ALC Fall 2022 Update

Making Noise & Making News

It’s been a HUGE three months at ALC. We’ve come hard at Death By Incarceration, solitary confinement, abusive and discriminatory judges and court practices, and the torturous conditions inside Pennsylvania’s largest county jails. We’ve collaborated and built power with individuals and groups directly impacted by mass incarceration and other forms of state violence in communities around the state. And our movement, clients, work, and staff members have made media headlines, been part of high profile events, and garnered impressive recognition.

“Death-Making Institutions”

In early July, ALC topped the news across Pittsburgh press and in legal outlets, after lodging 62 misconduct complaints against Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani with the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with releasing a scathing new report, ‘Death-Making Institutions’: How Police, Probation and the Judiciary Caused Gerald Thomas to Die in Jail. (All 62 complaints against Mariani are outlined in the report’s Appendix A.)

This 48-page report authored by ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu connects the March 2022 death of 26-year-old Gerald Thomas in Allegheny County Jail to the racialized violence of other Allegheny County institutions and state actors. The report examines how practices of policing and punishment such as traffic stops, pretrial detention, probation detainers, and solitary confinement, support the maintenance of local “death-making institutions,” a term coined by abolitionist Mariame Kaba. It also highlights the fact that Thomas died in the jail 17 days after Judge Mariani chose to continue his incarceration, despite all of the charges against Thomas being dropped.

The report’s publication coincided with ALC’s Court Watch program’s filing against Judge Mariani. From March 2021 to March 2022, Prabhu and Court Watch volunteers observed his court proceedings and recorded countless instances of Judge Mariani verbally abusing defendants, attorneys, and his own staff, while also demonstrating a lack of understanding of relevant legal standards, and making racist comments about Black defendants.

Winning “Compassionate” Release from Decades of Confinement

In September, ALC clients Frank Lowery and Vernon Bess were released from prison after 45 and 47 years of incarceration, respectively. These two men were the latest of the seven people serving excessively long sentences for whom ALC’s legal team has won release since the summer of 2021. Most of them had more than 30 years behind bars (one had been inside for 51!), and several spent decades of their imprisonment in solitary confinement. Five of these individuals were freed by so-called “compassionate release,” for which they qualified because of severe incapacitation from terminal medical conditions.

Compassionate release cases are labor-intensive and extremely urgent; one qualification for applicants is that they must have a documented medical prognosis of having less than a year to live. Along with our exploding caseload, we’re supervising the Compassionate Release Pro Bono Project, a newly formed collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania Law School working to increase the number of people who apply for and ultimately are granted “compassionate” release.

In August, ALC’s 501(c)(4) arm Straight Ahead, produced a deeply moving video featuring Bradford Gamble, one of our recent clients who was forced to make the agonizing choice of foregoing treatment in prison for late stage cancer, in order to meet eligibility guidelines for consideration for release.

Take a watch as Mr. Gamble, who passed away soon after the video was made, and ALC staff attorney Rupalee Rashatwar talk about why no one should ever face such a decision, and no one should die behind bars.

Together We’ll End Death by Incarceration!

In mid-September, ALC, Straight Ahead, formations of our movement family members led by formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, and a coalition of partner organizations from around the country made huge strides in our shared campaign to end Death by Incarceration. (Death by Incarceration is the inhumane sentencing of a person to life without the possibility of parole.) Over the course of just one week we took the fight to the United Nations, a PA Superior Courtroom in Pittsburgh, and the PA state capitol in Harrisburg.

On September 15th (as part of a group that included the Center for Constitutional Rights, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Drexel University Community Lawyering Clinic, the Drop LWOP Coalition, Release Aging People in Prisons, and others), ALC made national headlines when we submitted a 31-page letter to the United Nations stating that the United States is committing torture and other gross human rights violations by condemning people to Death by Incarceration.

The coalition is urging the U.N. Special Rapporteurs to call for the nationwide abolition of life imprisonment, which is more prevalent in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. Our initiative received high profile press coverage in The Nation, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Progressive, and other outlets.

ALC legal staff, and family and supporters of ALC client Derek Lee, at court to end death by incarceration for felony murder, 09.20.22

On September 20th, ALC’s legal team argued persuasively in the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Pittsburgh that life without parole sentences for felony murder is cruel punishment that is prohibited by the Pennsylvania state and federal constitutions. In Commonwealth v. Derek Lee, ALC’s client Mr. Lee is challenging the lifetime ban on parole for those convicted of felony murder (i.e. people who did not take a life or intend to take a life). A win in this case would be a huge, precedent-setting victory not just for Mr. Lee, but for the approximately 1100 other people who are currently languishing under DBI sentences for felony murder in PA.

The legal team’s compelling argument, which appeared to be received favorably by the judges,  highlighted the fact that while only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, about 70 percent of people serving Death By Incarceration sentences for felony murder in the state are Black. Read more details in excellent press coverage here and here

CADBI rally in Harrisburg 09.20.22 to end Death by Incarceration

Also on September 20th, formerly incarcerated leaders including “juvenile lifers” who served decades of DBI sentences before winning release, hundreds of our movement family members from across the state, elected officials, and staff from ALC and Straight Ahead, joined forces at a rally organized by our comrades from CADBI (Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration), on the steps of the PA capitol in Harrisburg.

With powerful personal testimony, participants called on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass legislation to end Death By Incarceration and instead embrace policies that heal communities. In the face of a new wave of gun violence and homicide, community members impacted both by violence and mass incarceration urged legislators to divest from mass incarceration, and address violence with real solutions such as community-based violence prevention efforts, fully funding schools and social services, and providing accessible mental health and addiction treatment.

Check out the Pennsylvania Capital-Star‘s great article “Former ‘lifers’ call on lawmakers to end ‘death by incarceration’” for more details.

Banning Solitary & Other Extreme Conditions of Confinement

Inventing Solitary panel with Robet Saleem Holbrook, Akeill Roberston-Jowers, and staff from The Philadelphia Inquirer

ALC has worked toward the abolition of solitary confinement since our first case in 2013, when we led the successful legal battle to release Russell Maroon Shoatz from 22 years of that torture. Our executive director Robert Saleem Holbrook, and ALC community organizer John Thompson, each spent ten years or more in solitary during their decades of incarceration and regularly speak out against the inhumane practice in high profile public events and in the press.

In Philadelphia we’re embedded in the push for the City Council to establish a jail oversight board that would address the county jails’ egregious use of solitary, as well as the many other highly abusive and harmful control measures occuring in Philadelphia jails.

End of Isolation Tour flyer, August 2022

As part of our overall campaign to raise awareness and public support for ending solitary, in August ALC and Straight Ahead co-sponsored the End of Isolation Tour’s performance at Eastern Penitentiary of “The Box.” This immersive production by playwright Sarah Shour (who spent 410 days in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison where she was physically and mentally tortured, and suffered depression and anxiety) “brings to light the fallacies of solitary confinement.”

Also earlier this summer, ALC and Straight Ahead joined forces with partner groups PA Stands Up, Lehigh Valley Stands Up, and NEPA Stands Up, to end solitary confinement in the jails in Lehigh and Lackawanna Counties by placing voter referendums on the November 2022 ballot. This effort is modeled after the successful referendum that ended solitary in Allegheny County Jail in 2021 – to our knowledge, the first such voter-led effort in the nation.

NEPA and ALC fight for ballot question to end solitary confinement in Lackawanna County, PA

Though we fell short of the signatures needed to get the question on the ballot in Lehigh County, in Lackawanna County, our coalition met the threshold by garnering more than 13,000 signatures! When officials illegally tried to thwart our effort by refusing to put the question on the ballot in mid-September, ALC staff attorney Jaclyn Kurin sued the election board, and our Campaigns Manager John Rowland helped local activists raise a ruckus with a focused, public pressure campaign that brought visibility and a media spotlight to the issue.

This is another extremely pressing fight for ALC’s legal and organizing teams, who are racing against the deadline to ensure that the will of the people of Lackawanna County is honored as they demand a say in deciding whether or not  the jail will continue to torture people with solitary confinement.

Free Our Youth!

Care, Not Control: The Album

We’d like to take a moment to uplift the creative work of our partners at Care, Not Control, a coalition of youth and youth advocates working to end juvenile incarceration in Pennsylvania.

Care, Not Control has released their first track from their upcoming project Care, Not Control: The Album. The track is titled Untold Story, and it features Care, Not Control youth organizer Bre Stoves, 19. Bre also works with Juvenile Law Center and The Village of Arts and Humanities and has been making music since the age of 12.

Bre began the process of working on “Untold Story” while she was incarcerated and hopes the track sends a message of solidarity and camaraderie to her fellow youth. “I want people, especially incarcerated young people, to know they’re not alone. There are people out there fighting for them.”

Care, Not Control: The Album showcases the talents, hopes, and dreams of young people directly impacted by the criminal legal system. The album seeks to shift the narrative surrounding youth incarceration and promote investing in community-based alternatives. Care, Not Control plans to release an educational toolkit to accompany the music that will delve into the album’s themes and promote critical discussions about youth incarceration, violence, and power.

Revolution is creative.

To listen to Untold Story and learn more about the album, visit

Making Noise and Making News

As usual, we’ve been out there with our movement family, making noise and making news the last few months.

Each year, Pittsburgh Magazine and PUMP recognize 40 outstanding individuals under the age of 40 whose creativity, vision, and passion enrich the Pittsburgh region. This year’s 40 Under 40 honorees include ALC Community Organizer Tanisha Long (pictured, left, with fellow 40 Under 40 honoree, Miracle Jones, the Director of Policy and Advocacy at 1Hood Media and former ALC staffer, right).

ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook has been constantly on the go, speaking at conferences and events like Netroots Nation and Socialism 2022, while also continuing to share his story for initiatives like the #ExceptForMe #EndtheException campaign to abolish the prison slavery currently allowed in the 13th amendment.

We’ve continued to be vocal about issues including the terrible health care in prison and how it  worsened during the pandemic, ending the horror of solitary confinement; and why we must center those who’ve experienced state violence in our fight to end it. And we’ve remained steadfast in supporting our clients, their families, and our neighbors who are directly impacted by the criminal punishment system, in their fierce efforts to win safety, freedom, and accountability for our community.


Help ALC sustain the fight to free people from incarceration and other forms of racist state violence by making a tax-deductible donation to the Abolitionist Law Center today.
Your gift fuels our collective liberation struggle and powers the transformative change we’re fighting for in the courts, in the streets, behind bars, and on the outside.

We need your partnership to keep the pressure on, and we appreciate your contribution of any amount. There’s so much more for us to do together!

Contributions to the Abolitionist Law Center, a 501(c)(3) organization, are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law.

A Luta Continua – Reflections from Robert Saleem Holbrook, ALC Executive Director

Saleem and his mother
Kerry Shakaboona Marshall (left), Patricia Vickers (center), Saleem (right)

As I reflect upon my two-year anniversary as the Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, I am compelled to think about what has changed and the work we have left to do – as an abolitionist organization and as a decarceral movement.

Today, we bear – in real time – collective witness to the state-sponsored retrenchment of basic human rights amid a literal coup on democracy. At the same time, in Philadelphia and cities across the country, we watch as the response to gun violence parrots the racist dog whistling of the 1990s that has promoted a return to law and order – obscuring the profound impact COVID-19 and its attendant economic crises have had on our communities. In some ways, particularly in public discourse, the world feels not unlike 1990 when I was sent to prison on a life sentence without parole as a sixteen-year-old child offender. Yet, in other critical ways, I am emboldened with a sense of possibility, if not for any other reason but because ALC exists and exists in a movement that takes its lead from those of us who survived through “life is life,” through years in solitary confinement, and through numerous iterations of state-sponsored violence that attempted to break our quest for liberation.

In 1990, my mother was one of the many mothers whose children were stolen as a part of the rise of the carceral state. My mom was my first advocate. She spent hours upon hours calling the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the ACLU, and other organizations trying to find anyone who would help her fight against my life sentence. Inevitably, we had to help ourselves.

Saleem with HRC Co-Founder, Andre Shabaka Gay (center) and Ricky Olds (right)

There were seven of us who founded the Human Rights Coalition in 2001 from behind the walls of a prison, an organization of incarcerated peoples and their families. At the time, none of us thought we would ever see freedom. By 2013, when I was first introduced to ALC, we had built solidarity in prisons and communities throughout the state and ALC would represent many of us. Now, only two of our cohort remain inside. Our fight will continue until we all see the other side of prison bars. And then our work will continue anew. One critical difference, however, is now, mothers need not look any further than ALC. We exist so that no mother is alone in this struggle to release our sons and daughters from a system designed to oppress Black, brown, and poor people. I understand why so many of us in this moment want to spend our time imagining a future- because the present is filled with brutality. And yet, for ALC, the work must remain focused on the fight ahead. Ours is a protracted struggle for liberation as we dismantle the carceral state and state-sponsored repression that keeps our people tethered to shackles – be it prison or poverty. In the words of our ancestors, “A luta continua” –  the struggle continues.

Robert Saleem Holbrook, Executive Director • August 5, 2022

Friends and family of ALC client John ‘Yahya’ Moore launch official supporter campaign

A promotional post for the campaign to free ALC client John ‘Yahya’ Moore.

Friends and family members of Abolitionist Law Center client John ‘Yahya’ Moore launched their official supporter campaign on social media for the 49 year-old Philadelphian on his birthday last week. Moore, who also goes by Yahya, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death by incarceration (life without parole) 26 years ago.

Throughout his unjust imprisonment, and in spite of the torturous conditions that our community members face behind bars, Moore has “discovered the depth of the human spirit and the unexpected strength within it”, he writes in a Medium post.

Throughout August, the campaign will be sharing how Moore was framed by the Philadelphia Police and failed by the courts, and will also feature testimonials from those on the inside and outside who’ve been inspired by our client.

Yahya currently studies law and has worked as a legal reference aid, attended and facilitated peer-to-peer group workshops ranging from Alternatives to Violence, Just Listening (listening justly), Let’s Circle Up (restorative justice), and others. He is also attending courses thru Villanova University while in pursuit of his bachelor’s degree.

Join the movement to bring our client home by following @FreeJohnMoore on Twitter and Instagram.

Over 60 judicial misconduct complaints filed against Judge Anthony Mariani as ALC releases report detailing Mariani’s abusive, racist behavior and roles of Pittsburgh policing, probation, and punishment systems in death of Gerald Thomas

Over 60 judicial misconduct complaints filed against Judge Anthony Mariani as ALC releases report detailing Mariani’s abusive, racist behavior and roles of Pittsburgh policing, probation, and punishment systems in death of Gerald Thomas

CONTACT: Dolly Prabhu, ALC Staff Attorney,

William Lukas, ALC Dir. of Communications,

Joshua Palmer, ALC Court Watch Volunteer Coordinator,


PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center has published a new report, ‘Death-Making Institutions’: How Police, Probation and the Judiciary Caused Gerald Thomas to Die in Jail.’ In addition to the report, the law firm’s court watching program announced it has filed 62 judicial misconduct complaints against Judge Anthony Mariani of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

The 48-page report authored by ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu connects the death of 26 year-old Gerald Thomas to the racialized violence of Allegheny County institutions and state actors, “Pittsburgh City Police, County Probation, County Courts, and the County Jail all contributed to the manner of Mr. Thomas’s death. At each phase, racism likely played a role in Mr. Thomas’s arrest and continued detention. And, at each phase, common sense reforms could have prevented his needless incarceration and perhaps even his death.”

Prabhu examines how instruments of policing and punishment including pretextual traffic stops and pretrial detention, and the use of probation detainers and solitary confinement, support the maintenance of local “death-making institutions,” a term coined by abolitionist Mariame Kaba.

According to the report, Black people made up 23% of the Pittsburgh population in 2019, yet accounted for 63% of all arrests carried out by the Pittsburgh Police. Roughly 38% of the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) population currently has a county probation detainer lodged against them, while only 6% of all individuals held at ACJ are actually serving a sentence for a crime committed (the rest are awaiting trial or some other proceeding). Since March 2020, at least 14 people have died at ACJ. The warden of ACJ, who is a defendant in several lawsuits filed by ALC, ranging from excessive force to medical neglect, has been called to resign by both his own staff and impacted community community members like Juana Suanders, the mother of Gerald Thomas.

Saunders spoke out against Warden Harper and Judge Mariani last month at a press conference and the monthly Jail Oversight Board meeting, days after local media reported that she had filed her own judicial misconduct complaint against Mariani.

Mariani is a focal point in the report; his probation detainer lodged against Gerald Thomas kept Thomas incarcerated at ACJ (in solitary confinement) for nearly a year prior to his death, on the basis of charges that were the product of illegal police conduct, and were eventually dropped. Prabhu says, probation detainers, “serve virtually no justifiable public safety purpose. Instead, the courts’ overuse of this tool keeps the Allegheny County Jail full, and ensures that a large proportion of those on probation will be trapped in destabilizing and traumatic cycles of incarceration and supervision.”

In addition to illustrating the unconstitutional, overuse of probation detainers by local Judge Mariani, Prabhu accentuates Mariani’s violations of the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct, “Defendants on supervision with Judge Mariani are punished for mere allegations: they are detained for months at minimum and ultimately must endure verbal abuse in open court before there is any hope for release.”

From March 2021 to March 2022, Prabhu and volunteers with ALC Court Watch observed Mariani’s court proceedings and recorded countless instances of Mariani verbally abusing defendants, attorneys, and his own staff, demonstrating a lack of understanding of relevant legal standards, and making racist comments about Black defendants’ physiques.

Dedication page: The report is dedicated to “the friends and family of Gerald Thomas, and all those who were unduly robber of their time with a loved one by Allegheny County’s violently racist criminal justice system.”

Statements made by Mariani featured in the report emphasize the judge’s racist stereotyping of Black men: “They’re all nice guys… Did you leave your halo in your cells?” Mariani said mockingly to a defense attorney who asserted his client’s good character. In one case, Maraini asked a defendant, “You look pretty meaty, how many pushups can you do without stopping?” In another hearing, the judge indicated that there was nothing stopping a “six foot tall 180 lb lean and mean man from using that weapon—his body—on other people.”

Prabhu, who was present at Gerald Thomas’s Gagnon II hearing writes, “One of the last comments Judge Mariani made during this hearing is particularly chilling in light of Mr. Thomas’s subsequent death in ACJ, evoking vivid racist imagery from this country’s past and present.” According to official court transcripts, Mariani declared to Thomas, “I don’t want to see you dead in the street on Friday or any other day of the week, but you won’t quit. I have to put you in the cage, lasso you, corral you, stuff you because you won’t quit.”

The report concludes by calling for an investigation and sanctioning of Judge Mariani by the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania, in addition to implementing organized abolitionist interventions that will save lives. This includes removing police from traffic enforcement and prohibiting the use of split sentences, along with decarcerating ACJ and abolishing probation detainers for individuals who have been deemed bailable or merely accused of technical violations.

Currently there are no local or state level rules that address probation detainers, yet over a third of the ACJ population is held on some sort of probation detainer.

The appendix of the report includes summaries of the 62 judicial misconduct complaints filed by ALC Court Watch in which Mariani is likely in violation of the PA Judicial Code of Conduct. The Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania is based in Harrisburg and received the complaints by mail on June 27th.


Read the report, “Death-Making Institutions’: How Police, Probation and the Judiciary Caused Gerald Thomas to Die in Jail” in the embedded PDF viewer below or download directly here


“Law firm accuses Allegheny Common Pleas judge of misconduct in 62 complaints” by Jordana Rosenfeld for PGH City Paper (07/05/2022)

“Public Interest Law Firm Alleges in 62 Complaints Pattern of Racially Charged Bias From Pittsburgh Judge” by Aleeza Furman for The Legal Intelligencer (07/05/2022)

“Group files 60-plus misconduct complaints against Allegheny County Judge Mariani” by Paula Reed Ward for TRIBLive (07/05/2022)

“Pittsburgh advocacy group accuses Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani of racism, misconduct in over 60 complaints” by Mik Stinelli for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (07/06/2022)

“Dozens of misconduct complaints filed against Allegheny County judge” on WTAE -TV Pittsburgh Action News 4 (07/06/2022)

“CAIR Pittsburgh Supports Probe of Complaints Alleging Bias Misconduct by Judge Anthony Mariani”, press release by The Council on American-Islamic Relations – Pittsburgh Chapter (07/06/2022)

“Pittsburgh Judge Hit With Over 60 Misconduct Complaints” by Hailey Konnath for Law360 (07/06/2022)

“Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani faces misconduct charges” on KDKA CBS Pittsburgh (07/06/2022)

ALC June 2022 Newsletter

Spring Recap

Over the past four months, ALC’s passionate lawyers and organizers have waged major advances in our abolitionist litigation and movement-building across Pennsylvania. In the face of reactionary politicians and racial capitalism’s compounding crises that leave our most vulnerable community members subject to increased brutality and neglect, we remain steadfast in our mission to bring people home and create life-affirming alternatives to the punishment system. Read up on the dynamic ways we are carrying out abolition by visiting the hyperlinked content below.


“I’m hoping that these people can be accountable to everything they’ve done to me and to everyone else.” – CLAYTON MCCRAY ; "They knew that they weren’t providing this care. Even worse, they knew the harm that this was going to cause Mr. McCray. He was in so much pain that he couldn’t retrieve meals, couldn’t get recreation, couldn’t shower.” – JACLYN KURIN

McCray v. Allegheny County – After a year of being routinely denied medical care, outside treatment, and prescribed medical devices inside Allegheny County Jail, 26-year-old Clayton McCray was forced to have a below the knee amputation. Represented by ALC Staff Attorney Jaclyn Kurin, Clayton is now suing the ACJ Medical Director, medical staff, and former Deputy Warden, Laura Williams, for ADA violations, unconstitutional medical care, and medical malpractice. Check out the filed complaint and Clayton’s GoFundMe, along with interviews of Clayton and Jaclyn here.


Left: Members of ALC, Amistad Law Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights in Pittsburgh
Right: Marie ‘Mechie’ Scott, ALC client and lead plaintiff in Scott v. Board of Probation and Parole

Scott v. PA Board of Probation and Parole – With support from Amistad Law Project and Center for Constitutional Rights, ALC Legal Director Bret Grote traveled to Pittsburgh to present an oral argument before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of our clients challenging the lifetime ban on parole for those sentenced to death by incarceration (DBI) for “felony murder”. After the lower courts ruled against our clients last year, citing lack of jurisdiction, Grote urged the PA Supreme Court to overturn this decision and allow the case – and the voices of the over 1,100 people serving DBI sentences for felony murder in PA – to be heard. Learn more about this historic case here and read the play-by-play of the April oral argument in Pittsburgh City Paper.

Bradford Gamble (photo by Danielle Ohl for Spotlight PA)

Compassionate release for Bradford Gamble – ALC Staff Attorney Rupalee Rashatwar successfully petitioned for the freedom of Bradford Gamble, an elder living with late-stage cancer who had been incarcerated for more than 40 years. Under a 2009 statute, a terminally ill incarcerated individual in Pennsylvania can be transferred from a state prison to a home or hospital setting – but only with the caveat that they forgo life-saving treatment for their debilitating illness. Following Gamble’s homecoming, Rupalee said, “We must bring our medically vulnerable elders, like Mr. Gamble, home. His case is one that truly demonstrates how cruel and callous the prison medical system can be towards a dying man. Reforming our laws so that more of our elders can access this kind of relief must be an urgent priority for us all.” Learn more about the restrictions of compassionate release and Bradford Gamble’s return home in Spotlight PA and Workers World.

From left to right: Robert Saleem Holbrook, Autumn Redcross, and Dolly Prabhu speaking in Harrisburg

ALC in Harrisburg – Sustained opposition to the deceitful probation reform bill SB 913 and mounting legislative interest in meaningful bail reforms continued this spring. Introduced last year, SB913 has drawn fierce protest from “virtually all of the major decerceral grassroots orgs” in Pennsylvania. While Dolly Prabhu, John Thompson, and Robert Saleem Holbrook of ALC educated elected officials on the harms of the bill, ALC Movement Director, Autumn Redcross, testified before the PA House Democratic Policy Committee. Autumn informed legislators of how cash bail and pretrial detention function as forms of racialized punishment. Watch Autumn’s full testimony on YouTube, and read Dolly’s op-ed denouncing SB 913 here.


Kerry ‘Shakaboona’ Marshall and his mother Patricia Vickers embrace in Philadelphia

Shakaboona is FREE! On May 11th, after over 30 years in prison, incarcerated since 1998 when he was just 17-years-old, ALC client, friend, and comrade, Kerry ‘Shakaboona’ Marshall stepped out into the free world. Resentenced to time served, Shakaboona’s hard fought freedom signals a huge victory for inside-outside family organizing in Pennsylvania. Shakaboona and his mother, Patricia Vickers, co-founded the Human Rights Coalition in 2000 alongside other incarcerated community members, including ALC’s Executive Director, Robert Saleem Holbook. ALC Legal Director and Shakaboona’s lawyer, Bret Grote, began volunteering with HRC in 2007 and six years later Bret co-founded ALC with ALC Director of Operations, Dustin McDaniel. Read more about Shakaboona’s freedom struggle in this blog post by Amistad Law Project.

Left: Dustin McDaniel, Autumn Redcross, Jonas Caballero and Jaclyn Kurin
Right: Jamelia Morgan

2022 Prison Law & Advocacy Conference (PLAC) – At the biennial conference in Chicago, ALC Co-Founder and Director of Operations, Dustin McDaniel, presented on ALC’s innovative litigation and coalition-building strategies that stopped the construction of the most expensive proposed federal prison in US history from being built in Kentucky in 2019. ALC Board President, Jamelia Morgan, who was named 2022 Professor of the Year at University of California-Irvine School of Law, also presented on her disability justice work, while ALC Paralegal, Jonas Cabellero, presented on his pro-se litigation.


Left: Family and supporters of Gerald Thomas at the June 2nd rally and press conference
Right: Tanisha Long, ALC’s Allegheny County Organizer, speaks at the monthly Jail Oversight Board meeting

Justice for Gerald Thomas – On June 2nd, ALC joined the family and friends of Gerald Thomas, alongside victims and survivors of Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in Pittsburgh to call attention to both the ongoing crises of deaths and medical neglect overseen by Warden Orlando Harper, and the racist judicial misconduct deployed by local Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani. The event took place just days after Juana Sanders, the mother of Gerald Thomas, went public with her judicial misconduct filing against Mariani. Thomas was 26 years old when he died in ACJ on March 6, 2022 – 17 days after Judge Mariani chose to keep Thomas trapped inside ACJ despite all of his charges being dropped. More info on the misconduct complaint against Mariani, along with media coverage from the rally and Jail Oversight Board meeting that followed available here.

A photo of Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh
Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh

Howard v. Williams – After a 20-month investigation, ALC lawyers and co-counsel, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, filed a motion in federal court seeking authorization to pursue class action relief for all incarcerated people at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) requiring mental health care now and in the future. The motion contains compelling evidence that AJC has been violating the rights of incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities by failing to provide them with proper treatment and subjecting them to prolonged solitary confinement and routine excessive force. Read the press release on the motion here and visit our Howard v. Williams case page.

Flyer for the Juneteenth Bailout

Juneteenth Bailout! – ALC Court Watch’s first-ever Juneteenth Bailout was a huge success thanks to the hard work of volunteers in Pittsburgh. Court watchers observed dozens of preliminary bail hearings throughout the 48-hour event, surveilling local judges’ behavior, and coordinating with local bail funds to get neighbors out of pretrial detention. Aftercare volunteers gave out bus passes, snacks, Lyft rides and more to those released from Allegheny County Jail. Check out ALC Court Watch on Mobilize for upcoming events and trainings.

Photo of ALC organizer JT speaking into a megaphone in front of a banner that says "ABOLISH PRISONS" held by members of the Human Rights Coaltion


ALC uses two main tactics in our fight for freedom: public interest litigation, and grassroots community organizing.

We get people out of jail and prison. We work to protect people who are still inside. We strive to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated in the first place. And we extract financial resources from carceral institutions and redirect them to the people the system has harmed.

Since our founding in 2013, we’ve been notching groundbreaking progress on winning the release of people serving multi-decade sentences, curtailing the use of solitary confinement, ending death by incarceration (life without parole), mandating appropriate care for incarcerated people with psychiatric and other disabilities, and protecting the rights and wellbeing of people inside in a host of other ways.

And in all that we do, we center the leadership of and take direction from those who are directly impacted by the criminal punishment system, especially people who are currently or formerly incarcerated and their loved ones.

We know that those who are most impacted by state violence must lead the fight to end it. But we also know that we need the backing and support of a broad community.

Please make a tax-deductible donation to ALC today to fuel the fight for freedom.


Tanisha, Amber, Nia, Al and Rupalee share out on six powerful books that inspire us to keep dreaming, dismantling and building – together – when so much feels impossible.

Felon: Poems by Reginald Dwayne Betts

“This collection of poems gives a raw and emotional insight into the far-reaching and soul crushing effects of a carceral system that disproportionately targets Black men. By using a mix of free verse poetry and narratives crafted through real redacted court transcripts, Betts gives readers a fresh but heartbreaking look into the way formerly incarcerated individuals navigate life forever changed by incarceration. Felon: Poems will have the reader cycling through moments of grief, anger, humor, inspiration, and hope as Betts lays bare the true cost of incarceration.”

Tanisha Long, Allegheny County Organizer

Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling by Esi Edugyan

Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling by Esi Edugyan

“I was drawn to this book as someone whose work involves elevating the stories of folks impacted by and working to transform the criminal punishment system which overwhelmingly targets Black and Brown people. Out of the Sun focuses on Black representation in visual art, literature, and film, filtered through the intimate lens of the author’s lived experience as a Black Canadian who has held fellowships in the U.S., Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain, and Belgium. The book examines historical and current events and works of art as it explores ‘what happens when we begin to consider stories at the margins, when we grant them centrality,’ and how that affects ‘our certainties about who we are, as individuals, as nations, as human beings.’”

– Amber Black, Development Director

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

Are Prisons Obsolete? was one of the first books I read in the prison abolition canon. Professor Davis’s focus on social movements throughout history showed me that another world is possible. The book highlights that through the work of the people, we can make these present systems untenable to bring forth new horizons.”

– Nia Holston, Staff Attorney

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet

“This collection of poems is dedicated to ‘children and the women, like [herself] who struggled to reason bringing them into this world.’ Monet’s poems don’t turn away from the violence and traumas that often make it feel hard to care for each other, but her belief in the powers of ‘risk and ruthless radical love’ provides optimism and a vision of a better future. A future where we hold each other with care and nurturance.”

Al Depiro, Administrative Manager

We Do This 'Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba

“This is the textbook for anyone who wants to understand what the abolitionist organizing movement is about. This book compiles a series of essays that delve into the heart of prison abolition and that center important questions like what accountability and transformative justice can look like and how the current system does nothing to deliver on those promises.  You’ll also find tips in here for evaluating police ‘reformist reforms’ that ought to be opposed, and frameworks for how we can organize against prisons, policing, and the criminal punishment system . For anyone who wants to learn more about practical ways to organize around abolition, who wants to find and explore answers to commonly asked questions or concerns about the prison abolitionist movement, I highly recommend you grab a copy of this book.”

– Rupalee Rashatwar, Staff Attorney



Pennsylvania is not only home to some of the most extreme carceral practices in the nation, it’s also a key battleground in this country’s urgent, existential struggle against the surging alt-Right.

We’re fighting with everything we’ve got to resist the rise of bold-faced racism and fascism that’s threatening to strip away our hard won rights and set us back decades in our collective movement for freedom and equality for all.

We’re wielding groundbreaking litigation to protect and liberate incarcerated people. We’re mounting pressure campaigns and mobilizing affected communities. And we’re reshaping the narratives around the criminal punishment system, and targeting every point on its conveyor belt, including policing, the courts, cash bail, probation, parole, jails, and prisons.

With wins that roll back mass incarceration in Pennsylvania, we can lead the country in doing the same. Please join us in the struggle by giving generously with a tax-deductible contribution today.

After 20-Month Investigation, Lawyers Uncover Compelling Evidence Concerning Treatment of Incarcerated People with Mental Illness at Allegheny County Jail


Lawyers from the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP have filed a motion in federal court seeking authorization to pursue class action relief for all incarcerated people at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) requiring mental health care now and in the future.

The motion contains compelling evidence obtained during an exhaustive 20-month period of discovery that Allegheny County has been violating the rights of incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities by failing to provide them with proper treatment and subjecting them to prolonged solitary confinement and routine excessive force.

“ACJ is failing to provide any meaningful mental health care to those in its custody, and in many cases is actually punishing individuals for seeking help,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “We have seen evidence that people incarcerated at ACJ have suffered as the staff at best turned a blind eye and at other times assaulted individuals for manifestations of their mental illness. Their conditions have worsened and ACJ’s already high suicide completion and attempt rates have continued to increase. It’s absolutely intolerable and inhumane.”

Through this Motion, Plaintiffs seek to certify a class of individuals defined as:

All individuals currently or in the future incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail and who have, or will in the future have, a serious mental health diagnosis, disorder or disability as recognized in the DSM-V, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

The brief in support of the motion provides extensive evidence that ACJ fails to meet state and national standards for the provision of mental healthcare in virtually every aspect- grossly insufficient mental health staffing; minimal or non-existent training; ineffective intake procedures that fail to identify patient need; insufficient treatment plans; lack of counseling or therapy; and no quality improvement program to assess their own policies and practices. Instead of mental health care, ACJ uses force at rates that are far and away the highest in the entire Commonwealth. According to County data provided by Defendants, ACJ had 585 incidents involving use of force in 2020 and 720 such incidents in 2019.  The next highest county in Pennsylvania each of those years had fewer than half that number of incidents

“This comprehensive investigation of the conditions at ACJ has reinforced what we already knew–the staff at ACJ is woefully unprepared and the system of mental health care at ACJ is appallingly and unconstitutionally inadequate,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center.

If granted, plaintiffs will be able to seek a court order providing remedies for unlawful policies and practices on behalf of all those with mental health conditions at ACJ.

Howard v. Williams is a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of people with psychiatric disabilities incarcerated in Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). The lawsuit alleges severe and systemic constitutional violations, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for the jail’s failure to provide adequate mental health care and its discriminatory and brutal treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names Laura Williams, Orlando Harper, Michael Barfield, and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, Swain Uber, and Jaclyn Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz and Richardo Brown-Whitt of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

Learn more about Howard v. Williams by visiting ALC’s case page and read the full brief here.

We’re hiring a full-time Paralegal based in Pittsburgh!

This hiring notice is cross-posted on our employment page and our Idealist account.

About Us: The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) is a nonprofit law firm fighting to defend prisoners and abolitionists, and a community organizing project aiming to build a world without police and prisons. Our work is currently based in Pennsylvania, where we have sued the Department of Corrections, local jails, and the Commonwealth to defend prisoners from abuse and to win release for as many people as possible. Our organizing work is statewide and focused on abolishing the use of solitary confinement and ending life without parole sentences (aka death by incarceration), among other things. As the movement to end racist state violence and abolish police and prisons  has grown, so has our work.

Position Overview: The Abolitionist Law Center is hiring a full-time paralegal for our Pittsburgh office. The paralegal will assist our legal department in managing correspondence with incarcerated people, tracking human rights violations in jails and prisons, and assisting in litigation. The paralegal will work with incarcerated clients and their communities and advocates to challenge state violence in all its forms and contribute to building powerful movements for liberation.


·  Manage, database, and respond to correspondence from incarcerated people.

· Work with ALC attorneys on litigation-related tasks, including organizing and reviewing discovery, conducting research, and assisting with client communication.

·  Visits with clients and potential clients who are incarcerated.

·  Assist in investigations into conditions of confinement in jails and prisons in Pennsylvania.

· Attending weekly staff meetings, providing feedback to leadership and staff to improve organizational effectiveness.

· Commitment to an abolitionist politics and movement-lawyering approach to our work that seeks to replace punitive justice with healing justice, promotes decarceration and the elimination of the use of jails/prisons to deal with social problems, and centers the political agency and organizing activity of those individuals and communities most impacted by the criminal legal system.


· Exceptional organizational skills, capable of maintaining voluminous case and correspondence files.

·   Able to track, organize, and respond to a large amount of correspondence.

·   Excellent writing ability.

·   Legal research skills are a plus.

Salary and Benefits: This position will be based in Pittsburgh and is expected to require both remote (work-from-home) and in-person (office) work. The starting salary for the paralegal position is $50,000 per year, with a health insurance benefit of up to $450/month and 35 days (280hrs) of paid time off annually.

Reports to: Legal Director

Start date: July 1, 2022 – open until filled. *Flexible start, early to mid July.

Application Process: Please send your resume, three professional references, and a detailed cover letter explaining your interest in the position as a single PDF to

Applications will be accepted and reviewed on a rolling basis. This position remains open until filled. Applicants are encouraged to apply as early as possible to receive priority consideration.

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

To learn more about our staff and board members, click here.

Mother of Gerald Thomas and survivors of ACJ address ongoing deaths, medical neglect and call for resignation of Warden Harper, investigation into Judge Mariani citing anti-Black racist conduct

Contact: William Lukas, Dir. of Communications, Abolitionist Law Center

Date: Thursday, June 2, 2022

Time: 2:30 PM EST

Location: City County Building at 414 Grant St, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

PITTSBURGH – This Thursday, the family of Gerald Thomas, alongside victims and survivors of Allegheny County Jail (ACJ), will gather on the steps Pittsburgh’s City County Building to call attention to both the ongoing crises of deaths and medical neglect overseen by Warden Orlando Harper, and the racist judicial misconduct deployed by local Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani.

Thursday’s event takes place just days after Juana Sanders, the mother of Gerald Thomas, went public with her judicial misconduct filing against Mariani. Thomas died in Allegheny County Jail on March 6, 2022 – 17 days after Mariani chose to keep Thomas trapped inside ACJ despite all of his charges being dropped.

Mariani’s probation detainer kept Thomas incarcerated at ACJ for almost a year prior to his death on the basis of charges that were the product of illegal police conduct. Instead of lifting Thomas’ probation detainer during a February 17th probation hearing and releasing him from ACJ, Mariani decided to keep Thomas incarcerated. He justified this decision by using anti-Black racist dog whistles and illegally obtained evidence, thereby openly defying a 2016 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that held evidence obtained via an illegal search is inadmissible in probation proceeding.

“I have to put you in the cage, lasso you, corral you, stuff you because you won’t quit.”


Judge Mariani’s racist retribution towards Thomas was most exemplified by his statement, “I don’t want to see you dead in the street on Friday or any other day of the week, but you won’t quit. I have to put you in the cage, lasso you, corral you, stuff you because you won’t quit.” Community members can read all of Mariani’s remarks in the official court transcript of the February Gagnon II hearing here.

The death of Gerald Thomas is one of three known deaths to occur at ACJ this year. At least fourteen people have died under Warden Harper’s watch since the beginning of the pandemic. During a March 7th press conference, the day after Thomas died, his family revealed that they were not notified by Harper or the jail surrounding Thomas’ condition, but instead, received news via an incarcerated individual that, “Thomas had collapsed, hit his head and was unresponsive.” When his family called the jail but they were refused information about whether Thomas was hospitalized or ACJ, whether he was dead or alive.

Allegheny County Jail’s next of kin policy and how the Jail Oversight Board (JOB) is notified of medical emergencies and deaths have come under fire over the past year. Speakers at Thursday’s rally, including members of the Abolitionist Law Center, 1Hood, and Alliance for Police Accountability will call for policy changes in how jail staff respond to incarcerated individuals’ requests for medical attention, and how emergency contacts and impacted  family members are notified.

Allegheny County Jail has one of the highest suicide rates of local jails in the nation and in 2019, had more uses of force than any other jail in Pennsylvania. Since 2020, sustained pressure from community groups and mounting lawsuits filed by prisoners’ rights groups like ALC have exposed how incarcerated community members under Warden Harper’s administration are not only routinely denied adequate medical and mental healthcare, but are also violently brutalized and endure solitary confinement as a form of punishment.

Attendees for Thursday’s event are asked to wear white shirts in solidarity with Gerald Thomas’ family and loved ones lost to ACJ. Following the rally and press conference, participants are encouraged to join families and advocates at the monthly JOB Meeting at 4pm (436 Grant St, Allegheny County Courthouse, 4th Fl Gold Room), where they will provide public comment to Warden Orlando Harper and JOB members.


“A man died in jail. Now his mother calls for an investigation into a judge’s decision to keep him there despite charges being dropped.” by Brittany Hailer for Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (05/26/2022)

“Woman whose son died in Allegheny County Jail accuses judge of misconduct” by Mik Stinelli for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (05/29/2022)

“Mother of man who died in jail requests investigation into judge’s alleged misconduct” by Jordana Rosenfield for Pittsburgh CityPaper (05/31/2022)

“Family of man who died in Allegheny County Jail demands justice” by Chris Hoffman for KDKA/CBS Pittsburgh (06/02/2022)

“Allegheny County Jail staffing shortage could be hurting incarcerated people, community members worry” by Julia Zenkevich for 90.5 WESA (06/03/2022)

Welcome Home Shakaboona!

Comrade, client, and human rights activist Kerry ‘Shakaboona’ Marshall – imprisoned since age 17 – is free after more than 33 years!

Shakaboona and his mother Patricia Vickers embrace outside the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia following his release on May 11, 2022.

At approximately 10:30 am yesterday morning, Kerry ‘Shakaboona’ Marshall walked out of the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia and into the free world.

Imprisoned in 1988 as a 17-year-old child and sentenced to death by incarceration in 1990, Shakaboona’s hard fought freedom marks a huge victory for inside-outside family organizing in Pennsylvania that began with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) in 2000.

Shakaboona and his mother, Patricia Vickers, co-founded HRC in 2000 alongside other incarcerated and impacted community members, including ALC’s current Executive Director, Robert Saleem Holbook, who was imprisoned at SCI-Huntingdon at the time. ALC Legal Director and Shakaboona’s lawyer, Bret Grote, began volunteering with HRC in 2007 and six years later he co-founded ALC.

As a result of landmark Supreme Court cases Miller (2012) and Montgomery (2016) that deemed mandatory life sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional, Shakaboona was resentenced in 2018 to 29-to-life. Upon parole in 2021, he was transferred to federal custody to serve time on a federal sentence of 110 months imposed in 2001. That sentence was revised to time served in federal court last week after a successful petition under the federal First Step Act.

His freedom is a testament to a protracted struggle led by Shakaboona himself and his mother Patricia, collaborating with impacted families and allied abolitionist lawyers at ALC, Amistad Law Project, and All Rise Law, who’ve fought tirelessly against unconstitutional sentencing schemes such as “juvenile life without parole,” and to protect loved ones against abuse, censorship, and medical neglect while centering the mission of bringing ALL lifers – like Shakaboona – home to their communities. In an uncommon judicial decision in March 2022, a federal judge cited Shakaboona’s work with prison and political advocacy organizations, including HRC and ALC, as evidence of rehabilitation justifying re-sentencing along with other factors.

From within the confines of a prison cell, Shakaboona co-founded the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and HRC’s The Movement magazine. He’s held numerous leadership positions: VP of the PA Lifers Association at SCI-Huntingdon, Committee Chairperson of the NAACP Graterford Branch, President of the Paraprofessional Law Clinic at SCI-Graterford, and Secretary of the Regents Betterment Organization at SCI-Mahanoy. To date, Shakaboona has published over 120 commentaries on Prison Radio and was also a lead plaintiff (alongside Saleem and Mumia Abul Jamal) in ALC’s 2015 lawsuit that successfully overturned a state statute that would’ve silenced prisoner free speech and censored publications of incarcerated peoples’ writings.

ALC’s Legal Director, Bret Grote, noted: “Shakaboona’s family and his movement family packed the courtroom wall-to-wall and showed by their presence and participation that further incarceration was not warranted. They came to court to request that Shakaboona, who has given himself in tireless service to our movement, be returned to us and the judge was more than happy to oblige.”

Today is a proud and emotional day for our movement. We continue to be inspired by the unrelenting activism of Shakaboona and his mother Patricia.

We invite you to read more about this extraordinary journey to freedom in this blog post by Amistad Law Project, and join us in welcoming home ALC’s comrade and client, Kerry ‘Shakaboona’ Marshall.

– The Abolitionist Law Center

Lawsuit Challenging Death By Incarceration Goes Before PA Supreme Court

Twitter screencap that reads, "This AM, our oral argument in our lawsuit w/ 
 challenging the lifetime ban on parole for those who did not kill or intend to kill was heard by the #PASupremeCourt. We demand #ParoleEligibilityNow for the 1,100+ people sentenced #DBI for felony murder in PA." featuring a photo of Black, brown and white staff members standing side-by-side in front of a light grey building (Pittsburgh City-County Building).

Lawsuit Challenging Death By Incarceration Goes Before Pennsylvania Supreme Court

70 Percent of People Serving These Sentences for Felony Murder Are Black

Kris Henderson, Amistad Law Project

Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center,

Jen Nessel, Center for Constitutional Rights,

Pittsburgh, PA – Today, a lawsuit brought by people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences, commonly known as Life Without Parole, took their case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.Represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, they seek an end to the ban on parole for those serving life sentences for participating in a felony that led to a death, even if they played no direct role in the death and did not intend or anticipate it. 

“People change. After decades of incarceration, society should allow people the opportunity to demonstrate that they are not the same person who harmed their community so many years ago,” said Kris Henderson of Amistad Law Project. “Pennsylvania is uniquely cruel in denying a second chance to people who neither took a life or intended to. We urge the court to fix this injustice.”

The case concerns people convicted of so-called felony murder. Versions of the rule, which exists in 44 states, hold liable for murder a person who participates in a felony that leads to a death, even if the person played no direct role in the death and did not intend or anticipate it. The application of the rule varies from state to state. In Pennsylvania, people found guilty are automatically sentenced to life, and a separate provision of state law prohibits parole for anyone serving a life sentence. Critics say Pennsylvania’s total ban on parole for these crimes makes it unique among the states in the harshness with which it treats felony-murder convictions.. 

Scott v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, filed in July 2020, is the first case of its kind in the country. It argues that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those who did not kill or intend to kill serve no legitimate governmental interest and are illegally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution. The plaintiffs belong to a movement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated advocates and family members in using the term Death By Incarceration, which, they say, is the true impact of these sentences.

In 2021, a lower court ruled that the plaintiffs – and the more than 1,100 others in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder – are not permitted to challenge the lifetime prohibition on parole, citing lack of jurisdiction. In today’s oral argument, their attorneys urged the court to overturn this decision and allow the case to proceed. 

All four plaintiffs were convicted in their late teens or early 20s. Though none directly caused or intended to cause the death of the victim, they have spent between 24 and 48 years in prison ‒ the majority of their lives. 

Tyreem Rivers was 18 when he grabbed the purse of an elderly woman who fell as a result. She was hospitalized and died two weeks later from pneumonia she had contracted in the hospital. Tyreem is now in his forties. Marie Scott was 19 when she robbed a gas station and her accomplice killed the attendant. She is now in her late sixties. Normita Jackson, now in her forties, was also 19 when she participated in a robbery where her co-defendant committed homicide. Marsha Scaggs, in her late fifties, was 23 when she was prosecuted after an altercation resulted in her co-defendant killing the victim in her case. None of them committed the killings, nor did they have any intention for them to happenUnless their legal challenge succeeds or the law is otherwise changed, these four people and the more than 1,100 others will almost certainly die in prison. 

Two of the original plaintiffs, brothers Wyatt and Reid Evans, had their sentences commuted after serving 37 years. 

“Felony murder’s automatic life-without-parole is a death sentence, one that disproportionately impacts youth, women, and Black and Brown people. Death by incarceration serves no legitimate public safety interest – only the interests of racist, state-sanctioned retribution and punishment,” said the Abolitionist Law Center in a statement. “It’s time for the over 1,000 people sentenced to DBI under felony murder to be given the opportunity to be reviewed for parole – and to finally come home to their friends and families after decades in cages.”

Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme both reflects and exacerbates the racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice and penal systems. While only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, about 70 percent of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder are Black. Overall in the state, Black people are sentenced to Death By Incarceration at a rate 18 times higher, and Latinx people at a rate five times higher, than white people. 

“This case is on behalf of Black elders and all of those who have been denied redemption,” said Samah Sisay, attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Through its mandatory sentencing scheme and an inability to seek parole, Pennsylvania has disproportionately and unconstitutionally denied rehabilitation for people of color and we are asking the court to right this grave error.”   

A number of legal organizations have filed or joined amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit: The MacArthur Justice Center, The Sentencing Project, the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley School of Law, the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic at Drexel School of Law, Seton Hall Center for Social Justice Eighth Amendment Scholars, and the Defender Association of Philadelphia.



“Pittsburgh law firm argues “first-of-its-kind” case in front of state Supreme Court” by Jordana Rosenfeld for Pittsburgh City Paper (04/16/2022)

“Pa. Supreme Court to consider jurisdiction question in second-degree murder lawsuit” by Paula Reed Ward for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (04/13/2022)