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

Media Release: Emergency Petition Filed For Young Woman Placed In Solitary Confinement During Her Birthday

On Monday the Abolitionist Law Center along with the law office of Timothy P. O’Brien and attorney Jules Lobel, filed an emergency petition against the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to remove a young woman from solitary confinement housing after spending more than 70 days – including her birthday – in the restrictive housing unit at ACJ since February, resulting in severe mental health crises and three suicide attempts.

The ALC and co-counsel are representing Kimberly Andrews, a 20-year-old woman awaiting disposition on misdemeanor cases who has been in solitary confinement off and on since February of 2019, despite having known mental health issues. While at the ACJ, Ms. Andrews has tried to self-harm at least three times due to the decompensation associated with the placement in solitary confinement and harsh prison conditions within the restrictive housing unit. Ms. Andrews suffers from known mental health disorders including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. Instead of receiving access to treatment and waiting for the adjudications of her case, Ms. Andrews has undergone repeated dehumanizing encounters with abusive ACJ staff.

For instance, on one occasion Ms. Andrews spent at least 8 consecutive hours in the restraint chair, strapped in so tight that it caused bruising around her wrists and shoulder areas. She was again deprived food, water, bathroom breaks, or any ability to move her limbs. Staff returned at one point to loosen the strap on her right wrist, as it was cutting into her flesh. Ms. Andrews asked for her inhaler, but her request was denied; no other medical checks were conducted.

 

The treatment of Ms. Andrews highlights the inability of the ACJ to create policies and procedures to ensure the safety and security of those incarcerated with medically diagnosed disorders. Ms. Andrews has been able to successfully interact in general population and was able to have a job when briefly removed from solitary confinement. Despite previous attempts to resolve this situation, Ms. Andrews remains in solitary confinement where she continues to struggle to acclimate based on her health history and continues to self-harm as a result.

 

She has been kept in solitary confinement for over 70 days by Defendants at the jail, although she has not been either charged with or convicted of any violent conduct by officials at the jail. She has a history of mental illness, which is greatly exacerbated by her placement and retention in isolation. She has attempted suicide three times since being placed in solitary confinement.

The petition is asking the court to grant Ms. Andrews as temporary restraining order which would prevent her from being placed in solitary confinement as well as prevent specific ACJ staff from contacting her due to their denial of medical treatment and triggering conduct. The ACJ spent more than $200,000 on bedding, replacing sheets with anti-suicide blankets due to the number of suicide and suicide attempts in the facility.

 

Andrews v. Harper – Complaint-As Filed

Brief in Support of TRO-as Filed

Motion for TRO-as Filed

Order to Show Cause-as Filed

Media Release: Janet and Janine Africa are paroled after forty years of incarceration!!!

The Abolitionist Law Center and the People’s Law Office are proud to share that Janet Holloway Africa and Janine Phillips Africa of the MOVE 9 have been released from state custody after more than forty years of incarceration. Earlier this morning, the MOVE sisters were finally released on parole from SCI Cambridge Springs and are now with family and friends. The sisters have been battling for their freedom after being consistently denied parole for a decade despite an impeccable disciplinary record and extensive record of mentorship and community service during their time in prison.

Following their 2018 parole denial, attorneys from Abolitionist Law Center and People’s Law Office filed petitions for habeas corpus seeking their release from prison. The habeas petitions challenged their parole denials on the grounds that the decisions were arbitrary and lacking in any evidence that janet or Janine presented a risk to public safety. Under pressure from litigation and with a court date for May 28 looming, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (board) granted Janet and Janine parole on May 14, 2019, just one day after the anniversary of the notorious May 13, 1985 bombing of the MOVE home.

“The release of Janet and Janine is a victory not only for them and their loved ones, but also for the MOVE Organization and the movement to free all political prisoners,” said attorney Brad Thomson of People’s Law Office. “Janet and Janine were excellent candidates for parole. They have been described by DOC staff as model prisoners and neither of them has had a single disciplinary incident in over twenty years. While in prison, they have participated in community fundraisers, and social programs, including training service dogs. They are remarkable women to deserve to be free.”

Like Debbie and Mike Africa, who were released last year, Janet and Janine are now able to experience holding their loved ones outside of prison walls for the first time in decades. The release of Janet and Janine after forty years is the culmination of the MOVE organization, public support, legal action, and policy changes.

Three other members of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated (Chuck, Delbert and Eddie Africa), while two others (Merle Africa and Phil Africa) died in custody. Abolitionist Law Center and People’s Law Office represent Chuck, Delbert and Eddie in the struggle for their freedom. To support the fight, you may donate to the MOVE9 Legal Fund.

Press Contact:

Mike Africa Jr.,MikeAfricaJr [at] gmail.com

Brad Thomson bradjaythomson[at]gmail.com 773-297-9689

 

Federal Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Activist Who Was Assaulted and Arrested at North Versailles

May 8, 2019
PITTSBURGH, PA (May 8, 2019) – The Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien is filing a federal lawsuit against Christopher Kelly (“Kelly”) and Phoenix Theatres Entertainment, LLC (“Phoenix Theatres”) for assaulting and arresting Melanie Carter for recording Kelly—a police officer for the North Versailles Police Department, who was in full uniform at the time of the incident—with her cell phone. The Abolitionist Law Center has also joined as co-counsel. Ms. Carter began recording an incident at Phoenix Theatres where its employees, along with Kelly, were targeting a group of young African American children at Phoenix Stadium 18 at 1701 Lincoln Highway, North Versailles, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania 15137. Ms. Carter filmed the episode because she thought the young African American children were being treated unfairly because of their race after she witnessed Kelly and Phoenix Theatres forcibly remove some of the young children from Phoenix Stadium 18 and overheard them calling the girls “animals.”

Because Ms. Carter recorded the incident, Kelly arrested her by using his larger size to throw her to the concrete, push his body weight into her back with his knee, and shove her face into the concrete multiple times. The next day, Kelly charged Ms. Carter for numerous false criminal charges. All the criminal charges were dismissed at various stages of the criminal process prior to a criminal trial through the assistance of Bret Grote, Esquire and Quinn Cozzens, Esquire of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Ms. Carter—like any other member of the public—has a constitutional right to record police officers conducting official police activity,” said Alec B. Wright, Esquire. “If and when police officers like Christopher Kelly retaliate against members of the public like Carter for recording their activities, then they must be held accountable. That is what this lawsuit seeks to accomplish.”

According to Timothy P. O’Brien, Esquire, “Ms. Carter exercised her right of free speech and did the right thing by recording an abusive police officer. For that, she was violently attacked and falsely arrested and charged for crimes she did not commit. This lawsuit stands up for Ms. Carter and for every other citizen who may speak freely without fear of retaliation. We need more citizens like Ms. Carter and fewer police officers like Christopher Kelly who willingly abuse the powers that we entrust to them.”

Press Contact :
The Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien will be holding interviews on Wednesday, May 9, 2019 at The Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien to discuss this important case. Attorney Wright may be reached at (412) 260-1662 or abw@obrienlawpgh.com.  Attorney Bret Grote may be reached at bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org

Action Alert: Rally Against Family Separation in Allegheny County Criminal Courts

For Immediate Release
April 23, 2019

(Pittsburgh, PA) Rally to  support Joss Deuerling being permitted to seek treatment- not prison – and remain with her newborn baby

Speakers: Representative Summer Lee; Bethany Hallam, plus speakers from ALC, ACLU-PA, Let’s Get Free: Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, FAMM, SWOP Behind Bars, PA Institutional Law Project, and Americans for Prosperity.

A rally and press conference will be held on Friday, April 26 at 12:00 noon in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to speak out against the criminal legal system’s role in separating families and punishing substance abuse disorder. #BringJossHome #TreatmentNotJail 

On February 5, 2019, 31-year-old Joss Deuerling – already a mother of three and 9 months pregnant – was taken to Allegheny County Jail because of a technical probation violation. She had tested positive on a random drug test.

Two days later she gave birth in West Penn Hospital without her partner or any family, not permitted to tell anybody where she was at or that she was in labor, and with an officer from the Sheriff’s Department insisting on staying in the room throughout her birth. She was told by the officer that her partner would be arrested if he tried to come to the hospital. The officers then deprived her of showers for two days after she gave birth and severely restricted the amount of time she was permitted to hold her newborn baby.

After spending the next 6 weeks in ACJ, separated from her 4 children and her partner for a technical violation caused by substance abuse disorder, a medical condition, Court of Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani has decided to revoke her probation and separate her from her family by sending her to state prison.

This is an injustice and we are calling on the community to rally in support of allowing Joss to remain with her family and seek the treatment she wants – and deserves – in her own community.

Relapse is a common part of recovery. Over the last three years Joss has been in treatment. She has been improving and wants to stay drug-free and with her family. A loving environment, family and community support is essential for successful recovery.

Substance abuse disorder should not be criminalized any longer, and the courts and other officials are called upon to handle these cases in therapeutic and medically appropriate ways.

Join us as we rally in support of Joss and her family, protest family separation, and advocate for treating substance abuse disorder as the medical condition it is.

Media Contact: 
Miracle Jones 
(She/Her/Hers)
412-346-6537 (Google voice)
Abolitionist Law Center 
communications@alcenter.org

Civil Rights Advocates Settle Lawsuit With PA Department of Corrections Over Legal Mail Policy

 

March 25, 2019
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Andy Hoover, media@aclupa.org, 717-236-6827 x213
Miracle Jones, communications@alcenter.org, 412-346-6537
Rebecca Susman, rsusman@pailp.org, 412-434-6004

 

HARRISBURG – The team of public interest lawyers who brought two federal civil rights challenges against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for its policy of copying and storing legal mail announced today that they had reached the final terms of a settlement with the department. The settlement was finalized in a filing with the federal district court overseeing the cases.

“We are excited to return our resources to providing confidential legal advice to the thousands of people in DOC custody.” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “Legal mail is a vital form of communication, and we look forward to working with the department to ensure it is reaching our clients in a confidential and efficient manner.”

The lawsuits were filed in October after the department changed its process for handling mail between lawyers and people who are incarcerated in state prisons. Under the new policy, legal mail was opened and then copied in the presence of the prisoner. The prisoner was given the copy while the original was stored in a locked container, which was accessible to prison staff.

Four prisoners’ rights groups – the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project – filed one of the challenges, arguing that the policy compromised confidentiality between lawyers and their clients in state prisons. The second lawsuit was filed by a person who is incarcerated in a state prison. He is represented by lawyers from the four public interest organizations and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

“This policy was a bad idea from the start,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “In the department’s process, there was too much risk that prison staff could read mail between lawyers and their clients. And the department never provided credible evidence that legal mail was a serious source of contraband. We’re grateful that we persuaded the department to step back from this policy.”

In February, a hearing convened before federal Judge John E. Jones III in Harrisburg, and after one day of testimony, settlement talks between the challengers and the department began. After two days of discussions, the department agreed to stop copying and storing legal mail within 45 days.

Today’s filing memorialized the agreement with additional terms. The department has agreed to stop copying prisoners’ legal mail by April 5. The department will also implement additional verification systems for lawyers and courts, which do not raise the same confidentiality concerns as the challenged policy did, according to the plaintiffs. And the organizations that challenged the policy will be allowed to monitor the new legal mail system for two years to ensure that it does not infringe on attorney-client confidentiality or otherwise interfere with attorney-client communications.

“Attorney-client confidentiality should not be collateral damage of the DOC’s war on drugs,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “This legal mail settlement is a necessary first step in ensuring incarcerated persons are able to exercise their constitutional right to counsel without worrying about privacy concerns or their personal information being stored. The DOC should now review their general communication policies to allow loved ones of those who are incarcerated similar possibilities.”

More information about the case, including a copy of today’s settlement agreement, is available at aclupa.org/PILP.

###

Media Release: PA Superior Court Urges PA Supreme Court to Review Whether Avis Lee can Challenge Life-Without-Parole Sentence Imposed at 18 years-old

For Immediate Release

Friday, March 1, 2019: The Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a unanimous en banc decision today disallowing Avis Lee the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of her life without parole sentence, which was imposed for her role as a lookout in armed robbery 39 years ago that resulted in a homicide. The Superior Court held that it was “constrained to affirm” the lower court’s dismissal of Ms. Lee’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Petition on the basis that only the Pennsylvania or United States Supreme Court could permit a consideration of the constitutionality of Ms. Lee’s sentence. In reaching this conclusion the Superior Court wrote: “We would urge our Supreme Court to review this issue in light of the research [on adolescent social and neuro-development] available even since Batts II was decided in 2017.”

Ms. Lee brought this challenge to her decision in March 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that the right established in the 2012 decision of Miller v. Alabama that prohibited mandatory life- without-parole sentences for children younger than 18 years of age applied retroactively to older cases. In Montgomery, the Supreme Court found that the right in Miller was substantive, not merely procedural, and that it prohibited a sentence of life-without-parole – commonly referred to as “Death by Incarceration” – upon any defendant whose crime “reflected the transient immaturity of youth.”

In the Superior Court, Avis was arguing for the right to make an argument, to be heard on the merits on this issue for the first time, as she has never had the chance to argue that her sentence is unconstitutional under the new constitutional standards of Miller and Montgomery. On October 23, 2018, counsel for Avis argued in front of a 9-judge en banc panel that she deserves at least that one opportunity to challenge her sentence under current law, and there is nothing in state or federal law to prohibit that. The Philadelphia courthouse was packed to overflowing with the family members of those serving DBI sentences.

The offense Ms. Lee is currently serving a death-by-incarceration sentence for occurred in November 1979, when she agreed to serve as a lookout in an armed robbery. When the victim attempted to resist her co-defendant and older brother shot him, resulting in his death. Ms. Lee was convicted of 2nd degree felony murder, which in Pennsylvania is defined as a homicide that occurs in the course of another felony. The offense does not require any intent to kill on the part of the defendant, and it carries one penalty – death by incarceration.

Ms. Lee’s 2016 PCRA petition argued that a sentencing court should be required to consider the factors identified by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller and Montgomery in order to determine if her sentence amounted to disproportionate punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The petition contained extensive discussion of the poverty, trauma, and violence that Ms. Lee had been exposed and subjected to since she the very first years of her life. The petition also included copious examples of her exemplary prison record, including going without any prison misconduct for more than a quarter of a century, and her involvement in numerous volunteer and service projects.

Ms. Lee is also widely known and admired for her irrepressible optimism, which she maintains in spite of her circumstances. When informed of today’s opinion, she said: “Thank you for standing by me and continuing to stay strong, because I will [too]. Eventually we will prevail.”

The Abolitionist Law Center represents Ms. Lee, along with Duquesne Law School Professor Tiffany Sizemore and University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Jules Lobel. ALC legal director, Bret Grote, said

We are not surprised by this outcome and have always recognized that ultimately it is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that will determine whether the PCRA statute should be read consistent with its text and purpose and permit Ms. Lee the mere opportunity to argue this issue on the merits. It is beyond dispute that Avis, beloved and respected by all who know her, is serving a sentence that lacks any social or penological purpose. To read the law in such as a way as to keep the courthouse doors forever closed to meritorious claims against permanent punishment is to enshrine a tortured and incorrect formalism over substantive justice. We intend to appeal.

Abolitionist Law Center Communications Director, Miracle Jones, added:

When it comes to fighting against Death-by-Incarceration at the ALC defeat is not an option. We are part of a powerful and growing movement that will not rest until every person sentenced to DBI has the opportunity to return to their families and communities, until the right to redemption becomes the North Star of the justice system.

#FREEAVISLEE


Press Contact:

Miracle Jones
(She/Her/Hers)
412-346-6537 (google voice)
Director of Communications
Abolitionist Law Center
communications@alcenter.org

ACTION ALERT: HEARING SCHEDULED FOR LEGAL MAIL INJUNCTION

The preliminary injunction hearing in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, challenging the PA Department of Corrections new legal mail policy, which involves the photocopying of all attorney-client mail, will begin this Tuesday, February 19 and last through the following Tuesday, February 26.

Plaintiffs are the PA Institutional Law Project, Amistad Law Project, ACLU of PA, Abolitionist Law Center, and Davon Hayes. The hearing seek to compel an injunction of the current legal policy that has essentially prevented attorneys from communicating with their clients.

The hearing is open to the public and is in Judge Jones’s courtroom.

Please be advised, while this hearing is open to the public, there are limited seats available, and communication devices are prohibited during court. 
Additionally, any disruptions or outbursts will not be tolerated during the sessions.

When the government insists that we go along with constitutional violations so they can fight a drug war we have to just say no. Next week we will be in court fighting to take those rights back. ~Bret Grote