People Serving Mandatory Life Without Parole Challenge Death-By-Incarceration Sentences as Cruel and Unconstitutional

Sentences Are Akin to Death Penalty

Contact:

Jen Nessel, Center for Constitutional Rights, (212) 614-6449, jnessel@ccrjustice.org

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

Kris Henderson, Amistad Law Project (215) 310-0424, kris@amistadlaw.org  


July 8, 2020, Harrisburg, PA Today, people in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences, commonly known as Life Without Parole, filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s prohibition on parole eligibility for those serving life sentences after convictions under the felony murder rule. In Pennsylvania, people convicted under that rule are mandatorily sentenced to life imprisonment, even though they did not take a life, or did not intend to take a life in the course of the crime. A separate provision of the law prohibits parole eligibility for any individual serving life. The lawsuit, filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, is the first challenge of its kind in the country and argues that mandatory Life Without Parole sentences for those who did not kill or did not intend to kill are unconstitutionally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution. They join a movement of advocates currently and formerly incarcerated in referring to Life Without Parole as Death By Incarceration, which they say is the true impact of these sentences.

“A life sentence means death in this Commonwealth,” said lead plaintiff Marie Scott. “In other words, you are sentenced to a life sentence that you must live out until you die. The more I serve what feels like Death By Incarceration, the more I wonder, how could such a draconian penalty be handed down to those of us who’ve neither killed anyone nor intended to kill. Clearly, in my mind, there has to be some room for a chance at redemption.”

The complaint is on behalf of six plaintiffs serving Death By Incarceration sentences after being convicted of felony murder in their late teens or early 20s. They have all spent between 23 and 47 years in prison. Despite their sentences, none caused or intended the death of the victim. The complaint argues that sentences of Death By Incarceration, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized are akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability, are disproportionate and serve no legitimate penological interest when applied to individuals who do not kill or intend to kill as part of their crime.

“Death-By-Incarceration sentences mean that the punishment of people serving that sentence is perpetual. Despite serving decades in prison, the parole board refuses to look at any of our clients’ cases to see if they can safely be free in our communities. And we believe that they and many others like them should be home,” said Kris Henderson, Executive Director of Amistad Law Project.

The complaint filed today notes that Pennsylvania is an outlier within the United States and around the world in terms of the number and rate of prisoners serving Death By Incarceration sentences. At approximately 5,200 people, Pennsylvania has the second-highest number of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences in the country and accounts for 10 percent of the total number of Death-By-Incarceration sentences in the country. It is one of only six states that does not allow for the possibility of parole for people serving life sentences. Philadelphia county, in particular, has more people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences than 45 states – and more than any country in the world. In fact, Philadelphia’s rate of Death By Incarceration is higher than the overall incarceration rate of 140 countries.

“Although Death By Incarceration does not further public safety, it indisputably aggravates apartheid in the criminal punishment system as 70 percent of the approximately 1,100 forced to die in prison under the felony murder rule in Pennsylvania are Black,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, Director of Community Organizing for the Abolitionist Law Center. “This has to end. Granting parole eligibility and establishing a right to redemption for this group will be an important step toward racial justice.” 

Attorneys say Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme exacerbates many of the problems that exist throughout U.S. prisons. Like incarceration overall, vast racial disparities exist within Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme; 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. Advocates say this challenge to Death By Incarceration joins demands around the country for an end to state violence against Black people. The complete impossibility of parole for people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania has also contributed to the aging nature of the state’s prison population, with over 10,000 people over the age of 50, the fourth-highest number in the state. The concerns and costs of incarcerating thousands of aging or elderly people are heightened in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic given the impossibility of social distancing in prison and the fact that older people are particularly at risk. The plaintiffs in this case, like the majority of those serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania, are aging or considered elderly by prison standards, and face the risk of an even sooner death in prison.

“The plaintiffs in this case exemplify the excessiveness and cruelty of Death-By-Incarceration sentences—the monstrosity of locking anyone up for life, with no possibility ever of release, no matter their circumstances, or whether healing and security are actually served for the communities impacted,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei. “These sentences, which affect thousands of people across the country, help justify the supposed need for a massive prison system built and resourced to put people away for decades or life, and, like other extreme U.S. sentencing practices, must be challenged as part of the movement to end mass incarceration..”


For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.


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 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. More information about our work at abolitionistlawcenter.org and follow us on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @AbolitionistLC.

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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We Want Freedom – Statement from Black Philly Radical Collective

Read the full statement We Want Freedom: End the War Against Black Philadelphians NOW! from Black Philly Radical Collective. The statement was co-written by Robert Saleem Holbrook, ALC’s Director of Community Organizing alongside Black Liberation movement groups and leaders of Philadelphia: Mobilization for Mumia, Black Lives Matter Philly, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Human Rights Coalition, and Mike Africa Jr of MOVE.

POLICE TERROR at EAST LIBERTY PROTEST 06/01

Abolitionist Law Center posted this statement to Facebook on the June 2nd, in the early morning following the Pittsburgh Police’s violent descent upon peaceful protestors, terrorizing them with tear gas and excessive force in East Liberty. The post reached over 55,000 views and over 700 shares – aligning with the greater public’s eye-witness accounts of police terror and contradicting what the Pittsburgh Police had said during the news conference following the protest: that tear gas was NOT deployed.

Mayor Peduto’s office and the Citizen Police Review Board of Pittsburgh received countless complaints of police violence from protestors and bystanders who were brutalized, and those who had witnessed the use of tear gas, firing of bean bags, and violent arrests. In the afternoon of June 2nd, the Pittsburgh Police revealed that they had INDEED used tear gas – a chemical weapon banned in war – on peaceful protestors in the June 1 East Liberty protest.

Mayor Peduto has called for independent investigations into the police’s use of force on protestors supporting Black Liberation and police abolition in Pittsburgh.

WE ARE ABOLITIONISTS. Solidarity in the Struggle to End Police Terror and State Violence

“I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation.”

– David Walker, 19th Century Radical Black Abolitionist

The Abolitionist Law Center extends our unqualified support to those in the struggle against police terror and state violence. We support the rights of our community members rising up in rebellion in the name of Black Liberation. At a time when the government cannot protect the health of the people in the US, when mass death is ravaging Black communities, while corporate and political elites seek an ever-larger sacrifice population to keep the profits flowing — we support revolt. We must become ungovernable if we are to transform the police and prison systems into something more than servants and instruments of racialized capitalism.

Police and prisons are the two core parts of a system of state violence that maintains a race and class order that derives from coercive capitalism and serves its interests. Police serve as the occupying troops that instill fear of and subordination to corporate and government interests, while jails and prisons then warehouse, stigmatize, traumatize, and disenfranchise those the police have removed from communities. The two together divide and dehumanize communities of color, keeping them disempowered, alienated, and ready serve as a standing reserve of labor. The violence inherent in their control is self-evident: sometimes it is graphic, as in the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade, or the physical abuse that the incarcerated suffer at the hands of prison staff; other times it is more hidden and quietly corrosive, as in the systemic use of surveillance in impoverished communities or the rampant use of solitary confinement in prison. Either way, the violence is obvious and unacceptable, and we support the efforts of Black communities, poor communities, people of color, immigrants, and queer people to resist it and demand an end to it.

We also know that another system is possible — that state violence is not inevitable and that racial capitalism is not our fate. We know that police forces were founded in the early industrial era to protect middle- and upper-class properties and businesses, while prisons were serving as dungeons and workhouses to dispose of the unwanted poor; we know that early law enforcement forces formed in the american south and the slave-holding north to terrorize enslaved African peoples, and track them down after they had escaped and sought their liberation. And we know that the idea of police and prisons as ‘protectors’ of the general community has only recently achieved consensus, and has done so by appealing to divisions between those who benefit from the racial-economic system by demonizing and disempowering those who do not. The entire contemporary assumption that agents of state violence are neutral entities that benefit the public good and mete out justice and accountability is a recent ideological smokescreen, and we support all efforts to highlight the race- and class-control of these systems and build a counter-consensus against the legitimacy of police and prisons.

We furthermore support the right to pursue these goals by any means necessary. The police and prison system in its current forms are so deeply woven into every level of our political systems, that asking for it to change will inevitably lead to superficial, empty changes and further divided communities. We support the right of people of color to bear arms to protect their lives in a society that does not value their lives, and we refuse to ignore a history that tried to keep arms only in white hands for so much of american historyWe also reject the current divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ police and ‘peaceful’ and ‘aggressive’ protestors, which both distract from the real problems and reinforce the false assumption that police have legitimate protective functions. In particular, we reject the ‘outside agitator’ trope that politicians of both parties reflexively deploy to diminish Black agency and try to discredit legitimate protest against unspeakable injustice. This same idea was used by slave states to blame northern agitators for slave rebellions, attempting to deflect from the brutality of slavery and the right of the enslaved to revolt. It was cynically used again when Black cities erupted in response to white supremacist violence in the 20th Century, as communists were blamed for agitation instead of the violent segregation that sparked the protests. During the Black urban rebellions of the 1960’s white hippies and counterculture figures were blamed for agitation. And in the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising,“gangs” and “looters” were to blame. The white antifascists and anarchists now blamed are only the latest way to deny the very real anger and frustration of years of oppression and create paranoia and division. We must be vigilant against these divisions and mythologies; we must keep our collective focus squarely on the violent state’s enforcement of racial capitalism that has produced these uprisings, decade after decade, and will continue to until we force a change to something better.

The change we look forward to and fight in the name of is one in which communities have no state-sponsored forces imposing and enforcing social control and coercion. In communities without police and prison systems, we see possibilities for those communities currently targeted by police to become more autonomous, less traumatized and more healed, and to find their own way out of poverty by taking back the resources formerly given to law enforcement. We see the possibility for communities strengthened by moving from a model of punishment to one of accountability and transformative justice — by shifting not just how we respond collectively to harm, but also to how we relate to one another and take collective care of each other.

Our movements have been working towards that goal for decades, and we follow in that tradition now by calling for a drastic reduction in the power and influence of the police. As a first move towards that, we call for the following steps to be taken immediately to reduce the damage caused by the policing system and correct some of its more flagrant wrongs:

  • Divert police funding to those in chronic poverty: Staffing for law enforcement makes up the largest single piece of most municipal and county budgets in Pennsylvania, and the majority of that money should be directed immediately to the relief of the over 1.5 million Pennsylvanians living in poverty. In Philadelphia, the most overpoliced and over-incarcerated part of the commonwealth, police staffing takes up a third of the payroll budget, in addition to millions of dollars spent on equipment, facilities, vehicles, etc; as much as possible of that money needs to go to the 400,000 Philadelphia residents — a quarter of the city’s population — living in chronic poverty.
  • Politically isolate and marginalize the Fraternal Order of Police, on the way to dissolving it entirely: The Fraternal Order of Police has a consistent and unequivocal history of using all its power to defend police brutality, including rampant sexual assault and domestic violence, and increase the capacity of the police to intimidate and control. Police unions are recent inventions that were established and gained power only in the mass policing and mass incarceration era, and, while they pose as unions, they serve primarily as political lobbies and ideological defenders of maximal police and incarceration power. We challenge their legitimacy in total, and as a first step, we demand that FOP locals be dissolved and their labor negotiating merged into the larger civil unions of Pennsylvania, until a time when the police are disbanded. We call on our labor allies to support us in disbanding a lobby that disguises its advocacy for terror of Black and Brown communities under the guise of a union, or else be held accountable for being on the wrong side of both labor history and that of the collective humanity of this state.
  • Make police contracts transparent and protect communities: contracts entered into with FOP locals must be negotiated in public, and negotiations must center stakeholders from impacted communities and their community control boards. There must be no tolerance for provisions protecting police for brutality, and no loopholes allowing reinstatements (or transfers) to police found to have engaged in direct violence. Furthermore, no labor contract or any other agreement negotiated with police needs to be honored absolutely; if police continue to act with wanton disregard for the lives and well-being of the people they are supposed to serve, the cities, counties, and community control boards, must suspend or dissolve those agreements.
  • Reduce police power by mass de-criminalization: Police power is granted by political authorities, and it can — and must — be taken away by political authorities. Local and county officials must reduce their jurisdiction greatly by decriminalizing possession of controlled substances and sex work, prohibit arrests for disorderly conduct, prohibit incarceration for misdemeanor offenses, and abolish probation. Arrests on these charges are overwhelmingly directed at the poor and minorities, and ending them would greatly cut down on law enforcement funding and activity. In turn, this would free up public funds to support programs and services in poor Black and brown communities.
  • Establish community control boards with full oversight: Community-based police control boards must be implemented throughout Pennsylvania: their members must come entirely from communities targeted by policing, and they must have full power to hire and fire officers, control city or county policing budgets, and oversee the entirety of law enforcement operations. Civilian police review boards in the past consistently have been deprived of efficacy due to the influence of police unions, politicians, and other entities and ideas invested in police-prison power. To prevent that, all members must have no stake in or financial ties to the police-prison complex (including anyone holding political office of any sort), and a majority of people on any board must have direct experience being targeted by police violence.
  • Provide amnesty, debt forgiveness, and expungement to all protestors: All charges brought against anybody for protesting or demonstrating in any manner must be dropped. Outstanding debt from court costs, fines, and fees must also be forgiven, and any criminal record resulting from those arrests must be expunged in toto

These are all campaigns we must wage and victories we can win on the way to police and prison abolition. We must continue to build solidarity, organize against the deeply entrenched ideas of police and prison legitimacy, and push on every level for a society that serves the interests of its people. Abolitionist politics are not a distant never-to-be-realized utopia: abolition is the act of organizing to end state violence and all systems of oppression. And it is an urgent project that cannot wait.

“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”

– Frantz Fanon


The Abolitionist Law Center has offices located in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. To contact us, please email pghpoliceabolition@alcenter.org (PGH) and phillypoliceabolition@alcenter.org (PHL).

We grieve for Rudolph Sutton. It is time to #LetTheVulnerableGo

The Department of Corrections has announced the death of Rudolph Sutton, a 67-year-old man serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix. He died at the Einstein Medical Center on April 8 due to complications of COVID-19. When asked about the cause of death last week, the DOC had allegedly denied the cause of death, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

This news comes on the heels of the governors’ announcement to authorize the prisoner’s early releases. However, in a prison system with over 45,000 prisoners and tens of thousands more people linked to the system by family members employed there, less than 1,800 prisoners eligible for temporary release is not sufficient to meaningfully slow the spread of Covid-19.

We grieve Rudolph’s death and unnecessary loss of human life. We fear his death will not be the last. While Governor Wolf’s reprieve order of last week recognized that priority should be given to those who are medically vulnerable to severe illness and death from COVID-19, it excluded the vast majority of the medically vulnerable by excluding people serving death-by-incarceration, who are among the oldest in the prison system. However, those who are older than 50 pose little to no risk of re-offending.

While we acknowledge this as a first step by the Governor and the PADOC, we implore them too to take much stronger measures, reduce the self-imposed obstacles to eligibility, and increase the eligibility pool by many thousand more prisoners. We push to let public safety and public health – and not the failed politics of mass incarceration – determine the response to this pandemic in the prisons, or else we will see more and more elders sacrificed in the name of political expediency.

This lifer’s death from COVID-19 related illness at SCI-Phoenix is a painful reminder that we must act fast to release people who fall into the vulnerable categories, especially our elderly, before there is an even deadlier toll. For us, one death is one death too many. We grieve for Rudolph Sutton.

#wegrieve
#letthevulnerablego
#onedeathisonetoomany

Prison Reform Advocates File Class Action Lawsuit Against Allegheny County Over Jail Conditions and Increased Risk of COVID-19

Allegheny County Jail

April 8, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Andy Hoover, ACLU-PA, media@aclupa.org, 717-514-2747
Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org, 412-654-9070
Rebecca Susman, PA Institutional Law Project, rsusman@pailp.org, 412-254-4771

PITTSBURGH – In the wake of the global pandemic, three people detained at the Allegheny County Jail filed a federal class action lawsuit today against the county, seeking relief from the dangerous conditions putting them and others at risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus and the disease COVID-19. The three plaintiffs are represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm Dechert LLP.

The Allegheny County Jail reports the release of as many as 600 people in recent weeks, reflecting a 20 percent population drop and earning the county praise for its efforts. However, as the lawsuit notes, Warden Orlando Harper has failed to properly take advantage of the decrease in the population by consolidating housing units in the jail, leaving at least one entire floor completely unoccupied and continuing to house two people per cell.

 “When the prime directive for protecting public health and limiting the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is social distancing, the decision of Warden Harper to increase population density inside the jail defies belief,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “It is reckless and will result in higher infection rates and deaths in the jail and throughout the county unless there is immediate judicial intervention.”

As the nation responds to the pandemic in accordance with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has issued a stay-at home order and urged Pennsylvania residents to adhere to guidelines that people incarcerated in the jail are unable to follow.

The dimensions of the cells make it impossible for people in jail to follow the CDC recommendation of remaining six feet away from others. And the people in the cells share a toilet, sink, and a desk, increasing the likelihood of transmission of the virus.

“Jails are already the epicenter of COVID-19 spread in cities across the country, with infection rates at Rikers Island in New York seven times higher than the city itself,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “ACJ’s inability to follow CDC guidelines for a virus as deadly as COVID-19 will have devastating consequences for our clients and the community.”

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that their health conditions, including hepatitis C, hypertension, and asthma, increase the likelihood that they will suffer serious or permanent harm from COVID-19. They argue that jail administrators are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as all of the plaintiffs are being held pretrial on minor charges.

”Our clients are at heightened risk because of their underlying health conditions,” said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The leadership at the jail has been utterly irresponsible and has failed to protect them. We need the court to intervene to guarantee our clients’ rights and their safety.”

The lawsuit seeks to represent all people who are currently and will be held at the Allegheny County Jail during the COVID-19 crisis, including those who are considered high risk for contracting COVID-19 due to age, medical condition, or disability. The plaintiffs have asked the court to order their release and the release of people in the jail who are medically vulnerable. In addition, the lawsuit requests that the court order Harper to implement practices in the jail that are consistent with CDC guidelines.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names Harper and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, and Jackie Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; Sozi Tulante, Will Sachse, Cory Ward, Ryan Moore, and Rebecca Rosenberg of Dechert LLP; and volunteer attorneys Jules Lobel and Swain Uber. A copy of the complaint and declaration are available for download below:

COVID-19 – Protecting Public Health in Allegheny County: Release and Divert People from Allegheny County Jail

Endorse this statement as an organization using this Google Form.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has created an international public health crisis. It has now been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization and declared a national emergency by the United States. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools to close and prohibited all public gatherings of over 250 people, and most major universities have switched to online learning for the remainder of the school year. Both City of Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald have declared a state of emergency in their respective regions. The nationwide attempt to “flatten the curve” — to slow the infection rate so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system — has led to the implementation of many measures that prevent large groups of people from congregating in close quarters.

However, these measures do not take into account one of the most vulnerable, highly concentrated populations: the county’s jail population, composed of over 2300 individuals packed into tight quarters and often lacking basic hygiene items. Additionally, prevalence of health conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19 — including tuberculosis, asthma, HIV, hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions — are all significantly higher among the jail and prison populations. To make matters worse, the jail’s medical capacity isn’t nearly high enough to deal with a potential outbreak within the jail; it is woefully understaffed to deal with the medical needs of incarcerated individuals as is. Many individuals will likely need to be transported to and from the hospital, further increasing the likelihood of exposure and transmission.

Because 81% of individuals at the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted of a crime, and the rest are serving relatively short sentences, there is a high turnover rate at the jail. Over 100 individuals pass through intake on a daily basis. The result is that many individuals will enter an environment where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively high, and simultaneously many individuals will also be leaving and potentially spreading the illness to others. This high turnover also increases the likelihood that staff at the jail will contract and spread the disease. All of these factors converge to create the perfect storm for a potential COVID-19 outbreak to spread quickly amongst the incarcerated population. Emergency efforts to decarcerate the jail are more crucial now than ever. Doing so will decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading amongst the ACJ population and staff and subsequently throughout the region. It will also make it more manageable for the jail to provide adequate medical care to those affected.

Other counties have already taken steps towards emergency decarceration, and Allegheny County ought to follow their lead to slow the spread of the disease in the region. San Francisco County’s Public Defender has announced that his office’s attorneys will be seeking the immediate release of pre-trial clients who have a high susceptibility to the virus, and the County’s District Attorney has instructed his office’s prosecutors to not oppose these motions for individuals not deemed a threat to public safety and to strongly consider sentences of time served in plea deals. Additionally, the judges, the Public Defender, the District Attorney, and the Sheriff of Cuyahoga County in Ohio, where Cleveland is located, have agreed to hold mass plea and bond reduction hearings in an effort to release as many people as possible from the jail and reduce the impact of potential outbreak of coronavirus among this population. Many other regions are calling for or implementing similar measures. Other countries are taking strong preventive action as well. Iran plans to release 70,000 people from its prisons. Counties in the United States, the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, ought to be taking similarly urgent measures. The potential of COVID-19 to spread among the incarcerated population was seen in China, where the incarceration rate is six times lower than in the United States. Over 500 cases of coronavirus were reported from just four prisons in China, two of which were in the region at the epicenter of the outbreak. It is imperative that public officials act now to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the region to prevent a similar outcome.

We are calling on the county executive, county council, and all of county government and administration; judges, prosecutors, and public defenders; police, parole and probation officers to all unite on emergency decarceration initiatives to halt the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Allegheny County.

The Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania should:

  • Immediately lift/postpone imposition of detainers of every individual held on alleged probation violations based on new charges or for technical violations;
  • Immediately modify bond of those held pretrial to nonmonetary and/or “release on their own recognizance” (‘ROR’);
  • Cease parole and probation revocation proceedings and terminate long tails;
  • Release all individuals with less than 6 months left in their sentence;
  • Release all individuals incarcerated for misdemeanors, whether pretrial or serving a sentence;
  • Release all individuals incarcerated for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses;
  • Release all elderly individuals (over 50) and those at high risk of vulnerability, including but not limited those with respiratory conditions, heart conditions, diabetes, cancer, or other autoimmune diseases;
  • Release all pregnant individuals;
  • Transfer all non-releasable individuals to less restrictive forms of custody, including electronic monitoring and house arrest, where individuals can self-quarantine as needed.
  • Review individuals on probation or otherwise confined to halfway houses and release those individuals to home confinement automatically;
  • Terminate in-person reporting for those on pre- or post-trial supervision indefinitely.

The District Attorney of Allegheny County should:

  • Postpone the convening of grand juries;
  • Affirmatively support and not oppose the above-mentioned motions and petitions for relief;
  • Withdraw and drop all pending charges for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Allegheny County should:

  • Recall all pending warrants (that have not been served/executed);
  • Delay dates of voluntary surrender for incarceration sentences as requested by defense;
  • Immediately cease arresting individuals for all offenses not directly implicating public safety or an individual’s physical well-being;
  • Immediately cease arrests on warrants for probation violations — technical and otherwise;
  • Avoid new bookings into the jail at all costs, limiting incarceration for only the most immediate and severe instances of harm reduction.
  • Given the similarly dangerous conditions in immigrant detention centers and those jails and prisons that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we demand that Allegheny County Jail and county criminal justice officials NOT facilitate the detention of undocumented immigrants or the transfer of them to ICE custody.

County government and the jail administration should immediately:

  • Issue an emergency order making phone calls free for individuals detained at ACJ;
  • Ensure all incarcerated people have unlimited and free access to: soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, showers and laundry service, NOT monetized through commissary;
  • Provide free access to books and other reading and writing materials to all individuals incarcerated at the jail;
  • Provide additional commissary items at-, below-, or no-cost to all individuals, to boost morale during the trying times ahead;
  • Facilitate the use of video visitation, including confidential video visitations for attorney visits.

We call on our colleagues both in the Office of the Public Defender and in the private criminal defense bar to begin to file motions and petitions, in a pro bono capacity, for all individuals held in Allegheny County Jail under a probation detainer, unaffordable or unjustifiably restrictive bond, and serving long probation or parole terms.

We are demanding that all governmental agencies collaborate on this initiative in order to protect public health. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 — and its mortality rate — requires that we free as many of our neighbors as possible, as they are part of our families and communities. Protecting them and our greater community from avoidable harm go hand in hand, and this must be our shared imperative.

We are calling on other organizations in Allegheny County to endorse and circulate this statement and help shape the course of the response to COVID-19 in our community.

To sign on to the statement, email acjcovidresponse@gmail.com with the name of your organization or fill out via our GoogleForm.

Endorsing Individuals and Organizations:

1Hood Media

Abolitionist Law Center

ACLU-PA

Allegheny County Elders Council

Alliance for Police Accountability

​ANSWER Coalition – Pittsburgh Branch

Bargaining Team 1199 NW Neighborcare Health

Bend the Arc: Pittsburgh

Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County Council

Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project

Book ‘em

Brilliantly Blessed Community Health and Wellness

Bukit Bail Fund

CAIR - Pittsburgh

Casa San Jose

Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County Controller, Member of Jail Oversight Board

Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration – West 

Community Forge

Community Gone Rogue 

Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ)

Fossil Free Pitt Organizing Committee

Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) Pittsburgh

Green Party of Allegheny County

Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!

Jerry Dickinson for Congress

Jews Organizing for Liberation and Transformation (JOLT)

Let’s Get Free: Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee

Liberation/Ukombozi 

Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary and EMAJ

National Lawyers Guild – Pittsburgh Chapter

New Evangelistic Ministries

Olivia Bennett, Allegheny County Council

Opportunity Fund

Party for Socialism and Liberation, Pittsburgh Branch

Pennsylvania Prison Society - Allegheny County

Peter Odell Campbell, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Pitt Legal Income Sharing Foundation (PLISF)

Pitt Prison Outreach

Pittsburghers for Public Transit

Prison Radio

Put People First! PA

Radical Youth Collective

Ratzon : Center for Healing and Resistance

Rep. Sara Innamorato, 21st Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Rep. Summer Lee, 34th Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Richard S. Matesic, Attorney at Law

Steve Macek, North Central College

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Words Without Walls

Family Calls for Justice in Death of Tyrone Briggs

Tyron Briggs’ parents Shaleda and Ervin Busbee

Last week Tyrone Briggs, a 29-year-old from Philadelphia, died after Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) staff at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy reportedly used force against him. Mr. Briggs had been incarcerated since he was 15 years-old, and he and his family were eagerly anticipating his release on parole in the near future; instead, his parents, friends, and community find themselves mourning and awaiting answers about why the life of their beloved son, cousin, and friend was taken.

While very little information has been released about Mr. Briggs’ death, there is strong reason to believe that aggressive conduct of DOC staff directly caused it. As the family seeks answers for the death of their beloved son, the Abolitionist Law Center will be representing Mr. Briggs’ parents, Shaleda and Ervin Busbee. We will accompany and fight with them to ensure that Mr. Brigg’s death does not become yet another extrajudicial killing by the state that goes by without justice and accountability.

Tyrone’s father, Ervin Busbee, said: “The lives of the inmates in there matter, they are someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, brother or uncle. They are human. Why are you painting my son as an animal? Tyrone’s life mattered. His Mother will never get to see him again. The last time she saw him was behind glass on a visit, and the next time she’ll see him will be in a box. We took pictures of Tyrone to church every week so our congregation would get to know him and they were awaiting his presence at service when he came home. Now our church will be burying him. Why hasn’t the prison offered its condolences? We want justice.”  

ALC’s Director of Community Organizing, Robert Saleem Holbrook, emphasized the importance of supporting Mr. Briggs’ family and pursuing systemic change: “The Busbees are victims. Their son Tyrone was violently taken from them. We will not only pursue justice in this case but will also ensure that measures are taken in the future to prevent such reckless use of force on prisoners, whether restrained or unrestrained. As investigations proceed we want to be clear at the outset that victims of state violence are entitled to the full range of victim services in the Commonwealth.”

Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, Bret Grote, stated that “Whether committed by a police officer or a prison guard, extrajudicial killings of Black people in this country are an epidemic. Our clients have joined a tragic community of those who have lost loved ones to state violence. We are asking our larger movement family to come together and support them in this time of grief.”

A GoFundMe page has been established by the family to help with costs associated with Tyrone’s death. Please visit this LINK, contribute, and share widely.

We Abolished Death Row Solitary Confinement in Pennsylvania!

This morning we filed a motion for preliminary approval of a settlement agreement that permanently ends solitary confinement for all death-sentenced people in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC).

Up to now, every person sentenced to death in Pennsylvania has been forced to live in austere conditions of isolation that have been recognized as torture by the UN and the human rights movement around the world. Pennsylvania hasn’t executed a prisoner since 1999 and currently has a moratorium on executions, so many prisoners on Death Row have been living in solitary for decades. The last three executions were of people who had “volunteered” by giving up their appeals, quite possibly to escape the torturous conditions. Today, we have achieved a legally enforceable agreement to ensure that the 136 people living with death sentences can await a full adjudication of their cases without the added cruelty of solitary confinement being imposed on them.

According to the settlement, the DOC will still house people who are sentenced to death in specific prisons, but has agreed to offer the rights and privileges afforded to people in other state facilities. These changes are likely the most sweeping set of reforms to a capital case unit in the country: 

  • At least 42.5 hours out-of-cell activity every week, including yard and outdoor time, law library time, congregate meal time, treatment or counseling meetings, congregate religious worship, work assignment, and phased in contact visitation;
  • Permission to use the phone on a daily basis  for at least 15 minutes per usage;
  • Incarcerated people will not be subjected to strip-searches, shackling, or other restraints, unless security measures are required in response to a temporary, emergent situation;
  • Contact visits with family, lawyers and religious advisors; and
  • Resocialization assistance for individuals psychologically damaged by long periods in solitary confinement to help them in the transition to living in a general population setting, as well and physical and mental health baseline evaluations due to years of neglect.

Despite decades spent in inhumane isolation, our clients have organized and persevered in this historic achievement for the movement to abolish solitary confinement in Pennsylvania. They have set a powerful precedent for ending solitary confinement of capital case prisoners —  and eventually the death penalty as a whole — across the country. Many of our clients have been able to embrace loved ones for the first time in decades in recent months because of this settlement. 

Lots of gratitude to ALC President Jamelia Morgan, whose work on this was critical in driving the case, and to our co-counsel at the ACLU of PA, ACLU National Prison Project, Susan Lin of the Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin law firm, and Drinker, Biddle, & Reath.

Most of all, thank you to the Plaintiffs and class representatives who organized their own legal representation and pushed for this: Anthony Reid, Ronald Gibson, Mark Spotz, Jermont Cox, and Ricardo Natividad. We are proud to represent them.

Finally, your support is what makes this work possible. If you’d like to ensure more victories like this in the future, please DONATE to the Abolitionist Law Center.


More information about the lawsuit, Reid et al. v. Wetzel, is available at this link: https://www.aclupa.org/en/cases/reid-et-al-v-wetzel