ALC August 2021 Newsletter


ALC Court Watch Director, Autumn Redcross, and ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook at Free Mumia Weekend in Philadelphia, April 2021.

Reflections from Our Executive Director

As Black August unfolds, we at the Abolitionist Law Center celebrate, grieve, and recommit ourselves to the struggle for liberation of all community members from the carceral state and racial capitalism. We draw from the lessons of George Jackson and the prison struggles before us to guide our world-building in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and across state lines: the project of abolition knows no borders.

2020 was a year of tremendous struggle and growth. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic that has left our community members vulnerable in their homes and within the walls of the punishment system. And we continue to see the responses to a national Black Uprising against policing and state violence: counter-insurgency, co-optation, and fearmongering mythologies of “a crime wave.” 

Last year, perhaps more than any time in our lifetimes, we were exposed to the fact that we live in a failed state. However, in 2020 we also saw the incredible strength and power of oppressed and colonized peoples. We are proud to fight alongside Black and brown communities in the struggle against white supremacy and state violence.

ALC has expanded our litigation to include lawsuits against police abuses in the wake of last summer’s racial uprisings. We’ve focused on developing a powerhouse legal arm in Philadelphia to mirror our base of strength in Pittsburgh. The scope and reach of what our Court Watch program has achieved has smashed our expectations. We’ve enhanced our organizing, communications, and fundraising capacities. We launched Straight Ahead, our 501 (c)(4) legislative wing to bring this fight to the PA state capitol in Harrisburg. And to make all of this – and more – possible, we’ve made powerful additions to our hardworking staff and board.

Midway through 2021, and as I mark my first year as ACL’s Executive Director, what I’m most excited about is that we have developed and embraced our true identity as an abolitionist law project focused on dismantling state violence in all of its forms. We’re confident that we will continue to grow stronger. Ultimately, we will win.                                                                                                            

– Robert Saleem Holbrook

ALC Executive Director

                        


Updates from ALC Court Watch with Josh Palmer

In early 2020, ALC launched our Court Watch program. This new initiative led by volunteers focuses on observing and documenting the courtroom proceedings of local judges in the Pittsburgh, PA region and analyzing racialized trends in arrests and bail decisions that impact community members across Allegheny County. In the 18 months since its launch, over 80 trained Court Watch volunteers have observed hundreds of remote virtual hearings, analyzed thousands of court dockets, and published two groundbreaking reports that illuminate how the anti-Black systems of policing and judicial discretion in the county constitute “racial apartheid” as defined by international human rights law standards.

ALC Court Watch Volunteer Coordinator, Josh Palmer, writes, “In addition to the docket reports, we led the movement calling for the resignation of racist judge Mark Tranquili. Facing six counts of judicial misconduct, he resigned before his misconduct hearing after mounting public pressure. We’ve worked with the courts to build out a virtual court watching infrastructure during the pandemic and placed significant pressure on the local punishment system to end cash bail and grow calls for pre-trial freedom. This happens by showing up to court and letting the judges know that we’re keeping tabs on them.”

As physical courtrooms re-open for public observation, ALC Court Watch continues to expand their volunteer base. ALC Court Watch made headlines in March, when they sued Judge Anthony Mariani for his chambers repeatedly denying Court Watch volunteers access to his virtual hearings, and then again in May, when a volunteer witnessed a defendant endure brutal harassment and detainment by his arresting officer during a preliminary court hearing. That defendant, Alex Horrel, lost one of his eyes from a rubber bullet fired by Pittsburgh police on May 31, 2020 during a Black Lives Matter protest. Our movements to protect community members in the streets, in the halls of prison – and in the courtrooms – continues.

Visit mobilize.us/alccourtwatch/ to attend an ALC Court Watch training and tune in to our calls to action on Twitter and Facebook.


From Our Client, Friend, and Mentor, Avis Lee

Avis Lee in February 2021, exploring the city for the first time since her release. Photo via @womeninprison.

Avis Lee was released from prison on February 12th, 2021 after serving over 41 years of a death by incarceration sentence. We started working with Avis in 2016 as her attorneys, calling attention to the unconstitutional conditions of Pennsylvania’s “felony-murder” mandatory sentencing scheme, and the cruel and unusual punishment of young community members in the face of Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana (Avis was 18 years old at the time of the crime for which she was convicted). Unfazed, unrelenting, Avis believed in her own freedom; she is her own liberator.

Avis in March 2021, on her first day of work for Let’s Get Free. Photo via @womeninprison.

We caught up with Avis to see what she’s been up to: “I want to thank all of my supporters for believing in a brighter day for me. I’ve been working for Let’s Get Free (LGF), as the reentry coordinator for five and a half months now and am finding a lot of valuable resources for returning citizens. One thing I am noticing, surprisingly, is that there are a lot more resources available for women and/or women with children than there are for men – even though there are a lot more men in prisons, and therefore, a lot more men reentering the community.”

Avis attended Let’s Get Free’s Annual Retreat a few weeks ago and is looking forward to being able to attend LGF’s Annual Art Show “in person” and “on the outside, for the first time this November.” She started taking driving lessons and will be moving into a 2-bedroom apartment this month.

“As you can see I like to keep busy and try new things.” She has a new favorite spot for Caribbean cuisine on the outskirts of town. “I usually get my food to-go and take it to the park to eat while overlooking the city of Pittsburgh.”

ALC is proud to have played a role in supporting Avis’ quest for freedom. Our communities on the outside continue to be enriched by her presence.


Full Throttle: Major Gains in The Struggle to End Solitary Confinement

ALC’s Racial Justice Organizer, Saudia Durrant, with members of the Human Rights Coalition, protest outside SCI-Phoenix on July 6, uplifting demands of hunger strikers in solitary confinement. Photo by Joe Piette.

Over the last three months, our communities made momentous strides in the movement to abolish solitary confinement once and for all.

In May, our friends at the Alliance for Police Accountability celebrated a historic victory as Allegheny County voters passed the grassroots org’s referendum to ban solitary confinement at the local jail.

In June, the Solidarity Not Solitary (SNS) coalition launched their mutual aid fund, providing commissary support to community members in solitary confinement. SNS also held a joint press conference with state reps at Philly’s Eastern State Penitentiary: the birthplace of solitary confinement and the blueprint for modern prisons. The group announced Pennsylvania House Bill 1037, which would cap the maximum number of days in solitary confinement at 15, and prevent pregnant and LGBTQ+ people, and anyone over the age of 70 and under the age 21 from being held in solitary confinement in state prisons. The passage of HB1037 would mark a huge legislative win for community members across the Tri-State Area: New Jersey passed a bill limiting solitary confinement in the state prisons in 2019; New York ended solitary confinement for more than 15 days in state prisons and jails this past April.

In July, we worked with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) to amplify the demands of a successful 10-day hunger strike led by the Vaughn 17 and other prisoners held in solitary confinement at SCI-Phoenix. After months of broken promises by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC), strikers were finally granted a handbook for the “Intensive Management Unit” (IMU) step-down program, that would finally create a pathway off of the “Restricted Release List” (solitary confinement) and back to general population. The PADOC’s decision to finally develop an IMU handbook and begin moving some members of the Vaughn17 off the Restricted Release List came about because of powerful inside-out coordination between the strikers and their supporters who made calls, sent emails, worked with local media to expose the failures of the PADOC’s IMU program, and the protested outside SCI-Phoenix on July 6th.

There is tremendous momentum for abolishing solitary confinement and growing public support for victims and survivors of the archaic practice like we’ve never seen before. We look forward to taking the lessons learned from this summer’s organizing to build a campaign against solitary confinement in Philadelphia jails and continuing to urge elected officials to follow through with meaningful abolitionist legislation against the torture known as solitary confinement.

ALC Executive Director, Robert Saleem Holbrook speaking at the June 2nd press conference in front of Philly’s Eastern State Penitentiary – the birthplace of solitary confinement and the blueprint for modern prisons. Photo by Joe Piette.

SAVE THE DATE: AUGUST 10

You can support the movement to end solitary confinement in PA by joining ALC and HRC next Tuesday August 10th at 10am on the steps of Chester City Hall (1 E 4th Street Chester, PA 19013) for the Stop Solitary Rally and Policy Hearing. Listen to survivors, advocates and family members and demand meaningful legislation from the Pennsylvania Senate in accordance with the Mandela Rules: Facebook event and registration.


Help ALC sustain our abolitionist organizing and litigation this fall!

When you support ALC with a tax-deductible contribution, you’re playing an active role in resisting state violence and smashing the racist, classist systems of policing and mass incarceration. Your gift fuels this collective work towards liberation, and powers the transformative change we’re fighting for in the courts and in the streets, behind bars and on the outside.

We need your active partnership to keep the pressure on, and we appreciate your contribution of any amount. There’s so much more to do in this struggle. Join us by making a gift in solidarity today!

ALC and Survivor of Solitary Confinement Release Video of Brutal Assault by ACJ Sergeant and Officers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – July 23, 2021

Contact: William Lukas, ALC Director of Communications, wjlukas@alcenter.org


PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and client Kim Andrews have released a video of a 2019 attack on Andrews by Sergeant Alyssia Tucker that took place at Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) on May 31st of that year. The video was released exclusively to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for public viewing and has been sent to the United States Attorney for the Wester District of Pennsylvania for investigation. The surveillance footage was obtained during discovery as part of a 2019 emergency petition filed by ALC against ACJ to remove Andrews from solitary confinement. She was forced to spend more than 150 days between 2019 and 2020 in the jail’s “restrictive housing unit”.

Kim Andrews, a 22-year-old survivor of ACJ’s ongoing abuse and torture of community members, is calling for federal intervention at the jail. In a letter sent to United States Attorney Stephen Kaufman on Monday, ALC requested an investigation to not only hold Sgt. Tucker accountable for the attack, but also to investigate the widespread systemic practices of excessive force authorized by Jail Warden Orlando Harper.

The letter, available for viewing here, references a legal deposition of Warden Harper: when asked if staff may use force for “any violation of policy”, he responds, “Absolutely.” 

Last year, Warden Harper was named as a defendant in lawsuits against ACJ that allege constitutional violations for the jail’s failure to provide adequate mental health care to inmates and for brutal assaults on people living with psychiatric disabilities and serious mental illnesses. Under Harper, incarcerated community members are regularly attacked with blunt force, pepper spray, tasers, and placed in restraint chairs for hours without access to food, water, and medicine.

Responding to the video release, Andrews shares, “This is not just about me – it’s about everyone else. The jail cannot be trusted to reform itself. People need to know what’s really happening on the inside. Sharing this video is part of exposing the truth and growing the public outrage that is necessary to transform ACJ.”

In the surveillance footage, a handcuffed Andrews is shown returning from the hospital after her second suicide attempt during the 150 days Andrews was forced into solitary confinement at the jail in 2019-2020. While Andrews is escorted through intake to the elevator, Sgt. Tucker shoves Andrews from behind. The impact forces Andrews to fly forward and hit her head at the other end of the elevator and Sgt. Tucker immediately discharges her taser into Andrews’s back.

“That’s the worst feeling, when somebody has a weapon behind your back. That is torture.” says Andrews.

Following this assault, Andrews lays prone on the floor, showing no physical resistance. Sgt. Tucker and other officers then pounce on Andrews with Sgt. Tucker tazing her a second time. Andrews lost consciousness during the assault, eventually waking up strapped to a restraint chair.

In a February 2021 Public Source profile on the restraint chair, Andrews said that she has been forced into the restraint chair “at least half a dozen times between 2018 and 2020” at ACJ. Andrews’ experiences have also been highlighted in The Appeal. Last May, she detailed the first time she was placed in solitary confinement at age 18, “I was about to go to the hole because I wanted to see medical care. Because I said I couldn’t breathe, because I was having a panic attack. And I just couldn’t believe that.” Andrews was instrumental in giving voice to the 2020 solitary confinement ban referendum led by the Alliance for Police Accountability and has empowered other victims and survivors of abuse at ACJ to come forward and share their stories.

The release this video is made public just weeks after a community member living with psychiatric disaiblities named Martin Bucek was found dead inside the jail’s suicide watch pod. Andrews attended Bucek’s vigil at ACJ last Tuesday. The event highlighted survivor stories and the conditions of the jail, reminding attendees that ACJ has one of the highest suicide rates in the country – over 70 community members have committed suicide there since the year 2000. 

In 2019, the year of Andrews’ assault by Sgt. Tucker occurred, ACJ used the restraint chair 339 times (more than twice that of the county with the second highest number of instances), while ACJ correctional officers used tasers 146 times (a full 50% of all uses of tasers in Pennsylvania in 2019). Andrews lives with bipolar disorder and PTSD and has spoken out about correctional officers’ responses to those experiencing mental health crises in jail, “You are punished for asking for help. Punishment is not mental health care or rehabilitation.” Andrews attempted suicide six times while incarcerated at ACJ from 2019 to 2020.

Andrews hopes the release of the video will end the impunity of the jail administration, “They want you to be afraid and they want you to feel that fear, and that’s what I felt. There is a prevailing culture inside the jail that the people who ‘watch over you’ can simply commit crimes against inmates with no consequences.”

Community members can directly support Kim Andrews by donating to her CashApp: $pytkimmie.

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Welcome ALC’s New Philly Staff Attorneys, Nia and Rupalee!

Nia Holston (left) and Rupalee Rashatwar (right)

NIA HOLSTON was born and raised in and around Philly, she is a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania. She graduated from New York University School of Law, where she was a Root-Tilden-Kern public interest scholar, participated in civil rights and youth justice defender clinics, led an organization that trains law school students to represent children at their school suspension hearings, and organized around racial justice issues on campus.  Prior to joining ALC, she worked as a public defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.  Before law school, she worked as a paralegal at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.

RUPALEE RASHATWAR is an ALC Staff Attorney barred in Florida. Rupalee received her J.D. from American University Washington College of Law in 2018, where she was a Public Interest/ Public Service (PIPS) Scholar. Prior to joining ALC, Rupalee was a public defender at the Office of the Miami Dade Public Defender where she represented clients facing misdemeanors, felonies, and juvenile charges. In law school, Rupalee interned with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia where she worked on mortgage and foreclosure issues and with the Capital Habeas Corpus Unit at The Federal Defender for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania where she worked on post conviction death penalty litigation.

ALC Court Watch Releases Docket Report #02

ALC’s Court Watch Program has released their second docket report, illuminating the maintenance of racial apartheid thru arrest and cash bail in Allegheny County. The group demands the end of police sovereignty and pushes for pre-trial freedom and open courts.

Contact: William Lukas, Communications Director wjlukas@alcenter.org


PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center’s Court Watch program has published its second docket report. The report expands on the data collection and analysis of municipal court docket information following its inaugural report in December 2020 and is based on the arrest and arraignment data from 5,950 individual docket sheets compiled over the course of 140 days. The report examines two key actors in the development and maintenance of racial apartheid in the Pittsburgh region: police and judges.

According to the report, 1,658 police officers working for 126 different police agencies made 5,664 arrests that led to preliminary arraignments in Allegheny County between August 14 and December 31, 2020. Just 71 officers (4% of the total) made 20% of all arrests, and 30% of all drug arrests. In a county that is less than 13% Black, 56% of all arrests in the report period were of Black residents.

The report asks, “Is there anywhere in Allegheny County where African-Americans can escape the overwhelmingly greater risk of getting arrested?” ALC Court Watch says, “No.” Seventy percent of all Pittsburgh arrests and 47% of all arrests outside Pittsburgh in Allegheny county were of Black community members, despite Black people only making up 23% of the Pittsburgh population – and only 9% of the county population outside Pittsburgh. The report also illustrates how Black men, who make up less than 7% of the county population, were subjected to 33% of all misdemeanor arrests.

The report examines data on arresting officers and affiliated departments. Top arresting officers (officers who made the most arrests) include Larry Butler of North Braddock, a sergeant who made 30 arrests and is the subject of a 2019 federal lawsuit for the Fourth Amendment rights violation of a Black woman who filmed him during a traffic stop. The report’s top arresting officer is Eric Cersosimo of McKees Rocks, who made 52 arrests. Cersosimo was solely responsible for more than a quarter (29%) of all arrests in McKees Rocks between August 14th and December 31st, 2020.

The report also points to the jurisdictions of West Mifflin, Brentwood, Frazer Township and Pittsburgh as case studies for contextualizing racialized arrest data and police terror in the region. Several officers in the docket report were members of the racist and transphobic Facebook group, “Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom”; had brutalized a young Black girl on a bus in 2020; and in the case of Pittsburgh, had salaries of more than $140,000 in 2019.

Just as Black community members are more likely to face the violences of arrest and detainment by local police, they are also more likely to face the financial violences of cash bail imposed by local judges. According to the report, Black defendants are 26.5% more likely to be subjected to secured monetary bail than non-Black community members, meaning they must pay their bail amount in full – typically thru a professional bail bondsman – or else be forced into confinement at Allegheny County Jail. A total of $23,450,587 in bail was imposed on 1,643 defendants, an average of $14,273 per defendant, from August 14 to December 31, 2020 by magisterial district judges.

The report shows how bail setting practices of local magistrates vary wildly and are arbitrarily set, revealing there is no real standard for how cash bail is imposed in Allegheny County. In their data analysis, Court Watch volunteers controlled for two different groups of judges and 20 different offense variables, finding that a defendant’s risk of having secured monetary bail imposed was nearly 5 times greater if they were assigned to one group of judges rather than another. In other words, whether or not defendants will have to pay for their pre-trial freedom is merely based on who their judge is. But volunteers found that across the board, for every judge and for every alleged offense scenario, Black community members are still more likely to face secured monetary bail than white community members. The report states that District Court Judges Regis Welsh and Robert Ford were among the top judges to impose secured monetary bail most frequently.

Director of ALC Court Watch, Autumn Redcross notes, “This report only quantifies on paper the lived experiences of actual folks represented in the stats. The truth is, for myself, my family and those who look like me, we move throughout our lives and in this city differently because of the apartheid conditions that determine and limit our liberty.” 

The report concludes with the three key demands. The first demand calls for the end of police sovereignty by explicitly defunding the police and investing in community programs. This includes separating traffic enforcement from police departments and ending automatic detainment for misdemeanor charges. The second demand is pre-trial freedom for community members, urging magistrates to end the imposition of cash bail and probation detainers, and cease alternatives such as racialized “risk assessments”. The final demand vies for continued open court access, stating transparent courtrooms is “what moves us closer to a participatory justice system that is satisfying to the people whom it purports to serve”.

This report and an edited plain-text version including the mentioned regression analysis of judge tabulations are available below:

No Police. Statement from ALC, 04-22-2021

This verdict is not about “justice.” This verdict is not about “accountability.”

This verdict is a testament to the political force of the masses, of colonized peoples, in the face of state-sanctioned terror.

It’s about making it known to all cops trembling in their boots, “You are not welcome here.”

But our challenge is not to pursue the conviction of one racist cop. Our challenge is to carry out the total dissolution of police and racial capitalism — to manifest the unfinished project of absolute freedom, to sustain and live out Abolition.

As you read this, the National Guard has set up checkpoints across US cities. State legislation has been proposed around the country — and signed into law in the case of Florida — to criminalize Black grief, Black Power, and allyship; to make it legal for white supremacists to use their vehicles as weapons to run over and kill protesters; to make it illegal for local governments to defund their police departments; to ultimately make Black protest a felony and deprive bail to those charged.

In the same week that Daunte Wright was murdered by officer Potter, in the same week the Chicago Police released body cam footage of the killing of 7th-grader Adam Toledo, the Biden-Harris Administration chose to abandon their campaign pledge to create a police oversight commission.

In Brooklyn Center, MN, hundreds of community members have been rounded up by the police and detained for days without charges, without ability to post bail, without access to lawyers. Journalists have been corralled, lined up, photographed, and driven miles from protests, unable to document the scenes of resistance to ongoing police terror.

This is not hyperbolic, this is America.

Moments before the jury declared Chauvin guilty of all charges for the murder of George Floyd, Columbus, OH police lynched 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. Her death, and the deaths of so many others, are a brutal reminder that our current system will never deliver us justice, and that anything resembling such is a mere scrap intended only for extending the life span of our apartheid policing system.

We are reminded that police will continue to occupy the entrance to the prison-industrial complex. They will continue to serve white supremacy and capitalism. We have no tears for Chauvin and other agents of the State who are fearful of conviction. They should be.

Politicians and police apologists of the professional managerial class will continue to co-opt righteous Black Rebellion and capitalize on Black death, neutralizing the struggle for self-determination. They will call for “peace,” “calm,” and “independent investigations” — and funnel millions of dollars into task forces, trainings, superficial restructuring, and PR stunts. Just as they did in 2020, they are working to humanize a racist, fascist system and those who wear its shiny badge and thin blue line.

Almost one year since the George Floyd Rebellion, we maintain our position: abolition is our only way out. Abolish the police.

We do not seek a more “diverse” and “inclusive” technopolice state that will continue to openly hunt and slaughter Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, maim and kidnap protestors, medics, and journalists, and surveil and brutalize sex workers, immigrants, and community members who are disabled, queer, trans, or houseless. We do not want nicer slave patrols.

We seek the demise of police in their entirety. We know that “justice” will never be fully realized from the colonizer’s courtroom, that the verdicts from every previous trial have not stopped cops from killing with impunity. Our governments encourage them to do so.

Would Chauvin’s guilty verdict have been possible, without the threat of another rebellion hanging over the proceedings? Would the prosecutor have put on the same kind of case? Would the chief of police’s testimony have been completely different — would he even have testified at all?

These questions undoubtedly suggest that Black Rebellion and year-long, sustained organizing by Black and brown militants and allies forced the State to make a concession.

But at what cost?

Our friends and family members, and thousands of people were brutalized by the State during last summer’s rebellions and protests. They have been surveilled and kidnapped by the FBI, they have been placed on house arrest or are in prison, they are facing charges and living with permanent brain injuries, maimed bodies, and PTSD. Several community members have been killed by white supremacist vigilantes who openly coordinate with police.

People who have led the fight for Black Liberation during its sharpest inflections, have sustained incredible harms in doing so. It is our duty as abolitionists to support them, learn from them, and build with them. They are not forgotten.

We are living in the outgrowths of chattel slavery, in apartheid cities — but state terror and racial capitalism is not our fate. Our mentors and ancestors have reminded us of this time and time again: from the burning of the plantations to the hunger strikes of the prison cells, from the Amistad mutiny and swamps of the Maroons, from the armed cop watches and unconditional sharing of food, medicine, shelter, knowledge, love, and power that have defined abolitionist projects since the beginning…we have been here before.

And we have kept our promise to fight for the safety and freedom of victims and survivors of police terror. We have kept our promise to meaningfully advance the movements to defund and abolish the police. We are committed to everlasting solidarity.

Since the George Floyd Rebellion, we have fought for protesters and bystanders in East Liberty, Pittsburgh, and for Black activists and residents of West Philadelphia. We have revealed the development and maintenance of racial apartheid in Allegheny County, PA analyzing arrests by police and the use of cash bail by judges. We have organized with community groups, seeking the urgent release of all Black Political Prisoners, the abolition of the FOP, and permanent removal of all statues and symbols of state violence. We have published a report on the war on Black Pittsburgh, financed by bloated police budgets and normalized through excessive force, traumatization, and incarceration of Black residents — especially Black children. We’ve been part of countless panels and community forums and have offered alternatives to policing and punishment. We have hosted transformative justice workshops and teach-ins, and issued recommendations to lawmakers that seek unconditional pre-trial freedom for our community members who have endured the violence of arrest and detainment. We are building out the visions of collective care, safety, and harm reduction with our partners at the Alliance for Police Accountability and 1Hood.

We are actualizing abolition in real-time — with you — our friends and family members, our community members, those on the inside and the outside. We do this, when so much seems so impossible. In the words of Mariame Kaba, “We do this ’til we free us.”

ABOLITIONIST LAW CENTER

04/22/2021

ALC Releases Report on PA Office of the Victim Advocate, Highlighting Office’s Pro-Retribution History, Calls for New OVA Appointee to be Advocate for All Victims

February 15, 2021

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:

William Lukas, Abolitionist Law Center, wjlukas@alcenter.org

Dolly Prabhu, Abolitionist Law Center, dprabhu@alcenter.org

PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center has published a report on Pennsylvania’s Office of the Victim Advocate. The report illuminates how the agency under former Commonwealth Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm has functioned as a pro-retribution lobbying arm funded by taxpayers, rather than a department that provides meaningful programming to survivors of violence and impacted communities. The report examines how throughout Storm’s seven-year tenure, the OVA advanced a reactionary anti-criminal justice reform agenda by advocating for harsh punitive legislation and increased criminalization, and opposing rehabilitation and decarceration.

According to the report, the OVA had a budget of $2.65 million in 2019 and provides next to nothing by way of programming or substantive direct services for crime victims. Since the OVA is only obligated to represent registered “direct victims” whose harm resulted in an arrest and criminal trial, the report acknowledges, “this legal definition likely excludes most survivors of violence in Pennsylvania” – including thousands of victims of unsolved rape cases and thousands of victims’ families of unsolved murders.

According to the report the OVA has 103,893 registered “direct victims,” yet data on race and ethnicity accounts for only 18.2% of these victims (18,887), while only 40% (41,816) have a known gender identity: 68% women and 32% men. The report compares data on the percent of registered victims versus the percent of victims of violent crime in 2018, illustrating how white residents are overrepresented among registered victims, while Black residents are vastly underrepresented, despite enduring higher rates of violent crime. In Allegheny County, 70.74% of registered victims are white and 27.31% are Black, yet the demographics of victims of violent crime are 49.62% white and 49.26% Black. 

Several OVA programs that are available to the registered direct victims are coded as “Restorative Justice”, which the report notes is “ultimately a cooptation that does not offer a pathway to repairing relationships” since the OVA has never offered nor advocated for alternatives to carceral punishment, but conversely has called for increased sentence time, increased surveillance, and increased fees and fines of incarcerated and paroled individuals. The report shares that in emails obtained in a Right to Know request, Storm even opposed the mere use of humanizing language of incarcerated community members, condemning the DOC’s decision to abandon terms like “offender” and “felon.”

The report highlights other contradictions between the OVA’s alleged mission of supporting victims versus how the Office conducts itself in practice. For instance, Storm’s OVA often advocated against sexual violence against children and rape culture at large, yet her Office remained consistently silent on the incredible prevelance sexual assaults and state violence that are endured by incarcerated youth in jails and prisons.

The report concludes by acknowledging that the data and legislative records left in the wake of Storm’s January resignation shows that the OVA only spoke for victims when there was an opportunity for punishment and that the agency failed to recognize victims of police brutality, carceral violence, and poverty – who are disproportionately Black – along with crime victims who advocate for healing justice over retribution. The report ends by remarking that the harm inflicted by the OVA can only begin to be undone when the Commonwealth appoints a Victim Advocate who “acknowledges the relationship between criminal justice reform and public safety, and acts as an advocate for all victims.”

To view the report, The Pennsylvania OVA: Criminalization, Punishment, And Retribution Under Jennifer Storm, click the download button or use the embedded PDF viewer below.

File name : OVA-REPORT-FINAL-02-05-21-1.pdf

ALC Court Watch celebrates end of first year, releases statement on abolishing cash bail.

January 6, 2021

We seek the abolition of cash bail in Allegheny County — and everywhere else in the US colonial project.

We believe cash bail contributes to a violent system of apartheid policing and punishment, and exacerbates economic precarity and poverty by governance thru debt.

We recognize cash bail as a feature of racial capitalism that benefits white people, the ruling class, and state power thru parasitic exploitation and dispossession of Black people and poor community members — not as a legitimate pretrial condition for securing one’s appearance in court.

We observe the wild inconsistencies of how cash bail is imposed among magistrates, revealing a crisis of legitimacy in their courts; since there is no standard, the financial and carceral fates of community members are merely entropic.

We reject the use of surveillance, algorithmic violence, and predictive policing, which rely on risk assessment “formulas” that are inherently anti-Black; these practices are often offered up as “alternatives” to cash bail thus co-opting initial abolitionist demands.

We situate our objective of abolishing cash bail within our larger protracted goals of ending state violence and transitioning from a punitive paradigm to one that centers healing, accountability, and community power.

– ALC Court Watch

January 6, 2021

***UPDATE: This position has been filled*** ALC is hiring a part-time Paralegal to join us in Pittsburgh!

PITTSBURGH PARALEGAL (Posted 01/05/2021)

Location: Pittsburgh

Reports to: Legal Director

Job Type: Part-time $25 per hour, 20 hours per week

Application Deadline: Rolling basis

Start Date: Position open until filled

PITTSBURGH PARALEGAL • Position Overview

The Abolitionist Law Center is hiring a part-time paralegal for our Pittsburgh office. As the movement to end racist state violence and abolish police and prisons has grown, so has our work and staff. We are seeking a part-time paralegal to 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.

Responsibilities

  • 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.

Requirements

  • 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 a plus.

Compensation

This position will be based in ALC’s Pittsburgh office. This is a part-time position of 20 hours per week with compensation of $25 per hour.

Reports to: Legal Director

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 info@abolitionistlawcenter.org.  Applicants are encouraged to apply as early as possible to receive priority consideration. This position is open until filled. Abolitionist Law Center is an equal opportunity employer. People of color, women, LGBTQI-GNC people, and formerly incarcerated people are strongly encouraged to apply.

ALC is hiring a full-time Staff Attorney to join us in Philadelphia!

PHILADELPHIA STAFF ATTORNEY (Posted 01/05/2021)

Location: Philadelphia

Reports to: Legal Director

Job Type: Full time, $65,000 salaried position, some evening and weekend hours required

Benefits: Health insurance benefit of up to $400/month, 35 days (280hrs) of paid time off annually

Application Deadline: Rolling basis

Start Date: Position open until filled; tentative start date of March 1, 2021

PHILADELPHIA STAFF ATTORNEY • Position Overview  

The Abolitionist Law Center is hiring a staff attorney for our Philadelphia office. As the movement to end racist state violence and abolish police and prisons has grown, so has our work and staff. We are seeking an abolitionist lawyer to assist in litigating against police violence, frame-up convictions, death by incarceration sentences, and inhumane and illegal jail and prison conditions. The Staff Attorney 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.

Responsibilities

  • Litigate in state and federal courts.
  • Working with ALC attorneys and co-counsel and organizers to manage a significant caseload, including class action litigation, civil rights cases against police and carceral facilities, and criminal appeals.
  • Frequent visits with clients and potential clients who are incarcerated.
  • Lead investigations into conditions of confinement in Philadelphia jails, including policies and practices regarding medical and mental health care, solitary confinement, use of force, and disability justice.
  • Support litigation, public education, and organizing efforts against the racist system of policing in Philadelphia.
  • Develop and draft reports, position papers, memoranda, and other strategic communications on human and constitutional rights issues related to investigations and litigation ALC is involved in.
  • Attending weekly staff meetings, providing feedback to leadership and staff to improve organizational effectiveness.
  • Assist in soliciting donations for ALC during regular fundraising campaigns.
  • 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.

Requirements

  • J.D. and active bar membership.
  • 3 years litigation experience.
  • Proficient writing ability, capable of clarity, efficiency, and analytical precision.
  • Excellent legal research skills.

Salary and Benefits 

This Staff Attorney position will be based in ALC’s Philadelphia office. This position will be based in ALC’s Philadelphia office. This is a full-time, salaried position. The salary for this position is $65,000 annually, with a health insurance benefit of up to $4,800 and 35 days (280hrs) of paid time off annually.

Reports to: Legal Director

Application Process 

Please send your resume, three professional references, and a cover letter explaining your  interest in the position to info@abolitionistlawcenter.orgApplications will be accepted  and reviewed on a rolling basis. This position is open until filled.  Abolitionist Law Center is an equal opportunity employer. People of color, women, LGBTQI-GNC people, and formerly incarcerated people are strongly  encouraged to apply

“I Can’t Breathe” – Parents of Tyrone Briggs Sue Department of Corrections for Death of their Son

December 22, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, (412) 654-9070

Philadelphia – A federal lawsuit was filed today on behalf of Tyrone Briggs against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections after staff at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy killed him in November 2019 through a lethal combination of excessive oleoresin (OC) spray and refusal to provide necessary medical care. Tyrone, a native of Philadelphia who was 29 years old and had been incarcerated since he was a 15-year-old child was close to his parole eligibility date (his minimum sentence was 15 years) when his life was taken.  

Tyrone suffered an untreated asthma attack on November 11, 2019 after being saturated with multiple cans of OC spray, tragically and senselessly ending his life. His parents, Shaleda and Montrell Busbee, are bringing this lawsuit to expose the systemic failures that resulted in Tyrone’s death.

An investigation by legal counsel found that guards repeatedly and excessively unloaded entire cans of OC spray at Tyrone while responding to an incident in the yard, including the final burst of spray which was administered directly at Tyrone’s face while he was restrained on the ground.

As Tyrone slowly attempted to walk to medical, multiple incarcerated people heard him say repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.”

OC spray is an inflammatory agent that affects the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, causing a painful burning sensation of the lungs, shortness of breath, and temporary blindness. For people with respiratory disabilities such as asthma, like Tyrone, the consequences can be deadly.

“How does a mother begin to express the loss of her child,” asked Shaleda Busbee, Tyrone’s mother. “Where would I even begin in conveying all of the emotions that it brings? Tyrone was such a loving and devoted son to me in the short years that we shared together. Tyrone was taken from me for the first time at 15-years-old and treated like an adult while just being a child, he never received his right to experience freedom as an adult, and now he never will, which is the second time that I’ve lost my loving and devoted son, but for good this time.”

“We’re filing this lawsuit to expose the injustice Tyrone received and experienced, and we’re also doing it for all of the other families that have incarcerated loved ones,” Mrs. Busbee also expressed. “No parent should have to suffer grief and loss such as ours. And we would like to make a change to help ensure that everybody gets the chance to return home safely from incarceration.”

The lawsuit aims to uncover the names of the officers and medical staff responsible for Tyrone’s death, and to ensure the DOC takes measures to prevent these abuses from recurring. Alarmingly, reports have emerged from throughout the PADOC that since the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a dangerous and unnecessary law mandating that all state correctional officers carry OC spray, there has been a reported – and predictable – increase in the use of OC spray. 

“Tyrone didn’t deserve to die and his parents never should have known the pain of having their child killed by the government,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Whether the killing is done by police or prison guards, the racialized system of state violence treats our community members as if they are disposable. We won’t tolerate this. Tyrone’s life mattered and we’re going to stand with the Busbees as they seek to make change in honor of their son.”

Correctional officers have a basic and common sense responsibility to protect the health and safety of the people in their care,” said Jonathan H. Feinberg, a partner with the Philadelphia law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP. “The fact that officers caused Tyrone Briggs’ death in the violent manner described in the complaint raises serious questions about systems of supervision and training in the Department of Corrections—questions that we intend to carefully investigate in this case.”

Shaleda Busbee is the Administrator of the Estate of Tyrone Briggs, the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The DOC, Superintendent DelBalso, Deputy Superintendent Stetler, and 11 John Does are the defendants. The case was filed in the federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

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Link to Filed Complaint