Organizing, Robert Saleem Holbrook, emphasized the importance of supporting Mr. Briggs’ family and pursuing systemic change: “The Busbees are victims. Their son Tyrone was violently taken from them. We will not only pursue justice in this case but will also ensure that measures are taken in the future to prevent such reckless use of force on prisoners, whether restrained or unrestrained. As investigations proceed we want to be clear at the outset that victims of state violence are entitled to the full range of victim services in the Commonwealth.”

Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, Bret Grote, stated that “Whether committed by a police officer or a prison guard, extrajudicial killings of Black people in this country are an epidemic. Our clients have joined a tragic community of those who have lost loved ones to state violence. We are asking our larger movement family to come together and support them in this time of grief.”

A GoFundMe page has been established by the family to help with costs associated with Tyrone’s death. Please visit this LINK, contribute, and share widely.

We Abolished Death Row Solitary Confinement in Pennsylvania!

This morning we filed a motion for preliminary approval of a settlement agreement that permanently ends solitary confinement for all death-sentenced people in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC).

Up to now, every person sentenced to death in Pennsylvania has been forced to live in austere conditions of isolation that have been recognized as torture by the UN and the human rights movement around the world. Pennsylvania hasn’t executed a prisoner since 1999 and currently has a moratorium on executions, so many prisoners on Death Row have been living in solitary for decades. The last three executions were of people who had “volunteered” by giving up their appeals, quite possibly to escape the torturous conditions. Today, we have achieved a legally enforceable agreement to ensure that the 136 people living with death sentences can await a full adjudication of their cases without the added cruelty of solitary confinement being imposed on them.

According to the settlement, the DOC will still house people who are sentenced to death in specific prisons, but has agreed to offer the rights and privileges afforded to people in other state facilities. These changes are likely the most sweeping set of reforms to a capital case unit in the country: 

  • At least 42.5 hours out-of-cell activity every week, including yard and outdoor time, law library time, congregate meal time, treatment or counseling meetings, congregate religious worship, work assignment, and phased in contact visitation;
  • Permission to use the phone on a daily basis  for at least 15 minutes per usage;
  • Incarcerated people will not be subjected to strip-searches, shackling, or other restraints, unless security measures are required in response to a temporary, emergent situation;
  • Contact visits with family, lawyers and religious advisors; and
  • Resocialization assistance for individuals psychologically damaged by long periods in solitary confinement to help them in the transition to living in a general population setting, as well and physical and mental health baseline evaluations due to years of neglect.

Despite decades spent in inhumane isolation, our clients have organized and persevered in this historic achievement for the movement to abolish solitary confinement in Pennsylvania. They have set a powerful precedent for ending solitary confinement of capital case prisoners —  and eventually the death penalty as a whole — across the country. Many of our clients have been able to embrace loved ones for the first time in decades in recent months because of this settlement. 

Lots of gratitude to ALC President Jamelia Morgan, whose work on this was critical in driving the case, and to our co-counsel at the ACLU of PA, ACLU National Prison Project, Susan Lin of the Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin law firm, and Drinker, Biddle, & Reath.

Most of all, thank you to the Plaintiffs and class representatives who organized their own legal representation and pushed for this: Anthony Reid, Ronald Gibson, Mark Spotz, Jermont Cox, and Ricardo Natividad. We are proud to represent them.

Finally, your support is what makes this work possible. If you’d like to ensure more victories like this in the future, please DONATE to the Abolitionist Law Center.


More information about the lawsuit, Reid et al. v. Wetzel, is available at this link: https://www.aclupa.org/en/cases/reid-et-al-v-wetzel

The Abolitionist Law Center is Hiring for Three New Positions. Apply Today!!

Program Director: Allegheny County Court Watch

The Program Director will organize a new community Court Watch program in Allegheny County. The aim of the program is to expose excesses and abuses in the County’s criminal legal system to help mobilize the community to fundamentally change the orientation of the system away from punitive responses and towards principles of community control and restorative justice. The program will rely on volunteers in the community to collect, organize, and publicize information in the most strategic and impactful way. See the full job listing here.

Staff Attorney

The conditions faced by those incarcerated in jails and prisons are frequently inhumane and in violation of constitutional standards. Inadequate to non-existent medical or mental health care, dangerous and extensive use of solitary confinement, excessive use of force, racism at every level of the system, discrimination against and abuse of people with disabilities, runaway use of pretrial detention, and other unlawful practices pose a threat to public health and public safety. The Staff Attorney will work with incarcerated clients and their communities and advocates to challenge these conditions and build power against the use of jails and prisons. See the full job listing here.

Assistant to Executive Director

We are seeking an Assistant to work closely with the Executive Director managing development and fundraising, overseeing internal operations, and managing the finances and overall health of the organization. Strong candidates should have robust work experience in non-profit management, and a demonstrated commitment to racial, social, and economic justice. See the full job listing here.

Abolitionist Law Center is an equal opportunity employer. People of color, women, LGBTQI-GNC people, and formerly incarcerated people are strongly encouraged to apply.

The Fight to Free Avis Lee Continues Despite the Denial of Appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court


Last week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied our Petition for Allowance of Appeal in the case of Commonwealth v. Avis Lee. The Appeal would have allowed people given life without parole sentences while young and with their judgment/impulse control still developing (but were over 17 years at the time of their offense) to apply for resentencing, like many juvenile lifers who were given that chance and are now thriving outside prison walls in our state.

Despite the scientific consensus on brain development indisputably supporting our argument, the Court denied the Appeal without explanation or justification; we’re disappointed since we believe that an honest, science-based review of Avis’ death by incarceration sentence would’ve found it unconstitutional and void, but we also have no illusions that the Superior and Supreme Courts serve the interest of justice.

For centuries, the higher courts have given legal cover to our country’s and state’s most appalling class- and race-based oppression, and only on rare occasions (and under intense public pressure) have they set aside the interests of money and power and ruled in the interests of justice. We have always seen legal strategy as one part of a larger movement of people most impacted by the justice system to challenge power, and we know that meaningful changes in the justice system will come from people organizing and resisting—and not from the morality and reason of judges or legislators.

While we will keep the legal fight up with three other litigation plans that challenge DBI sentences for those 18 as well as those serving DBI for second degree murder, we urge everyone to continue to organize, gather, lift up voices, and commit to dismantling this system brick by brick. We look forward to working with Avis on her commutation packet and know that she will be home one day.

At this time we are also reminded that our comrades at the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) are convening in Harrisburg this Wednesday, the 23rd, in support of SB942. We stand in solidarity with CADBI and echo the call of the Superior Court for the legislature to end death by incarceration. No one is free until we all are.

In Solidarity Always,

The Abolitionist Law Center

Third Circuit Court of Appeals to Hear Argument in Challenge to 33 Years of Solitary Confinement on Death Row

On Tuesday, October 22nd at 10:00 a.m. in The Albert Branson Maris Courtroom, (19th Floor, U.S. Courthouse, 6th & Market Sts., Philadelphia, PA), a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals Federal Court will hear argument in Ernest Porter v. Pennsylvania DOC, a case challenging 33 years of solitary confinement on death row as violating the 8th and 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Porter has been held in solitary confinement since 1986 despite having a perfect disciplinary record in DOC custody. His death sentence was overturned in 2003, but he has yet to be resentenced due to ongoing appeals by the Commonwealth and himself regarding his death sentence and guilt-phase claims in his criminal case. The PA DOC is arguing that his ongoing appeals require his being buried in conditions that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor referred to as a “penal tomb.”

In 2017, the Third Circuit held in Williams v. Secretary, that incarcerated people whose death sentences have been vacated had a liberty interest in removal from solitary confinement that entitled them to due process rights to challenge their isolation and be released to the general population of the prison. Despite that ruling, Porter remains in the capital case unit.

Porter filed suit in 2017 arguing that his indefinite solitary confinement which began in 1986 constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment, and that the Third Circuit’s 2017 ruling entitled him to due process protections under the 14th Amendment. The Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted defendants summary judgment, throwing out Porter’s suit and leading to his appeal to the Third Circuit.

Porter is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Daniel Greenfield of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern School of Law. Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, will be arguing for Mr. Porter.

The Abolitionist Framework Must Combat Ableism in Order To Ensure the Freedom and Equity of Those Behind Bars

The Abolitionist Law Center is proud to announce our Board President, Jamelia Morgan has published a journal article calling for the abolition of ableism while fighting back against mass incarceration. REFLECTIONS ON REPRESENTING INCARCERATED PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: ABLEISM IN PRISON REFORM LITIGATION explores the intersections of disabilities and abolition while tasking legal advocates to combat ableism with holistic representation of clients and a raising of a multidimensional consciousness. While the conditions in prisons and jails are often discussed, what is often overlooked is how these inhumane facilities often target and mistreat those living with mental and physical disabilities. Disability Justice is important part of the abolition framework as those with disabilities are overrepresented in the criminal system as a result of failed health policies and systematic disparities. Due to the fact prisons and jails are not inherently designed to treat people in humane ways, those who enter into incarceration with a disability or develop a disability while incarcerated, face a lack of services and programming which leads to debilitation and trauma. What is even worse is that many lawyers lack the requisite training and understanding to represent clients who have disabilities and often perpetuate ableism.

lawyers representing people with disabilities are forced to represent their clients as physically, mentally, and emotionally damaged. In the typical, wellpleaded Section 1983 complaint brought on behalf of incarcerated people with disabilities, the weaknesses and challenges of disability are on full display, not because of any individual plaintiff’s inability to overcome obstacles or challenges in carceral settings (as is often the nature of ableism reflected in rhetoric about people with disabilities in free society) but, rather, because prisons inherently were not built to meet the needs of people with physical or mental disabilities.

In combating ableism and amplifying disability justice as a practice, lawyers and advocates must not simply create an awareness of the issues impacting those living with disabilities but must also change the culture of the abolition framework to recognize the negative and often violent implications that arise as the result of ableist legal practices. As such, abolitionist may move to using better language in fighting for freedom and can use court filings to highlight the inherent structural injustices in the designs of prisons and jails.

As prisoners’ rights advocates, we must strategically and consciously resist ableist discourses and ideologies that present our clients as deserving of constitutional protection only where physical or psychological damage is readily apparent or diagnosable. Advocates must acknowledge structural disablement within carceral spaces and use language that affirms the humanity of people with disabilities locked up behind bars or steel doors.

Due to current systems, those living with disability while incarcerated are often from marginalized populations. In order to effectively advocate for this population of individuals, intersectionality dicates that abolitionists examine their complicity in ableist behaviors and ensure they are including impacted peoples in developing strategies and policies for transformative change.

Citation: Morgan, Jamelia, Reflections on Representing Incarcerated People with Disabilities: Ableism in Prison Reform Litigation (July 22, 2019). Denver Law Review, Vol. 96, No. 4, 2019. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3424341 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3424341

Media Alert: Eddie Africa of the #MOVE9 is home after four decades of incarceration

June 21,2019

For Immediate Release 

(Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) The Abolitionist Law Center and the People’s Law Office  are proud to announce that Eddie Africa, of the MOVE 9, has been released from state custody after more than forty years of incarceration. Earlier this morning, Eddie Africa was released from SCI Phoenix after being transferred from SCI Mahanoy, where he spent the majority of his incarceration. He has been fighting for parole for the last ten years. 

The MOVE 9 are 9 individuals who were incarcerated following an August 8, 1978 police siege of the MOVE Organization home in West Philadelphia. The MOVE 9 were all sentenced to 30-100 years after the death of an officer during the raid.

“Eddie’s release is a victory for him, his family and the movement that has been fighting for his freedom. This is the newest chapter in the decades-long struggle to free all the MOVE 9, which is a struggle that continues with the fight to free Delbert and Chuck Africa, who are both up for parole this year.” ~ Brad Thompson

Eddie is the fifth member of the MOVE 9 to be released on parole, all represented by lawyers from Abolitionist Law Center and People’s Law Office. Like Debbie , Janet, Janine, and Mike Africa, who were recently released, Eddie is now able to experience holding his loved ones outside of prison walls for the first time in decades. Eddie was a father when he was arrested and has four adult children and several grandchildren who he has been able to maintain strong relationships with. Today is the first day his grandchildren will be able to hug him outside of a prison wall. The release of the Move members, after more than forty years, is the culmination of the MOVE organization, public support, legal action, and policy changes.

Two other members of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated (Chuck and Delbert Africa), while two others (Merle Africa and Phil Africa) died in custody. Abolitionist Law Center and People’s Law Office represent Delbert and Chuck in the struggle for their freedom. To support the fight, you may donate to the MOVE9 Legal Fund.

Press Contact:

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

Bret Grote, bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org

MEDIA RELEASE: Prisoners and Activists Stop New Prison on Coal Mine Site in Kentucky

For Immediate Release
June 20, 2019
Contact: Marianne Cufone, Green Justice, (813) 785-8386

Prisoners and Activists Stop New Prison on Coal Mine Site in Kentucky

Washington, DC — In response to a federal lawsuit filed by Green Justice attorneys, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) withdrew its intent to construct a new $510 million federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky, the most expensive proposed federal prison in U.S. history. The lawyers represented prisoners and activists concerned about the new facility being sited on a former mountaintop removal coal mine and near an active mine and coal sludge pond.

Marianne Cufone, lead attorney with Green Justice, said, “The lawsuit highlighted that both the process and actual building of the USP Letcher facility conflicted with various federal laws. The Bureau of Prisons did the right thing in withdrawing its construction plans.”

Twenty-one federal prisoners from around the country, the Abolitionist Law Center and Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods and North Fork River Watershed brought the lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons. The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons supported the plaintiffs in their case with a grassroots organizing campaign, which garnered support across the country.

“This outcome couldn’t have happened without the courage of local residents in Letcher County and federal prisoners, all who risked significant blow back for standing up to oppose this prison,” according to co-founder of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, Panagioti Tsolkas.

“Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new prison makes no sense with the substantial decreases in the federal prison population over the last several years,” said Dustin McDaniel, Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “We hope the BOP’s action ends this prison project permanently, and that it also signifies a turning point nationally, away from investing money in prison construction, and toward increased investment in communities devastated by mass incarceration.”

One of the prisoner-plaintiffs, Jason Palacios agreed with McDaniel, “Spend money to rehabilitate–NOT incarcerate.”

The initial lawsuit was filed by attorney Emily Posner in 2018, after more than three years of a controversial environmental impact analysis process. She said, “Some proponents of the new prison speculate that this withdrawal is temporary, but that seems misguided, given the many problems with the project. In these times of climate uncertainty, this is not the type of federal investment needed, funds should be used to create meaningful and sustainable economic opportunities for the people of southeastern Kentucky.”

In April 2019, Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods, whose individual members have long opposed the prison due to its likely impacts on surrounding natural areas and threatened and endangered species, joined together to participate in the case. The amended complaint can be found here.

Elvenia Blair said, “This prison would have threatened the health and well-being of inmates, correctional workers and our already fragile environment, including habitat for several endangered bat species. I am so relieved this project is not moving forward.”

————
Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. ALC is a plaintiff in Barroca v. Bureau of Prisons and has participated in every NEPA public comment period related to the proposed prison in Letcher County, KY.

Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons conducts grassroots organizing, advocacy and direct action to challenge the prison system which puts prisoners at risk of dangerous environmental conditions, as well as impacting surrounding communities and ecosystems by their construction and operation.

Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods and North Fork River Watershed – exists for the purpose of conserving and strengthening the environmental integrity of Letcher County and the human and natural environments of the broader Appalachian region by fighting against the exploitation of natural resources and marginalized communities, and advocating for an economy based on a just transition away from resource extraction and prison construction. FOLCW is not affiliated with Eastern Kentucky University or its Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Research Station.

Green Justice – is a virtual law firm that connects independent lawyers with special expertise and law students nationwide, to collectively work cases that defend people, wildlife and habitats from injustices in the natural and built environments.

Media Alert: In Celebrating Juneteenth, We Must Remember Those Who Are Still Caged

The Abolitionist Law Center is honored to join in the celebration of Juneteenth. Juneteenth marks the ending of chattel slavery in the United States of America as it is commemorating when the last known individuals who were enslaved were notified of their freedom. Juneteenth is a momentous occasion to celebrate freedom and determination, but it is also a moment to pause to remember the thousands who are still enslaved today. After the civil war, the Black codes and vagrancy laws were passed to steal the freedom and protections away from Free Black folk. This resulted in what we know today as felony disenfranchisement.

Chain gangs and indentured servitude sentencing saw thousands of Newly Freed Black persons introduced into a new type of bondage made permissible by the exception clause of the 13th amendment.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

So as we celebrate the end of chattel slavery, we understand that the stain of the original sin has spread and permeated every fabric of our society. By some estimates, there are more Black people who are impacted by mass incarceration then under chattel slavery.

In Pennsylvania, the disparate racial impact is evident in the death by incarceration sentences all the way down to the pretrial resources. The legacy of slavery is kept alive through race and class-based incarceration as evidenced by the racial disparities in sentencing, arrests, and detainments are a continuation of enslavement practices. The slave patrols are now in charge of ensuring more people are cycled into the system. Today is Juneteenth. It also the anniversary of the murder of Antwon Rose II. None of us are free, until all of us are.

Media Release: Emergency Petition Filed For Young Woman Placed In Solitary Confinement During Her Birthday

On Monday the Abolitionist Law Center along with the law office of Timothy P. O’Brien and attorney Jules Lobel, filed an emergency petition against the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to remove a young woman from solitary confinement housing after spending more than 70 days – including her birthday – in the restrictive housing unit at ACJ since February, resulting in severe mental health crises and three suicide attempts.

The ALC and co-counsel are representing Kimberly Andrews, a 20-year-old woman awaiting disposition on misdemeanor cases who has been in solitary confinement off and on since February of 2019, despite having known mental health issues. While at the ACJ, Ms. Andrews has tried to self-harm at least three times due to the decompensation associated with the placement in solitary confinement and harsh prison conditions within the restrictive housing unit. Ms. Andrews suffers from known mental health disorders including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. Instead of receiving access to treatment and waiting for the adjudications of her case, Ms. Andrews has undergone repeated dehumanizing encounters with abusive ACJ staff.

For instance, on one occasion Ms. Andrews spent at least 8 consecutive hours in the restraint chair, strapped in so tight that it caused bruising around her wrists and shoulder areas. She was again deprived food, water, bathroom breaks, or any ability to move her limbs. Staff returned at one point to loosen the strap on her right wrist, as it was cutting into her flesh. Ms. Andrews asked for her inhaler, but her request was denied; no other medical checks were conducted.

 

The treatment of Ms. Andrews highlights the inability of the ACJ to create policies and procedures to ensure the safety and security of those incarcerated with medically diagnosed disorders. Ms. Andrews has been able to successfully interact in general population and was able to have a job when briefly removed from solitary confinement. Despite previous attempts to resolve this situation, Ms. Andrews remains in solitary confinement where she continues to struggle to acclimate based on her health history and continues to self-harm as a result.

 

She has been kept in solitary confinement for over 70 days by Defendants at the jail, although she has not been either charged with or convicted of any violent conduct by officials at the jail. She has a history of mental illness, which is greatly exacerbated by her placement and retention in isolation. She has attempted suicide three times since being placed in solitary confinement.

The petition is asking the court to grant Ms. Andrews as temporary restraining order which would prevent her from being placed in solitary confinement as well as prevent specific ACJ staff from contacting her due to their denial of medical treatment and triggering conduct. The ACJ spent more than $200,000 on bedding, replacing sheets with anti-suicide blankets due to the number of suicide and suicide attempts in the facility.

 

Andrews v. Harper – Complaint-As Filed

Brief in Support of TRO-as Filed

Motion for TRO-as Filed

Order to Show Cause-as Filed