On March 20, 2023, the Abolitionist Law Center, the Legal Defense Fund, and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP announced an unprecedented settlement with the City of Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD) violent, militaristic attack on people in West Philadelphia during peaceful protests following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. (This case is one of four arising out of the police violence directed at residents and protestors in West Philadelphia and the I-676 highway in Philadelphia. The others, by additional law firms, include Welch, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, Hough, et al. v City of Philadelphia, and Zolitor, et al. v. City of Philadelphia.)
ALC and co-counsel’s suit, filed in July 2020, challenged the PPD’s extreme response to protests, which included attacking peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets, pepper balls, and chemical munitions, and also harming uninvolved residents of the majority Black neighborhood.
Under the settlement terms for all four cases, the City of Philadelphia has agreed to pay monetary damages totaling $9,250,000 collectively to those who were harmed — one of the largest settlements of its kind in Philadelphia history.
Additionally, the City will:
Disengage from the 1033 federal program which arms state and local law enforcement with military weapons and equipment
Meet every six months with the West Philadelphia community to present data around the Department’s use of force and respond to questions and comments from the community
And commit $500,000 to a fund (to be distributed through a community-led grantmaking process administered by Bread & Roses) that will provide interdisciplinary, trauma-informed counseling to victims of police violence and provide support for and promote community-led programming in the aftermath of police violence and misconduct.
“Instead of protecting us, the Philadelphia Police Department waged war in our streets, tear gassed us, and shot us with rubber bullets. By blanketing a community with tear gas, they haphazardly attacked law-abiding citizens in their homes and on their sidewalks,” said Amelia Carter, a plaintiff in the case. “There should be no place for the militarization of a police department that is supposed to serve us. The settlement’s disengagement from the 1033 program, which arms law enforcement with military equipment, is a welcome start that prioritizes our safety. This settlement represents a significant stride in preventing the police department from being granted the authority to act against its own citizens in the future.”
ALC staff attorney Nia Holston noted, “This landmark settlement provides a singular opportunity for the City to reflect upon the harm it enacted on its residents on that day, harm that echoed Philadelphia’s own history of racism and discriminatory infliction of violence. It is only through the work of the community and the movements that have pushed this city to do better, that we progress to a more just Philadelphia for all who inhabit it. The settlement not only compensates those who were targeted, but provides further opportunity to residents to heal and to continue their work.”
“Often, settlements come in the form of compensating a harmed person without accounting for the damage that police violence does to the whole community,” said Director and Practice Associate Professor of the Advocacy for Racial and Civil (ARC) Justice Clinic Cara McClellan. “This settlement, however, features a recognition of the damage the PPD has done throughout West Philadelphia and it communicates the importance of centering the community in a path towards healing. Today’s settlement sets an important precedent for accountability in future cases.”
Our litigators, organizers, and volunteers, and the larger abolition and decarceration movement we’re part of, have been running at full speed the last few months.
We’ve been in the streets and in the courts, in front of the cameras and behind the scenes, fighting for freedom and an end to state violence.
FREEDOM, FIVE YEARS ON
February 20, 2023 was the five year anniversary of the day that ALC executive director Robert Saleem Holbrook, walked out of SCI Greene after serving 27 years of a death by incarceration sentence for an offense he was involved with as a 16-year-old child. In this essay Saleem reflects on his journey since 2018 (which includes recently being named to the transition team for PA Governor Josh Shapiro), and his unwavering dedication to the people he left behind on the inside, and their families on the outside.
ON THE LEGAL FRONT
In the fall of 2022, ALC and our allies at Civil Rights Corps filed Horton v. Rangos, a major new lawsuit challenging the illegal detention of hundreds of people in the Allegheny County Jail. The suit claims that the manner in which the County detains individuals accused of violating the conditions of their probation is unconstitutional, leading to excessive pre-trial incarceration.
People accused of having violated their probation – whether for technical reasons such as not attending a required meeting, or for allegedly committing new offenses – are often detained pending a probation violation hearing, which can take months and even sometimes years to be scheduled. Even if a judge sets bail, people held pursuant to probation detainers must remain incarcerated. Probation detainers are the primary driver of pretrial incarceration at the Allegheny County Jail.
The lawsuit alleges that when probation hearing officers are ruling on whether to lift people’s detainers (that is, whether to release them from incarceration), the officers do not consider any evidence and do not make any findings about whether there’s a good reason to jail the person. Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that in certain categories of cases, the hearing officers apply a mandatory detention policy; no matter the facts or circumstances, they refuse to lift the probation detainers.
In October 2022, ALC filed a motion for preliminary injunction asking defendants (including Adult Probation and Judges Rangos, Bigley, and Mariani) to cease those mandatory detention practices. A hearing on that motion is coming up in April, as we continue building a powerful case to end these egregiously unconstitutional and repressive practices in Allegheny County.
In other ALC legal news:
Advocacy group sues Lackawanna County election board over solitary confinement ballot question: In the run-up to the Nov 2022 elections, more than 13,000 Lackawanna County residents signed a petition to place on the ballot a referendum seeking to curtail the use of solitary confinement at the county jail. When election officials refused to place the question on the November ballot, ALC sued on behalf of residents who were denied the right to hold a referendum about conditions in their local prison. The lower court dismissed the case on Jan 31, 2023. In early March, we filed an appeal to ensure that the residents of Lackawanna County can make social and political decisions concerning their local carceral facilities and residents in other Pennsylvania counties can do the same. The fight continues!
There is a deadly crisis in Philadelphia’s jails. Our community members are being abused and neglected, and just during the pandemic time period alone, 29 people have died.
ALC is working on legislation to establish a Prison Oversight Board over Philly’s four jails to create oversight, transparency, and accountability where currently none exists. Our vision is that the Board will be an independent civilian body whose members will include those who are the experts on Philly’s carceral system — formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones — who will have the power to investigate abuses, audit prison practices and policies, and have full access to the facilities.
The campaign to end abuses at the Allegheny County Jail remains the primary focus of our Pittsburgh-area organizing work presently. We’re continuing to engage relentlessly with jail oversight board meetings and board members, educate the community on carceral issues, and build a coalition with our partners at APA (Alliance for Police Accountability).
We’ve been advocating for incarcerated people to receive medicine while caged at the jail; organizing court support for people who have hearings; and focusing especially on the children incarcerated at the ACJ, as well as those with psychiatric and other disabilities, whose conditions tend to be catastrophically exacerbated by confinement at the jail.
And in another form of advocacy, we’re lifting up this fundraiser to buy a headstone for Gerald Thomas, who died at ACJ a year ago, and whose experience was detailed in the ALC report, “Death-Making Institutions.”
SPOTLIGHT ON AN EMERGING LEADER
Sergio “Serg” Hyland joined ALC’s staff as the executive assistant in 2022, several months after being released following two decades in prison.
While inside, Serg pursued an education; was mentored by ALC’s first client, political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz; and became a published writer and a correspondent for Prison Radio.
Today Serg is still a writer. He’s also an in-demand speaker, a political organizer, and the editor-in-chief of The Movement magazine of the Human Rights Coalition.
In addition to all of these activities, Serg was recently named to the Emerging Leaders Corp, a new collaborative learning program just launched by the Pew Charitable trust. This initiative “aims to help rising Philadelphia leaders tackle some of the city’s biggest challenges by strengthening their ability to use data effectively to assess policy options and inform decision-making… Over the course of the sessions, participants will also develop their visions for the city’s future. And the program will culminate with participants sharing their action plans for advancing those visions through continued learning, collaboration, and advocacy with policymakers and civic leaders.”
We send a huge shout-out to this dynamic and driven member of our staff!
In February 2023, ALC turned 10! We’re working on plans to celebrate a decade of freeing people and fighting state violence, and we’ll share more news about that as the year unfolds.
As we look at where we’ve been and where we’re headed, we gratefully acknowledge the vital role our community plays in enhancing and sustaining our work. And we’re counting on our supporters to invest in another decade of decarceration.
Five years ago today, I was released from SCI-Greene after serving 27 years of a life without parole sentence that was imposed on me for an offense I was convicted of as a child. Initially sentenced to die in prison, my release was the result of an international campaign to end the practice of sentencing children to life without parole. That effort culminated in the United States Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama in 2012, which held that sentencing children to mandatory life without parole sentences is unconstitutional. It took four more years of work by activists on the ground in Pennsylvania, and across the country, to make that ruling retroactive so that it applied to me and others like me.
I am proud to have been a part of that campaign and even prouder that my sister, Anita Colon, was one of the activists at the forefront of ending mandatory life without parole sentences for children. However, I was never in this fight for personal freedom alone, nor was my sister. It was always about the movement and justice.
I was released from prison on Tuesday, February 20th. On Wednesday, the 21st, the first thing I did was go to a general meeting of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration. I still vividly remember walking into the old, dank recreation center at 7th & Diamond Street, and being embraced by dozens of family members and comrades.
I remember being overwhelmed with emotion thinking about my mother, who did not live to see my release, but had fought for her son like every mother in that room. I remember telling them that they should never for a moment believe that what they were doing wasn’t making a difference, because 20 years prior, my mom was just like them, going to meetings to advocate and agitate for her child’s release. And my mother sitting in those Fight For Lifers meetings in 1992 helped build a movement that led to my release in 2018.
On March 1st, 2018, a week after that CADBI meeting, I started working as an organizer and paralegal at the Abolitionist Law Center, an organization I helped create while still incarcerated. Along with my comrades from the Amistad Law Project, I hit the ground running in Philadelphia. Since then we’ve been striving relentlessly to bring abolition to the masses by prioritizing releasing people from extreme sentences and dismantling the carceral state. We do this not just by advocating, lobbying, or litigating but also by building the political power of families of the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and marginalized communities.
While we celebrate this announcement and acknowledge how far we have come as a movement, to have reached this place where we are influencing the governor’s criminal justice reform priorities, we are not satisfied. The abolishment of capital punishment in Pennsylvania would be for us, another milestone on the road to decarceration and abolition.
I exited prison with a singular determination and commitment to fight against mass incarceration just as relentlessly and boldly as its proponents fought to keep me behind bars, and to prioritize the leadership of currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families. When I walked out of those gates, I left men who I spent more time on this earth with than my own mother or father – men who helped raise and protect me when I was a juvenile thrown into a state prison system. I left mentors, I left friends, and I left comrades who stood with me, back against the wall, fighting for our lives in prison yards and cell blocks.
I didn’t learn about abolition in the abstract. I wake up every morning with my mind on those people still inside and their families. Never for a moment will I forget that the Abolitionist Law Center and Straight Ahead owe our power to these families. They are our constituents, and as executive director it is to them I am answerable. And having recently become a father myself – something the state tried to deprive me of – I now feel even more driven to raise a son in a society free of racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, oppression, and incarceration.
My lived experience compels me to this fight. I’m immensely proud of having become the executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center in 2020, and establishing its 501(c)(4) legislative arm, Straight Ahead, in 2021. And as long as I hold these roles, I’ll approach them with the unwavering commitment to boldly and unapologetically fight to dismantle the carceral state, win abolition, and reunify the families of our movement.
January 26, 2023, Pittsburgh: The Abolitionist Law Center is demanding that the Allegheny County Jail provide immediate medical care for Denzelle Kendrick, a medically vulnerable individual currently incarcerated at the facility.
Mr. Kendrick has suffered his entire life from sickle cell disease, which often results in severe episodes of pain that can develop into seizures, stroke, and death if untreated. Dr. Ines Kanandra reportedly discontinued Mr. Kendrick’s prescribed pain medications in August 2022, leading to numerous such pain episodes for Mr. Kendrick. In total, he reports approximately 30 such episodes and 6 seizures since he was transferred to ACJ in July 2022. In all of these instances, correctional staff and/or medical staff have, at best, an extremely delayed response. Often, there is no medical response at all.
“The jail is withholding medication for his life threatening illness that he was born with, Sickle Cell,” said Cadiadra Kendrick, mother of Denzelle Kendrick. “I had to watch a YouTube where three medical emergencies were called and no medical aid was rendered while my child was unresponsive. This is totally neglectful.”
The videos Cadiadra Kendrick describes were uploaded by another incarcerated individual, James Byrd, and depict an incident on or around December 4, 2022 wherein Mr. Kendrick requested to be seen immediately by medical staff due to feeling on the verge of an impending sickle cell pain episode. He was ignored by medical staff until his situation had become so severe that he had to be taken out in a stretcher, despite laying on the floor of his cell unresponsive for over an hour.
“It is concerning that, but for the leaked videos, we would never have learned of Mr. Kendrick’s situation,” said ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu. “It’s clear that ACJ appears more focused on punishing anyone who makes them look bad rather than providing anything resembling adequate medical care. There are, undeniably, countless others with similar experiences who the public will never hear about.”
Due to the grossly inadequate medical response in these incidences, and the jail’s failure to provide Mr. Kendrick with his prescribed medications, we sent the attached letter to Warden Harper’s counsel, an assistant county solicitor, on Tuesday, January 24, 2023, demanding appropriate care moving forward and an investigation into Dr. Kanandra’s conduct.
See below for the full letter with additional details.
As I often recount, I was a 16-year-old child when I was arrested. My offense resulted in me being sentenced as an adult, to spend the rest of my life behind bars, with no chance for parole.
I survived decades in Pennsylvania state prisons, including around 10 years in solitary confinement, because of the fierce advocacy of my family, and the support I received inside from mentors and Black Liberation Movement elders who were already decades into their sentences when my incarceration began.
Twenty seven years later, in 2018, I stepped out of SCI Greene after the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing children to automatic life without the possibility of parole is cruel, unnecessary, inhumane, and unconstitutional.
When I won my freedom I immediately joined the staff of the Abolitionist Law Center in my native Philadelphia, finally working on the outside with the people I’d been building with for years from the inside. Two years later I became ALC’s Executive Director.
Since then, ALC has experienced tremendous growth and vital progress in our work to combat the harms of the criminal punishment system.
And we’ve become leaders in the movement to radically alter the landscape around mass incarceration and related issues in the all-important swing state of Pennsylvania.
So today, I’m asking for you to stand with us by making a tax-deductible contribution to ALC to show that you care about people like me and you want to end the racist, classist prison system that has shattered the lives of so many others from communities like mine.
As an ALC supporter, you know that we employ two broad tactics in our fight for freedom: we’re both a non-profit, public interest law firm, and a grassroots community organizing project.
We wield class action, impact, and accompaniment litigation. We mount pressure campaigns and mobilize affected communities. And we reshape the narratives around the criminal punishment system, and target every point on its conveyor belt: policing, the courts, cash bail, probation, parole, jails, and prisons.
In 2022 ALC has continued making progress achieving sweeping changes to carceral policies around restricting solitary confinement, challenging death by incarceration (life without parole), and defending the rights of imprisoned people with disabilities, and those who need psychiatric treatment and other medical care.
We’ve ratcheted up our scale and pace of bringing people home…like Bradford Gamble, an elder suffering from Stage 4 cancer, who after decades behind bars, faced the excruciating scenario of having to decline medical treatment in prison in order to qualify for “compassionate release” to spend his final days at home with family.
We’ve kept fighting to limit incarceration in the first place, and protect those who are trapped behind bars, especially the most vulnerable like those with mental illness who are often brutalized and subjected to solitary and other forms of torture.
And we’ve extracted financial resources from carceral institutions and redirected them to those the system has harmed.
People who are currently or formerly incarcerated and their loved ones are the leaders here. Folks who are directly impacted by state violence are building the strategic alliances and power to end it. But to succeed, we know we need a broad community standing with us as we fight for freedom.
Pennsylvania is a key battleground state and the stakes couldn’t be higher. So I’m personally inviting you:
Join us. Help us.
Renew your commitment as a member of our abolitionist family. Please donate to decarcerate today and for abolition tomorrow.
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 Corpsis 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.
Cheryl Bonacci Civil Rights Corps email@example.com
Dolly Prabhu Abolitionist Law Center firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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 PASuperior 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.
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
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.
Banning Solitary & Other Extreme Conditions of Confinement
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 Sourceprofile 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.
Jaclyn Kurin, Abolitionist Law Center, (703)-850-8914, email@example.com
Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, PA Institutional Law Project, (412) 434-6175 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.