Five years ago today, I was released from SCI-Greene after serving 27 years of a life without parole sentence that was imposed on me for an offense I was convicted of as a child. Initially sentenced to die in prison, my release was the result of an international campaign to end the practice of sentencing children to life without parole. That effort culminated in the United States Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama in 2012, which held that sentencing children to mandatory life without parole sentences is unconstitutional. It took four more years of work by activists on the ground in Pennsylvania, and across the country, to make that ruling retroactive so that it applied to me and others like me.
I am proud to have been a part of that campaign and even prouder that my sister, Anita Colon, was one of the activists at the forefront of ending mandatory life without parole sentences for children. However, I was never in this fight for personal freedom alone, nor was my sister. It was always about the movement and justice.
I was released from prison on Tuesday, February 20th. On Wednesday, the 21st, the first thing I did was go to a general meeting of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration. I still vividly remember walking into the old, dank recreation center at 7th & Diamond Street, and being embraced by dozens of family members and comrades.
I remember being overwhelmed with emotion thinking about my mother, who did not live to see my release, but had fought for her son like every mother in that room. I remember telling them that they should never for a moment believe that what they were doing wasn’t making a difference, because 20 years prior, my mom was just like them, going to meetings to advocate and agitate for her child’s release. And my mother sitting in those Fight For Lifers meetings in 1992 helped build a movement that led to my release in 2018.
On March 1st, 2018, a week after that CADBI meeting, I started working as an organizer and paralegal at the Abolitionist Law Center, an organization I helped create while still incarcerated. Along with my comrades from the Amistad Law Project, I hit the ground running in Philadelphia. Since then we’ve been striving relentlessly to bring abolition to the masses by prioritizing releasing people from extreme sentences and dismantling the carceral state. We do this not just by advocating, lobbying, or litigating but also by building the political power of families of the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and marginalized communities.
As I reflect on the many accomplishments of this movement in the five years since my release, I see a list too long to detail. A recent highlight for me was being named to incoming Governor Shapiro’s transition team. In that role I participated in a press conference just last week, at which Shapiro announced he will not sign any death warrants, and called on the legislature and community advocates to work with him to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
While we celebrate this announcement and acknowledge how far we have come as a movement, to have reached this place where we are influencing the governor’s criminal justice reform priorities, we are not satisfied. The abolishment of capital punishment in Pennsylvania would be for us, another milestone on the road to decarceration and abolition.
I exited prison with a singular determination and commitment to fight against mass incarceration just as relentlessly and boldly as its proponents fought to keep me behind bars, and to prioritize the leadership of currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families. When I walked out of those gates, I left men who I spent more time on this earth with than my own mother or father – men who helped raise and protect me when I was a juvenile thrown into a state prison system. I left mentors, I left friends, and I left comrades who stood with me, back against the wall, fighting for our lives in prison yards and cell blocks.
I didn’t learn about abolition in the abstract. I wake up every morning with my mind on those people still inside and their families. Never for a moment will I forget that the Abolitionist Law Center and Straight Ahead owe our power to these families. They are our constituents, and as executive director it is to them I am answerable. And having recently become a father myself – something the state tried to deprive me of – I now feel even more driven to raise a son in a society free of racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, oppression, and incarceration.
My lived experience compels me to this fight. I’m immensely proud of having become the executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center in 2020, and establishing its 501(c)(4) legislative arm, Straight Ahead, in 2021. And as long as I hold these roles, I’ll approach them with the unwavering commitment to boldly and unapologetically fight to dismantle the carceral state, win abolition, and reunify the families of our movement.