COVID-19 – Protecting Public Health in Allegheny County: Release and Divert People from Allegheny County Jail

Endorse this statement as an organization using this Google Form.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has created an international public health crisis. It has now been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization and declared a national emergency by the United States. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools to close and prohibited all public gatherings of over 250 people, and most major universities have switched to online learning for the remainder of the school year. Both City of Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald have declared a state of emergency in their respective regions. The nationwide attempt to “flatten the curve” — to slow the infection rate so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system — has led to the implementation of many measures that prevent large groups of people from congregating in close quarters.

However, these measures do not take into account one of the most vulnerable, highly concentrated populations: the county’s jail population, composed of over 2300 individuals packed into tight quarters and often lacking basic hygiene items. Additionally, prevalence of health conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19 — including tuberculosis, asthma, HIV, hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions — are all significantly higher among the jail and prison populations. To make matters worse, the jail’s medical capacity isn’t nearly high enough to deal with a potential outbreak within the jail; it is woefully understaffed to deal with the medical needs of incarcerated individuals as is. Many individuals will likely need to be transported to and from the hospital, further increasing the likelihood of exposure and transmission.

Because 81% of individuals at the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted of a crime, and the rest are serving relatively short sentences, there is a high turnover rate at the jail. Over 100 individuals pass through intake on a daily basis. The result is that many individuals will enter an environment where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively high, and simultaneously many individuals will also be leaving and potentially spreading the illness to others. This high turnover also increases the likelihood that staff at the jail will contract and spread the disease. All of these factors converge to create the perfect storm for a potential COVID-19 outbreak to spread quickly amongst the incarcerated population. Emergency efforts to decarcerate the jail are more crucial now than ever. Doing so will decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading amongst the ACJ population and staff and subsequently throughout the region. It will also make it more manageable for the jail to provide adequate medical care to those affected.

Other counties have already taken steps towards emergency decarceration, and Allegheny County ought to follow their lead to slow the spread of the disease in the region. San Francisco County’s Public Defender has announced that his office’s attorneys will be seeking the immediate release of pre-trial clients who have a high susceptibility to the virus, and the County’s District Attorney has instructed his office’s prosecutors to not oppose these motions for individuals not deemed a threat to public safety and to strongly consider sentences of time served in plea deals. Additionally, the judges, the Public Defender, the District Attorney, and the Sheriff of Cuyahoga County in Ohio, where Cleveland is located, have agreed to hold mass plea and bond reduction hearings in an effort to release as many people as possible from the jail and reduce the impact of potential outbreak of coronavirus among this population. Many other regions are calling for or implementing similar measures. Other countries are taking strong preventive action as well. Iran plans to release 70,000 people from its prisons. Counties in the United States, the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, ought to be taking similarly urgent measures. The potential of COVID-19 to spread among the incarcerated population was seen in China, where the incarceration rate is six times lower than in the United States. Over 500 cases of coronavirus were reported from just four prisons in China, two of which were in the region at the epicenter of the outbreak. It is imperative that public officials act now to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the region to prevent a similar outcome.

We are calling on the county executive, county council, and all of county government and administration; judges, prosecutors, and public defenders; police, parole and probation officers to all unite on emergency decarceration initiatives to halt the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Allegheny County.

The Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania should:

  • Immediately lift/postpone imposition of detainers of every individual held on alleged probation violations based on new charges or for technical violations;
  • Immediately modify bond of those held pretrial to nonmonetary and/or “release on their own recognizance” (‘ROR’);
  • Cease parole and probation revocation proceedings and terminate long tails;
  • Release all individuals with less than 6 months left in their sentence;
  • Release all individuals incarcerated for misdemeanors, whether pretrial or serving a sentence;
  • Release all individuals incarcerated for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses;
  • Release all elderly individuals (over 50) and those at high risk of vulnerability, including but not limited those with respiratory conditions, heart conditions, diabetes, cancer, or other autoimmune diseases;
  • Release all pregnant individuals;
  • Transfer all non-releasable individuals to less restrictive forms of custody, including electronic monitoring and house arrest, where individuals can self-quarantine as needed.
  • Review individuals on probation or otherwise confined to halfway houses and release those individuals to home confinement automatically;
  • Terminate in-person reporting for those on pre- or post-trial supervision indefinitely.

The District Attorney of Allegheny County should:

  • Postpone the convening of grand juries;
  • Affirmatively support and not oppose the above-mentioned motions and petitions for relief;
  • Withdraw and drop all pending charges for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Allegheny County should:

  • Recall all pending warrants (that have not been served/executed);
  • Delay dates of voluntary surrender for incarceration sentences as requested by defense;
  • Immediately cease arresting individuals for all offenses not directly implicating public safety or an individual’s physical well-being;
  • Immediately cease arrests on warrants for probation violations — technical and otherwise;
  • Avoid new bookings into the jail at all costs, limiting incarceration for only the most immediate and severe instances of harm reduction.
  • Given the similarly dangerous conditions in immigrant detention centers and those jails and prisons that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we demand that Allegheny County Jail and county criminal justice officials NOT facilitate the detention of undocumented immigrants or the transfer of them to ICE custody.

County government and the jail administration should immediately:

  • Issue an emergency order making phone calls free for individuals detained at ACJ;
  • Ensure all incarcerated people have unlimited and free access to: soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, showers and laundry service, NOT monetized through commissary;
  • Provide free access to books and other reading and writing materials to all individuals incarcerated at the jail;
  • Provide additional commissary items at-, below-, or no-cost to all individuals, to boost morale during the trying times ahead;
  • Facilitate the use of video visitation, including confidential video visitations for attorney visits.

We call on our colleagues both in the Office of the Public Defender and in the private criminal defense bar to begin to file motions and petitions, in a pro bono capacity, for all individuals held in Allegheny County Jail under a probation detainer, unaffordable or unjustifiably restrictive bond, and serving long probation or parole terms.

We are demanding that all governmental agencies collaborate on this initiative in order to protect public health. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 — and its mortality rate — requires that we free as many of our neighbors as possible, as they are part of our families and communities. Protecting them and our greater community from avoidable harm go hand in hand, and this must be our shared imperative.

We are calling on other organizations in Allegheny County to endorse and circulate this statement and help shape the course of the response to COVID-19 in our community.

To sign on to the statement, email acjcovidresponse@gmail.com with the name of your organization or fill out via our GoogleForm.

Endorsing Individuals and Organizations:

1Hood Media

Abolitionist Law Center

ACLU-PA

Allegheny County Elders Council

Alliance for Police Accountability

​ANSWER Coalition – Pittsburgh Branch

Bargaining Team 1199 NW Neighborcare Health

Bend the Arc: Pittsburgh

Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County Council

Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project

Book ‘em

Brilliantly Blessed Community Health and Wellness

Bukit Bail Fund

CAIR - Pittsburgh

Casa San Jose

Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County Controller, Member of Jail Oversight Board

Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration – West 

Community Forge

Community Gone Rogue 

Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ)

Fossil Free Pitt Organizing Committee

Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) Pittsburgh

Green Party of Allegheny County

Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!

Jerry Dickinson for Congress

Jews Organizing for Liberation and Transformation (JOLT)

Let’s Get Free: Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee

Liberation/Ukombozi 

Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary and EMAJ

National Lawyers Guild – Pittsburgh Chapter

New Evangelistic Ministries

Olivia Bennett, Allegheny County Council

Opportunity Fund

Party for Socialism and Liberation, Pittsburgh Branch

Pennsylvania Prison Society - Allegheny County

Peter Odell Campbell, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Pitt Legal Income Sharing Foundation (PLISF)

Pitt Prison Outreach

Pittsburghers for Public Transit

Prison Radio

Put People First! PA

Radical Youth Collective

Ratzon : Center for Healing and Resistance

Rep. Sara Innamorato, 21st Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Rep. Summer Lee, 34th Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Richard S. Matesic, Attorney at Law

Steve Macek, North Central College

Take Action Mon Valley

Teach The Change, Chicago

The Big Idea Bookstore & Cooperative

The Lusory

Thomas Merton Center

Three Rivers Free Clinic for the People

UNITE

Veterans for Peace of Western PA (Chapter 47)

West End P.O.W.E.R.

Words Without Walls

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. POSITIONS FILLED

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.