ALC, PILP and ACLU send letter to Allegheny County demanding COVID-19 testing and contact tracing after alarming reports and denied tests

November 24, 2020 

John Bacharach, Esq. 

Counsel for Defendants 

RE: Graham v. Allegheny County 

Dear Counsel, 

We are writing in regard to recent reports of COVID-19 symptoms experienced by persons incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). The reports are especially concerning given the disclosure that 10 ACJ staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and another 50 have been quarantined as close contacts of staff members who have tested positive.

We have received reports that since Friday, November 20, 2020, multiple women incarcerated on  4F and 4E have submitted sick call slips and asked correctional staff to contact medical staff  because they have been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. There has been no response by ACJ despite the fact that at least one of the guards who tested positive was in direct physical contact  with women on 4F on the same day she was placed in quarantine. 

Because you have asked us to provide identifying information so that you can conduct your own  investigation into concerns relayed to us, we are providing details for the following individuals:

• [REDACTED] – On 4F, reports vomiting a couple of days ago, and currently has a  scratchy throat. Gastrointestinal issues, including nausea, are established symptoms of  COVID-19. 
• [REDACTED] – She reportedly has diarrhea, a possible symptom of COVID-19. She  was in a fist fight with [REDACTED] that was broken up by C/O [REDACTED] the  same day C/O [REDACTED] was placed on quarantine. Everyone’s masks were down  during the fight. 
• [REDACTED] – Also has diarrhea, a possible COVID-19 symptom. Was involved in the  fight with [REDACTED] that was broken up by C/O [REDACTED].  
• [REDACTED] – Also on 4F, has had headaches and a scratchy throat.  • [REDACTED] – Also reportedly has symptoms. We have also been informed that correctional officer [REDACTED] tested positive for COVID 19. [REDACTED] works on pod 4F. Officer [REDACTED] was believed to be infected at a  community event at which other staff were present. After these events, C/O [REDACTED] worked at ACJ for two days, during which time [REDACTED] had repeated contacts with ACJ staff and incarcerated people, until [REDACTED] was placed on quarantine on Nov. 20, 2020.  Prior to being placed on quarantine, Officer [REDACTED] broke up a fight between two women  on 4F. We have been told that those two women and their cellmates have been exhibiting  symptoms of the virus. Additionally, it has been reported that incarcerated workers who  distribute meal trays and hygiene products to the people who reside on the housing pod are  exhibiting symptoms of the virus. 

We are further troubled that ACJ has apparently not conducted any contact tracing of Officer’s  [REDACTED]’s interactions with the women incarcerated on level 4, as none of the incarcerated  women have been consulted, advised, or tested by medical staff. 

The jail’s Emergency Preparedness Plan, which must be followed pursuant to the Consent Order  in this matter, provides that testing is recommended in situations that “include, but are not  limited to, a new onset of symptoms (99.0 degrees Fahrenheit or above, respiratory symptoms,  shortness of breath, sore throat, loss of taste/smell).” Emergency Preparedness Plan, p. 10 (emphasis added). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recognizes headache, diarrhea,  nausea, and sore throat – symptoms reportedly experienced by the women named in this letter – as symptoms of COVID-19.

Additionally, it is critical to note that the availability of testing and the recommendations for  correctional facilities have evolved since the consent order was issued in this case. The  Emergency Preparedness Plan also notes that “As treatment, testing, or vaccinations become  available, a coordinated plan will be developed and executed to reduce further spread of illness.”  Emergency Preparedness Plan, p. 4. As noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, experts at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security’s National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice have urged “widespread and continuous” testing of incarcerated people and staff. This  recommendation was echoed by the CDC in August 2020 when it recommended mass testing in  correctional facilities based on extant research showing such testing to be a critical measure for  protecting public health, limiting transmission of the virus, and mitigating risk. 

We are requesting that the jail test the above-named individuals pursuant to the consent order in  this case. Given the extraordinary rates of COVID-19 in the community at the moment, prudence  and reason also dictate testing everybody on 4F, as well as all other pods where staff who tested positive interacted directly with incarcerated people. We also want to emphasize that decisions  regarding whether to test an individual for COVID-19 are medical decisions and must be made by a trained medical professional. Testing decisions, including decisions not to test, must be documented, and include notes on interviews with incarcerated people and their reported  symptoms. 

Additionally, we are requesting that contact tracing be performed in regard to all incarcerated  people who have been in proximity to staff who have tested positive or are on quarantine. 

Please respond within 24 hours regarding these requests. We are in the midst of the worst public  health crisis of our lifetimes, and time is of the essence.

Respectfully submitted, 

/s/ Sara J. Rose 

Sara J. Rose, Esq. 

PA ID No.: 204936 

/s/ Witold J. Walczak 

Witold J. Walczak, Esq. 

PA ID No.: 62976 

American Civil Liberties Union of  Pennsylvania 

PO Box 23058 

Pittsburgh, PA 15222 

T: (412) 681-7864 (tel.) 

F: (412) 681-8707 

srose@aclupa.org  

vwalczak@aclupa.org  

/s/ Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz 

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Esq. 

PA ID No. 312631 

Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project

100 Fifth Ave, Ste. 900 

Pittsburgh, Pa 15222 

T: (412) 434-6175 

amorgan-kurtz@pailp.org  

Attorneys for Petitioners/Plaintiffs 

/s/ Bret Grote 

Bret D. Grote, Esq. 

PA ID No. 317273 

/s/ Jaclyn Kurin 

Jaclyn Kurin, Esq. 

D.C. Bar ID No. 1600719 

/s/ Swain Uber 

Swain Uber, Esq. 

Of Counsel 

PA I.D. No. 323477 

Abolitionist Law Center 

P.O. Box 8654 

Pittsburgh, PA 15221 

T: (412) 654-9070 

bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org  qcozzens@alcenter.org

PHILLY – ALC IS HIRING A RACIAL JUSTICE ORGANIZER!

Join ALC’s team of movement lawyers and abolitionist community organizers! To learn more about our staff and board members, click here.

RACIAL JUSTICE ORGANIZER (Posted 11/18/20)

Location: Philadelphia

Reports to: Executive Director

Job Type: Full time, $48,000 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; priority consideration December 1, 2020

Start Date: January 01, 2020


RACIAL JUSTICE ORGANIZER • Position Overview  

Abolitionist Law Center is a nonprofit organization that works to support and build the  movement to abolish mass incarceration through public interest litigation and community  organizing. As the movement to end racist state violence and abolish police and prisons  has grown, so has our work. We are seeking a Racial Justice Organizer (RJO) to facilitate  impacted communities in organizing for self-determination and against state violence. 

Working with directly impacted community members in Philadelphia, the RJO position  will contribute to Abolitionist Law Center’s ongoing campaigns to abolish solitary  confinement, to end death by incarceration sentences, and build community power to  confront institutions of state violence, particularly police and prisons. This includes  recruiting volunteers, facilitating meetings, engaging varied constituencies in discourse  on equity and social/racial justice, advocating with and on behalf of people of  color, and researching emerging needs in impacted communities. Along with contributing  to these campaigns, a key task for the RJO will be organizing the Philadelphia chapter of  the Jericho Movement to Free All Political Prisoners.  

A strong applicant will have a demonstrated commitment to racial, social and economic  equity, as well as a familiarity with the abolitionist movement and the Black Radical  Tradition. Identifying as an abolitionist is not a requirement of the job; however,  openness to abolitionist ideas and a commitment to studying the Black Radical Tradition are required.  

Responsibilities 

• Recruiting and training volunteers 

• Organizing meetings and events 

o Organizing event logistics (venue, attendance, transport, refreshments, etc) o Preparing and sharing agendas in advance of meetings  

o Facilitating or delegating the facilitation of meetings 

o Assuring meeting notes are taken and later shared with attendees o Preparing after-event reports to share with ALC’s organizing team • Additional responsibilities 

o Tracking work hours by project name 

o Attending regular ALC staff meetings 

o Participating in ALC fundraising 

Requirements 

• Experience with formerly incarcerated people and/or communities impacted by  criminalization; 

• A broad understanding of Philadelphia’s history of racist state violence and  resistance to that violence; 

• Significant experience organizing and facilitating volunteers; 

• Excellent public speaking skills and adequate writing ability; 

• Strong time management skills; and  

• Good recordkeeping  

Salary and Benefits 

The Racial Justice Organizer will be based in ALC’s Philadelphia office. This is a full time, salaried position with some evening and weekend hours required. This position has  a six-month introductory period. The salary for this position is $48,000 annually, with a  health insurance benefit of up to $400/month and 35 days (280hrs) of paid time off  annually. Start date is January 1, 2021. 

Reports to: Executive Director 

Application Process 

Please send your resume, two 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, but candidates are encouraged to apply by December 1,  2020 to receive priority consideration. This position is open until filled.  Abolitionist Law Center is an equal opportunity employer. People of color, women,  indigenous people, LGBTQI-GNC people, and formerly incarcerated people are strongly  encouraged to apply.

Prisoners’ Rights Advocates File Class Action Lawsuit Against Allegheny County Over Failed Mental Health Care System at ACJ.

September 15, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
William Lukas, Abolitionist Law Center, wjlukas@alcenter.org
Rebecca Susman, PA Institutional Law Project, rsusman@pailp.org

PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP filed a class action lawsuit today 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 asserts that although ACJ houses hundreds of people with psychiatric disabilities, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, ACJ is lacking a functioning mental health care system.   Every aspect of a comprehensive system for mental health care, from intake screening, to medication management, provision of counseling and therapy, suicide prevention, and training is either non-existent or wholly deficient at ACJ.  

“We recognize there are many employees at ACJ who try their best to provide care, yet face an impossible task due to inadequate systems, resources and direction,” said Keith Whitson, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.  “This lawsuit focuses primarily on the illegal systemic failures that make treatment nearly nonexistent, and the frequent imposition of punishment in place of treatment.”

The complaint contends that instead of ensuring proper staff training and adequate mental health staffing levels, or creating policies that provide adequate care, Warden Orlando Harper and Deputy Warden Laura Williams oversee a system that responds to people in mental health crisis with brutal levels of force and solitary confinement. People with psychiatric disabilities are tased, sprayed with OC, beaten, and placed in restraint chairs for several hours for minor infractions and for simply requesting mental health care. They are commonly placed in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end, often without having a hearing, in conditions universally acknowledged by correctional experts, courts and the United Nations as torture.

“An extensive investigation of the conditions at ACJ, including hundreds of interviews of those currently and formerly incarcerated at ACJ as well as former employees, and review of medical records, have reinforced what we already knew–the system of mental health care at ACJ is appallingly and unconstitutionally inadequate,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center.

As a result of the systemic lack of mental health care and discrimination against people with psychiatric disabilities, the jail has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. These dehumanizing conditions leave a lasting impact on communities outside of the jail, primarily Black communities. While Black people only make up 13.4% of the population of Allegheny County, they constitute a striking 61% of those held at ACJ. Most people invariably leave ACJ worse off than they enter it, making it more difficult to re-integrate into their communities and further fueling the cycles of incarceration, poverty, and trauma.

“Allegheny County is failing its most vulnerable communities by incarcerating people with psychiatric disabilities and then refusing to uphold its moral and constitutional obligation to provide treatment,” stated Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Managing Attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.  “Without a complete overhaul of the practices at ACJ, people will continue to suffer long lasting trauma and grievous harm.”

The class action lawsuit seeks to represent all people with psychiatric disabilities who are currently, or will in the future, be held at the Allegheny County Jail. 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 Jacklyn Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

A copy of the complaint is available here:

ALC’S NEXT EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: ROBERT SALEEM HOLBROOK

The Abolitionist Law Center’s Board of Directors is pleased to announce that it has selected Robert Saleem Holbrook as the organization’s next Executive Director. Robert Saleem Holbrook has a long history of community organizing and previously served as ALC’s Director of Community Organizing, a role in which he oversaw the organization’s expansion into abolitionist organizing and litigation in the city of Philadelphia. He also led and participated in ALC’s advocacy and litigation campaigns against long term solitary confinement and death by incarceration sentences.

Saleem joined ALC in 2018 following his release from prison after 27 years of incarceration for an offense he was convicted of as a child. Saleem had a long history of organizing in defense of prisoners and social justice. In 2001 Saleem helped co-found the Human Rights Coalition, an organization founded by incarcerated people and their families to advocate against solitary confinement and to defend the human rights of prisoners. In 2005 he helped found HRC’s Pittsburgh Chapter when while imprisoned at SCI-Greene. HRC was founded at the height of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania and was the torch bearer for ALC. 

In 2006, Saleem met ALC’s Legal Director Bret Grote, who joined HRC-Fed Up! as a volunteer organizing against solitary confinement. In 2014, Saleem was a founding member of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI), a constellation of Pennsylvania-based prisoner support groups and activists who’ve been at the forefront of the struggle to abolish Life Without Parole (death by incarceration). During Saleem’s incarceration, he was heavily influenced by the narratives and contributions of Political Prisoners in Pennsylvania including Russell Maroon Shoatz, Fred Burton, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. While incarcerated Saleem wrote extensively on political prisonerssolitary confinementpolice violenceand racial discrimination in mandatory sentencing.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish together during my tenure as Executive Director. We’ve built a powerful tool for organizing and defending the most oppressed, and Saleem has been an integral part of that work from the beginning. The second lawsuit we ever filed was Holbrook v. Jellen, a piece of litigation that Saleem organized from prison, even writing the first draft of the complaint. We won that lawsuit, and many more since. Saleem’s dedication, determination, and vision has been proven time and time again in the intervening years. I applaud the Board of Directors’ decision, and I can think of no better person to lead the Abolitionist Law Center during this critical period for the movement to abolish prisons and state violence.”
– DUSTIN MCDANIEL

Saleem will succeed Dustin McDaniel, who will transition into ALC Director of Operations overseeing finances and administration. “Dustin helped take an abolitionist idea birthed by activists within and outside the Pennsylvania prison system and bring it into reality. He helped lay a strong abolitionist foundation that we will be building upon for years to come. We are grateful for his leadership and we all look forward to him bringing his determination, discipline and passion into his new role within ALC.” says Robert Saleem Holbrook.


FROM THE ALC BOARD OF DIRECTORS

“Robert Saleem Holbrook is a leading abolitionist thinker, organizer, and activist. His activism on behalf of incarcerated people and his tireless work on behalf of all people facing state violence and oppression provide a model of leadership, courage, and perseverance. Saleem’s work is an example of what it looks like to implement abolitionist theory into actual change on the ground and everyday practice. His relentless drive will build upon the Abolitionist Law Center’s bold and transformative litigation, organizing, advocacy, and public education.  In the legacy of those freedom dreamers who have come before him, Saleem demonstrates the power of hard work and imagination in our collective struggle to transform our society and push for radical change and liberation for all.”

– JAMELIA MORGAN
ALC BOARD PRESIDENT

“Saleem’s appointment reflects the history, vision and mission of ALC, and that is to abolish class and race based mass incarceration in the United States, litigate on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison, and to prioritize the struggle to acknowledge and free all U.S. held Political Prisoners. Saleem’s life experience, involvement and community respect makes his appointment truly revolutionary. After having sacrificed decades in prison, we stand behind his dedication uttered in his own words: “Having been sentenced to death by incarceration as a juvenile, I am committed to doing everything I can to bring others home.” 

– JIHAD ABDULMUMIT
ALC BOARD MEMBER
FORMER POLITICAL PRISONER

PITTSBURGH’S SECRET POLICE

Portland is not unique. Peduto’s police are no different from Trump’s gestapo. Peduto and the City of Pittsburgh allow their robocops to hide their identities and refuse to identify themselves to community members when asked. Peduto says he “opposes” Federal agents in Pittsburgh – which makes sense if he already has police in our city openly and anonymously terrorizing and surveilling Black community members, activists, and witnesses. Police that collaborate with Homeland Security, the DEA, and FBI to target, isolate, and detain our friends and family members.

Below is a redacted vs unredacted excerpt of Section 4.0 of PBP FORM 290, ORDER #: 42-13  (2/14/19) which outlines the Operational Guidelines of Pittsburgh’s “Special Response Team (SRT)” aka riot cops. It is unclear why the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police have attempted to redact these paragraphs, except maybe to hide fascistic policies that are both embarrassing and jeopardizing to their public image as crime-fighting comic book heroes – particularly in white imaginations. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police tried to hide its policies allowing its officers to hide their own identities. They didn’t do a good job of hiding it, so we thought we’d share with you all.

Hover and slide the divider below [] to view the unredacted version ⤵️

Hover and slide the divider [] above to view the unredacted version ⤴️

Anonymous riot cops and secret police are not new. We are reminded of COINTELPRO‘s presence in Pittsburgh. We are reminded that anonymous cop brigades evolved from execution firing squads: the identity of the state agent who fires the lethal shot is never to be revealed.

If local agents of state violence remain unidentifiable, then how do we keep them accountable?

While Bill Peduto praises the Pittsburgh Police’s collaboration with Trump’s FBI to arrest activists and alleged petty vandals via the Damage Assessment and Accountability Task Force (DAAT) –they’ve made no effort to identify the following agents of state violence.

We are asking for the public to help the Mayor find his courage and publicly identify these members of our city’s very own secret police:

Hover and click to view footage of the June 1st East Liberty police attacks:

LDF and Co-Counsel File Lawsuit on Behalf of Black West Philadelphians Who Experienced Police Terror on May 31

Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the Abolitionist Law Center, and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents in a predominantly Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia, challenging the Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD) excessive and unwarranted use of militaristic force during a peaceful protest.

On May 31, 2020, amid nationwide protests against police violence and other abuses against Black people, the PPD repeatedly attacked protestors of police brutality, residents, and bystanders who congregated in West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street area of the city. PPD officers used military-style weapons – including rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray – against these individuals as they either peacefully protested against police abuse or simply engaged in daily activities in or near their homes. 

The complaint establishes that this use of force directed against a predominately Black community was unconstitutional, violating the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force, First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and express their views, and Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from racially discriminatory policing under the Equal Protection Clause.

In what many witnesses described as a war zone in an otherwise peaceful, residential community, police officers in tanks traveled away from West Philadelphia’s business corridor and down residential side streets for hours, chasing residents into their homes and indiscriminately firing canisters of tear gas at them — all under the guise of responding to incidents of looting. As a result, families, including those with small children, were injured while inside and outside of their homes and, in some cases, forced to temporarily evacuate their homes and seek treatment for tear gas exposure.

“I realized police had fired tear gas at our family’s home after my three-year-old son began crying and my six-year-old son complained that something was in his eyes,” said plaintiff Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi. “Our family’s home is supposed to be our safe space amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing civil unrest in this country. Yet, PPD officers violated the sanctity of our home, without forethought, senselessly firing tear gas around our residence while we were inside. Because of this incident, my children and I no longer feel safe in our own house – and we demand that police are held accountable for the lasting damage they have caused.”

“The events of May 31 represent yet another act of city-sanctioned violence endured by the Black community in West Philadelphia. Law enforcement has a long history of engaging in overly harsh tactics and racist violence against residents of West Philadelphia — most notably, the police bombing of the homes of MOVE members and their neighbors in 1985,” said Cara McClellan, Assistant Counsel at LDF. “City officials must be held accountable for these militaristic police actions, which are discriminatory, illegal, and completely unacceptable. Our clients deserve safety and security in their own neighborhood and to be free of fear of discrimination and police terror.”

“The Philadelphia Police Department deployed violence against West Philadelphia’s Black communities in retaliation for protests that sprang up in response to police violence. Such blatant disregard for First Amendment freedoms and targeted attacks against Black communities in West Philadelphia are rooted in a long history of police violence,” said Jamelia N. Morgan, Of Counsel at the Abolitionist Law Center. “At a time when some Philadelphians celebrated the removal of the Frank Rizzo statue, it is now time for the city to break with this legacy of violence and racial discrimination and remedy the wrongs done to these communities.”

“The excessive and unreasonable use of tear gas and rubber bullets by police in military gear against non-violent protesters, residents, and bystanders in West Philadelphia on May 31 was the latest episode in a long line of racially biased policing that this City has tolerated for far too long,” said Susan M. Lin, partner at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP. “Our clients have brought today’s lawsuit to hold the city accountable and demand that the city’s leadership make changes.”

“While the mayor has apologized for the treatment of protesters on Interstate 676, he continues to ignore and dismiss the horrifying police attacks against Black protesters and residents in West Philadelphia, further demonstrating how underlying racial discrimination often dictates whether police are held accountable for their actions.” said Anthony Smith, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and an organizer with Philly REAL Justice. “The irony is that PPD has responded to protests of police brutality, racial discrimination, and excessive force, with further brutality, discrimination, and excessive force.”

Like countless communities around the country, residents of West Philadelphia engaged in protests advocating for systemic reforms to eliminate racist and violent policing following the May 25 death of George Floyd. Notably, while the city of Philadelphia apologized for using tear gas on another, more racially-diverse group of protesters gathered on Interstate 676 on June 1 – and subsequently put a moratorium on the use of tear gas – the city has hardly acknowledged the police violence against West Philadelphia’s Black residents on May 31.

During the same weekend that PPD terrorized residents in West Philadelphia, PPD officers declined to use any force in other predominately white neighborhoods where looting and rioting occurred. This disparate treatment of Philadelphia residents by PPD epitomizes the very racial discrimination that motivated the protests in the first place.

Read a copy of the complaint here.

People Serving Mandatory Life Without Parole Challenge Death-By-Incarceration Sentences as Cruel and Unconstitutional

Sentences Are Akin to Death Penalty

Contact:

Jen Nessel, Center for Constitutional Rights, (212) 614-6449, jnessel@ccrjustice.org

Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, (412) 654-9070, bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org

Kris Henderson, Amistad Law Project (215) 310-0424, kris@amistadlaw.org  


July 8, 2020, Harrisburg, PA Today, people in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences, commonly known as Life Without Parole, filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s prohibition on parole eligibility for those serving life sentences after convictions under the felony murder rule. In Pennsylvania, people convicted under that rule are mandatorily sentenced to life imprisonment, even though they did not take a life, or did not intend to take a life in the course of the crime. A separate provision of the law prohibits parole eligibility for any individual serving life. The lawsuit, filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, is the first challenge of its kind in the country and argues that mandatory Life Without Parole sentences for those who did not kill or did not intend to kill are unconstitutionally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution. They join a movement of advocates currently and formerly incarcerated in referring to Life Without Parole as Death By Incarceration, which they say is the true impact of these sentences.

“A life sentence means death in this Commonwealth,” said lead plaintiff Marie Scott. “In other words, you are sentenced to a life sentence that you must live out until you die. The more I serve what feels like Death By Incarceration, the more I wonder, how could such a draconian penalty be handed down to those of us who’ve neither killed anyone nor intended to kill. Clearly, in my mind, there has to be some room for a chance at redemption.”

The complaint is on behalf of six plaintiffs serving Death By Incarceration sentences after being convicted of felony murder in their late teens or early 20s. They have all spent between 23 and 47 years in prison. Despite their sentences, none caused or intended the death of the victim. The complaint argues that sentences of Death By Incarceration, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized are akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability, are disproportionate and serve no legitimate penological interest when applied to individuals who do not kill or intend to kill as part of their crime.

“Death-By-Incarceration sentences mean that the punishment of people serving that sentence is perpetual. Despite serving decades in prison, the parole board refuses to look at any of our clients’ cases to see if they can safely be free in our communities. And we believe that they and many others like them should be home,” said Kris Henderson, Executive Director of Amistad Law Project.

The complaint filed today notes that Pennsylvania is an outlier within the United States and around the world in terms of the number and rate of prisoners serving Death By Incarceration sentences. At approximately 5,200 people, Pennsylvania has the second-highest number of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences in the country and accounts for 10 percent of the total number of Death-By-Incarceration sentences in the country. It is one of only six states that does not allow for the possibility of parole for people serving life sentences. Philadelphia county, in particular, has more people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences than 45 states – and more than any country in the world. In fact, Philadelphia’s rate of Death By Incarceration is higher than the overall incarceration rate of 140 countries.

“Although Death By Incarceration does not further public safety, it indisputably aggravates apartheid in the criminal punishment system as 70 percent of the approximately 1,100 forced to die in prison under the felony murder rule in Pennsylvania are Black,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, Director of Community Organizing for the Abolitionist Law Center. “This has to end. Granting parole eligibility and establishing a right to redemption for this group will be an important step toward racial justice.” 

Attorneys say Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme exacerbates many of the problems that exist throughout U.S. prisons. Like incarceration overall, vast racial disparities exist within Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme; 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. Advocates say this challenge to Death By Incarceration joins demands around the country for an end to state violence against Black people. The complete impossibility of parole for people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania has also contributed to the aging nature of the state’s prison population, with over 10,000 people over the age of 50, the fourth-highest number in the state. The concerns and costs of incarcerating thousands of aging or elderly people are heightened in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic given the impossibility of social distancing in prison and the fact that older people are particularly at risk. The plaintiffs in this case, like the majority of those serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania, are aging or considered elderly by prison standards, and face the risk of an even sooner death in prison.

“The plaintiffs in this case exemplify the excessiveness and cruelty of Death-By-Incarceration sentences—the monstrosity of locking anyone up for life, with no possibility ever of release, no matter their circumstances, or whether healing and security are actually served for the communities impacted,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei. “These sentences, which affect thousands of people across the country, help justify the supposed need for a massive prison system built and resourced to put people away for decades or life, and, like other extreme U.S. sentencing practices, must be challenged as part of the movement to end mass incarceration..”


For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.

PRESS FEATURES

https://www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2020/07/08/Pennsylvania-Commonwealth-court-lawsuit-constitution-life-without-parole-sentences-murder-crime/stories/202007070097

https://triblive.com/news/pennsylvania/lawsuit-pennsylvania-lifers-should-have-chance-at-parole/

https://www.inquirer.com/news/pennsylvania-lawsuit-parole-eligibility-felony-murders-abolitionist-law-center-20200708.html

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/pennsylvania/articles/2020-07-08/pennsylvania-inmates-file-challenge-to-parole-restrictions


Amistad Law Project is a public interest law center that fights for the human rights of people in our community by providing free and low-cost legal services to Philadelphians and those incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Additionally, we advocate for laws and policies that reflect our vision for a new justice paradigm and organize events and activities to educate the public on their rights and the law. Amistad’s vision is to abolish the prison industrial complex and create alternative systems of accountability and healing while reducing the harm of the system in the meantime. Follow Amistad Law Project on social media: facebook.com/AmistadLaw, @AmistadLaw on Twitter and Instagram.

The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. Abolitionist Law Center litigates on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison, educates the general public about the evils of mass incarceration, and works to develop a mass movement against the American punishment system by building alliances and nurturing solidarity across social divisions. More information about our work at abolitionistlawcenter.org and follow us on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @AbolitionistLC.

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org. Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media: Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @theCCR on Twitter, and ccrjustice on Instagram.

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PROTESTERS FILE CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT AGAINST PITTSBURGH POLICE AND CITY OFFICIALS FOR POLICE ATTACKS ON EAST LIBERTY PROTEST

To view the complaint and videos of the June 1 police attack on peaceful protestors in East Liberty visit: bit.ly/eastlibertypoliceattack

If you were at the protest and think you might be a class member, please fill out this form at bit.ly/intakeeastlibertypoliceattack and email to: info@obrienlawpgh.com , msc@obrienlawpgh.com , qcozzens@alcenter.org

On June 1, 2020, a peaceful protest in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh against nationwide police violence turned into a yet another demonstration of excessive force by the police. Protesters who participated in this protest have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP) officials, Mayor Bill Peduto, and the City of Pittsburgh after police unleashed violence on peaceful demonstrators, then rounded up and arrested nearly two dozen people who committed no crimes. The protesters are represented by attorneys from O’Brien Law, Abolitionist Law Center, and Elzer Law Firm, LLC.

Named Plaintiffs include a 13-year-old boy, his mother, and her fiancé, who attended the protest to learn about the First Amendment, but instead were met with tear gas and violence; a dance instructor who was arrested outside his apartment while he was on his way home; a local non-profit worker who was gassed and chased at gunpoint; an international peace observer who spent the night in jail after being tear gassed and arrested while trying to walk to their car; and a man who was shot in the back by four rubber bullets as he tried to leave the protest. 

On June 1, the PBP escalated a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed. The PBP deployed hundreds of officers to counter approximately 150 protesters.  As the assembled protesters held their hands in the air and chanted, “This is not a riot,” and “Hands up – Don’t shoot,” PBP ordered its officers to attack them with explosives, chemical agents and ammunition which is known to seriously wound and sometimes kill its targets.  PBP officers drove ambulances past injured protesters without stopping. After ordering peaceful protesters to leave the area, PBP officers blocked their escape with chemical gas, riot police and mounted patrols. The PBP ordered tactical officers dressed in paramilitary garb to patrol a residential neighborhood in armored vehicles and arbitrarily throw canisters of chemical gas at anyone they encountered. The PBP arrested twenty-two protestors for failing to disperse, subjecting them to confinement in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic.  The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office withdrew the charges for every person arrested due to a lack of sufficient evidence or allegations to support the criminal charges.

Immediately following the PBP’s overwhelming and unjustified use of force in East Liberty, Mayor Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and Chief of Police Scott Schubert held a press conference at which they disseminated flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s use of force against peaceful protesters. These officials accused protesters of hurling rocks and “volleys of bricks” at PBP officers, and vehemently denied using chemical agents.  Numerous videos statements were patently false.

“In Pittsburgh and across the country, police officers’ use of chemical weapons such as tear gas and projectile munitions such as rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and sponge grenades against protesters has resulted in serious and debilitating injuries. Moreover, the routine and indiscriminate use of these tactics deters would-be protesters from exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and petition the government,” said the attorneys representing the Protesters.  

The lawsuit seeks an order preventing the City of Pittsburgh from declaring peaceful protests unlawful and from using chemical agents and projectiles against peaceful protesters.[1] The lawsuit also seeks money damages for protesters whose rights were violated.

The suit was filed the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by Attorneys Margaret Coleman of O’Brien Law, Quinn Cozzens of Abolitionist Law Center, and Christine T. Elzer of Elzer Law Firm, LLC.

For additional information contact

Margaret Coleman

msc@obrienlawpgh.com

Quinn Cozzens

qcozzens@alcenter.org

Christine Elzer

celzer@elzerlaw.com


[1] Federal courts have issued similar injunctions against police departments in several cities, including Denver, Seattle, and Oakland

MEET THE PROTESTERS-PLAINTIFFS

To view the complaint and videos of the June 1 police attack on peaceful protestors in East Liberty visit: bit.ly/eastlibertypoliceattack

If you were at the protest and think you might be a class member, please fill out this form at bit.ly/intakeeastlibertypoliceattack and email to: info@obrienlawpgh.com , msc@obrienlawpgh.com , qcozzens@alcenter.org

We Want Freedom – Statement from Black Philly Radical Collective

Read the full statement We Want Freedom: End the War Against Black Philadelphians NOW! from Black Philly Radical Collective. The statement was co-written by Robert Saleem Holbrook, ALC’s Director of Community Organizing alongside Black Liberation movement groups and leaders of Philadelphia: Mobilization for Mumia, Black Lives Matter Philly, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Human Rights Coalition, and Mike Africa Jr of MOVE.