Action Alert: Rally Against Family Separation in Allegheny County Criminal Courts

For Immediate Release
April 23, 2019

(Pittsburgh, PA) Rally to  support Joss Deuerling being permitted to seek treatment- not prison – and remain with her newborn baby

Speakers: Representative Summer Lee; Bethany Hallam, plus speakers from ALC, ACLU-PA, Let’s Get Free: Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, FAMM, SWOP Behind Bars, PA Institutional Law Project, and Americans for Prosperity.

A rally and press conference will be held on Friday, April 26 at 12:00 noon in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to speak out against the criminal legal system’s role in separating families and punishing substance abuse disorder. #BringJossHome #TreatmentNotJail 

On February 5, 2019, 31-year-old Joss Deuerling – already a mother of three and 9 months pregnant – was taken to Allegheny County Jail because of a technical probation violation. She had tested positive on a random drug test.

Two days later she gave birth in West Penn Hospital without her partner or any family, not permitted to tell anybody where she was at or that she was in labor, and with an officer from the Sheriff’s Department insisting on staying in the room throughout her birth. She was told by the officer that her partner would be arrested if he tried to come to the hospital. The officers then deprived her of showers for two days after she gave birth and severely restricted the amount of time she was permitted to hold her newborn baby.

After spending the next 6 weeks in ACJ, separated from her 4 children and her partner for a technical violation caused by substance abuse disorder, a medical condition, Court of Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani has decided to revoke her probation and separate her from her family by sending her to state prison.

This is an injustice and we are calling on the community to rally in support of allowing Joss to remain with her family and seek the treatment she wants – and deserves – in her own community.

Relapse is a common part of recovery. Over the last three years Joss has been in treatment. She has been improving and wants to stay drug-free and with her family. A loving environment, family and community support is essential for successful recovery.

Substance abuse disorder should not be criminalized any longer, and the courts and other officials are called upon to handle these cases in therapeutic and medically appropriate ways.

Join us as we rally in support of Joss and her family, protest family separation, and advocate for treating substance abuse disorder as the medical condition it is.

Media Contact: 
Miracle Jones 
(She/Her/Hers)
412-346-6537 (Google voice)
Abolitionist Law Center 
communications@alcenter.org

Media Release: Court rules Incarcerated Woman’s Lawsuit Challenging Deprivation of Pain Medication and Mobility Devices May Proceed.

Court rules Incarcerated Woman’s Lawsuit Challenging Deprivation of Pain Medication and Mobility Devices May Proceed.

For Immediate Release

December 31, 2018

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA. On Friday, The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania rejected motions to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and medical staff violated the rights of an incarcerated woman who is disabled. The case is being litigated by the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP) on behalf of Ms. Tracey Nadirah Shaw, who is currently imprisoned at State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs (SCI Cambridge Springs). Ms. Shaw brought the lawsuit after the DOC and medical staff violated her rights under the Eighth Amendment and ignored protections guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act by denying her necessary pain medication and mobility accommodations, including a wheelchair, for over two years.

Ms. Shaw suffers from chronic medical conditions that cause intense neuropathic pain in her back and legs. For years, she was prescribed medication by DOC staff that stabilized her pain and allowed her to engage in daily tasks, including janitorial labor. In 2015, without the benefit of an examination or consultation, medical staff terminated Ms. Shaw’s effective pain management prescription, which resulted in debilitating pain and substantial reduction in her mobility. Ms. Shaw began to depend on additional assistive devices and accommodations to attempt to navigate life at SCI-Cambridge Springs. However, DOC staff took away her wheelchair, depriving her of the ability to travel the extended distances to educational classes, worship programs, and the dining hall. The DOC then used her worsening medical condition to temporarily remove her from her janitorial duties, resulting in a loss of essential income.

Ms. Shaw lost over twenty pounds because she was not able to physically walk to the cafeteria to get her meals and eventually, she suffered a broken leg requiring surgery and the insertion of six screws when she fell trying to walk with the absence of a wheelchair.

“Depriving Ms. Shaw of a medication that she had been effectively prescribed for years and taking away a wheelchair as her condition worsened highlight the gratuitous cruelty that all too often is present in prison medical care,” said ALC Legal Director, Bret Grote.

The court found that at this beginning stage, Ms. Shaw has raised colorable claims that depriving her of pain medication and mobility accommodations, including the use of a wheelchair, violated her rights under the Eighth Amendment, the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

 

While recognizing the “high bar the [plaintiff] must meet in order to ultimately prevail” on her medical indifference claim, Plaintiff’s allegations of a complete deprivation of meaningful care for her serious medical needs are sufficient, at this nascent stage of the proceedings, to state a claim for relief.

 

“The Court recognized that the DOC must ensure that everyone within their prisons has meaningful access to vital services,” stated Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney for PILP, “This is an important step forward as we continue to challenge the DOC’s ongoing reluctance to adhere to the requirements of the ADA.”

The case now moves on to the discovery stage.

Press Contact:

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

Alex Morgan-Kurtz, PILP, amorgan-kurtz@pailp.org

Case Links

Shaw v. DOC – Motion to Dismiss Decision

Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss

DOC Brief in Support of MtD

Brief in Opposition to MtD-as filed

Shaw v. DOC-as Filed

Media Release: Prisoners File Lawsuit Against New Federal Facility on Toxic Strip Mine Site in Kentucky

For Immediate Release 11/27/18

Image of USP Letcher proximity to slurry and LCW old-growth biological research station managed by Eastern Kentucky University

Contacts:

Emily Posner, Attorney for Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, (207) 930-5232

Prisoners File Lawsuit Against New Federal Facility on Toxic Strip Mine Site in Kentucky

PICTURES AVAILABLE

Washington, DC — Lawyers with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and have filed a federal environmental lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) representing prisoners from across the country who say they were not properly informed about $444 million dollar plans to construct a new federal prison on top of a former coal mine, next to an active mine and coal sludge pond, which could house them in the near future.

Twenty-one prisoners are listed as plaintiffs, along with the ALC. The complete court filing can be found here. Pictures from the lawsuit and the prison site here.

The lawsuit comes after more than three years of a controversial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process conducted by the BOP and the consulting firm, Cardno. Public comments submitted by attorney Emily Posner in 2017 on behalf of the ALC can be found here.

The lawsuit states that federal prisoners should have been considered as parties with legally-required access to EIS documents, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The EIS process outlines a wide range of social and environmental impacts, including potential health risks and alternatives to construction, which prisoners are uniquely situated to provide insight on and particularly vulnerable to the results stemming from the final EIS approval which occurred earlier this year.

The prisoners are asking the courts to halt progress on the plan until they have received access to documents for review and comment.

Map of active coal sites near USP Letcher proposal

One prisoner listed on the lawsuit, Manuel Gauna, stated: “I believe that construction of this particular prison is neglecting the people in Letcher and the people in the prison system. We as prisoners should have had the opportunity to participate in this public comment period for this project. Correctional officers are overworked at my facility [FCI Mendota]. I wish that the BOP would spend the money that it wants to use to build a new prison to properly staff this prison.”

Another prisoner named in the suit, Mark Jordan, currently at USP Tucson, explained, “Just last week President Trump publicly announced his support for the FIRST STEP Act, a reform bill aimed at reducing the federal prison population. The Letcher County project flies directly in the face of this reform narrative.”

Jordan continues, “Despite serious environmental and health hazards, the Justice Department solicited public comment from everyone except those most directly impacted by the project, the prisoners themselves. Health and safety issues aside, this is but a needless pork barrel project ushered through by Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers at a time when public opinion and policy-makers are trying to reduce the population of the federal prison system, not build more prisons merely for the sake of building more prisons.”

Prisoners aren’t the only ones concerned about the facility. Letcher County resident Elvenia Blair, who lives close the proposed prison, is also opposed to the plan.

Blair, who has been contesting the prison for several years, states that “Eastern Kentucky has the highest cancer rate in the nation. Forcing prisoners, correctional officers and their families to live, work and visit this environment is discrimination.”

Blair is also a board member of Friends of the Lilley Cornett Woods and North Fork Watershed, one of multiple local organizations which have expressed concerns about the impact of prison construction.

She continues, “With coal mining on its way out, the natural history of our mountains and wildlife is what we have left to attract people to the area. That will be disturbed with barbed wire, shooting ranges, heavy traffic flow of transporting prisoners. We won’t see economic growth from this.”

Emily Posner, Attorney for the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, also notes, “Federal legislation indicates a downward trend in prison population. My clients are in agreement with local residents who feel that there are much better ways to generate federal support in Appalachian communities than wasting hundreds of millions on an unnecessary prison.”

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Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. ALC has participated in every NEPA public comment period related to BOP’s proposed prison in Letcher County, KY.

Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons conducts grassroots organizing, advocacy and direct action to challenge the prison system which puts prisoners at risk of dangerous environmental conditions, as well as impacting surrounding communities and ecosystems by their construction and operation.

Media Release: En Banc Hearing Granted For Avis Lee

 

For Immediate Release 

October 16, 2018

(Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Media Release: A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania

New Data: Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Lead the Nation and World in Life Without Parole Sentences

Comprehensive Study Shows that Life Without Parole Sentences in Pennsylvania are Imposed on the Young with Alarming Racial Disparities

(Pittsburgh, PA) Philadelphia County has 2,694 people serving life without parole sentences (LWOP), which is more than any other county in the United States and far more than any other country in the world, according to a new data analysis released today by the Abolitionist Law Center.  A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania [Full Report] [Abridged Report] found Pennsylvania has 5,346 people serving LWOP, making the state a national leader in the use of the punishment; only Florida, with twice the population, has more people serving LWOP. State Representative Jason Dawkins and State Senator Sharif Street have filed legislation that would allow parole eligibility for all lifers after 15 years of incarceration.

The report refers to life without parole as “Death by Incarceration” (DBI). Key findings include:

 

  • Most of the people serving DBI were convicted and sentenced when they were 25 or younger, a period of life when brain development and maturation remains ongoing, according to recent neuroscientific research.
  • More than 70 percent of those serving DBI are over 40 and nearly half (2,377 people) are over 50. The practice continues even though research shows that criminal activity drops significantly after age 40 and despite the fact that locking up a person over 55 is two to three times more expensive.
  •  Black Pennsylvanians are serving DBI at a rate more than 18 times higher than that of their white counterparts. Out of Philadelphia’s 2,694 people serving DBI, 84 percent are Black. In Allegheny County, 13 percent of the county’s residents are Black, but constitute 76 percent of those serving DBI sentences (409 out of 541 people).

“This report presents a definitive portrait of a punishment that is archaic, cruel, unjustified, and indefensible,” said Bret Grote, Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center and co-author of the report. “Death by incarceration sentences do not keep the public safer. The human and economic costs are staggering and growing by the year, as thousands of aging, rehabilitated men and women are locked away needlessly. Fortunately, there is also a rapidly growing movement determined to make parole eligibility for all lifers a reality.”

In all cases involving defendants 18 years of age or older, Pennsylvania law does not allow for individualized consideration of a defendant’s circumstances; instead it mandates automatic DBI sentences to many who never actually killed or intended to kill anyone. As the report states, DBI is “a failed policy predicated upon the fallacy that the trajectory of a person’s life – including their capacity for rehabilitation, transformation, and redemption – can be accurately predicted at the time of sentencing.”

Avis Lee is an example of a person serving a DBI sentence because none of the particulars of her case were taken into consideration at sentencing – and may have made a difference. Ms. Lee has served 38 years of a DBI sentence due to a robbery committed by her brother that tragically went wrong and someone lost his life. Ms. Lee was only 18 years old and had been told by her brother to serve as a look out during a robbery. Ms. Lee had turned to drugs and alcohol after a childhood riddled with sexual abuse, violence, poverty, and the death of her mother. After the shooting, she flagged down a bus and told the driver a man was injured. For more than 25 years, she has had no disciplinary infractions in prison. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed to hear her claim that her mandatory life sentence was disproportionate because of her youth. There is hope for Ms. Lee, though not many others.

The Philadelphia DA’s Office is considering reviewing certain cases of excessive sentences, including mandatory life without parole sentences, and will pursue a lesser sentence when legally viable. The trend toward electing reform-oriented, less punitive district attorneys across the country could lead to similar efforts at sentence review being implemented in DA offices on a national scale.

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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. https://abolitionistlawcenter.org/

Voices from the Inside: George Dalie on Environmental Justice at SCI Fayette

SCI Fayette and MCC's Coal Ash Dump, Google Earth 2014
SCI Fayette and MCC’s Coal Ash Dump, Google Earth 2014

Pieces of Me Gone

By Georgie “Big Georgie” Dalie (HC-9826 at SCI Greene)

Recently, I read an article entitled “Pollution Prison in Pennsylvania,” written by comrade Mumia Abu-Jamal (Prison Legal News vol. 26, no. 6, June 2015 issue, p. 60). The article was about the Fayette State Correctional Institution and the prisoners there being exposed to toxic coal waste (Fly Ash).

I was previously incarcerated at the Fayette institution from February 2011 until February 2013. During my time there, I was both a witness to and victim of the toxic environment. On so many mornings I remember leaving my housing unit (C-Block B-side) en route to the Facility dining hall, at which time I would witness a dusty substance that was very thick and made it difficult to see any farther than nine to twelve feet in any direction. I would eat the morning meal, then return to the housing unit. Before locking into my assigned prison cell, I would have to shake out my clothing to remove the same dusty substance. It would be all over the floor in front of the cell and I would have to clean it up with toilet tissue.

On those same mornings someone from the facility Deputy’s complex would get on the PA system and announce that due to “FOG ALERT” all outdoor recreation was canceled for the morning. I always had an issue with the fog alert claim because I would watch the local news and weather stations religiously and none of them had reported any fog in their forecasts. Prisoners would not receive outdoor recreation until after 1:00 PM on “Fog Alert” days.

When I would finally get to the Main Yard the sun would be shining and the dusty substance clouding the air earlier would then be settled on the grass and racetrack. That stuff would get all caked up on your boots and the bottom of your pants legs. Within a weeks time of purchasing some new kicks (sneakers or boots) and wearing them in the main yard the stitching would start to give way and then your kicks would fall apart.

Then came the issue with the water. One of my comrades had warned me one evening that I should always run the sink water in my cell for at least twenty minutes before drinking it because staff and prisoners had been getting sick from a black substance turning up in it. I ran my sink for twenty minutes with a white cloth pressed on the faucet out of curiosity. When I finally pulled the cloth away and took a look at it, I did witness dark particles caked up on the cloth.

One evening during “Block-Out” (Open Dayroom where prisoners congregate to watch TV, use the phone, or play board games) I was in the staff hallway searching the game shelf for the Connect Four set when I witnessed a Department Directive posted to the staff bathroom door that directed all staff to refrain from consuming the facility’s tap water and that the electronic spring water system located in the hallway was for staff. I can only speculate as to why Fayette administrators would issue such directions to staff and not to prisoners also.

In 2012, I discovered thick, hard, shiny, grey, scabby spots appearing all over my body and inside my mouth. The spots on my body burned and itched severely and if I scratched or picked at them they would erupt and bleed. Soap, lotion, water, and even movement caused irritation and discomfort. The spots inside of my mouth were ulcerated and would cause a burning sensation that was difficult just to bear. No matter what I would eat: hot, cold, spicy, or mild, my mouth would be on fire.

In 2013, one of the scabby areas on my neck became so bad that I signed an agreement to allow medical staff to perform a biopsy on the affected area of my neck. The area was numbed via injection and a specimen (a nice size chunk of flesh from my neck) was severed (cut) from the affected area and sent to a lab for diagnostic study and/or evaluation. I agreed to the biopsy because I thought it would help medical staff figure out what was (and still is) wrong with me.

However, when the test results came back, I was told by the Physicians Assistant (PA) that I had something called “Lichen Planus.” She said it’s my fault that I have it and that it was from scratching. I informed the PA that I only scratched an area on my thigh once and that I never did it again because of the pain and bleeding I experienced. She became angry and began to yell at me, stating, “You did this to yourself.” I didn’t understand her anger so I didn’t say anything else. She prescribed me a steroid cream that only helped with the pain. She also told me that I would be stuck with “Lichen” for the rest of my life because there was no treatment for it.

Also in 2013, the ulcerated areas in my mouth became so out of control that the oral surgeon was called in to surgically remove pieces of flesh from my tongue and from the floor of my mouth under my tongue. This took place one day before I was transferred to S.C.I. Greene. (The surgery was done on February, 25, 2013 and I was transferred on the 26th.) The surgery was a failure and about a week after the ulcerated spots started to spread from the right side of my mouth to the left. Large puss bubbles began to grow in the hinges of my jaw and the back of my throat. At night the puss bubbles sometimes get in the way of my breathing and cause me to wake up. I keep a plastic spoon close by so that I can use the back of it to pop them quickly. Also, my mouth had to be stitched up after the surgery, which was extremely painful.

The whole experience was and still is traumatizing. My body is scarred for life now and I had pieces of me cut away that I can never get back. S.C.I. Greene has stopped my steroid cream and will no longer even respond to requests for medical care for my alleged “Lichen Planus.” Back when I first got here I was seen by the oral surgeon (not the same one as at Fayette). I asked him if what I had could turn cancerous. The guy became so nervous he dropped a tray of surgical tools. I never got answers to my question.

I believe that my injuries are a result of being exposed to toxic coal waste at S.C.I. Fayette. I believe that the administrators at S.C.I. Fayette, their medical staff, and government officials know/knew that the toxic environment is harming and killing prisoners.

Why else would they spend millions to pull up all of the institution’s drinking water pipes and hang them on the buildings? According to reports I’ve heard from some of my comrades, the pipes were removed because the ones that were put in by the original contractors were allegedly made of a material that could not withstand the weight of the buildings, so they were replaced with more suitable ones. This makes no sense to me, and even if it were true, that doesn’t explain why the pipes are now hanging on the housing units instead of being put back underground. And why did they dig up the pipes that are going outside the security fence? Those pipes were not under the buildings. If you take a tour of the institution, you’ll see large beams holding up the pipes and they are everywhere. When I used to have to go to the main yard, I had to travel under a large bridge of pipes.

I think the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) and Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) need to look into that because I believe the D.O.C. knew something was up and that they pulled those pipes in an attempt to hide the prisoners’ exposure to the toxic coal waste dump that they built the institution on. I had no other recourse, I had to drink the institution’s tap water and I had to breathe the air there also. The administration didn’t issue me directions not to drink the tap water, nor did they provide me an alternative water source like they did for the staff.

To all of you reading this: How would you feel if you were in my shoes? What if you had to allow nurses and surgeons to cut flesh from your mouth and neck? What if one of us (prisoners currently or previously at S.C.I. Fayette) were your father, brother, uncle, or son? Will you help us to hold those responsible accountable for their deliberate indifference? Or will you not speak out because you’re not now, have never been, and don’t plan on ever being in prison? If that’s how you feel, then let me give you a lesson about apathy.

An early supporter of Hitler during his rise to power, Martin Niemöller later came to oppose the Nazi regime. Niemöller’s status in the world of the wealthy and powerful saved him until 1937 when he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s. His poem “First They Came” can teach us a lot about the consequences of apathy:

“First they came for the communists﹣but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the socialists and the trade unionists﹣but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews ﹣but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out.

And when they came for me there was no one left to speak out for me.”

If you’re not doing anything to save those who need saving right now, then who will be around to do the saving when it is your tongue, your mouth, or your neck that’s getting hacked at? Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

And I say we should stand up, stand together, stand firm, and fight the unjust exposure of prisoners to toxic coal waste at S.C.I. Fayette. And let’s not forget the families in LaBelle who are suffering from exposure also.

 

 

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

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

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