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

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.

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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

Media Alert: Community Pre-Trial Press Conference for Blak Rapp Madusa on January 10 to Highlight the Disparities and Injustices Facing Black Women and Girls.

 

For Immediate Release

January 08, 2019

(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Over the last couple of weeks, the national discourse has been on highlighting the realities that Black Women face. From #survivingrkelly to #jasminebarnes to #metoo,Black women have asked the community at large to stand up and protect Black women and that discourse is true right here in Allegheny County from #JadeMartin to the women incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail.

But what happens when one protects or tries to defend Black women? Well, if you are Blak Rapp Madusa (Melanie Carter), you get violently taken to the ground and arrested for standing up for black girls. In a viral video,  Blak Rapp intervened on behalf of young Black teen girls who were being violently removed by a local officer. After hearing the girls being dehumanized and called “animals”, Blak Rapp tried to intervene on their behalf. Blak Rapp stood up for Black girls and is now fighting for their freedom. Blak Rapp was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, defiant trespassing and failure to disperse even though the manager was fired, and the district attorney admitted the incident “does raise concerns.” These charges are indicative of the barrier’s individuals face while trying to protect Black women and girls from violence and injustice. Blak Rapp is being represented by the Abolitionist Law Center.

On January 10 at 9:30 AM BLAK RAPP MADUSA will go on trial at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas with Judge Cashman presiding. Prior to the trial, a press conference is scheduled for 8:30 AM. Per Blak Rapp’s request (due to the violent threats they continue to receive), the press conference will not only include brief remarks about their case but also the plight of Black women and girls in Allegheny County. In highlighting the injustices facing Black Women and girls the press conference will include remarks from the following:

Blak Rapp Madusa: Survivor of violence, Community organizer and artist. Blak uses their talent to highlight injustices and inspire creativity.

Kelli Shaker: Survivor of violence and Founder of FroGang an organization that seeks to inspire and encourage young black girls to love themselves and accomplish their goals.

Jade Martin: Mother and survivor of violence. She made headlines last year after being assaulted in a pizzeria.

Brandi Fisher: President of the Alliance for Police Accountability (APA) is dedicated to criminal justice reconstruction and putting an end to police brutality and racial profiling through advocacy, education, and policy.

Nicky Jo Dawson: Community organizer and founder of BLAQK OPS an organization that seeks to empower and educate the local community on their history and their rights.

Miracle Jones: Director of Communications for the Abolitionist Law Center a Pittsburg based legal nonprofit that works to end mass incarceration.

Additionally, supporters of Blak RAPP will be wearing purple and red to show support as they go on trial and will be using the hashtags #JusticeforBlakRAPP, #protectblackwomen, #rehumanizeBlackwomen to show their support.

JUSTICE FOR BLAK RAPP
Thursday JANUARY 10, 2019
8:20 AM Press Conference
9:00 AM Pack the Court
Administrative Judge David Cashman’s room
308 Allegheny County Courthouse
436 Grant Street 15219

Press Contact:

Miracle Jones, Director of Communications, Abolitionist Law Center, Communications@alcenter.org.

Melanie Carter Habeas Corpus petition – Filed

Melanie Carter – Preliminary Hearing Transcript

Media Release: Legal Advocates Challenge Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ New Procedures for Legal Mail

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 30, 2018

 

CONTACT: Andy Hoover, media@aclupa.org, 717-236-6827 x213

 

HARRISBURG— The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP filed two federal civil rights lawsuits today challenging the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (DOC) new policy of copying and retaining confidential mail from attorneys to their prisoner clients.  The lawsuits, one on behalf of the four organizations and a related one for a DOC prisoner, claim that the practice violates the First Amendment rights of the organizations’ attorneys and DOC prisoners to confidential legal communications.

 

The new policy follows a 12-day lockdown of all state prisons last month, which the DOC alleges was necessary to protect guards from “unknown substances” that have entered the facilities.

 

In an attempt to prevent these “unknown substances” from entering state prisons through the mail, DOC officials have been confiscating all incoming legal mail and holding it for 45 days, only allowing prisoners a photocopy of their correspondence. This policy interferes with the ability of prisoners and lawyers to discuss legal matters confidentially.

 

“No other corrections institution in the nation screens and duplicates legal mail in this way,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Attorney-client privilege is a cornerstone of legal representation. The Department of Corrections’ new mail policy undermines that privilege in violation of First Amendment protections for both the prisoners and their attorneys.”

 

The two lawsuits, which are separate but are likely to be consolidated, allege that DOC’s changes to processing legal mail are unwarranted and unnecessary because there’s no evidence that legal mail is a major source of illegal drugs.  The suits claim DOC’s new legal mail policy is an “exaggerated, irrational response to a non-problem that deprives Plaintiff legal organizations of an indispensable – and often the only viable — means of communicating with their imprisoned clients, thereby seriously undermining the lawyers’ ability to provide zealous and effective legal representation.”

 

“The DOC concocted an emergency and rolled out all of these policies at once while completely lacking any examples of drugs getting into PA prisons through attorneys and the mail we send to our imprisoned clients,” said Kris Henderson, legal director of Amistad Law Project.

 

The challenged policy is part of a number of new restrictions imposed by DOC on prisoners’ access to mail, visitors, and books and publications. Prisoners are not permitted to receive original copies of any mail and are currently prohibited from ordering books or publications.

 

“These post lockdown policies represent a devastating shift in Pennsylvania’s prisons,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney at Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “By interfering with legal mail, preventing people from holding onto cards and letters from loved ones and limiting their access to reading materials, the DOC has entered a new regime of isolation, further separating incarcerated people from meaningful access to the outside world.”

 

“These new policies, as well as the shock and awe manner in which they were implemented, now place the Pennsylvania DOC as the national vanguard when it comes to repressing the First Amendment rights of the incarcerated and their families, communities, and correspondents,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center.

 

“Attorneys are ethically required to keep communications with their clients confidential, and when that is threatened, they must act to prevent unauthorized access to those communications. Because of these requirements, and the new Pennsylvania policy on legal mail, public defenders, other attorneys and legal organizations have ceased communicating by mail with their incarcerated clients,” said Keith E. Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP. “This is a tremendous hardship and interferes with the attorney-client relationship.”

 

The lawsuits, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project v. Wetzel and Hayes v. Wetzel, were filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. The plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center; Deneekie Grant and Kris Henderson of the Amistad Law Project; Angus Love and Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Danielle Bruno, Stephanie Short, Paul Titus, and Keith E. Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

 

The complaints are available at aclupa.org/PILP.

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MEDIA RELEASE: MOVE 9 Member Mike Africa Released on Parole After 40 Years in Prison

October 23, 2018

Earlier today, MOVE member Mike Africa was released from prison after 40 years of incarceration. Mike was released on parole from SCI Phoenix in Skippak Township this morning.

Mike was imprisoned since August 8, 1978, following an altercation between the Philadelphia police and the MOVE Organization. Mike is one of 9 MOVE members, collectively known as the “MOVE 9,” who were convicted and sentenced to 30-100 years in prison following the altercation.

Mike’s wife Debbie Africa was also one of the MOVE 9. Debbie was eight months pregnant at the time of the incident and gave birth in jail to their son, Mike Africa Jr. Mike Sr. has been incarcerated for his son’s entire life and today was the first opportunity for the father and son to spend time together outside of prison.

Mike Sr. and his wife Debbie maintained their relationship despite both being in incarcerated and separated from one other for 40 years. In June of this year, Debbie became the first member of the MOVE 9 to be released from prison. Today marks the first time that Mike Sr., Debbie and their son Mike Jr. have ever spent time all together.

 

“After being born in jail and never being with my parents, I’m happy to be with my mom and dad at home for the first time ever in forty years,” said Mike Africa, Jr. He continued “But this struggle isn’t over. There are still MOVE members behind bars who deserve to be reunited with their families and loved ones, just like my mom and dad can now be with me and the rest of their family.”

 

Mike Sr. has been eligible for parole since 2008 and went before the Pennsylvania Board or Probation and Parole (PBPP) for the tenth time in September of this year. Mike’s legal team submitted a packet in support of his parole petition, detailing Mike’s exemplary prison record, his educational accomplishments in prison and over 75 letters in support of parole. These included letters from religious leaders, retired DOC staff who knew him personally and former prisoners who described the positive influence Mike had on them. Mike also received recommendations for parole from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), Corrections expert and former DOC Secretary Martin Horn, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

 

One of Mike’s lawyers, Brad Thomson, of the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, said, “Mike’s record in prison was exceptional and demonstrated that he was an excellent candidate for parole. With this decision, the Parole Board recognizes that Mike, like Debbie, and the rest of the MOVE 9, poses absolutely no threat to the community.” Thomson went on to say, “This victory would not have been possible without the decades of organizing and advocacy spearheaded by the MOVE organization and their supporters.”

 

Bret Grote, of Abolitionist Law Center, another lawyer for the MOVE 9, stated, “This historic release of Mike Africa renders the Parole Board’s decision to deny the rest of the MOVE 9 all the more incomprehensible. For example, Janet and Janine Africa have both maintained DOC records that are as exemplary as Mike’s and essentially identical to that of Debbie, yet they were inexplicably denied parole this past May.” Grote and Thomson recently filed petitions for habeas corpus on behalf of Janet and Janine in federal court, challenging their parole denials.

 

In addition to Janet and Janine, three other members of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated, as two (Merle Africa and Phil Africa) died in custody. All five surviving members of the MOVE 9 (Janet, Janine, Chuck, Eddie and Delbert Africa) have been eligible for parole since 2008 and have been repeatedly denied parole when appearing before the PBPP.

 

During the August 8, 1978 altercation, a Philadelphia police officer was killed and following a highly politicized and controversial trial, the MOVE 9 were convicted of third-degree homicide. All nine were sentenced to 30-100 years in prison.

Contacts:

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

Mike Africa Jr., MikeAfricaJr@gmail.com,

 

 

Media Release: En Banc Hearing Granted For Avis Lee

 

For Immediate Release 

October 16, 2018

(Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

On Tuesday, October 23, at 9:30 a.m. the Abolitionist Law Center will argue at an En Banc hearing in front of the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the case is the Commonwealth v Lee, where the petitioner, Avis Lee, is arguing that the right established in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana decisions applies to all adolescents and not just strictly to those who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. This groundbreaking case has the potential to alter the way the Commonwealth treats mandatory life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

The petitioner in this case, Avis Lee, has served over thirty-eight years in prison. Like many people in Pennsylvania, Avis received a mandatory life sentence under a felony-murder charge. At the age of 18, Avis served as a lookout while her brother and his friend attempted a robbery. After a brief struggle, the victim was shot by Avis’s brother and collapsed in a parking lot. Avis flagged down a bus driver in order to get the victim help, but despite her efforts, he still passed away. Avis was convicted and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. Since her incarceration, Avis has completed extensive rehabilitative programming and performed countless hours serving others through her work in the prison and with community groups, including being a mentor and assisting in braille translations.

As described in ALC’s recently published report, A Way Out: Abolishing Death by Incarceration in Pennsylvania, as people mature, they are less likely to engage in criminal conduct. Of the more than 5,300 people serving life-without-parole in Pennsylvania, approximately half committed the offense resulting in their LWOP sentence before the age of 25.

 

This case therefore is representative of hundreds of individuals who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole in their youth but who are currently ineligible to be resentenced due solely to an arbitrary age cut-off.

 

Petitioner has argued to the Superior Court that the same scientific and legal reasoning behind Miller and Montgomery apply with equal force to those who were younger than 18 and those like Avis, who were adolescents and possessed the same characteristics of youth. The Court has decided to take the rare step of hearing the case en banc, meaning that 9 judges will hear the matter and will possess the power to overrule the Court’s earlier cases that upheld a cutoff at 18 years of age.

 

Allegheny County is the place where the crime occurred. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, headed by DA Zappala, is opposing the petition and has not shown a willingness to reconsider the pursuit of LWOP sentences. By contrast, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner came out in support of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 942 this month, legislation introduced by Senator Street that would allow parole consideration for all serving life sentences after 15 years.

 

That Avis Lee, who was 18 at the time of her offense and who had repeated and severe experiences of trauma in her childhood and adolescence, committed her offense during a time of ongoing maturation and development is a historical fact at this point. The question in front of the Court is whether she can proceed to a merits determination as to whether her sentence is excessive in light of Miller and Montgomery.

Contact: Miracle Jones, Abolitionist Law Center, communications@alcenter.org

MEDIA RELEASE: ACLU and Abolitionist Law Center Sue Pennsylvania to End Mandatory and Permanent Solitary Confinement for Prisoners Sentenced to Death

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 25, 2018

CONTACT:

Alexandra Ringe, American Civil Liberties Union, 212-549-2582, aringe@aclu.org

Andrew Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 717-236-6827 ext. 213, ahoover@aclupa.org

Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, 412-654-9070, bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org

HARRISBURG — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Center, Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feiberg & Lin LLP, and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP filed a class-action lawsuit against the commonwealth of Pennsylvania over its unconstitutional practice of holding prisoners sentenced to death in mandatory, permanent solitary confinement. These prisoners spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells alone, conditions proven to damage mental health and worsen existing mental illness. Today’s suit seeks an end to this practice, which violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

“Solitary confinement is psychological torture. By automatically imposing that torture on every prisoner facing a death sentence, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is acting as if the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment doesn’t exist,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “No human being should be placed in a cage and deprived of human contact for days, much less decades.”

Of the 156 people sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, nearly 80 percent have spent more than a decade in solitary confinement. Each cell is about the size of a parking space.

“The cells that hold Pennsylvania’s prisoners with death sentences are designed to make seeing another human being just about impossible, let alone interacting with one,” said Bret Grote, legal director at the Abolitionist Law Center. “Those conditions cause psychological damage within days, let alone decades. Doling out a severe punishment like this as a matter of course is shameful as well as against the law.”

Anthony Graves spent 12 years in solitary confinement in Texas while facing a death sentence. He was wrongfully convicted and exonerated. “Solitary confinement is like living in a dark hole. People walk over the hole and you shout from the bottom, but nobody hears you. You start to play tricks with your mind just to survive,” said Graves, who is the author of Infinite Hope, a memoir, and is the Smart Justice Initiatives Manager at the ACLU of Texas. “I saw the people living on death row fall apart. I saw guys who dropped their appeals and elected to die because of the intolerable conditions.”

Multiple studies have shown solitary confinement’s dangers to mental health, including increases in self-harm and suicide. In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his concurrence to Davis v. Ayala, “[R]esearch still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.”

“Across the country, prison officials are recognizing that solitary is a tool to be used only in extreme emergencies and only for short periods of time,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and director of the Stop Solitary Campaign. “They have become far less reliant on solitary without sacrificing prisoner or staff safety. It’s time for Pennsylvania to take note.”

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The five plaintiffs are represented by Witold J. Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; David Fathi, Amy Fettig, and Desiree Sholes of the ACLU’s National Prison Project; Bret Grote and Jamelia N. Morgan of the Abolitionist Law Center; Jonathan H. Feinberg and Susan M. Lin of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP; and Wilson M. Brown, Barry Gross, Mira E. Baylson, and Mark D. Taticchi of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.

 

For the complaint and information about Reid v. Wetzel, visit aclupa.org/Reid

Other resources:

ACLU of Pennsylvania

ACLU Stop Solitary Campaign

Abolitionist Law Center

Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feiberg & Lin LLP

Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP