We’re fighting & winning in PA, and we need your help!

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 confinementchallenging 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.

Robert Saleem Holbrook
Executive Director

MEDIA RELEASE: Preliminary Injunction Filed to Prevent “Silencing Act” from Stopping Prisoners’ Speech

January 8, 2015 – A motion for a preliminary injunction was filed today in the ongoing lawsuit, Abu-Jamal v. Kane, challenging a Pennsylvania censorship law intended to silence Mumia Abu-Jamal and others convicted of personal injury crimes.

The Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law filed the preliminary injunction motion today to stop enforcement of the law. The law firms represent Mumia Abu-Jamal, Prison Radio, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, Robert L. Holbrook, Donnell Palmer, Anthony Chance, and Human Rights Coalition in the lawsuit filed November 10, 2014 against Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU) filed a similar lawsuit and preliminary injunction today.

The Silencing Act, also known as 18 P.S. § 11.1304, allows the Attorney General, county District Attorneys, and victims of personal injury crimes to bring a lawsuit in civil court against the person convicted of the personal injury crime to enjoin conduct that “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim”. The actions that could prompt a lawsuit include “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”

“This law is unconstitutional,” said David Shapiro of MacArthur Justice Center. “The facts are on our side and the law is on our side. The ‘Silencing Act’ targets a huge amount of constitutionally protected speech based on who is speaking.”

After a prerecorded commencement speech by journalist and prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was played for graduates at Goddard College in Vermont, the Pennsylvania legislature passed and outgoing Governor Corbett signed into law the “Silencing Act” on October 21st, 16 days after the commencement speech.

Abu-Jamal has spent 33 years in prison, 29 of which were in solitary confinement on death row after being convicted at a 1982 trial that Amnesty International said “failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.”

Robert L. Holbrook, who is serving a death by incarceration (life without parole) sentence he received as a child, had this to say about the law: “there are people in prison who will stop writing, stop publishing, stop speaking out because of this law.”

“Silencing prisoners is one more way of dehumanizing them,” said Amistad Law Project Policy Director Nikki Grant. “We need the voices of the marginalized to shed light on injustice.”


Plaintiffs’ Brief in Support of Motion for Preliminary Injunction in Jamal v. Kane



Noelle Hanrahan                  globalaudiopi@gmail.com                                                      415-706-5222

Bret Grote                              bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org                                    412-654-9070

Ashley Henderson                ashley@amistadlaw.org                                                          215-310-0424

David Shapiro                       david.shapiro@law.northwestern.edu                                  312-503-0711

Court Rules Human Rights Coalition’s Censorship Suit Can Go Forward


Federal Court Denies Motion to Dismiss and Grants Motion to Amend Complaint in Human Rights Coalition’s Censorship Lawsuit

A challenge to prison censorship of political and human rights literature in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has seen two favorable developments in the past month.

On Thursday, May 15, United States Federal District court ruled that a lawsuit challenging censorship of political literature in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections will go forward. The court denied the defense’s request to dismiss some of the censorship claims and all of the supervisory officials named as defendants.

On June 13, the court granted plaintiffs’ motion to amend and supplement the original complaint, adding new claims for relief and one new defendant: DOC Secretary John Wetzel. The new complaint adds due process challenges claiming that prison officials failed to provide non-prisoners with notice and an opportunity to challenge when prison staff censor their mail. Additional claims challenge the criteria used by the DOC to justify censorship as being impermissibly vague, permitting prison staff to impose arbitrary standards when making censorship decisions.

Plaintiffs are seeking monetary and injunctive relief.

The lawsuit, Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al., was filed in January on behalf of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC), prisoner Robert Saleem Holbrook, and College of Charleston Professor Kristi Brian against several employees of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Coal Township and the DOC for confiscation of mail sent to Holbrook, a co-founder of HRC who is currently held at SCI Coal Township.

The suit details a series of confiscations of Holbrook’s mail since January 2012 that includes academic correspondence with a college professor, scholarly essays from the anthology If They Come in the Morning, a Black history book, and a newsletter published by HRC, The Movement, which focuses on prison abuse, solitary confinement, and ways that prisoners’ family members can come together to challenge human rights abuses and injustice in the criminal legal system.

Plaintiffs are represented in the case by the Abolitionist Law Center, and David Shapiro, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law at the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law.


Amended Complaint – Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al.





Who is Robert Saleem Holbrook and Why Should We Care?

by Doran Larson

In 1841, George Thompson, an American abolitionist held in a Missouri jail with his comrades for attempting to accompany slaves into freedom, wrote, “In my journal, I recorded for all.” Every writer in prison does as much. No word spoken or written, no occasional thought, no experience that passes inside a prison cell fails to speak to and of the collective, institutionalized suffering of those held in cages. The prison writer alone can offer us the raw experience of state-sponsored suffering; s/he alone can cast light into the deepest reaches of the dungeons we have convinced ourselves must run beneath our feet to secure law and order. Without the witness borne by imprisoned writers and thinkers, abolitionist efforts from the outside would be as groundless as the terror wrought in the hearts of those who vote for prison expansion. Without such witness, without testimony to the true depths of legalized suffering that we support or tolerate at any moment, the abolitionist working outside of the physical bounds of legalized suffering could not offer realistic alternatives to the status quo; the prison writer alone can provide the negative example required in order to imagine the ethical horizon that the abolitionist fights for even while yet not fully imaginable: one centered on the welfare of all rather than on a circle of exile wherein the lawbreaker is expected to pay in suffering for whatever suffering s/he has caused in the free-world.

This is an impossible debt. Pain cannot push out pain. Suffering never alleviated suffering. Yet the very impossibility of its purpose perpetuates the prison as an institution: one, like the debtor’s prison, wherein restoration of any damage done to other persons can never be earned. In such a bind, working for abolition from either side of an insoluble paradox, every word written, every action taken by the abolitionist bears witness to that morally intolerable situation under which the secured (white, affluent) population lives ‘naturally’, convinced that eyes must be plucked for eyes plucked, that there will always be crime and criminals, and—most importantly—that without the suffering both experienced within, and signified by the prison, law would have no meaning.

Writing directed against the prison from without, like every word written from within, is testament that the law in fact has no clothes that are not a weaving of iron bars, and batons, shackles and the layers of state-issued documents by which violence is legalized. For the object of this violence, as is true for writing from the death camps, there is no purely personal statement. In writing a commissary list, sketching a scene of river and trees, a note passed backhanded to a prisoner shaking off the cold of the yard by one passing into its chill, the prison is papered in documents of what socially organized suffering has wrought in human souls. When the writer in prison comes to awareness of the political situation and established economic order of which the prison is a symptom, and then comes further to see that this symptom is also the ballast to a ship of legalized injustice, then the world takes note. We outside will admire the flowers born from suffering—the plays and poems and prose that celebrate penance and redemption. But when the writer plows the earth in which that suffering is meant to burgeon, we are forced to witness the bones upon bones upon which our politics and capital stand. This is a writer dangerous only to our complacency in a state-making institution whose authority finally resides in its ability and willingness to mete out pain.

In 2009, in order to make such witness available to the public, a research assistant and I began soliciting non-fiction essays by currently incarcerated Americans willing to write about their experience inside. One of the first responses to our call looked like a photocopy from a webpage, topped by the black and white profile of Eastern State Penitentiary’s medieval ramparts. This month, four years and six months after that early submission arrived, it and seventy other essays, from writers held in twenty-seven states, was published by Michigan State University Press as Fourth City: Essays from the American Prison. Robert Saleem Holbrook’s essay, “From Public Enemy to Enemy of the State,” appears in a section of the book titled “Community Activists.”

Had Mr. Saleem Holbrook written nothing else in his life, his essay would have announced him as one of those voices we desperately need in order to understand the moral costs and collective debt we all incur each day we practice incarceration. The state of Pennsylvania clearly agrees with this assessment. Having censored materials and withheld mail it deems a threat to security—which is to say a threat to the barriers the state wants to maintain between prisoners seeking solidarity, and between prisoners and prisoner-rights advocates outside—the state of Pennsylvania is being sued. Mr. Holbrook writes, “It is not the information contained in these newsletters that the prison censor fears, because none of the material is threatening or inflammatory. What angers the censor and the prison administration is that prisoners are taking the initiative to challenge their imprisonment and conditions of confinement without apology! On the pages of these publications, prisoners are demonstrating that they possess a voice and are ensuring that their voice be heard.”

In Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al, we have a rare opportunity. I would say this is an opportunity to see justice done if this were not unfolding inside the world’s leading prison state, a state built on conditions of penal apartheid in which white affluence enjoys protection not only by the law but from the law that takes its lucrative vengeance out on the poor, and true justice is decades beyond the reach of our eyes toward an alternative state order. Rather, this case offers an opportunity to assess whether the apparatus of law can be turned back against its own foundations in the silencing of those who know the depth of pain in which the law is founded. Mr. Holbrook’s essay in Fourth City tracks his transition from a young man who fit well into the profile of black lawlessness that police unions and politicians, as well as the police-court-prison industries and for-profit media must cut out of the lives of poor men of color in order to broadcast enough fear into white middle-class voters to keep local, state, and federal security funding flowing. Since Barry Goldwater translated segregation into law and order in backlash against the civil rights movement, and Nixon and Clinton against the Black Power and other peoples’ empowerment movements, the “Public Enemy” Mr. Holbrook represented has served as linchpin holding mass incarceration together—an incarceration regime that is this nation’s largest public works, public employment, and public housing effort of the late 20th and 21st centuries. Mr. Holbrook has pounded the linchpin into a pen. He has stood up to hold the state accountable for the living deaths upon which it stands. The state’s response is that the dead should not speak. And the dead should never speak back against the apparatus and bases and effects of its animated killing.

Mr. Holbrook needs support in fighting this case. But more profoundly than he needs us, we need his voice freed to speak its truth if we ever hope to clear away the layered rhetoric and raw material power that prison-building special interests and political opportunists use to obscure the truth about what our prisons do, who they hold, and the moral costs of mass incarceration.

Doran Larson is the editor of Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America.  He has organized college programs now running inside Mohawk Correctional Facility and Attica Correctional Facility, where he has facilitated a writing workshop since 2006.  He is professor of English & Creative Writing at Hamilton College, where he directs the on-going construction of The American Prison Writing Archive, a digital archive of first-person essays by imprisoned people, prison workers, and volunteers offering witness to to prison conditions today.

JURIST Podcast Interviews ALC on First and Eighth Amendment Rights in the Prisons

[soundcloud url=”http://soundcloud.com/wpts-productions/jurist-podcast-episode-4″]


Representatives from the Abolitionist Law Center joined JURIST podcast moderator Ian Everhart to discuss their efforts at reform in the Pennsylvania criminal justice and prison system in this episode. ALC Executive Director Bret Grote and ALC staff attorney Dustin McDaniel shared information about their organization, the mission of which is to abolish “class and race based mass incarceration in the United States.”

Grote and McDaniel shared information about Russell Maroon Shoatz, currently a plaintiff in a case filed by the ALC against the state prison system. Shoatz was convicted of homicide in the 1970s, escaped from prison twice and was placed in solitary confinement after he became involved with a prisoners’ rights movement as an inmate. Grote and McDaniel argue that the state prison system’s treatment of Shoatz, who has now spent decades in solitary confinement with no history of disciplinary problems, is unconstitutional. The ALC is currently raising funds for this and other solitary confinement cases.

Grote and McDaniel also discussed a case involving inmates’ First Amendment rights to receive news and other material related to prisoners’ rights. Holbrook v. Jellen challenges the way prison censors restrict mail sent to inmates; in particular, they object to the prison officials’ determination that certain politically-oriented documents are likely to encourage disruptions among the prison population.

Voices from the Inside: Co-Editor of The Movement on Holbrook v. Jellen (Audio)

January 16, 2014: SCI Rockview – A statement about Holbrook v. Jellen by Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall was recently recorded by  Noelle Hanrahan and posted at Prison Radio. Shakaboona is a wrongly convicted prisoner with a juvenile life sentence, who has been incarcerated for more than a quarter of a century. He is one of many imprisoned human rights activist in Pennsylvania, and is the Co-editor of The Movement, a newsletter published by the Human Rights Coalition.

The audio segment can be listened to here: Abolitionist Law Center Files Lawsuit Over Censorship (6:31) Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall

Abolitionist Law Center files suit against PA prison officials on behalf of Robert Saleem Holbrook, Human Rights Coalition, and Professor Kristi Brian


MEDIA RELEASE: Human Rights Coalition sues prison officials for censoring political dissent and human rights advocacy

January 9, 2014: Philadelphia, PA — The Human Rights Coalition (HRC), politicized prisoner Robert Saleem Holbrook, and College of Charleston Professor Kristi Brian brought a lawsuit yesterday against several employees of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Coal Township and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) for confiscation of mail sent to Holbrook, a co-founder of HRC currently held at SCI Coal Township.

“Today HRC is going on the offensive to fight back against prison censorship,” editor of The Movement and HRC-Philadelphia activist Patricia Vickers stated. “It is long overdue that prison officials are held to account for their attempts to silence those who speak out against this abusive system. The rights, health, and lives of our loved ones are at stake.”

The suit, Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al., filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, details a series of confiscations of Holbrook’s mail since January 2012 that includes academic correspondence with a college professor and issues of The Movement, essays written by Angela Y. Davis and James Baldwin, a newsletter published by HRC which focuses on prison abuse, solitary confinement, and ways that prisoners’ family members can come together to challenge human rights abuses and injustice in the criminal legal system.

The content of the materials censored by SCI Coal Township and Central Office officials touch on the most vital issues of the operation of the prison system in Pennsylvania: juveniles sentenced to die in prison, deaths in solitary confinement, repression of human rights defenders inside prisons, advocacy efforts by families of prisoners, and the pervasive racism that defines the criminal legal system in Pennsylvania and the U.S. In this context, freedom of thought, speech, and association carry life or death consequences.

Plaintiff Robert Saleem Holbrook, a 39-year-old prisoner who is serving a sentence of life-without-parole for a conviction imposed when he was 16-years-old, wrote about prison censorship in an article published in October 2012, “Censorship on the Prison Plantation: Extinguishing Dissent”:

“[T]he prison mailroom supervisor at the prison I am incarcerated in (SCI Coal Township) reflexively denies all books by Black/Latino authors that provide a radical critique of prisons, as well as all publications that contain articles written by prisoners that critique prisons from an adversarial position. Every issue of the Human Rights Coalition newsletter “The Movement” has been denied by this institution, as well as informational brochures and flyers related to HRC’s advocacy on behalf of prisoners. It is not the information contained in these newsletters that the prison censor fears, because none of the material is threatening or inflammatory. What angers the censor and the prison administration is that prisoners are taking the initiative to challenge their imprisonment and conditions of confinement without apology! On the pages of these publications, prisoners are demonstrating that they possess a voice and are ensuring that their voice be heard.”

“This lawsuit challenges the ability of PA DOC officials to target political dissent and human rights defenders with arbitrary censorship,” said Bret Grote, an attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center representing the plaintiffs in the case. “The First Amendment protections at stake extend far beyond the confines of this particular case, and touch upon the daily lives of millions of people in this country who are in prison or who communicate with people in prison.”

Complaint – Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al.

Contact:           Patricia Vickers           hrc.philly.support@gmail.com                        267-331-6001

Bret Grote                   bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org                412-654-9070