Plaintiffs bring class action lawsuit challenging the pervasive use of probation detainers in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

For Immediate Release: October 3, 2022

Pittsburgh, Pa. –  Six currently detained individuals filed a class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against three Allegheny County judges; Administrative Judge Jill Rangos and Court of Common Pleas Judges Anthony Mariani, and Kelly Bigley, as well as Jail Warden Orlando Harper and Director of Probation Frank Scherer and other probation department officials, alleging that Allegheny County’s pervasive use of probation detainers violates their state and federal constitutional rights. Represented by counsel from Civil Rights Corps and Abolitionist Law Center, the plaintiffs seeks a declaration that Defendants’ policies and practices violate their rights to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, through unlawfully jailing people arrested for probation violations for prolonged periods without an adequate assessment or determination that such detention is necessary. The plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief to change the practices that result in rampant illegal incarceration, and they will be moving for a preliminary injunction to immediately halt the unconstitutional practices. Finally, they seek money damages for every day of illegal detention they have suffered.

The lawsuit challenges the systemic use of probation detainers, the single largest driver of incarceration at the Allegheny County Jail. A probation detainer prohibits an individual’s release from jail until they have a hearing to determine whether they violated their probation. On any given day, about one third of the  jail population (upwards of 600 people) has  a probation detainer lodged against them. Approximately 16% of them are accused only of a technical violation of probation, such as failing to update their address or to meet with their probation officer. Most of the people with new charges, the other reason for alleged violations, are theoretically able to get out of jail on the new charges on either monetary or non-monetary bail. But because of the probation detainer, they’re stuck in jail. The suit challenges the constitutionality of the perfunctory proceedings at which decisions regarding detainers are made. The suit further challenges Judges Mariani and Bigley’s blanket administrative “no-lift” policy, automatically requiring all people they supervise who are arrested for an alleged probation violation to remain in jail, no matter the circumstances of the probation violation. “Local officials’ detainer practices are particularly jarring in light of the ongoing crisis at the Allegheny County Jail; at least six people incarcerated at the jail have died this year alone, 17 since the onset of the pandemic. Yet the jail continues to be senselessly overpopulated because of the rampant and illegal use of probation detainers,” said Sumayya Saleh, Senior Attorney, Civil Rights Corps.

Gerald Thomas is one of the individuals who died in the jail this past year. He was accused of new charges, which were all ultimately withdrawn. Mr. Thomas was held on a probation detainer for almost a year. Shortly before Mr. Thomas’s death, Judge Mariani refused to lift his detainer despite the withdrawn charges. “Mr. Thomas’s death is the worst possible outcome of these dangerous policies, but it is not an unpredictable one,” said Dolly Prabhu, Staff Attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center. “To not put an end to these practices is to continue to put hundreds of incarcerated people in Allegheny County at risk everyday.”

Dion Horton is the lead named plaintiff in the case. He’s been in jail since February 2022 for allegedly violating probation after being accused of new offenses. A judicial officer in a separate proceeding ordered that he could be released from jail on those charges. Despite this, a probation detainer was lodged against him, with no separate determination that his incarceration is necessary. Nearly eight months have passed, and there is no end in sight–he has no idea when he will have a hearing on the alleged probation violation. “I thought that we were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” said Mr. Horton. “But with probation detainers, it’s like I’m guilty before I’m ever tried. That doesn’t seem fair to me.”

Civil Rights Corps is a non-profit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system through innovative civil rights litigation. CRC works with individuals accused and convicted of crimes, their families and communities, people currently or formerly incarcerated, activists, organizers, judges, and government officials to challenge mass human caging and to create a legal system that promotes equality and human freedom.

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.

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Cheryl Bonacci
Civil Rights Corps
cheryl@civilrightscorps.org

Dolly Prabhu
Abolitionist Law Center
dprabhu@alcenter.org

ALC Fall 2022 Update

Making Noise & Making News

It’s been a HUGE three months at ALC. We’ve come hard at Death By Incarceration, solitary confinement, abusive and discriminatory judges and court practices, and the torturous conditions inside Pennsylvania’s largest county jails. We’ve collaborated and built power with individuals and groups directly impacted by mass incarceration and other forms of state violence in communities around the state. And our movement, clients, work, and staff members have made media headlines, been part of high profile events, and garnered impressive recognition.


“Death-Making Institutions”

In early July, ALC topped the news across Pittsburgh press and in legal outlets, after lodging 62 misconduct complaints against Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani with the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with releasing a scathing new report, ‘Death-Making Institutions’: How Police, Probation and the Judiciary Caused Gerald Thomas to Die in Jail. (All 62 complaints against Mariani are outlined in the report’s Appendix A.)
 

This 48-page report authored by ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu connects the March 2022 death of 26-year-old Gerald Thomas in Allegheny County Jail to the racialized violence of other Allegheny County institutions and state actors. The report examines how practices of policing and punishment such as traffic stops, pretrial detention, probation detainers, and solitary confinement, support the maintenance of local “death-making institutions,” a term coined by abolitionist Mariame Kaba. It also highlights the fact that Thomas died in the jail 17 days after Judge Mariani chose to continue his incarceration, despite all of the charges against Thomas being dropped.

The report’s publication coincided with ALC’s Court Watch program’s filing against Judge Mariani. From March 2021 to March 2022, Prabhu and Court Watch volunteers observed his court proceedings and recorded countless instances of Judge Mariani verbally abusing defendants, attorneys, and his own staff, while also demonstrating a lack of understanding of relevant legal standards, and making racist comments about Black defendants.


Winning “Compassionate” Release from Decades of Confinement

In September, ALC clients Frank Lowery and Vernon Bess were released from prison after 45 and 47 years of incarceration, respectively. These two men were the latest of the seven people serving excessively long sentences for whom ALC’s legal team has won release since the summer of 2021. Most of them had more than 30 years behind bars (one had been inside for 51!), and several spent decades of their imprisonment in solitary confinement. Five of these individuals were freed by so-called “compassionate release,” for which they qualified because of severe incapacitation from terminal medical conditions.

Compassionate release cases are labor-intensive and extremely urgent; one qualification for applicants is that they must have a documented medical prognosis of having less than a year to live. Along with our exploding caseload, we’re supervising the Compassionate Release Pro Bono Project, a newly formed collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania Law School working to increase the number of people who apply for and ultimately are granted “compassionate” release.

In August, ALC’s 501(c)(4) arm Straight Ahead, produced a deeply moving video featuring Bradford Gamble, one of our recent clients who was forced to make the agonizing choice of foregoing treatment in prison for late stage cancer, in order to meet eligibility guidelines for consideration for release.

Take a watch as Mr. Gamble, who passed away soon after the video was made, and ALC staff attorney Rupalee Rashatwar talk about why no one should ever face such a decision, and no one should die behind bars.


Together We’ll End Death by Incarceration!

In mid-September, ALC, Straight Ahead, formations of our movement family members led by formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, and a coalition of partner organizations from around the country made huge strides in our shared campaign to end Death by Incarceration. (Death by Incarceration is the inhumane sentencing of a person to life without the possibility of parole.) Over the course of just one week we took the fight to the United Nations, a PA Superior Courtroom in Pittsburgh, and the PA state capitol in Harrisburg.


On September 15th (as part of a group that included the Center for Constitutional Rights, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Drexel University Community Lawyering Clinic, the Drop LWOP Coalition, Release Aging People in Prisons, and others), ALC made national headlines when we submitted a 31-page letter to the United Nations stating that the United States is committing torture and other gross human rights violations by condemning people to Death by Incarceration.

The coalition is urging the U.N. Special Rapporteurs to call for the nationwide abolition of life imprisonment, which is more prevalent in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. Our initiative received high profile press coverage in The Nation, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Progressive, and other outlets.

ALC legal staff, and family and supporters of ALC client Derek Lee, at court to end death by incarceration for felony murder, 09.20.22


On September 20th, ALC’s legal team argued persuasively in the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Pittsburgh that life without parole sentences for felony murder is cruel punishment that is prohibited by the Pennsylvania state and federal constitutions. In Commonwealth v. Derek Lee, ALC’s client Mr. Lee is challenging the lifetime ban on parole for those convicted of felony murder (i.e. people who did not take a life or intend to take a life). A win in this case would be a huge, precedent-setting victory not just for Mr. Lee, but for the approximately 1100 other people who are currently languishing under DBI sentences for felony murder in PA.

The legal team’s compelling argument, which appeared to be received favorably by the judges,  highlighted the fact that while only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, about 70 percent of people serving Death By Incarceration sentences for felony murder in the state are Black. Read more details in excellent press coverage here and here

CADBI rally in Harrisburg 09.20.22 to end Death by Incarceration

Also on September 20th, formerly incarcerated leaders including “juvenile lifers” who served decades of DBI sentences before winning release, hundreds of our movement family members from across the state, elected officials, and staff from ALC and Straight Ahead, joined forces at a rally organized by our comrades from CADBI (Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration), on the steps of the PA capitol in Harrisburg.

With powerful personal testimony, participants called on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass legislation to end Death By Incarceration and instead embrace policies that heal communities. In the face of a new wave of gun violence and homicide, community members impacted both by violence and mass incarceration urged legislators to divest from mass incarceration, and address violence with real solutions such as community-based violence prevention efforts, fully funding schools and social services, and providing accessible mental health and addiction treatment.

Check out the Pennsylvania Capital-Star‘s great article “Former ‘lifers’ call on lawmakers to end ‘death by incarceration’” for more details.


Banning Solitary & Other Extreme Conditions of Confinement

Inventing Solitary panel with Robet Saleem Holbrook, Akeill Roberston-Jowers, and staff from The Philadelphia Inquirer

ALC has worked toward the abolition of solitary confinement since our first case in 2013, when we led the successful legal battle to release Russell Maroon Shoatz from 22 years of that torture. Our executive director Robert Saleem Holbrook, and ALC community organizer John Thompson, each spent ten years or more in solitary during their decades of incarceration and regularly speak out against the inhumane practice in high profile public events and in the press.


In Philadelphia we’re embedded in the push for the City Council to establish a jail oversight board that would address the county jails’ egregious use of solitary, as well as the many other highly abusive and harmful control measures occuring in Philadelphia jails.

End of Isolation Tour flyer, August 2022

As part of our overall campaign to raise awareness and public support for ending solitary, in August ALC and Straight Ahead co-sponsored the End of Isolation Tour’s performance at Eastern Penitentiary of “The Box.” This immersive production by playwright Sarah Shour (who spent 410 days in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison where she was physically and mentally tortured, and suffered depression and anxiety) “brings to light the fallacies of solitary confinement.”

Also earlier this summer, ALC and Straight Ahead joined forces with partner groups PA Stands Up, Lehigh Valley Stands Up, and NEPA Stands Up, to end solitary confinement in the jails in Lehigh and Lackawanna Counties by placing voter referendums on the November 2022 ballot. This effort is modeled after the successful referendum that ended solitary in Allegheny County Jail in 2021 – to our knowledge, the first such voter-led effort in the nation.

NEPA and ALC fight for ballot question to end solitary confinement in Lackawanna County, PA

Though we fell short of the signatures needed to get the question on the ballot in Lehigh County, in Lackawanna County, our coalition met the threshold by garnering more than 13,000 signatures! When officials illegally tried to thwart our effort by refusing to put the question on the ballot in mid-September, ALC staff attorney Jaclyn Kurin sued the election board, and our Campaigns Manager John Rowland helped local activists raise a ruckus with a focused, public pressure campaign that brought visibility and a media spotlight to the issue.

This is another extremely pressing fight for ALC’s legal and organizing teams, who are racing against the deadline to ensure that the will of the people of Lackawanna County is honored as they demand a say in deciding whether or not  the jail will continue to torture people with solitary confinement.


Free Our Youth!

Care, Not Control: The Album


We’d like to take a moment to uplift the creative work of our partners at Care, Not Control, a coalition of youth and youth advocates working to end juvenile incarceration in Pennsylvania.

Care, Not Control has released their first track from their upcoming project Care, Not Control: The Album. The track is titled Untold Story, and it features Care, Not Control youth organizer Bre Stoves, 19. Bre also works with Juvenile Law Center and The Village of Arts and Humanities and has been making music since the age of 12.

Bre began the process of working on “Untold Story” while she was incarcerated and hopes the track sends a message of solidarity and camaraderie to her fellow youth. “I want people, especially incarcerated young people, to know they’re not alone. There are people out there fighting for them.”

Care, Not Control: The Album showcases the talents, hopes, and dreams of young people directly impacted by the criminal legal system. The album seeks to shift the narrative surrounding youth incarceration and promote investing in community-based alternatives. Care, Not Control plans to release an educational toolkit to accompany the music that will delve into the album’s themes and promote critical discussions about youth incarceration, violence, and power.

Revolution is creative.

To listen to Untold Story and learn more about the album, visit www.carenotcontrol.com/thealbum.


Making Noise and Making News

As usual, we’ve been out there with our movement family, making noise and making news the last few months.

Each year, Pittsburgh Magazine and PUMP recognize 40 outstanding individuals under the age of 40 whose creativity, vision, and passion enrich the Pittsburgh region. This year’s 40 Under 40 honorees include ALC Community Organizer Tanisha Long (pictured, left, with fellow 40 Under 40 honoree, Miracle Jones, the Director of Policy and Advocacy at 1Hood Media and former ALC staffer, right).

ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook has been constantly on the go, speaking at conferences and events like Netroots Nation and Socialism 2022, while also continuing to share his story for initiatives like the #ExceptForMe #EndtheException campaign to abolish the prison slavery currently allowed in the 13th amendment.

We’ve continued to be vocal about issues including the terrible health care in prison and how it  worsened during the pandemic, ending the horror of solitary confinement; and why we must center those who’ve experienced state violence in our fight to end it. And we’ve remained steadfast in supporting our clients, their families, and our neighbors who are directly impacted by the criminal punishment system, in their fierce efforts to win safety, freedom, and accountability for our community.


DONATE TO DECARCERATE

Help ALC sustain the fight to free people from incarceration and other forms of racist state violence by making a tax-deductible donation to the Abolitionist Law Center today.
Your gift fuels our collective liberation struggle and powers the transformative change we’re fighting for in the courts, in the streets, behind bars, and on the outside.

We need your partnership to keep the pressure on, and we appreciate your contribution of any amount. There’s so much more for us to do together!

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


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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Prisoners’ Rights Advocates File Lawsuit Against Allegheny County Jail for Sergeant Brutalizing Women with Disabilities

 

December 2, 2020 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT: 

Jaclyn Kurin, Abolitionist Law Center, (703)-850-8914, jkurin@alcenter.org 

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, PA Institutional Law Project, (412) 434-6175 amorgan-kurtz@pailp.org 

PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and K&L Gates filed a lawsuit on Tuesday on behalf of April Walker, LaVonna Dorsey, and Alexus Diggs, three formerly incarcerated women with disabilities, who claim they were brutally assaulted by Sergeant John Raible at the Allegheny County Jail. The complaint describes numerous assaults by Raible against people with disabilities involving the over use of pepper spray, tasers and placing people with disabilities in a restraint chair for hours without food, water, medicine, or breaks to relieve themselves. 

The Complaint claims that Raible repeatedly pepper sprayed Ms. Walker when she was pregnant and slammed her face into the concrete floor, resulting in her hospitalization. Ms. Dorsey’s claims arise from Raible pepper spraying her in the face, breasts, and buttocks while she was naked and then placing her in a restraint chair with purposely overtightened straps, severely injuring her shoulder. The Complaint also describes an incident where Raible shot multiple pepper pellets at Ms. Diggs because he suspected that she was using a pen to write grievances. 

Ms. Walker, Ms. Dorsey and Ms. Diggs are also suing Raible’s supervisors, Warden Orlando Harper, Chief Deputy David Zetwo, and Deputy Chief of Operations Jason Beasom for their failure to train and supervise staff at ACJ which led to the assaults. The lawsuit alleges that before the Plaintiffs were assaulted, Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom were aware of Raible’s violent history of assaulting incarcerated individuals for non-threatening conduct. 

“Raible’s actions are horrifying and have no place in our society,” stated Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Managing Attorney for the PA Institutional Law Project. “More troubling, however, is the absolute disregard shown by his supervisors to a clear pattern of torture and discrimination against women with disabilities.” 

“Sergeant Raible’s pattern of assaulting women in ACJ is as disturbing as it is illegal,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center. “This lawless brutality only exists because Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom permit the systematic abuse of disabled individuals.” 

Despite knowing that Raible presented a significant risk of harm to individuals with disabilities, Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom repeatedly failed to discipline or terminate Raible. Rather, they condoned Raible’s abusive and unconstitutional conduct by permitting him to retain his rank as a sergeant and execute his supervisory duties. 

The lawsuit alleges that Harper, Zewto, and Beasom knew that ACJ officers routinely used excessive force on individuals with psychiatric disabilities. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections report on use-of-force in jails across the state shows that in 2019, ACJ staff resorted to brutal forms of physical force far more frequently than the other correctional facilities.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs are represented by Jaclyn Kurin and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; David Osipovich, Anna Shabalov, Jessica Moran, and Elizabeth Hoadley of K&L Gates LLP.

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

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

The Fight to Free Avis Lee Continues Despite the Denial of Appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court


Last week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied our Petition for Allowance of Appeal in the case of Commonwealth v. Avis Lee. The Appeal would have allowed people given life without parole sentences while young and with their judgment/impulse control still developing (but were over 17 years at the time of their offense) to apply for resentencing, like many juvenile lifers who were given that chance and are now thriving outside prison walls in our state.

Despite the scientific consensus on brain development indisputably supporting our argument, the Court denied the Appeal without explanation or justification; we’re disappointed since we believe that an honest, science-based review of Avis’ death by incarceration sentence would’ve found it unconstitutional and void, but we also have no illusions that the Superior and Supreme Courts serve the interest of justice.

For centuries, the higher courts have given legal cover to our country’s and state’s most appalling class- and race-based oppression, and only on rare occasions (and under intense public pressure) have they set aside the interests of money and power and ruled in the interests of justice. We have always seen legal strategy as one part of a larger movement of people most impacted by the justice system to challenge power, and we know that meaningful changes in the justice system will come from people organizing and resisting—and not from the morality and reason of judges or legislators.

While we will keep the legal fight up with three other litigation plans that challenge DBI sentences for those 18 as well as those serving DBI for second degree murder, we urge everyone to continue to organize, gather, lift up voices, and commit to dismantling this system brick by brick. We look forward to working with Avis on her commutation packet and know that she will be home one day.

At this time we are also reminded that our comrades at the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) are convening in Harrisburg this Wednesday, the 23rd, in support of SB942. We stand in solidarity with CADBI and echo the call of the Superior Court for the legislature to end death by incarceration. No one is free until we all are.

In Solidarity Always,

The Abolitionist Law Center

Third Circuit Court of Appeals to Hear Argument in Challenge to 33 Years of Solitary Confinement on Death Row

On Tuesday, October 22nd at 10:00 a.m. in The Albert Branson Maris Courtroom, (19th Floor, U.S. Courthouse, 6th & Market Sts., Philadelphia, PA), a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals Federal Court will hear argument in Ernest Porter v. Pennsylvania DOC, a case challenging 33 years of solitary confinement on death row as violating the 8th and 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Porter has been held in solitary confinement since 1986 despite having a perfect disciplinary record in DOC custody. His death sentence was overturned in 2003, but he has yet to be resentenced due to ongoing appeals by the Commonwealth and himself regarding his death sentence and guilt-phase claims in his criminal case. The PA DOC is arguing that his ongoing appeals require his being buried in conditions that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor referred to as a “penal tomb.”

In 2017, the Third Circuit held in Williams v. Secretary, that incarcerated people whose death sentences have been vacated had a liberty interest in removal from solitary confinement that entitled them to due process rights to challenge their isolation and be released to the general population of the prison. Despite that ruling, Porter remains in the capital case unit.

Porter filed suit in 2017 arguing that his indefinite solitary confinement which began in 1986 constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment, and that the Third Circuit’s 2017 ruling entitled him to due process protections under the 14th Amendment. The Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted defendants summary judgment, throwing out Porter’s suit and leading to his appeal to the Third Circuit.

Porter is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Daniel Greenfield of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern School of Law. Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, will be arguing for Mr. Porter.

The Abolitionist Framework Must Combat Ableism in Order To Ensure the Freedom and Equity of Those Behind Bars

The Abolitionist Law Center is proud to announce our Board President, Jamelia Morgan has published a journal article calling for the abolition of ableism while fighting back against mass incarceration. REFLECTIONS ON REPRESENTING INCARCERATED PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: ABLEISM IN PRISON REFORM LITIGATION explores the intersections of disabilities and abolition while tasking legal advocates to combat ableism with holistic representation of clients and a raising of a multidimensional consciousness. While the conditions in prisons and jails are often discussed, what is often overlooked is how these inhumane facilities often target and mistreat those living with mental and physical disabilities. Disability Justice is important part of the abolition framework as those with disabilities are overrepresented in the criminal system as a result of failed health policies and systematic disparities. Due to the fact prisons and jails are not inherently designed to treat people in humane ways, those who enter into incarceration with a disability or develop a disability while incarcerated, face a lack of services and programming which leads to debilitation and trauma. What is even worse is that many lawyers lack the requisite training and understanding to represent clients who have disabilities and often perpetuate ableism.

lawyers representing people with disabilities are forced to represent their clients as physically, mentally, and emotionally damaged. In the typical, wellpleaded Section 1983 complaint brought on behalf of incarcerated people with disabilities, the weaknesses and challenges of disability are on full display, not because of any individual plaintiff’s inability to overcome obstacles or challenges in carceral settings (as is often the nature of ableism reflected in rhetoric about people with disabilities in free society) but, rather, because prisons inherently were not built to meet the needs of people with physical or mental disabilities.

In combating ableism and amplifying disability justice as a practice, lawyers and advocates must not simply create an awareness of the issues impacting those living with disabilities but must also change the culture of the abolition framework to recognize the negative and often violent implications that arise as the result of ableist legal practices. As such, abolitionist may move to using better language in fighting for freedom and can use court filings to highlight the inherent structural injustices in the designs of prisons and jails.

As prisoners’ rights advocates, we must strategically and consciously resist ableist discourses and ideologies that present our clients as deserving of constitutional protection only where physical or psychological damage is readily apparent or diagnosable. Advocates must acknowledge structural disablement within carceral spaces and use language that affirms the humanity of people with disabilities locked up behind bars or steel doors.

Due to current systems, those living with disability while incarcerated are often from marginalized populations. In order to effectively advocate for this population of individuals, intersectionality dicates that abolitionists examine their complicity in ableist behaviors and ensure they are including impacted peoples in developing strategies and policies for transformative change.

Citation: Morgan, Jamelia, Reflections on Representing Incarcerated People with Disabilities: Ableism in Prison Reform Litigation (July 22, 2019). Denver Law Review, Vol. 96, No. 4, 2019. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3424341 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3424341