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/

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, 2021

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

Prisoners’ Rights Advocates File Lawsuit Against Allegheny County Jail for Sergeant Brutalizing Women with Disabilities

 

December 2, 2020 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT: 

Jaclyn Kurin, Abolitionist Law Center, (703)-850-8914, jkurin@alcenter.org 

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, PA Institutional Law Project, (412) 434-6175 amorgan-kurtz@pailp.org 

PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and K&L Gates filed a lawsuit on Tuesday on behalf of April Walker, LaVonna Dorsey, and Alexus Diggs, three formerly incarcerated women with disabilities, who claim they were brutally assaulted by Sergeant John Raible at the Allegheny County Jail. The complaint describes numerous assaults by Raible against people with disabilities involving the over use of pepper spray, tasers and placing people with disabilities in a restraint chair for hours without food, water, medicine, or breaks to relieve themselves. 

The Complaint claims that Raible repeatedly pepper sprayed Ms. Walker when she was pregnant and slammed her face into the concrete floor, resulting in her hospitalization. Ms. Dorsey’s claims arise from Raible pepper spraying her in the face, breasts, and buttocks while she was naked and then placing her in a restraint chair with purposely overtightened straps, severely injuring her shoulder. The Complaint also describes an incident where Raible shot multiple pepper pellets at Ms. Diggs because he suspected that she was using a pen to write grievances. 

Ms. Walker, Ms. Dorsey and Ms. Diggs are also suing Raible’s supervisors, Warden Orlando Harper, Chief Deputy David Zetwo, and Deputy Chief of Operations Jason Beasom for their failure to train and supervise staff at ACJ which led to the assaults. The lawsuit alleges that before the Plaintiffs were assaulted, Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom were aware of Raible’s violent history of assaulting incarcerated individuals for non-threatening conduct. 

“Raible’s actions are horrifying and have no place in our society,” stated Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Managing Attorney for the PA Institutional Law Project. “More troubling, however, is the absolute disregard shown by his supervisors to a clear pattern of torture and discrimination against women with disabilities.” 

“Sergeant Raible’s pattern of assaulting women in ACJ is as disturbing as it is illegal,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center. “This lawless brutality only exists because Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom permit the systematic abuse of disabled individuals.” 

Despite knowing that Raible presented a significant risk of harm to individuals with disabilities, Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom repeatedly failed to discipline or terminate Raible. Rather, they condoned Raible’s abusive and unconstitutional conduct by permitting him to retain his rank as a sergeant and execute his supervisory duties. 

The lawsuit alleges that Harper, Zewto, and Beasom knew that ACJ officers routinely used excessive force on individuals with psychiatric disabilities. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections report on use-of-force in jails across the state shows that in 2019, ACJ staff resorted to brutal forms of physical force far more frequently than the other correctional facilities.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs are represented by Jaclyn Kurin and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; David Osipovich, Anna Shabalov, Jessica Moran, and Elizabeth Hoadley of K&L Gates LLP.

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.