The Abolitionist Law Center, our clients, and our supporters have made important strides in overturning laws aimed at censoring and silencing prisoners’ voices, in challenging decades-long solitary confinement, and in pushing for life-saving treatment for hepatitis C+ prisoners. Over the last few years, the Abolitionist Law Center has:
- Released a comprehensive report detailing how Pennsylvania is a world leader in death by incarceration sentencing and how we must change this reality
- Secured the release of MOVE members and political prisoners Debbie and Mike Africa after nearly forty years in prison.
- Challenged the new legal mail policies of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that mandate photocopying all legal mail in violation of the right to confidential attorney-client communications
- Won the first court order in the country forcing prison officials to provide new hepatitis C medications in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and helped other clients get access to treatment
- Successfully fought against indefinite, long-term solitary confinement in several cases, and ended the solitary confinement of pregnant women in Allegheny County Jail
Transforming this system and rolling back the mass incarceration state requires building mass popular movements. And people’s movements need movement lawyers. Please consider making a donation to our efforts today.
SUPPORTING THE MOVEMENT
The Abolitionist Law Center is a prison litigation firm committed to ending mass incarceration through movement work. Our staff is compromised not only of lawyers but of activists and those who are formerly incarcerated. As a movement lawyering organization, our primary method for winning the abolition of mass incarceration is to amplify the voices of activists inside and outside the prison walls. We understand that social change is a political process, and the most effective way to achieve deep and sustained improvements is through the organization and mobilization of communities. With this in mind, we have successfully fought to protect the rights of prisoners to engage in political speech and self-education. We have successfully helped to push back on the overuse of solitary confinement (which is often used as retaliation for advocacy from within the prisons). We have expanded our work to defend movement activists who are not incarcerated to ensure the work continues. We have volunteered as legal observers to support the right to protest, and we have helped educate our communities about paths to ending mass incarceration.
With your support, we increased our efforts to abolish Death By Incarceration (DBI), also known as life without parole, to end long-term solitary confinement, and to force prison administrators to provide curative treatment for prisoners with hepatitis C. We hired new staff members focused on these issues, co-founded the western Pennsylvania chapter of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI West), and we increased collaboration with our friends at the Amistad Law Project.
ABOLISHING DEATH BY INCARCERATION
This summer, we published a landmark report: A Way Out: Abolishing Death by Incarceration in Pennsylvania. This groundbreaking report not only found tremendous racial disparities in the DBI sentencing but also found age as a significant factor in these incidents. Even though science shows that many age out of violent behaviors and inclinations, a large and growing number of people serving DBI sentences are considered elderly and pose no risk to society. This report found that Pennsylvania is a world leader in death by incarceration sentencing despite changing national trends. Our report also found:
- 51% of people serving DBI sentences were between 18-25 years old when they entered the DOC
- Nearly 40% of people serving DBI are Black and were 25 or younger when they entered the DOC
- Over 70% of people serving DBI are at least 40 years old and 45% are at least 50 years old. More than 1 in 5 are 60 or older
- Black Pennsylvanians are serving DBI at a rate more than 18-times higher than white Pennsylvanians
More importantly, we featured many people who are currently serving DBI sentences and prominently placed their stories throughout the report. This report was widely shared and covered in the press, provoking favorable op-eds in the Philadelphia Inquirer, pennlive.com, and support from legislators who are pushing legislation to end DBI in Pennsylvania. We also advocated for total transformation of the criminal legal system so that it is centered around restorative justice approaches.
Commonwealth v. Avis Lee
Abolitionist Law Center is currently representing 7 individuals who were 18-20 years old at the time of their offense. Three of our cases seek to win the release of our clients, Charmaine Pfender, Avis Lee, and Arthur Cetewayo Johnson, while establishing that the ruling in Miller v. Alabama applies to people who were over 18 years old when they committed or allegedly committed a crime. Our leading case in this effort is Commonwealth v. Avis Lee, which has achieved a partial breakthrough when we argued in October in front of an en banc panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, asking the court to overrule their precedent prohibiting our claim from advancing to the merits. Our clients were sentenced to Death By Incarceration (DBI), also known as life without parole, without any consideration given to mitigating circumstances (such as youth, intellectual disability, or lack of intent). If the court agrees that our clients’ sentences should be reviewed on the merits, then it will permit us to build a record based on expert testimony showing that 18 year olds (and potentially 18-21 year olds) possess the same attributes of youth that render LWOP an excessive sentence for those under 18 years old. This would open the door to thousands of other prisoners to have their sentences reviewed on the merits and potentially win parole eligibility and release from prison.
Fighting For Humane Communications
This year created a new pathway for the Abolitionist Law Center as we were forced to fight the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) on a number of unexpected fronts. The PADOC suddenly announced a new communications policy that would prevent individuals who are incarcerated from receiving any material from the outside world. Instead, they would be forced to buy expensive, digital books as well an electronic-tablet to read them on and receive photocopies of all legal and regular mail. If the individuals were too poor to purchase either item, they would no longer be able to receive any more papers, books, magazines, and other periodicals. The PADOC asserted the changes were necessary in order to prevent drug trafficking and increase safety. However, they did not present any evidence to prove drugs were coming into the facilities through the book program or via attorney communications. While this created an immediate backlash, it also had a chilling effect on the attorney client privilege. Many institutions around the state went on lockdown status preventing any communications in or outside of the prison, then mail was being opened outside and screened outside the presence of the recipients. The new mail policies have led to missing mail, incorrectly copied mail, and returned mail. Moreover, as DOC could not guarantee the confidentiality of the mail, many attorneys ceased contacting their clients who were incarcerated. As such, the ALC joined with many organizations to file a major class action lawsuit against the PADOC in late October challenging the legal mail policy. While that suit is ongoing, we were able to successfully lobby along with organizations such as Book’ Em and Books Thru Bars to get the PADOC to back down on their efforts to censor and limit reading in prisons and exploit the incarcerated: the books-to-prisoner programs are resuming operations and able to send books to people incarcerated in the PADOC once again.
Advocating for Release
The Abolitionist Law Center partnered with the People’s Law Office in Chicago to represent the MOVE 9 pro bono. For over a decade, the MOVE9 have all been eligible for parole, but were denied until now. This year we were able to help get Debbie and Mike Africa released from prison after they served over a combined 80 years of incarceration. Their release was the result of a long-fought battle with the parole board. This partnership represents our commitment to fight for political prisoners in Pennsylvania. We still have so much work to be done as there are still fiv more MOVE members that we have yet to help come home: Janet, Janine, Chuck, Eddie and Delbert. We have filed federal habeas corpus petitions for Janet and Janine Africa, whose parole was denied based on misrepresentations of the record by the Parole Board. The MOVE members who are still in prison are all entitled to release on parole given their exemplary prison record, examples of mentorship, and the complete lack of any risk they present to public safety.
HEPATITIS C TREATMENT FOR PRISONERS
Last year, we won an injunction forcing the PA DOC to provide treatment to Mumia Abu-Jamal using direct acting antiviral (DAA) medications to cure his hepatitis C infection. This was the first court order in the country requiring prison administrators to provide DAA medications to an incarcerated patient. Mumia announced that he was free of the hepatitis C virus .Since then, we started a new program to increase legal support for hepatitis C+ prisoners. Mumia’s case was an important initial victory, but we used this as a springing board to file more cases seeking to force accountability on the PA DOC for refusing to provide the new curative treatments, and for the injuries and deaths caused by those failures. We were able to survey individuals who were incarcerated to effectively understand how widespread the lack of treatment was in the DOC facilities and to inform them of our litigation services. This summer we published a Pro Se Litigation Manual to provide guidance to incarcerated patients who wanted to file their own lawsuit seeking treatment; this soon resulted in 5 lawsuits being filed for treatment within the first two months after publication of the manual. One such individual was Lester Eaddy, who was denied treatment protocol even though he met the medical necessity requirements. Our representation efforts resulted in an immediate guarantee of treatment for Lester’s Hep C.
ENDING SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
The Abolitionist Law Center’s work to abolish solitary confinement resulted in some important victories over the last two year. Arthur Cetewayo Johnson walked out of his solitary confinement cell and into the general prison population following 37 years in solitary, after we won a preliminary injunction on his behalf (Johnson v. Wetzel). One of our lawsuits (Seitz v. Allegheny County) successfully stopped the Allegheny County Jail from putting pregnant women in solitary confinement. And we obtained the first circuit court holding in the country recognizing that solitary confinement of persons with serious mental illness states a claim under the Eighth Amendment (Palakovic v. Wetzel).
In January 2018, we filed a class action seeking to end solitary confinement of those sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, which is currently about 150 people. We are joined in this litigation by the ACLU-PA and ACLU-National Prison Project, among other firms. Soon after filing the DOC began implementing changes to increase out of cell time and group activities. This case is ongoing and we are pushing for a permanent end to solitary confinement of death-sentenced individuals in Pennsylvania.
In 2017-18 we litigated three cases to long-term solitary confinement on behalf of individuals on death row whose sentences had been vacated, yet who remained (or remain in one instance) on the row in contravention of a February 2017 holding of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. In February 2018, we were granted a preliminary injunction in the case of Darrick Hall following a two-day evidentiary hearing the month before. Darrick has since been released to general population where he had his first contact visits in 23 years, has taken every program he can, and been accepted into a program through Villanova University. Another case, that of Shawnfatee Bridges, has been favorably resolved and our client remains in general population. A third case, that of Ernest Porter, who has been on death row for 32 years, is currently being appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Abolitionist Law Center utilizes education and advocacy in order to further the prison abolition movement. This year we were able to host the Fight Toxic Prisons convergence here in Pittsburgh. We had hundreds of people attend workshops and training to better understand how environmental issues are associated with mass incarceration. More importantly we were able to bring in organizers from around the nation to share their stories and here from those who are incarcerated. In our movement work, it is important that we provide an intersectional approach to our work. Sponsoring the conference, helped to inform many about the toxic lands the prisons are built on that may create potentially hazardous situations for those who are incarcerated.
ALC works closely with movement partners the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI). Formed in Philadelphia at the urging of people serving life-without-parole sentences in Pennsylvania in 2014, CADBI has made impressive strides in its short existence. Groundbreaking legislation that would make all people serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania eligible for parole after 15 years has been introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate. CADBI chapters have been started in Reading, York, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Delaware, and Chester County. Formerly incarcerated people and the family and loved ones of those serving DBI sentences in Pennsylvania have been driving this growing movement. In early October CADBI successfully mobilized more than 400 people to rally in Harrisburg against DBI sentences. ALC’s work against DBI, in the courts and in the streets, is done in close collaboration and comradeship with and service to CADBI and our shared goals.
Expanding Our Offices
This fall the Abolitionist Law Center opened a satellite office in Philadelphia due to the high incidents of incarceration. The office is home to our mitigation specialist Lauren and our Director of Organizing Saleem. To better serve our community and to provide for more direct engagement our office in Philadelphia also serves as space for legal research and education. The office was especially useful during the past few months, where so many people impacted by the inhumane mail policy restrictions were able to share resources and tract complaints. Philadelphia has the largest population of those impacted by death incarceration sentences and PADOC policies. The office will have interns working to create narratives and more for our clients. The office serves a hub for abolitionist organizing and legal work in Philadelphia.
Your support makes it possible for us to win these fights. Please donate and together we can keep building the movement to abolish mass incarceration. Take it one step further and consider making a reoccurring monthly donation.