Rest easy, and in power. Long live Russell Maroon Shoatz.

It is with overwhelming sadness, we join our communities in sharing this news.

Our beloved friend, comrade, mentor, client, and inspiration, Russell Maroon Shoatz transitioned from this life on Earth today. After 49 years in prison, Maroon was finally released on October 26th. He passed away at his sister’s home 52 days later, surrounded by the love and care of his family.

There are few words, if any, that will do justice in describing Maroon, the impact he’s had on all of us, the gigantic legacy he leaves behind. If you are reading this, chances are, at some point you came in contact with Maroon, either directly – or subliminally: many projects in the struggle for Black Liberation and abolition can be traced back to him, the contemporary Political Prisoners’ rights movement in Pennsylvania beginning with him.

Some of us were lucky enough to know Maroon personally, and for that, we are infinitely grateful. We commemorate him by carrying out his life’s work, by reaffirming our commitments to see the dissolution of Empire and advance absolute, unconditional liberation for Black people everywhere. Maroon reminds us, “history records the stories of multitudes who risked their lives to obtain or regain their freedom” (2012).

We are grieving for Maroon. He has left us physically on this plane, but his spirit and visions live on in the movements he inspired and animated from a prison cell, the countless hearts and minds he filled with hope and wonder when so many of us felt lost and helpless, the iconic essays he wrote that will continue to galvanize future generations of young people in the struggle.

In his own words,

“Rest easy fighting maroons. There are many now and to come who will derive inspiration from your valorous examples – inspiration that will ‘arm their spirits’ to fight the good fight. . . til victory or death!!!” (1995).

Rest easy, and in power. Long live Russell Maroon Shoatz.


“Former Black Panther Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz Freed From Prison After 49 Years” by Mike Ludwig, Truthout (10/26/21)

“Compassionate release for Maroon” by Betsy Piette, Workers World (10/25/21)

ALC pushes back against Pennsylvania’s SB 913 citing Senate’s failure to understand bill’s harm, further entrenching community members impacted by state punishment system

ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu calls for decarceral initiatives including abolishing use of probation detainers and prohibiting incarceration due to technical violations, poverty or homelessness

We are disheartened to learn that Pennsylvania’s Senate Bill 913 was voted out of the Senate on Wednesday, December 15th, in a 46–4 vote on the senate floor. We applaud the four senators who listened to community members and opposed this terrible attempt at Probation reform in Pennsylvania. SB 913 is a so-called probation reform bill. Many of its provisions appear positive at first read, but ultimately SB 913 only sounds good to those unfamiliar with the day-to-day functioning of the probation system. At best, the reforms proposed appear superficial and conditional — they are subject to numerous restrictions and will not assist the vast majority of individuals on probation.  In fact, SB 913 will primarily impact rural white Pennsylvania and its impact on Black and Brown communities most impacted by mass incarceration will be negligible. If the objective of legislators was to create a bill that would leave behind Black Philadelphians, they have succeeded with SB 913. For these reasons, the Abolitionist Law Center cannot support this shallow and disingenuous attempt at probation reform.

SB 913 proposes mandated probation review conferences for individuals with lengthy probation sentences. Individuals are eligible for these conferences after 3 years on probation for a misdemeanor or 5 years on probation for a felony. This is an exceptionally long period of time that right off the bat will apply to few, even if they are eligible for the 6-month waiting time reduction. Most individuals on probation for several years or more are on probation due to the imposition of new probation terms after revocation — not necessarily because of lengthy probation sentences. Additionally, eligibility is also subject to many limitations, including not having committed any technical violations in the past 6 months, nor having been previously convicted of certain crimes.

Most importantly, judges already have the authority to terminate probation early. Even if restitution is still owed, many judges will still close out probation if all other conditions are met. Individuals with complete conditions and without restitution owed or new technical or direct violations will likely have no trouble getting off probation, so this proposed reform will do little in reducing the volume of people trapped in long cycles of needless supervision and incarceration. Early termination of probation is already permitted; the creation of probation review conferences may in fact reduce the amount of early termination as judges may rely on this mechanism rather than take action themselves. It may also further confuse what is now a relatively straightforward process of early termination. In some counties, early termination is an institutionalized process that occurs relatively frequently.

The only way this particular provision would be helpful to people is if the stars aligned and all of the following occurred:
  • Individuals are sentenced to an uncommonly lengthy period of probation — over 3 years for a misdemeanor or 5 years for a felony. It is far more likely to have a scenario where an individual is sentenced to one year of probation that is revoked and reimposed for several years. These folks in the latter category will never be eligible for probation review conferences.
  • Individuals have not been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies in the past 6 months.
  • Individuals have not committed technical violations in the past 6 months, which can include missed appointments, possession of a weapon (even with a permit), absconding, not being able to afford mandated programming, or a host of other non-violent actions.
  • All fines and restitution are paid. Restitution can often be due to property damage and therefore sometimes 6 figures or more. It can also be owed to entities such as banks or large corporations. Due to their financial circumstances, some folks will simply never be able to pay off even small amounts of restitution. These are some of the folks who end up trapped on probation the longest, due to regular revocation and reimposition of new probation sentences.
  • All treatment programs are completed. These programs can be quite expensive and often they must be paid by defendants out of pocket, despite being mandatory (e.g. $75/class for anger management classes, $1000+ for DUI stipulations, etc.). For this reason, folks take a long time to complete certain programs.
  • Probation review conferences are actually scheduled when defendants are eligible for them.
  • The defendant is aware of when they are eligible for a probation review conference and files a motion demanding one if it does not commence on time.
  • The judge overseeing probation is unwilling to or would otherwise not terminate probation early on their own, despite all conditions being met and long-term compliance to probation rules.
  • The judge overseeing probation also does not perceive the defendant to be a “threat to public safety” — a vague and highly subjective standard. The commonwealth, victims, and victim advocacy organizations are all notified and may be present to object to early termination.

This is not meant to be a defense of judges or of Probation as it currently functions. Probation is one of the primary drivers of mass incarceration and its scale and power must be reduced to move towards decarceration. Legislation such as SB 913, which offers limited, conditional benefits yet creates a high risk for future harm and entrenchment, is not the way towards this goal. It is a shame that this momentum is not used to advance effective decarceral initiatives, such as advocating for any of the following:

  • Ending the use of probation detainers. Probation detainers are orders issued by judges to keep probationers detained pending their Gagnon II hearings, which can take months or even years, based on alleged probation violations that may even be non-criminal and non-violent. In many PA counties, probation detainers are the driving force of incarceration and are the number one reason why people are incarcerated pretrial. While bail hearings are supposed to be where determinations of public safety and flight risk are made, slews of individuals are held pretrial despite bail determinations that permit their release. Addressing probation detainers should be the main priority of any politician interested in criminal justice reform.
  • Rather than instituting a convoluted and lengthy process for highly conditional review conferences, simply instituting hard caps on probation length, as many other states do.
  • Prohibiting the use of split sentences — periods of incarceration followed by periods of probation. These sentences have become increasingly normalized and have swollen the scale of state supervision.
  • Prohibiting the imposition of consecutive probation sentences.
  • Prohibiting incarceration for technical (i.e. non-criminal) violations of probation. A sentence of incarceration for technical violations is already rare. It is far more common for folks to be incarcerated pretrial for months or even years while awaiting their probation violation hearings, rather than to be actually sentenced to incarceration. Because it is already uncommon, this reform should be low-hanging fruit, yet this bill even fails to outrightly prohibit this practice.
  • Prohibiting revocation for all non-willful “violations” due to poverty or homelessness, such as unpaid fines, unpaid restitution, incomplete programming, etc. Probation keeps people vulnerable to fast-tracked and lengthy incarceration for even non-criminal activity, but poverty is what keeps many people trapped on probation. The only “reform” proposed in this bill that addresses this issue does nothing more than repeat what is already the current state of the law: individuals should not be violated for nonpayment of fines or cost unless a finding of willful nonpayment is made.

Politicians assume that grassroots organizers are the uneducated ones who don’t understand the ins and outs of proposed legislation; in reality, they are the ones who clearly don’t understand the full context or potential impact of the bills that they advance. This bill’s unpopularity is blamed on “bad marketing,” when in reality it is just bad legislation. Legislation is risky — there is always the chance that it may be warped to do more harm than good. To be worth that risk, it must offer at least some guarantee of meaningful decarceration. Unfortunately, SB 913 does not meet that bar, and instead entrenches many of the harmful practices we should be seeking to end.

Dolly Prabhu, ALC Staff Attorney
Robert Saleem Holbrook, ALC Executive Director
December 17, 2021

DONATE TO ALC!

This has been a deeply inspiring, encouraging, and productive year in our shared fight for abolition at Straight Ahead and the Abolitionist Law Center. 

In 2021, our toolkit and our reach expanded dramatically. And our many important victories delivered improved conditions and chances for freedom for our community members held captive in Pennsylvania’s horrendous jails and prisons, which are among the worst in the nation.

Over the last year we grew. We listened. We organized. And we fought and won.

And now we need your help to keep the momentum going.

Tell us you believe in freedom from state violence and the racist, classist incarceration machine, and that you want us to amplify our organizing, litigating, and lobbying efforts that will get us there.

Please make a contribution today to Straight Ahead or the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC).

Straight Ahead and ALC Staff holding #FreeOurPeople banner at SB835 press conference – Philadelphia, September 2021.

If you can make a gift that’s not tax-deductible, please donate to Straight Ahead, our 501(c)(4) lobbying organization.

If you need your gift to be tax-deductible, please donate to the ALC, our 501(c)(3) organization.

Here are some highlights of what we’ve been able to do together in 2021:

We Grew

  • We launched and fully ramped up Straight Ahead – a 501(c)(4) legislative and lobbying organization – so that in conjunction with the Abolitionist Law Center, we can attack mass incarceration and state violence from every direction: in the streets, in the courtroom, and now also via legislation.
  • We added talented, passionate people to ALC’s organizing, legal, court watching, and operations teams, including beefing up our Philadelphia-based crew who are working to counter the city’s notoriously racist police and court system, and the county’s abhorrent record of having more people serving death by incarceration sentences than any other county or parish in the U.S. (and in fact, more than the entire prison populations of many other nations).
  • We set in motion initiatives to significantly scale up our advocacy for people with disabilities who encounter the criminal punishment system. 

ALC staff and comrades at Free Mumia Weekend – Philadelphia, April 2021.

We Listened

  • We doubled down on our foundational commitment to taking leadership from people directly impacted by state violence, by continuing to hire formerly incarcerated staff, participating in decarceral networks across the state and around the country, and expanding our channels of communication to and from people currently imprisoned.
  • We held decarceration-focused community forums and rallies all over Pennsylvania, including in areas where we’ve never had an on-the-ground presence before, as part of our long-term plan to win substantive legal and legislative reform in this key swing state that has one of the harshest and most punitive criminal punishment systems in the country.
  • We conducted scores of jail and prison visits to hear firsthand from incarcerated people about the atrocious conditions they experience on a daily basis.
  • We recruited and trained over 100 Court Watch volunteers who collectively observed and reported on hundreds of criminal court proceedings, garnering invaluable insight about discriminatory and abusive practices by court officials.


We Organized


ALC’s Racial Justice Organizer, Saudia Durrant, with members of the Human Rights Coalition, protest outside SCI-Phoenix on July 6, 2021 uplifting demands of hunger strikers in solitary confinement. Photo by Joe Piette.
  • We penned powerful op eds and first person accounts of the agony experienced by elderly and seriously ill people in prison, the capacity for incarcerated people to change, the influence of the Black Radical tradition on abolitionist practices, and more.
  • We generated relentless, high profile media coverage in local, regional, and national outlets.
  • We released groundbreaking, data-rich reports and calls-to-action based on our findings from our work in courtrooms, prisons, jails, and communities.
  • We dedicated resources and developed transformative justice-focused curriculum for our internal and external political education offerings, including organizing and training a cohort of people impacted by the prison system to be influential advocates for change.
  • We intensified our legal and public awareness campaigns aimed at ending death by incarceration (life without parole) and the use of solitary confinement.
  • We forced the Allegheny County Courts to grant the public virtual access to criminal proceedings during the months of remote proceedings necessitated by the pandemic.
  • We joined 1Hood Media and the Alliance for Police Accountability (APA) in the Reimagining Public Safety Coalition working group that reported on, and now is planning, implementation of concrete steps to reduce harm and trauma and increase safety and wellness in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

We Fought and Won

ALC Paralegal, Jonas Caballero, and allied partners from 1Hood, APA, and Bukit Bail Fund speak out against fascist paramilitary prison contractor, Joseph Garcia, and human rights abuses at Allegheny County Jail – Pittsburgh, September 2021. Photo by Kiley Koscinski.
  • We waged a rapid response, public pressure campaign that stopped a newly introduced mandatory minimums sentencing bill in its tracks.
  • After first forcing his release from 37 years of solitary confinement to general population in 2017, this year our legal work that began in 2013 brought our client Arthur Cetewayo Johnson home after 51 years of imprisonment.
  • Our medical neglect lawsuit on behalf of Tyrone Briggs, who was killed when prison staff attacked him with pepper spray and left him to die from a severe asthma attack, forced key policy changes regarding the use of chemical weapons by DOC staff and the largest-ever damages settlement against the DOC for Tyrone’s family.
  • We collaborated with APA, 1Hood, and many other allies to promote a voter referendum in the county surrounding Pittsburgh that overwhelmingly passed a banthe first of its kind in the nation – on the use of solitary confinement, the restraint chair, and pepper spray at the notoriously horrible Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) where around 2000 people are held on any given day
  • We spearheaded an all-out pressure campaign with our allies that derailed ACJ’s attempt to end-run around the referendum results by hiring a contractor to train jail staff on violent, military-style tactics and weaponry for brutalizing incarcerated people

The fight to abolish the racist and classist systems of policing, courts, and incarceration, is a massive one. But it’s essential if we want to transform how we respond to harm, and create freedom, justice, safety, and wellness, especially for our most vulnerable neighbors.

With the combined forces of Straight Ahead and the Abolitionist Law Center building grassroots power and demanding freedom in every arena, we have the vision and the tools to get us there.

Now we need the resources and the continuing support of our community.

Please make a contribution of any amount today to Straight Ahead (if you don’t need your gift to be tax-deductible) or to ALC (if a tax-deduction is important to you.)

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to Weigh in on Death-By-Incarceration Lawsuit

Six Incarcerated People Challenging Lifetime Ban on Parole for Those Convicted of Felony Murder


To learn more about Scott v. Board of Probation and Parole, visit our case page.

Kris Henderson, Amistad Law Project, kris@amistadlaw.org

Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org

Jen Nessel, Center for Constitutional Rights, jnessel@ccrjustice.org

October 25, 2021

HARRISBURG ‒ A lawsuit brought by six people serving mandatory Death-By-Incarceration sentences, commonly known as Life Without Parole, will go before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which will decide if a lawsuit challenging the practice can proceed. Represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and Center for Constitutional Rights, they seek an end to the prohibition on parole for those serving life sentences under the state’s felony murder rule. 

The felony murder rule, which exists in forty-four states, holds a person liable for murder if the person participates in a felony that leads to a death, even if the person plays no direct role in the death or does not intend or anticipate it. The application of the rule varies from state to state. In Pennsylvania, people found guilty are automatically sentenced to life, and a separate provision of state law prohibits parole eligibility for anyone serving life.

Scott v. PA Board of Probation and Parole, filed in July 2020, is the first case of its kind in the country. It argues that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those who did not kill or intend to kill do not serve any legitimate governmental interest and are illegally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution. They join a movement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated advocates and family members in using the term Death By Incarceration, which they say is the true impact of these sentences.

“We know that people are more than their worst moments in life,” said Nikki Grant, Policy Director of Amistad Law Project. “Our clients are simply asking for a chance to demonstrate to the Parole Board how they have changed. Everyone deserves the opportunity to show how they have rehabilitated themselves, that they can be redeemed and become an asset to their community.”

All of the people bringing the case were convicted in their late teens or early 20s. Though none directly caused or intended the death of the victim, they have spent between 24 and 48 years in prison ‒ the majority of their lives. Marie Scott, for example, was 19 when she robbed a gas station with a person who killed the attendant. Another plaintiff, Tyreem Rivers, was 18 when he grabbed the purse of an elderly woman who fell as a result. She was hospitalized and died two weeks later from pneumonia she had contracted in the hospital. Unless their legal challenge succeeds or the law is otherwise changed, these six people will almost certainly die in prison. 

Earlier this year, a lower court ruled that the plaintiffs, and the more than 1,100 others in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder, are not even allowed to challenge the lifetime prohibition on parole. Their attorneys will urge the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn this decision, so that their clients may proceed with their lawsuit.  

“Consigning anybody to die in prison is a disgraceful practice. Imposing this indignity on an overwhelmingly Black and Brown population on the scale that Pennsylvania does is a severe human rights violation and a primary mechanism for enforcing an apartheid justice system,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Our movement intends to end this practice, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowing this lawsuit to go forward would be an important step in the right direction.”

Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme both reflects and exacerbates the racial disparities endemic to the U.S. criminal justice and penal systems. While only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, approximately 70 percent of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder are Black. Overall in the state, Black people are sentenced to Death By Incarceration at a rate 18 times higher, and Latinx people at a rate five times higher, than white people. 

While this lawsuit focuses on a subset of people in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences, both the plaintiffs and their attorneys see it as a challenge to a system that frequently condemns people to die in prison. Even more so than imprisonment for non-violent drug offenses, harsh sentencing for more serious crimes drives mass incarceration. Indeed, advocates say heavy use of the Death-By-Incarceration sentence is perhaps the most distinctive and emblematic feature of the U.S. system of mass incarceration. 

“Prolonged incarceration serves no legitimate public purpose and is inherently cruel and dehumanizing,” said Samah Sisay, attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This case is part of ongoing abolitionist efforts to end Death-By-Incarceration sentences and gives Pennsylvania a chance to prioritize redemption and liberation by providing predominantly Black and aging people a chance to be released from prisons.”    

Pennsylvania is a global leader in Death-By-Incarceration sentences, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said are akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability. In Pennsylvania, 5,200 people are serving such sentences, giving the state the country’s highest per capita rate and accounting for 10 percent of the country’s total. Philadelphia county alone has more people serving these sentences than 45 states – and more than any country other than the United States. In fact, Philadelphia’s rate of Death By Incarceration is higher than the overall incarceration rate of 140 countries.

Several legal organizations filed amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit. The MacArthur Justice Center submitted a brief that focuses on the racial disparities in Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder; The Sentencing Project, which seeks an end to “extreme punishments,” submitted a brief, along with the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley Law and the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic at Drexel Law, that addresses the unconstitutionality of the lifetime parole ban and describes how such sentencing practices are outside the international norm; Seton Hall Center for Social Justice Eighth Amendment Scholars submitted a brief explaining why the lifetime ban on parole for this class of people violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment; and the Defender Association of Philadelphia’s brief explores the capacity of people to evolve in prison and the positive influence that paroled “lifers” can have on communities. 


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. Follow us on social media: Facebook, Twitter: @AbolitionistLC.

Amistad Law Project is a public interest law center that fights for the human rights of people in our community by providing free and low-cost legal services to Philadelphians and those incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Additionally, we advocate for laws and policies that reflect our vision for a new justice paradigm and organize events and activities to educate the public on their rights and the law. Amistad’s vision is to abolish the prison industrial complex and create alternative systems of accountability and healing while reducing the harm of the system in the meantime. Follow Amistad Law Project on social media: facebook.com/AmistadLaw, @AmistadLaw on Twitter and Instagram.

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org. Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media: Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @theCCR on Twitter, and ccrjustice on Instagram.


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New Full-Time and Contracted Positions Added for PGH/Allegheny County! Disability Justice Advocate, Community Organizer, and Project Manager

⭐ We’re hiring! Help us grow our movements against state violence and build community power in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County! We are seeking a passionate part-time contracted Disability Justice Advocate, a full-time experienced Community Organizer, and a tech-savvy Project Manager to maintain and scale ALC Court Watch‘s docket-scraping system.

For position overviews and application details, visit our Employment at ALC page and check us out on Idealist.

We’re hiring a Full-Time Pittsburgh-Based Administrative Manager!

This listing is also posted in our ‘Employment with ALC’ page.


Administrative Manager

Posted: 09/16/21

Priority Application Consideration: 10/01/21

Position Overview

The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) is a nonprofit law firm fighting to defend prisoners and abolitionists, and a community organizing project aiming to build a world without police and prisons. Our work is currently based in Pennsylvania, where we have sued the Department of Corrections, local jails, and the Commonwealth to defend prisoners from abuse and to win release for as many people as possible. Our organizing work is statewide and focused on abolishing the use of solitary confinement and ending life without parole sentences (aka death by incarceration), among other things.

We’re now hiring an Administrative Manager for our Pittsburgh office. The Administrative Manager position will be responsible for bookkeeping, vendor management, basic HR management, payment processing, etc. to keep the organization running smoothly so staff members can concentrate on building the movement to abolish police and prisons.

Location

This position is based in Pittsburgh and will require working on site at our office, though remote work is possible when the nature of the tasks allow for it.   

Responsibilities

  • Bookkeeping
  • Managing employee benefits
  • Payment processing
  • Payroll
  • Records management
  • Office management
  • Supporting the Director of Operations in the overall management of the organization

Requirements

  • You must be proficient in the above tasks with a demonstrated history of having done similar work. For example:
    • You must be familiar with Quickbooks and understand how bookkeeping for a nonprofit organization is done.
    • You must have experience collecting and organizing records. Experience developing or improving systems for organizing records would be highly valued.
    • You must have experience processing payments, reviewing and organizing related records, ensuring that vendors/contractors are paid and staff members are reimbursed.
    • You must know how to use Microsoft Office software, especially Excel. Proficiency with GSuites and EveryAction (or other CRM) would be very welcome.
    • Experience advocating for justice and human rights would weigh in your favor, though it is not strictly required for this position.

Salary and Benefits

The Administrative Manager is a full-time, salaried position. This position has a six-month introductory period. The salary for this position starts at $50,000 annually, and is negotiable depending on experience. The position comes with a health insurance benefit of up to $400/month and 35 days (280hrs) of paid time off annually.

Reports to: Director of Operations

Application Process

Please email your resume, two professional references, and a cover letter explaining your interest in the position to info@alcenter.org. Applications will be accepted and reviewed on a rolling basis, but candidates are encouraged to apply by October 1, 2021 to receive priority consideration. This position is open until filled.

Abolitionist Law Center is an equal opportunity employer. People of color, women, indigenous people, LGBTQI-GNC people, and formerly incarcerated people are encouraged to apply.


To learn more about our staff and board members, click here.

Family of Tyrone Briggs, killed at the age of 29 by SCI-Mahanoy staff, reach historic settlement with Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

The monetary settlement is the largest reported award in any Pennsylvania case involving the death of a person in custody and brings about policy changes for staff training, medical care, and OC-spray use on incarcerated persons with respiratory illnesses and disabilities.


September 8, 2021

Contact: wjlukas@alcenter.org  William Lukas, Director of Communications • Abolitionist Law Center  

PHILADELPHIA – The family of Tyrone Briggs, a 29-year-old Black man with asthma who was killed by staff at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy in 2019, have reached a settlement with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). The settlement amounts to a total $8,500,000 and ushers in policy changes and medical care protocols related to the use of oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray on incarcerated persons living with respiratory illnesses and disabilities.

The settlement comes six months after Tyrone’s mother, Shaleda Busbee, represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP, filed suit against the DOC’s prison administration and SCI-Mahanoy staff to hold them accountable for Tyrone’s tragic and preventable death.

“This historic settlement recognizes both the extraordinary misconduct of prison employees who caused Tyrone Briggs’ death and the extraordinary trauma caused to Tyrone’s family,” said Jonathan H. Feinberg, an attorney with the Kairys, Rudovsky firm. “It stands as a message to jail and prison staff everywhere: when you violate the law, you will be held accountable.”

On November 11, 2019, Tyrone was brutalized with multiple cans of OC spray, unloaded by prison guards who proceeded to restrain him during an altercation with another incarcerated person in the yard. After being tackled and handcuffed by the guards, he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” as he attempted to walk to the prison infirmary for treatment. Instead of being treated for an asthma attack that was impairing his breathing, Tyrone’s requests for medical care were ignored as staff moved him from the yard to the infirmary to the solitary confinement unit in less than 20 minutes. Despite his inability to breathe and his losing consciousness prior to arrival in the solitary unit, Tyrone was placed in an empty cell without medical attention while he continued to asphyxiate due to the OC-triggered asthma attack. Although he was under observation, DOC staff did not intervene until well after he had become fully unresponsive. By the time medical staff came to assess him, he had already died.

In the days that followed Tyrone’s death, the DOC suspended more than a dozen medical staff and correctional officers, while parents Shaleda and Montrell ceased their homecoming plans for Tyrone: his death came soon before he was eligible for parole after serving 13 years in prison since the age of 15. 

Shaleda filed suit against the DOC in federal court on December 22, 2020, and, in her complaint alleged that the defendants engaged in excessive force, an unconstitutional denial of medical care, and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all of which led to Tyrone’s death.

Memorial montage of Tyrone with friends and family.

As part of the settlement, in addition to the payment of monetary damages, the DOC agreed to institute critical changes to prison staff training on OC spray and medical care protocols concerning the use of OC spray against individuals incarcerated in DOC facilities. Under the agreement, training on the heightened risk that OC spray poses to incarcerated asthmatics is now mandated for all correctional staff new hires, as is annual training for all medical staff who oversee the care of incarcerated persons living with respiratory illnesses and disabilities. The settlement also calls for increased medical examinations, observations, and contact with on-call medical providers when an incarcerated person living with respiratory illnesses and disabilities comes into contact with OC spray.

“This historic settlement not only reflects the enduring strength of the Busbees, but also reflects the strength of organized resistance to the brutality and inhumanity meted out by the prison system. Tyrone’s life was treated as if he was disposable,” said Robert Saleem Holbook, Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Disposable is how so many incarcerated people, especially people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses, are deemed by the prison guards and administration. This case underscores the power of litigation and advocacy centered by victims of the carceral state. It is a reminder that people in prison are not disposable and that we will bring serious consequences if they are treated as such.”

Shaleda Busbee, the Administrator of the Estate of Tyrone Briggs, was the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The DOC, Superintendent DelBalso, Deputy Superintendent Stetler, and 11 John Does were the defendants. The case was filed in the federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on December 22, 2020.

Click here to view the settlement agreement and release of claims.

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PRESS

“Pa. prisons pledge reform and pay $8.5 million after Philly man died from pepper spray” by Samantha Melamed for The Philadelphia Inquirer (09/08/2021)

ALC Promises to Sue Allegheny County Over Jail’s Militaristic Use of Force Contracts

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: William Lukas, Director of Communications: wjlukas@alcenter.org

PITTSBURGH – On Tuesday, August 24, 2021, the Abolitionist Law Center, a nonprofit prisoners’ rights law firm, sent a letter to the Allegheny County Solicitor stating it will sue the County, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Warden Orlando Harper for entering into contracts with Corrections Special Application Unit (“CSAU”), headed by Joseph Garcia, to train Allegheny County Jail corrections officers unless that contract is cancelled. Another letter was sent to Lightfield Less Lethal Research, a company with which the County contracted to equip staff at the jail with dangerous new weapons, informing the company that ALC will sue them if their products injure anybody at ACJ. ALC claims the enforcement of these contracts violate the federal and Constitutional rights of people incarcerated at ACJ.

ACJ has historically had the most uses of force out of all 67 jails in Pennsylvania. Unconstitutional force is routinely meted out on 64% of the incarcerated population who suffer from a serious mental illness, which has resulted in several individual lawsuits and a class action case pending against ACJ and its officers for using excessive force. The contracts were entered into for the express purpose of responding to the will of the County voters, who in May, passed a referendum to ban the use of specific weapons at the jail and deter uses of force. ACJ and Warden Harper responded by buying new weapons and contracting with a company renowned for its brutality.

ALC’s letters says that “Garcia’s trainings, taught by CSAU, and other training companies he has overseen or directed, violate correctional standards and federal laws, are the subject of civil litigation and criminal inquiries, and have resulted in serious injuries and the death of incarcerated people.” Garcia’s training regimen “prefers and encourages the use of force over de-escalation and harm avoidance techniques.”

ALC also sent a letter to the legal counsel of Lightfield, notifying them of their liability “for selling/furnishing weapons and ammunition to ACJ for use by corrections officers, who are, given the historical record, clearly expected to use them in a negligent, reckless, and perhaps criminal manner on people incarcerated at the jail.” ALC states that “Lightfield appears to be readily aware of Garcia and CSAU’s training tactics, which have resulted in multiple lawsuits and criminal inquiries but your client nevertheless relies on the militaristic training program because it uses Lightfield’s weapons and munitions.”

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Copies of the letters are available for download below:


More on Garcia, CSAU and Lightfield:

https://www.coloradopolitics.com/news/cu-student-sues-weld-county-over-concussion-explosives-in-jail/article_06a2453a-7828-11ea-870a-93e143810276.html

https://nypost.com/2016/09/19/rikers-island-vendor-under-fire-has-gone-mia/

https://www.ydr.com/story/news/local/2021/08/12/york-county-prison-takes-step-toward-extending-contract-with-controversial-contractor-c-sau/8094981002/

After 51 Years in Prison, Arthur ‘Cetewayo’ Johnson is Released

Cetewayo walks free with family members Julie Burnett and Sandris Windly beside him, just moments after his release on the evening of August 11, 2021.

August 11, 2021

After fifty-one years in prison on a wrongful conviction we are pleased that our client, friend and mentor Arthur ‘Cetewayo’ Johnson is being released today. His release is the result of an agreement with the Philadelphia District Attorney Office, in which Mr. Johnson, age 69, pled to a lesser offense allowing him to be released to his family and friends. 

ALC Legal Director, Bret Grote, said, “We are grateful to the Conviction Integrity Unit that Mr. Johnson is finally able to return home to his family. When I first met Mr. Johnson I promised we wouldn’t stop fighting until we brought him home. Today we fulfilled that promise.”

Mr. Johnson was convicted in the 1970 murder of Jerome Wakefield based solely on a signed statement that Mr. Johnson testified at trial he could not read. Mr. Johnson was arrested a mere two months after his Eighteenth birthday. He had only completed the fourth grade and did not begin to learn to read until he was incarcerated on this case. 

Evidence from the police file turned over to Mr. Johnson’s lawyers from the Abolitionist Law Center by the Conviction Integrity Unit in 2019 revealed that police had only obtained a statement implicating Mr. Johnson from a 15-year-old child that they had interrogated for 21 hours in a 30 hour period, including the last 15 hours consecutively. Not until more than 11 hours into that last interrogation did the child give a statement implicating himself and others, including Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson testified at trial that he was physically struck by police officers during his interrogation, matching the testimony of Gary Brame, who was also charged and tried separately for the murder. Mr. Brame said Philadelphia police beat him until he signed a confession. He was sentenced to 7 ½ to 15. In 2020, Mr. Brame signed a statement admitting to the murder and disavowing that Mr. Johnson had anything to do with the crime.

The Philadelphia District Attorney Office offered to resolve this case on the basis of suppressed evidence of police misconduct if Mr. Johnson pled to a lesser offense. 

The Abolitionist Law Center fought diligently the past five years to bring Mr. Johnson home from an unjust sentence and conviction, however no one fought harder than Mr. Johnson and his family during the past fifty-one years. While we believe Mr. Johnson to be innocent of the charges he was convicted of, Mr. Johnson made the decision that was in the best interests of his family and decided to plead guilty to a lesser offense to be reunited with his family after decades of incarceration.

Our Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook, who during his twenty-seven years of incarceration was mentored by Mr. Johnson offers the following statement: “Arthur Cetewayo Johnson was a beacon of strength and hope to younger prisoners like myself who entered the prison system lost souls. Mr. Johnson was a mentor to so many of us who found ourselves struggling to survive the daily grind of prison life. I don’t believe we found justice in this case however we found freedom for Mr. Johnson, after fifty-one years of incarceration.”


MORE ABOUT ARTHUR ‘CETEWAYO’ JOHNSON:

Ceteywayo spent 37 years in solitary confinement. The Abolitionist Law Center represented him in a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for violations of his 8th Amendment rights. He was released from solitary confinement in the fall 0f 2017 after we won the case.

Throughout his incarceration, Cetewayo was consistently a target of state repression and human rights abuses, for his relationship to the Black Liberation Movement.

Cetewayo currently serves on the Prison Advisory Board of Let’s Get Free: Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.

PRESS


After 50 years in prison — 37 in solitary confinement — Philly man’s conviction is vacated‘ by Samantha Melamed for The Philadelphia Inquirer (08/11/21)

‘Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson Ordered Released After 51 Years in Prison’ by Chris Schiano for Unicorn Riot (08/11/21)

ALC August 2021 Newsletter


ALC Court Watch Director, Autumn Redcross, and ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook at Free Mumia Weekend in Philadelphia, April 2021.

Reflections from Our Executive Director

As Black August unfolds, we at the Abolitionist Law Center celebrate, grieve, and recommit ourselves to the struggle for liberation of all community members from the carceral state and racial capitalism. We draw from the lessons of George Jackson and the prison struggles before us to guide our world-building in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and across state lines: the project of abolition knows no borders.

2020 was a year of tremendous struggle and growth. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic that has left our community members vulnerable in their homes and within the walls of the punishment system. And we continue to see the responses to a national Black Uprising against policing and state violence: counter-insurgency, co-optation, and fearmongering mythologies of “a crime wave.” 

Last year, perhaps more than any time in our lifetimes, we were exposed to the fact that we live in a failed state. However, in 2020 we also saw the incredible strength and power of oppressed and colonized peoples. We are proud to fight alongside Black and brown communities in the struggle against white supremacy and state violence.

ALC has expanded our litigation to include lawsuits against police abuses in the wake of last summer’s racial uprisings. We’ve focused on developing a powerhouse legal arm in Philadelphia to mirror our base of strength in Pittsburgh. The scope and reach of what our Court Watch program has achieved has smashed our expectations. We’ve enhanced our organizing, communications, and fundraising capacities. We launched Straight Ahead, our 501 (c)(4) legislative wing to bring this fight to the PA state capitol in Harrisburg. And to make all of this – and more – possible, we’ve made powerful additions to our hardworking staff and board.

Midway through 2021, and as I mark my first year as ACL’s Executive Director, what I’m most excited about is that we have developed and embraced our true identity as an abolitionist law project focused on dismantling state violence in all of its forms. We’re confident that we will continue to grow stronger. Ultimately, we will win.                                                                                                            

– Robert Saleem Holbrook

ALC Executive Director

                        


Updates from ALC Court Watch with Josh Palmer

In early 2020, ALC launched our Court Watch program. This new initiative led by volunteers focuses on observing and documenting the courtroom proceedings of local judges in the Pittsburgh, PA region and analyzing racialized trends in arrests and bail decisions that impact community members across Allegheny County. In the 18 months since its launch, over 80 trained Court Watch volunteers have observed hundreds of remote virtual hearings, analyzed thousands of court dockets, and published two groundbreaking reports that illuminate how the anti-Black systems of policing and judicial discretion in the county constitute “racial apartheid” as defined by international human rights law standards.

ALC Court Watch Volunteer Coordinator, Josh Palmer, writes, “In addition to the docket reports, we led the movement calling for the resignation of racist judge Mark Tranquili. Facing six counts of judicial misconduct, he resigned before his misconduct hearing after mounting public pressure. We’ve worked with the courts to build out a virtual court watching infrastructure during the pandemic and placed significant pressure on the local punishment system to end cash bail and grow calls for pre-trial freedom. This happens by showing up to court and letting the judges know that we’re keeping tabs on them.”

As physical courtrooms re-open for public observation, ALC Court Watch continues to expand their volunteer base. ALC Court Watch made headlines in March, when they sued Judge Anthony Mariani for his chambers repeatedly denying Court Watch volunteers access to his virtual hearings, and then again in May, when a volunteer witnessed a defendant endure brutal harassment and detainment by his arresting officer during a preliminary court hearing. That defendant, Alex Horrel, lost one of his eyes from a rubber bullet fired by Pittsburgh police on May 31, 2020 during a Black Lives Matter protest. Our movements to protect community members in the streets, in the halls of prison – and in the courtrooms – continues.

Visit mobilize.us/alccourtwatch/ to attend an ALC Court Watch training and tune in to our calls to action on Twitter and Facebook.


From Our Client, Friend, and Mentor, Avis Lee

Avis Lee in February 2021, exploring the city for the first time since her release. Photo via @womeninprison.

Avis Lee was released from prison on February 12th, 2021 after serving over 41 years of a death by incarceration sentence. We started working with Avis in 2016 as her attorneys, calling attention to the unconstitutional conditions of Pennsylvania’s “felony-murder” mandatory sentencing scheme, and the cruel and unusual punishment of young community members in the face of Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana (Avis was 18 years old at the time of the crime for which she was convicted). Unfazed, unrelenting, Avis believed in her own freedom; she is her own liberator.

Avis in March 2021, on her first day of work for Let’s Get Free. Photo via @womeninprison.

We caught up with Avis to see what she’s been up to: “I want to thank all of my supporters for believing in a brighter day for me. I’ve been working for Let’s Get Free (LGF), as the reentry coordinator for five and a half months now and am finding a lot of valuable resources for returning citizens. One thing I am noticing, surprisingly, is that there are a lot more resources available for women and/or women with children than there are for men – even though there are a lot more men in prisons, and therefore, a lot more men reentering the community.”

Avis attended Let’s Get Free’s Annual Retreat a few weeks ago and is looking forward to being able to attend LGF’s Annual Art Show “in person” and “on the outside, for the first time this November.” She started taking driving lessons and will be moving into a 2-bedroom apartment this month.

“As you can see I like to keep busy and try new things.” She has a new favorite spot for Caribbean cuisine on the outskirts of town. “I usually get my food to-go and take it to the park to eat while overlooking the city of Pittsburgh.”

ALC is proud to have played a role in supporting Avis’ quest for freedom. Our communities on the outside continue to be enriched by her presence.


Full Throttle: Major Gains in The Struggle to End Solitary Confinement

ALC’s Racial Justice Organizer, Saudia Durrant, with members of the Human Rights Coalition, protest outside SCI-Phoenix on July 6, uplifting demands of hunger strikers in solitary confinement. Photo by Joe Piette.

Over the last three months, our communities made momentous strides in the movement to abolish solitary confinement once and for all.

In May, our friends at the Alliance for Police Accountability celebrated a historic victory as Allegheny County voters passed the grassroots org’s referendum to ban solitary confinement at the local jail.

In June, the Solidarity Not Solitary (SNS) coalition launched their mutual aid fund, providing commissary support to community members in solitary confinement. SNS also held a joint press conference with state reps at Philly’s Eastern State Penitentiary: the birthplace of solitary confinement and the blueprint for modern prisons. The group announced Pennsylvania House Bill 1037, which would cap the maximum number of days in solitary confinement at 15, and prevent pregnant and LGBTQ+ people, and anyone over the age of 70 and under the age 21 from being held in solitary confinement in state prisons. The passage of HB1037 would mark a huge legislative win for community members across the Tri-State Area: New Jersey passed a bill limiting solitary confinement in the state prisons in 2019; New York ended solitary confinement for more than 15 days in state prisons and jails this past April.

In July, we worked with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) to amplify the demands of a successful 10-day hunger strike led by the Vaughn 17 and other prisoners held in solitary confinement at SCI-Phoenix. After months of broken promises by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC), strikers were finally granted a handbook for the “Intensive Management Unit” (IMU) step-down program, that would finally create a pathway off of the “Restricted Release List” (solitary confinement) and back to general population. The PADOC’s decision to finally develop an IMU handbook and begin moving some members of the Vaughn17 off the Restricted Release List came about because of powerful inside-out coordination between the strikers and their supporters who made calls, sent emails, worked with local media to expose the failures of the PADOC’s IMU program, and the protested outside SCI-Phoenix on July 6th.

There is tremendous momentum for abolishing solitary confinement and growing public support for victims and survivors of the archaic practice like we’ve never seen before. We look forward to taking the lessons learned from this summer’s organizing to build a campaign against solitary confinement in Philadelphia jails and continuing to urge elected officials to follow through with meaningful abolitionist legislation against the torture known as solitary confinement.

ALC Executive Director, Robert Saleem Holbrook speaking at the June 2nd press conference in front of Philly’s Eastern State Penitentiary – the birthplace of solitary confinement and the blueprint for modern prisons. Photo by Joe Piette.

SAVE THE DATE: AUGUST 10

You can support the movement to end solitary confinement in PA by joining ALC and HRC next Tuesday August 10th at 10am on the steps of Chester City Hall (1 E 4th Street Chester, PA 19013) for the Stop Solitary Rally and Policy Hearing. Listen to survivors, advocates and family members and demand meaningful legislation from the Pennsylvania Senate in accordance with the Mandela Rules: Facebook event and registration.


Help ALC sustain our abolitionist organizing and litigation this fall!

When you support ALC with a tax-deductible contribution, you’re playing an active role in resisting state violence and smashing the racist, classist systems of policing and mass incarceration. Your gift fuels this collective work towards liberation, and powers the transformative change we’re fighting for in the courts and in the streets, behind bars and on the outside.

We need your active partnership to keep the pressure on, and we appreciate your contribution of any amount. There’s so much more to do in this struggle. Join us by making a gift in solidarity today!