ALC Releases Report on PA Office of the Victim Advocate, Highlighting Office’s Pro-Retribution History, Calls for New OVA Appointee to be Advocate for All Victims

February 15, 20201

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:

William Lukas, Abolitionist Law Center, wjlukas@alcenter.org

Dolly Prabhu, Abolitionist Law Center, dprabhu@alcenter.org

PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center has published a report on Pennsylvania’s Office of the Victim Advocate. The report illuminates how the agency under former Commonwealth Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm has functioned as a pro-retribution lobbying arm funded by taxpayers, rather than a department that provides meaningful programming to survivors of violence and impacted communities. The report examines how throughout Storm’s seven-year tenure, the OVA advanced a reactionary anti-criminal justice reform agenda by advocating for harsh punitive legislation and increased criminalization, and opposing rehabilitation and decarceration.

According to the report, the OVA had a budget of $2.65 million in 2019 and provides next to nothing by way of programming or substantive direct services for crime victims. Since the OVA is only obligated to represent registered “direct victims” whose harm resulted in an arrest and criminal trial, the report acknowledges, “this legal definition likely excludes most survivors of violence in Pennsylvania” – including thousands of victims of unsolved rape cases and thousands of victims’ families of unsolved murders.

According to the report the OVA has 103,893 registered “direct victims,” yet data on race and ethnicity accounts for only 18.2% of these victims (18,887), while only 40% (41,816) have a known gender identity: 68% women and 32% men. The report compares data on the percent of registered victims versus the percent of victims of violent crime in 2018, illustrating how white residents are overrepresented among registered victims, while Black residents are vastly underrepresented, despite enduring higher rates of violent crime. In Allegheny County, 70.74% of registered victims are white and 27.31% are Black, yet the demographics of victims of violent crime are 49.62% white and 49.26% Black. 

Several OVA programs that are available to the registered direct victims are coded as “Restorative Justice”, which the report notes is “ultimately a cooptation that does not offer a pathway to repairing relationships” since the OVA has never offered nor advocated for alternatives to carceral punishment, but conversely has called for increased sentence time, increased surveillance, and increased fees and fines of incarcerated and paroled individuals. The report shares that in emails obtained in a Right to Know request, Storm even opposed the mere use of humanizing language of incarcerated community members, condemning the DOC’s decision to abandon terms like “offender” and “felon.”

The report highlights other contradictions between the OVA’s alleged mission of supporting victims versus how the Office conducts itself in practice. For instance, Storm’s OVA often advocated against sexual violence against children and rape culture at large, yet her Office remained consistently silent on the incredible prevelance sexual assaults and state violence that are endured by incarcerated youth in jails and prisons.

The report concludes by acknowledging that the data and legislative records left in the wake of Storm’s January resignation shows that the OVA only spoke for victims when there was an opportunity for punishment and that the agency failed to recognize victims of police brutality, carceral violence, and poverty – who are disproportionately Black – along with crime victims who advocate for healing justice over retribution. The report ends by remarking that the harm inflicted by the OVA can only begin to be undone when the Commonwealth appoints a Victim Advocate who “acknowledges the relationship between criminal justice reform and public safety, and acts as an advocate for all victims.”

To view the report, The Pennsylvania OVA: Criminalization, Punishment, And Retribution Under Jennifer Storm, click the download button or use the embedded PDF viewer below.

File name : OVA-REPORT-FINAL-02-05-21-1.pdf

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

Fighting for the Right to the Cure – ALC’s Hepatitis C Pro Se Litigation Manual

A Guide for Filing a Lawsuit to Win Treatment with the Breakthrough
Cure for Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C Pro Se Litigation Manual

The Abolitionist Law Center’s Hepatitis C Project was developed to
assist incarcerated people throughout the state of Pennsylvania obtain
Hepatitis C treatment. The Hepatitis C Project developed out of our
work in _Mumia Abu Jamal v. Kerestes_. Since the project’s inception,
we have corresponded with many throughout the state prisons that are
living with Hepatitis C.

ALC does not have the capacity to represent every prisoner with
Hepatitis C. In order to reach as many people as possible, we have
created this pro se litigation packet for incarcerated patients who will
represent themselves in court. This packet can be used by any
incarcerated patient with Hepatitis C to draft pro se litigation in an
effort to obtain Hepatitis C treatment. The components of this packet
include:

  • Hepatitis C factsheet
  • The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases Guide on
    When and in Whom to Initiate HCV Therapy
  • List of common medical terms associated with Hepatitis C
  • List of medical tests associated with Hepatitis C
  • List of questions to ask your medical provider regarding your
    Hepatitis C
  • The PA DOC Hepatitis C treatment protocol
  • Instructions on how to file a grievance
  • Draft grievance
  • Jailhouse lawyer’s manual (written by Mumia Abu Jamal)
  • Legal brief instructions
  • Draft legal brief
  • Draft complaint

Please use this packet to assist in securing treatment. There is now a
safe and effective cure for Hepatitis C, and there is no reason why so
many should go without access to this cure. We hope this pro se
litigation packet will help you get the Hepatitis C treatment that you
are entitled to.