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)

Filed: McCray v Allegheny County

ALC sues ACJ Medical Director, medical staff, and former Deputy Warden, Laura Williams, for ADA violations, unconstitutional medical care, and medical malpractice that caused amputation of Pittsburgh man’s leg

Left: Clayton in 2018 prior to incarceration at ACJ and below-the-knee leg amputation in 2020. Right: Clayton photographed on March 29, 2022.
Left: Clayton in 2018 prior to incarceration at ACJ and below-the-knee leg amputation in 2020. Right: Clayton photographed on March 29, 2022.

“No mother wants to see her child suffer. It kills me what they did to him. He had prescribed shoes and a brace; they took it away from him. He had wound care treatments he needed; they didn’t give it to him. I called every one possible at the jail, and they ignored me. Because they denied him medical care, my son is suffering a lifetime of pain.”  – – 

Mother of Plaintiff Clayton McCray

PITTSBURGH – On March 24, 2022 the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) filed a lawsuit against Allegheny County Jail’s (ACJ) Medical Director, Dr. Donald Stechshulte, its former Deputy Warden, Laura Williams, and medical staff members, on behalf of Clayton McCray, a formerly incarcerated man who had an infected open-wound on his right heel and was routinely denied standard medical care, prescribed medical devices, outside treatment, and other deprivations for a year ultimately requiring him to have a right below the knee amputation when he was 26 years old.

According to the complaint, throughout McCray’s year-long pretrial detention on a probation violation from 2019-2020, the ACJ administration, doctors and staff knowingly subjected him to inhumane conditions and denied him prescribed medical treatments. McCray developed physical disabilities in his foot after suffering a gunshot wound to his spine in 2011. While McCray was incarcerated in two Pennsylvania state prisons from 2018 to the fall of 2019, he developed a small neuropathic ulcer or wound on his right heel. The prison staff provided McCray wound care and debridement treatments to heal the wound and prescribed him assistive or medical devices such as an orthotic shoe, brace, etc and other accommodations to prevent McCray’s wound from becoming exacerbated and allowing him to walk safely.  However, when McCray arrived at ACJ in September of 2019, ACJ staff confiscated his medical devices (orthotic shoe and AFO brace) and continued to deny or severely limit his use of them despite ACJ receiving McCray’s medical records from the two prisons, that confirmed his disability accommodations and need for prescribed medical devices for the neuropathic ulcer on his heel. At Defendants’ direction or under their supervision, ACJ staff denied McCray critical medical care and accommodations:

Instead of being placed in a cell with disability access, McCray was either forced into solitary confinement or placed in housing that lacked access to medical support and prevented him from using his medical devices. Due to Defendants, McCray did not receive daily wound care and regular debridement treatments as prescribed by outside doctors and recommended by the Federal Bureau of Prisons wound care guidelines. McCray was routinely denied pain medication, antibiotics and adequate nutrition by ACJ medical personnel, and was barred by Williams from being examined by an outside specialist  onsite at the jail. On many occasions, McCray was often forced to “hop on one foot or crawl to his cell door to retrieve his meals and medications,” when his medical devices—orthotic shoe, crutches, cane or wheelchair—were unjustifiably confiscated by jail guards.

“All patients, regardless of the environment or circumstances, deserve to be cared for and given the best medical care, to the best of our ability with the resources that are available,” says Charles E. Timbers Jr., a nurse practitioner and former employee of ACJ who has advocated for incarcerated community members who’ve endured neglect and malpractice under Williams. “Incarcerated people are human beings. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is our duty as healthcare professionals.”

Because Defendants denied McCray prescribed medical care, medical devices, and accommodations, his foot infection worsened into a life-threatening bone infection (osteomyelitis), and eventually required McCray to undergo an amputation of his lower right leg in September 2020.

“No mother wants to see her child suffer. It kills me what they did to him. He had prescribed shoes and a brace; they took it away from him. He had wound care treatments he needed; they didn’t give it to him,” says Nicole Woodson, the mother of Clayton McCray. “I called every one possible at the jail, and they ignored me. Because they denied him medical care, my son is suffering a lifetime of pain.”

The lawsuit alleges Allegheny County and ACJ’s former Deputy Warden Laura Williams, current Medical Director Dr. Donald Stechshulte, physician Dr. Nancy Park, ACJ’s Assistant Director of Nursing Jen Kelly, along with physician’s assistant Natalie Austin violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, McCray’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, and committed medical malpractice from 2019 and 2020.

McCray is now seeking compensation for his injuries including the permanent loss of his right lower leg, significant pain and distress, severe mental anguish, and compensation for his future medical expenses.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Plaintiff Clayton McCray is represented by Jaclyn Kurin and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center.



“Former Allegheny County Jail inmate speaks out about jail, its staff”WPXI – Channel 11 NBC Pittsburgh (04/08/2022)

“Man suing Allegheny County Jail for loss of leg starts GoFundMe” Pittsburgh City Paper (03/31/2022)

“Former Allegheny County Jail inmate files lawsuit alleging mistreatment leading to leg amputation”WPXI – Channel 11 NBC Pittsburgh (03/29/2022)

“Ex-prisoner says Allegheny County Jail’s lack of care caused him to lose his leg”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (03/29/2022)

“Lawsuit says lack of treatment at Allegheny County Jail led to leg amputation”Pittsburgh Tribune Review (03/28/2022)

ALC March 2022 Newsletter

“We decided we would build our own table.” Notes from Saleem’s Freedom Anniversary

Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook holds up a photograph of himself at age 16 while awaiting trial at the Youth Study Center. He is pictured with his nephew.
Saleem holds up a photograph of himself at age 16 while awaiting trial at the Youth Study Center. He is pictured with his nephew.

Four years since ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook walked out of prison and into ‘the free world’, he shares the origins of his pledge to dismantle the carceral state and build together.

When I stop and reflect, and look back at the past four years since I’ve been home, it’s hard to believe it’s only been four years. I am reminded of how fast times move in the midst of upheavals and struggles. When I walked out of SCI-Greene on February 20th, 2018 after 27 years of incarceration, I emerged with a mission: to work every waking hour towards dismantling the carceral state, to weaken and abolish the powers of the police state. To free my comrades I left behind.

Looking back now, I can say with confidence that I have lived up to that pledge. 

However, that pledge did not start on February 20th, 2018 – it started over two decades earlier when I, alongside other prisoners in solitary confinement, made a promise to ourselves that we would build a movement that reflected our visions, values and voices. We promised that we would never put ourselves or our families’ interests in the hands of any politician or social justice movement.

What we have been building in Pennsylvania through the Abolitionist Law Center and our greater movement family (Human Rights Coalition, Amistad Law Project, Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, Decarcerate PA, Free The Ballot and Straight Ahead) is the product of that vision.

I can recall being 18-years-old, reading a worn out copy of the autobiography of Malcolm X in a dimly lit cell in solitary confinement. I was struck at how Malcolm wrote about how pathetic it was to see politicians that claimed to represent our communities being satisfied, eating the crumbs that dropped from the oppressor’s table.

Fast forward nearly 30 years later to a conversation in 2018. My comrades and I were discussing the fight for formerly incarcerated people and families of prisoners to have a seat at the table of power; we decided we would build our own table. We are building to lead the fight for decarceration and abolition.

We like to say, “It’s not the prettiest table, but it’s a sturdy table”, and it would not be possible without the relationships and community we’ve built over the past 20 years fighting for human rights, dignity, and total abolition.

And because of that community, I can celebrate four years of freedom.

– Robert Saleem Holbrook, 03/07/2022

We’re headed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Lead Plaintiff Marie “Mechie” Scott profiled in the a November 2020 issue of Philly-based Grid Magazine.

In July 2020, ALC joined the Center for Constitutional Rights and Amistad Law Project in filing Scott v. PA Board of Probation and Parole. The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the United States. The case argues that mandatory life without parole – aka death by incarceration (DBI) – for those who did not kill or intend to kill, does not serve any legitimate governmental interest and is unconstitutional. The complaint, filed on behalf of six individuals serving DBI sentences, seeks to end the lifetime prohibition of parole under Pennsylvania’s ‘felony murder rule’. 

‘Felony murder’ exists in 44 states. The rule holds individuals responsible for murder if they participated in a felony that lead to a death – even if the individual played no direct role in the death or did not not intend or anticipate it. More than 1,100 people in Pennsylvania are currently serving DBI sentences for felony murder – 70% of these community members are Black. Individuals found guilty of felony murder in PA are automatically sentenced to DBI and prohibited from parole eligibility. Our lawsuit seeks to end this practice.

In May 2021, the Commonwealth Court of PA ruled that our clients are not allowed to challenge the lifetime prohibition on parole and dismissed the suit; we appealed to this decision to Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Almost a year later, the PA Supreme Court has agreed to hear our argument to overturn the lower court’s decision so our clients – and the human rights movement against death by incarceration – can proceed with the historic lawsuit.

Follow us on social media for the latest updates on our PA Supreme Court oral argument slated for April 13th, 2022.

Beyond “Reformist Reforms”

Creating Space for Abolition Whenever, Wherever

Screenshot of one of Critical Resistance’s latest guides to abolitionist reforms VS reformist reforms. Visit their online abolitionist toolkit for downloadable PDFs.

Since the historic George Floyd Rebellion of 2020, many elected officials across the country who initially supported calls for defunding the police state and investing in basic human rights and life-affirming services (like housing, education and healthcare) have since backtracked on their promises. Many have embraced reactionary cop apologia and pro-carceral logics amidst media-hyped “crime wave” mythologies, advancing increased police budgets, proposals for new jails, and generalizing animosity to radical Black organizers and anti-fascist protesters in the news.

Despite all this, there are still signs of decarceral life taking shape, embodied in the unexpected potential of ‘reforms’.

As abolitionists, we often ask ourselves, “What are the limitations of reforms and electoral politics? Do incrementalist reforms that advance the liberation of some, but not others (or all), ultimately hurt our movements in the long run? Are there opportunities to pollinate abolitionist thinking and dialectics in city council meetings and state legislative sessions, in the form of local ballot measures and congressional bills?”

Oakland-based Critical Resistance (co-founded in the late 1990’s by abolitionists including Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Ruth Braz) recently updated their online abolitionist toolkit to include dynamic new charts that help activist-scholars and organizers delineate between “reformist reforms” and “abolitionist reforms.” The difference? In short, reformist reforms strengthen policing and imprisonment under the guise of “progress,” whereas abolitionist reforms reduce reliance on the carceral state, and create improved material conditions for individuals and their communities.

Creating delineations between abolition and reformism have always been salient in ALC’s work, particularly in the ongoing struggle to end solitary confinement. While some organizations perceive the state as a neutral, benevolent force, ALC recognizes the state as the opponent; any organizing and litigation against solitary that is not grounded within an abolitionist framework ultimately run the risk of creating a “constitutional prison”. This is a prison that provides the bare constitutional protections, born of a circular reformist fight that misses the larger political movement and underlying purpose of solitary confinement: to repress prisoner resistance to racist mass incarceration.

You can check out the highlights from our summer 2021 staff retreat on solitary confinement & abolition here.

During last August’s Abolition: Can it be a Reality? panel hosted by Alliance for Police Accountability, ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu, author of ALC’s 2020 report, Apartheid Policing in Pittsburgh was asked, “What is a reform that is moving us towards abolition versus a reform that is reinstituting the state?” She replied, “If this requires giving more money to policing, prisons, or jails, it’s a reformist reform, no matter how good it sounds. Probation and cash bail were created as ‘reforms’ but are now some of the major drivers of mass incarceration. Just because something seems like an alternative to incarceration doesn’t mean it’s going to increase decarceration.”

Five months later, Prabhu has been integral in drawing attention to the deceptive fault lines of a new Pennsylvania senate bill: SB913. The bill is a shining example of a “reformist reform,” cited as “a fake progressive probation reform bill” that now lays before the General Assembly despite widespread opposition from over 50 major social justice orgs. Pointing out the harms of the bill that will keep people trapped in cycles of incarceration, Prabhu calls for meaningful decarceral initiative including “abolishing use of probation detainers and prohibiting incarceration due to technical violations, poverty or homelessness.”

Using abolitionist reforms as a framework and tactic in the protracted struggle to abolish police and prisons, we can seek out opportunities to weaken the carceral state however they present themselves. Since its inception in early 2021, our lobbying arm, Straight Ahead, has heralded the liberatory potentials of two Pennsylvania senate bills, SB135 and SB835. These bills can be conceptualized as “abolitionist reforms” since mass parole eligibility and decarceration of 1) community members sentenced to death by incarceration (over 5,000 people), along with 2) elders and those who are chronically ill, are the end goals of these two bills. With their passage into law, thousands of community members could be freed from state prisons.

ALC Organizer John “JT” Thompson speaks at a September 2021 rally in Philadelphia in support of SB835, a bipartisan geriatric and medical parole bill.

At the local level in Allegheny County, ALC has pushed for abolitionist reforms: ones that reduce harm against incarcerated community members (such as ending solitary confinement at ACJ, abolishing cash bail, banning a racist paramilitary private prison contractor from the jail). And ones that decrease Black people’s proximity to police violence (such as curbing traffic stops and stop-and-frisks carried out by the Pittsburgh Police). While the recent proposed ordinance to limit Pittsburgh Police’s discretion in pursuing traffic stops does not outright abolish stop-and-frisks in their entirety, we continue to call on elected officials to go harder in defense of Black lives and pursue the absolute dissolution of the racist practice: ban ALL stop-and-frisks.

From the streets to the courtrooms, from city councils to Harrisburg, we’re creating space for abolition, whenever and wherever we can.

Growing Participatory Defense

An Interview with Walter Harris and Autumn Redcross

In December 2021, ALC and other community groups began quietly laying the groundwork for an organizing model that is situated within a larger nationwide movement: participatory defense. We sat down with our Movement Director, Autumn Redcross, and Walter Harris of the Pittsburgh Participatory Defense Hub to learn more about the origins of participatory defense and the goals of their new project.

Rooted in community care and transformative justice, participatory defense is a framework by which community members self-organize to support individuals navigating pretrial detention, court hearings, probation and the entire punishment system, with the ultimate goal of “time saved, as opposed to time served…the goal is to keep people out of jail,” said Harris.

Autumn and Walter at a hub meeting.

The Pittsburgh Participatory Defense Hub is a decentralized network of local orgs, featuring members from JailBreak, Bukit Bail Fund, CADBI West, and ALC Court Watch, along with formerly incarcerated organizers, abolitionists, families, and individuals “who believe in being in service to their communities.” Harris noted, “You don’t need a degree – you just need to be a voice for change.” Working together, the hub has launched mutual aid support for bail & legal fees, provided commissary funds to loved ones on the inside, partnered with public defenders to support clients, packed courtrooms to support community members facing charges, and provided referrals for community members seeking legal advice.

When a community member is put in touch with the hub, “One of the first things that we say is, ‘We are a support group’,” Redcross explained. “We’re not offering legal advice, we’re looking to support people who are caught up in the system. We’re looking to work with their defense team, so the person in need can have the outcome that they are looking for.”

The Pittsburgh hub’s most recent work focused on demanding immediate pretrial freedom for a 15-year-old boy who’d been confined to Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) without bond for over two months (as of 02/24/22 there are 24 individuals trapped inside ACJ who are under age 18). Centering the needs and demands of the family, the hub crowdfunded, circulated media by Narrative Justice and Allegheny County JOB Watch, called for in-person court support, and phoned the local judge’s chambers when motions hearings were chronically postponed without a rescheduled date. “He’s out [of ACJ] now. We would’ve still been waiting here had people not made those calls,” said Harris.

When asked if there are issues unique to Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania’s political and carceral landscapes that the hub hopes to focus on, Harris said, “The judicial system that’s set up in Pennsylvania is ‘strategically biased’ to put it lightly. Whatever you receive on the front end, you receive on the back end – sometimes even greater,” referring to probation, which is commonly misconstrued as an alternative to incarceration in the liberal imagination, yet the practice has actually expanded surveillance and racist control of communities, keeping people cycling in and out of prison for decades.

“I know the brokenness of the system.” Harris was confined to more than 20 years in prison; he will be celebrating his one year freedom anniversary this month. “It’s important for people to see those of us with ‘colorful backgrounds’ out here supporting one another. We’re growing the hub, learning what participatory defense looks like and feels like as we go. It’s a community effort – it’s not about getting credit.”

Help ALC sustain the fight to free people from incarceration and other forms of racist state violence.

Join us in resisting the racist, classist systems of policing and mass incarceration by donating to the Abolitionist Law Center.

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 to do!

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

ALC celebrates nine years of abolitionist world-building with launch of web store

Over the past nine years, the scope of ALC’s work has grown tremendously: from a small movement lawyering firm in Pittsburgh to a statewide abolitionist project that uses litigation, community organizing, court watching (ALC Court Watch), and lobbying through our 501(c)(4) arm, Straight Ahead, to dismantle all forms of state violence.

We are grateful to be in service to our communities and to be in constellation with movement supporters who know that a world without police and prisons is not only possible, but precedented; we witness this every day through acts of collective caring and transformative justice.

Join us in celebrating our ninth birthday by shopping our online store and sharing our swag with your family and comrades. Profits generated from sales go directly to ALC’s work to dismantle the carceral state and grow community power. You can also make a tax-deductible donation to ALC at checkout.

Rest easy, and in power. Long live Russell Maroon Shoatz.

It is with overwhelming sadness, we join our communities in sharing this news.

Our beloved friend, comrade, mentor, client, and inspiration, Russell Maroon Shoatz transitioned from this life on Earth today. After 49 years in prison, Maroon was finally released on October 26th. He passed away at his sister’s home 52 days later, surrounded by the love and care of his family.

There are few words, if any, that will do justice in describing Maroon, the impact he’s had on all of us, the gigantic legacy he leaves behind. If you are reading this, chances are, at some point you came in contact with Maroon, either directly – or subliminally: many projects in the struggle for Black Liberation and abolition can be traced back to him, the contemporary Political Prisoners’ rights movement in Pennsylvania beginning with him.

Some of us were lucky enough to know Maroon personally, and for that, we are infinitely grateful. We commemorate him by carrying out his life’s work, by reaffirming our commitments to see the dissolution of Empire and advance absolute, unconditional liberation for Black people everywhere. Maroon reminds us, “history records the stories of multitudes who risked their lives to obtain or regain their freedom” (2012).

We are grieving for Maroon. He has left us physically on this plane, but his spirit and visions live on in the movements he inspired and animated from a prison cell, the countless hearts and minds he filled with hope and wonder when so many of us felt lost and helpless, the iconic essays he wrote that will continue to galvanize future generations of young people in the struggle.

In his own words,

“Rest easy fighting maroons. There are many now and to come who will derive inspiration from your valorous examples – inspiration that will ‘arm their spirits’ to fight the good fight. . . til victory or death!!!” (1995).

Rest easy, and in power. Long live Russell Maroon Shoatz.

“Former Black Panther Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz Freed From Prison After 49 Years” by Mike Ludwig, Truthout (10/26/21)

“Compassionate release for Maroon” by Betsy Piette, Workers World (10/25/21)

ALC pushes back against Pennsylvania’s SB 913 citing Senate’s failure to understand bill’s harm, further entrenching community members impacted by state punishment system

ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu calls for decarceral initiatives including abolishing use of probation detainers and prohibiting incarceration due to technical violations, poverty or homelessness

We are disheartened to learn that Pennsylvania’s Senate Bill 913 was voted out of the Senate on Wednesday, December 15th, in a 46–4 vote on the senate floor. We applaud the four senators who listened to community members and opposed this terrible attempt at Probation reform in Pennsylvania. SB 913 is a so-called probation reform bill. Many of its provisions appear positive at first read, but ultimately SB 913 only sounds good to those unfamiliar with the day-to-day functioning of the probation system. At best, the reforms proposed appear superficial and conditional — they are subject to numerous restrictions and will not assist the vast majority of individuals on probation.  In fact, SB 913 will primarily impact rural white Pennsylvania and its impact on Black and Brown communities most impacted by mass incarceration will be negligible. If the objective of legislators was to create a bill that would leave behind Black Philadelphians, they have succeeded with SB 913. For these reasons, the Abolitionist Law Center cannot support this shallow and disingenuous attempt at probation reform.

SB 913 proposes mandated probation review conferences for individuals with lengthy probation sentences. Individuals are eligible for these conferences after 3 years on probation for a misdemeanor or 5 years on probation for a felony. This is an exceptionally long period of time that right off the bat will apply to few, even if they are eligible for the 6-month waiting time reduction. Most individuals on probation for several years or more are on probation due to the imposition of new probation terms after revocation — not necessarily because of lengthy probation sentences. Additionally, eligibility is also subject to many limitations, including not having committed any technical violations in the past 6 months, nor having been previously convicted of certain crimes.

Most importantly, judges already have the authority to terminate probation early. Even if restitution is still owed, many judges will still close out probation if all other conditions are met. Individuals with complete conditions and without restitution owed or new technical or direct violations will likely have no trouble getting off probation, so this proposed reform will do little in reducing the volume of people trapped in long cycles of needless supervision and incarceration. Early termination of probation is already permitted; the creation of probation review conferences may in fact reduce the amount of early termination as judges may rely on this mechanism rather than take action themselves. It may also further confuse what is now a relatively straightforward process of early termination. In some counties, early termination is an institutionalized process that occurs relatively frequently.

The only way this particular provision would be helpful to people is if the stars aligned and all of the following occurred:
  • Individuals are sentenced to an uncommonly lengthy period of probation — over 3 years for a misdemeanor or 5 years for a felony. It is far more likely to have a scenario where an individual is sentenced to one year of probation that is revoked and reimposed for several years. These folks in the latter category will never be eligible for probation review conferences.
  • Individuals have not been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies in the past 6 months.
  • Individuals have not committed technical violations in the past 6 months, which can include missed appointments, possession of a weapon (even with a permit), absconding, not being able to afford mandated programming, or a host of other non-violent actions.
  • All fines and restitution are paid. Restitution can often be due to property damage and therefore sometimes 6 figures or more. It can also be owed to entities such as banks or large corporations. Due to their financial circumstances, some folks will simply never be able to pay off even small amounts of restitution. These are some of the folks who end up trapped on probation the longest, due to regular revocation and reimposition of new probation sentences.
  • All treatment programs are completed. These programs can be quite expensive and often they must be paid by defendants out of pocket, despite being mandatory (e.g. $75/class for anger management classes, $1000+ for DUI stipulations, etc.). For this reason, folks take a long time to complete certain programs.
  • Probation review conferences are actually scheduled when defendants are eligible for them.
  • The defendant is aware of when they are eligible for a probation review conference and files a motion demanding one if it does not commence on time.
  • The judge overseeing probation is unwilling to or would otherwise not terminate probation early on their own, despite all conditions being met and long-term compliance to probation rules.
  • The judge overseeing probation also does not perceive the defendant to be a “threat to public safety” — a vague and highly subjective standard. The commonwealth, victims, and victim advocacy organizations are all notified and may be present to object to early termination.

This is not meant to be a defense of judges or of Probation as it currently functions. Probation is one of the primary drivers of mass incarceration and its scale and power must be reduced to move towards decarceration. Legislation such as SB 913, which offers limited, conditional benefits yet creates a high risk for future harm and entrenchment, is not the way towards this goal. It is a shame that this momentum is not used to advance effective decarceral initiatives, such as advocating for any of the following:

  • Ending the use of probation detainers. Probation detainers are orders issued by judges to keep probationers detained pending their Gagnon II hearings, which can take months or even years, based on alleged probation violations that may even be non-criminal and non-violent. In many PA counties, probation detainers are the driving force of incarceration and are the number one reason why people are incarcerated pretrial. While bail hearings are supposed to be where determinations of public safety and flight risk are made, slews of individuals are held pretrial despite bail determinations that permit their release. Addressing probation detainers should be the main priority of any politician interested in criminal justice reform.
  • Rather than instituting a convoluted and lengthy process for highly conditional review conferences, simply instituting hard caps on probation length, as many other states do.
  • Prohibiting the use of split sentences — periods of incarceration followed by periods of probation. These sentences have become increasingly normalized and have swollen the scale of state supervision.
  • Prohibiting the imposition of consecutive probation sentences.
  • Prohibiting incarceration for technical (i.e. non-criminal) violations of probation. A sentence of incarceration for technical violations is already rare. It is far more common for folks to be incarcerated pretrial for months or even years while awaiting their probation violation hearings, rather than to be actually sentenced to incarceration. Because it is already uncommon, this reform should be low-hanging fruit, yet this bill even fails to outrightly prohibit this practice.
  • Prohibiting revocation for all non-willful “violations” due to poverty or homelessness, such as unpaid fines, unpaid restitution, incomplete programming, etc. Probation keeps people vulnerable to fast-tracked and lengthy incarceration for even non-criminal activity, but poverty is what keeps many people trapped on probation. The only “reform” proposed in this bill that addresses this issue does nothing more than repeat what is already the current state of the law: individuals should not be violated for nonpayment of fines or cost unless a finding of willful nonpayment is made.

Politicians assume that grassroots organizers are the uneducated ones who don’t understand the ins and outs of proposed legislation; in reality, they are the ones who clearly don’t understand the full context or potential impact of the bills that they advance. This bill’s unpopularity is blamed on “bad marketing,” when in reality it is just bad legislation. Legislation is risky — there is always the chance that it may be warped to do more harm than good. To be worth that risk, it must offer at least some guarantee of meaningful decarceration. Unfortunately, SB 913 does not meet that bar, and instead entrenches many of the harmful practices we should be seeking to end.

Dolly Prabhu, ALC Staff Attorney
Robert Saleem Holbrook, ALC Executive Director
December 17, 2021