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.
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.
It’s been a HUGE three months at ALC. We’ve come hard at Death By Incarceration, solitary confinement, abusive and discriminatory judges and court practices, and the torturous conditions inside Pennsylvania’s largest county jails. We’ve collaborated and built power with individuals and groups directly impacted by mass incarceration and other forms of state violence in communities around the state. And our movement, clients, work, and staff members have made media headlines, been part of high profile events, and garnered impressive recognition.
This 48-page report authored by ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu connects the March 2022 death of 26-year-old Gerald Thomas in Allegheny County Jail to the racialized violence of other Allegheny County institutions and state actors. The report examines how practices of policing and punishment such as traffic stops, pretrial detention, probation detainers, and solitary confinement, support the maintenance of local “death-making institutions,” a term coined by abolitionist Mariame Kaba. It also highlights the fact that Thomas died in the jail 17 days after Judge Mariani chose to continue his incarceration, despite all of the charges against Thomas being dropped.
The report’s publication coincided with ALC’s Court Watch program’s filing against Judge Mariani. From March 2021 to March 2022, Prabhu and Court Watch volunteers observed his court proceedings and recorded countless instances of Judge Mariani verbally abusing defendants, attorneys, and his own staff, while also demonstrating a lack of understanding of relevant legal standards, and making racist comments about Black defendants.
Winning “Compassionate” Release from Decades of Confinement
In September, ALC clients Frank Lowery and Vernon Bess were released from prison after 45 and 47 years of incarceration, respectively. These two men were the latest of the seven people serving excessively long sentences for whom ALC’s legal team has won release since the summer of 2021. Most of them had more than 30 years behind bars (one had been inside for 51!), and several spent decades of their imprisonment in solitary confinement. Five of these individuals were freed by so-called “compassionate release,” for which they qualified because of severe incapacitation from terminal medical conditions.
Compassionate release cases are labor-intensive and extremely urgent; one qualification for applicants is that they must have a documented medical prognosis of having less than a year to live. Along with our exploding caseload, we’re supervising the Compassionate Release Pro Bono Project, a newly formed collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania Law School working to increase the number of people who apply for and ultimately are granted “compassionate” release.
In August, ALC’s 501(c)(4) arm Straight Ahead, produced a deeply moving video featuring Bradford Gamble, one of our recent clients who was forced to make the agonizing choice of foregoing treatment in prison for late stage cancer, in order to meet eligibility guidelines for consideration for release.
Take a watch as Mr. Gamble, who passed away soon after the video was made, and ALC staff attorney Rupalee Rashatwar talk about why no one should ever face such a decision, and no one should die behind bars.
Together We’ll End Death by Incarceration!
In mid-September, ALC, Straight Ahead, formations of our movement family members led by formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, and a coalition of partner organizations from around the country made huge strides in our shared campaign to end Death by Incarceration. (Death by Incarceration is the inhumane sentencing of a person to life without the possibility of parole.) Over the course of just one week we took the fight to the United Nations, a PASuperior Courtroom in Pittsburgh, and the PA state capitol in Harrisburg.
On September 15th (as part of a group that included the Center for Constitutional Rights, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Drexel University Community Lawyering Clinic, the Drop LWOP Coalition, Release Aging People in Prisons, and others), ALC made national headlines when we submitted a 31-page letter to the United Nations stating that the United States is committing torture and other gross human rights violations by condemning people to Death by Incarceration.
The coalition is urging the U.N. Special Rapporteurs to call for the nationwide abolition of life imprisonment, which is more prevalent in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. Our initiative received high profile press coverage in The Nation, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Progressive, and other outlets.
On September 20th, ALC’s legal team argued persuasively in the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Pittsburgh that life without parole sentences for felony murder is cruel punishment that is prohibited by the Pennsylvania state and federal constitutions. In Commonwealth v. Derek Lee, ALC’s client Mr. Lee is challenging the lifetime ban on parole for those convicted of felony murder (i.e. people who did not take a life or intend to take a life). A win in this case would be a huge, precedent-setting victory not just for Mr. Lee, but for the approximately 1100 other people who are currently languishing under DBI sentences for felony murder in PA.
The legal team’s compelling argument, which appeared to be received favorably by the judges, highlighted the fact that while only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, about 70 percent of people serving Death By Incarceration sentences for felony murder in the state are Black. Read more details in excellent press coverage here and here
Also on September 20th, formerly incarcerated leaders including “juvenile lifers” who served decades of DBI sentences before winning release, hundreds of our movement family members from across the state, elected officials, and staff from ALC and Straight Ahead, joined forces at a rally organized by our comrades from CADBI (Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration), on the steps of the PA capitol in Harrisburg.
With powerful personal testimony, participants called on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass legislation to end Death By Incarceration and instead embrace policies that heal communities. In the face of a new wave of gun violence and homicide, community members impacted both by violence and mass incarceration urged legislators to divest from mass incarceration, and address violence with real solutions such as community-based violence prevention efforts, fully funding schools and social services, and providing accessible mental health and addiction treatment.
Banning Solitary & Other Extreme Conditions of Confinement
ALC has worked toward the abolition of solitary confinement since our first case in 2013, when we led the successful legal battle to release Russell Maroon Shoatz from 22 years of that torture. Our executive director Robert Saleem Holbrook, and ALC community organizer John Thompson, each spent ten years or more in solitary during their decades of incarceration and regularly speak out against the inhumane practice in high profile public events and in the press.
In Philadelphia we’re embedded in the push for the City Council to establish a jail oversight board that would address the county jails’ egregious use of solitary, as well as the many other highly abusive and harmful control measures occuring in Philadelphia jails.
As part of our overall campaign to raise awareness and public support for ending solitary, in August ALC and Straight Ahead co-sponsored the End of Isolation Tour’s performance at Eastern Penitentiary of “The Box.” This immersive production by playwright Sarah Shour (who spent 410 days in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison where she was physically and mentally tortured, and suffered depression and anxiety) “brings to light the fallacies of solitary confinement.”
Also earlier this summer,ALC and Straight Ahead joined forces with partner groups PA Stands Up, Lehigh Valley Stands Up, and NEPA Stands Up, to end solitary confinement in the jails in Lehigh and Lackawanna Counties by placing voter referendums on the November 2022 ballot. This effort is modeled after the successful referendum that ended solitary in Allegheny County Jail in 2021 – to our knowledge, the first such voter-led effort in the nation.
Though we fell short of the signatures needed to get the question on the ballot in Lehigh County, in Lackawanna County, our coalition met the threshold by garnering more than 13,000 signatures! When officials illegally tried to thwart our effort by refusing to put the question on the ballot in mid-September, ALC staff attorney Jaclyn Kurin sued the election board, and our Campaigns Manager John Rowland helped local activists raise a ruckus with a focused, public pressure campaign that brought visibility and a media spotlight to the issue.
This is another extremely pressing fight for ALC’s legal and organizing teams, who are racing against the deadline to ensure that the will of the people of Lackawanna County is honored as they demand a say in deciding whether or not the jail will continue to torture people with solitary confinement.
Free Our Youth!
We’d like to take a moment to uplift the creative work of our partners at Care, Not Control, a coalition of youth and youth advocates working to end juvenile incarceration in Pennsylvania.
Care, Not Control has released their first track from their upcoming project Care, Not Control: The Album. The track is titled Untold Story, and it features Care, Not Control youth organizer Bre Stoves, 19. Bre also works with Juvenile Law Center and The Village of Arts and Humanities and has been making music since the age of 12.
Bre began the process of working on “Untold Story” while she was incarcerated and hopes the track sends a message of solidarity and camaraderie to her fellow youth. “I want people, especially incarcerated young people, to know they’re not alone. There are people out there fighting for them.”
Care, Not Control: The Album showcases the talents, hopes, and dreams of young people directly impacted by the criminal legal system. The album seeks to shift the narrative surrounding youth incarceration and promote investing in community-based alternatives. Care, Not Control plans to release an educational toolkit to accompany the music that will delve into the album’s themes and promote critical discussions about youth incarceration, violence, and power.
As usual, we’ve been out there with our movement family, making noise and making news the last few months.
Each year, Pittsburgh Magazine and PUMP recognize 40 outstanding individuals under the age of 40 whose creativity, vision, and passion enrich the Pittsburgh region. This year’s 40 Under 40 honorees include ALC Community Organizer Tanisha Long (pictured, left, with fellow 40 Under 40 honoree, Miracle Jones, the Director of Policy and Advocacy at 1Hood Media and former ALC staffer, right).
ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook has been constantly on the go, speaking at conferences and events like Netroots Nation and Socialism 2022, while also continuing to share his story for initiatives like the #ExceptForMe#EndtheException campaign to abolish the prison slavery currently allowed in the 13th amendment.
Help ALC sustain the fight to free people from incarceration and other forms of racist state violence by making a tax-deductible donation to the Abolitionist Law Center today. Your gift fuels our collective liberation struggle and powers the transformative change we’re fighting for in the courts, in the streets, behind bars, and on the outside.
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.
The ALC and co-counsel are representing Kimberly Andrews, a 20-year-old woman awaiting disposition on misdemeanor cases who has been in solitary confinement off and on since February of 2019, despite having known mental health issues. While at the ACJ, Ms. Andrews has tried to self-harm at least three times due to the decompensation associated with the placement in solitary confinement and harsh prison conditions within the restrictive housing unit. Ms. Andrews suffers from known mental health disorders including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. Instead of receiving access to treatment and waiting for the adjudications of her case, Ms. Andrews has undergone repeated dehumanizing encounters with abusive ACJ staff.
For instance, on one occasion Ms. Andrews spent at least 8 consecutive hours in the restraint chair, strapped in so tight that it caused bruising around her wrists and shoulder areas. She was again deprived food, water, bathroom breaks, or any ability to move her limbs. Staff returned at one point to loosen the strap on her right wrist, as it was cutting into her flesh. Ms. Andrews asked for her inhaler, but her request was denied; no other medical checks were conducted.
The treatment of Ms. Andrews highlights the inability of the ACJ to create policies and procedures to ensure the safety and security of those incarcerated with medically diagnosed disorders. Ms. Andrews has been able to successfully interact in general population and was able to have a job when briefly removed from solitary confinement. Despite previous attempts to resolve this situation, Ms. Andrews remains in solitary confinement where she continues to struggle to acclimate based on her health history and continues to self-harm as a result.
She has been kept in solitary confinement for over 70 days by Defendants at the jail, although she has not been either charged with or convicted of any violent conduct by officials at the jail. She has a history of mental illness, which is greatly exacerbated by her placement and retention in isolation. She has attempted suicide three times since being placed in solitary confinement.
The petition is asking the court to grant Ms. Andrews as temporary restraining order which would prevent her from being placed in solitary confinement as well as prevent specific ACJ staff from contacting her due to their denial of medical treatment and triggering conduct. The ACJ spent more than $200,000 on bedding, replacing sheets with anti-suicide blankets due to the number of suicide and suicide attempts in the facility.
PHILADELPHIA – The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has granted Darrick Hall’s preliminary injunction against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Darrick has been held in solitary confinement on death row for the past 24 years. In spite of his death sentence being vacated in 2014 and overwhelming evidence of the devastating mental health consequences of solitary confinement, the DOC continued to hold him on death row in an open grill cage, subjected to humiliating strip searches and a dog leash he is tethered to every time he leaves his cell. In ruling that Darrick is entitled to an immediate review of his placement in solitary confinement, Judge J. Curtis Joyner wrote, “[i]ndeed, we are somewhat perplexed as to why Mr. Hall remains housed in the Capital Case Unit and why efforts have yet to be undertaken to transition him to General Population.” The Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center represented Mr. Hall in this matter.
Jamelia Morgan, Abolitionist Law Center, 650-387-8582, email@example.com
Kris Henderson, Amistad Law Project, 215-310-0424, firstname.lastname@example.org
Maggie Filler, Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, 857-284-1455, email@example.com
HARRISBURG — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Center, Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feiberg & Lin LLP, and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP filed a class-action lawsuit against the commonwealth of Pennsylvania over its unconstitutional practice of holding prisoners sentenced to death in mandatory, permanent solitary confinement. These prisoners spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells alone, conditions proven to damage mental health and worsen existing mental illness. Today’s suit seeks an end to this practice, which violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
“Solitary confinement is psychological torture. By automatically imposing that torture on every prisoner facing a death sentence, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is acting as if the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment doesn’t exist,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “No human being should be placed in a cage and deprived of human contact for days, much less decades.”
Of the 156 people sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, nearly 80 percent have spent more than a decade in solitary confinement. Each cell is about the size of a parking space.
“The cells that hold Pennsylvania’s prisoners with death sentences are designed to make seeing another human being just about impossible, let alone interacting with one,” said Bret Grote, legal director at the Abolitionist Law Center. “Those conditions cause psychological damage within days, let alone decades. Doling out a severe punishment like this as a matter of course is shameful as well as against the law.”
Anthony Graves spent 12 years in solitary confinement in Texas while facing a death sentence. He was wrongfully convicted and exonerated. “Solitary confinement is like living in a dark hole. People walk over the hole and you shout from the bottom, but nobody hears you. You start to play tricks with your mind just to survive,” said Graves, who is the author of Infinite Hope, a memoir, and is the Smart Justice Initiatives Manager at the ACLU of Texas. “I saw the people living on death row fall apart. I saw guys who dropped their appeals and elected to die because of the intolerable conditions.”
Multiple studies have shown solitary confinement’s dangers to mental health, including increases in self-harm and suicide. In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his concurrence to Davis v. Ayala, “[R]esearch still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.”
“Across the country, prison officials are recognizing that solitary is a tool to be used only in extreme emergencies and only for short periods of time,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and director of the Stop Solitary Campaign. “They have become far less reliant on solitary without sacrificing prisoner or staff safety. It’s time for Pennsylvania to take note.”
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The five plaintiffs are represented by Witold J. Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; David Fathi, Amy Fettig, and Desiree Sholes of the ACLU’s National Prison Project; Bret Grote and Jamelia N. Morgan of the Abolitionist Law Center; Jonathan H. Feinberg and Susan M. Lin of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP; and Wilson M. Brown, Barry Gross, Mira E. Baylson, and Mark D. Taticchi of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.
For the complaint and information about Reid v. Wetzel, visit aclupa.org/Reid
December 21, 2017: Arthur Johnson, a 65-year-old man in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) at State Correctional Institution Greene, who spent 37 years in solitary confinement before a federal court ordered his release last year, has reached a settlement with the DOC in his case. In exchange for $325,000, including attorney fees and costs, and a guarantee not to return him to solitary confinement based on his previous record, Mr. Johnson has settled his remaining claims in the case.
Mr. Johnson originally filed a lawsuit challenging his long-term solitary confinement in May 2016. Mr. Johnson had been held in isolation since 1979. He sued for violations of his 8th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment and his rights to procedural and substantive due process.
Conditions of solitary confinement in the DOC involve 23-24 hour lockdown in a small cell. For five hours per week Mr. Johnson is permitted to enter an outdoor cage slightly larger than his cell. He was not permitted contact visits.
On September 20, the Chief Judge Christopher Conner of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted a preliminary injunction ordering the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to begin a “step-down” program to return Arthur Johnson to the general prison population.
In reaching his decision, Judge Conner stated: “For the past thirty-six years, the Department has held Mr. Johnson in solitary confinement—his entire existence restricted, for at least twenty three hours per day, to an area smaller than the average horse stall. Astoundingly, Mr. Johnson continues to endure this compounding punishment, despite the complete absence of major disciplinary infractions for more than a quarter century.”
Mr. Johnson was represented by a team of attorneys from the international law firm of Jones Day, Bret Grote and Dustin McDaniel from the Abolitionist Law Center and Professor Jules Lobel from the University of Pittsburgh Law School.
Brought by Women who Were Housed in Solitary While Pregnant
PITTSBURGH – Allegheny County has settled a lawsuit filed last December by five women who challenged the county jail’s practice of housing pregnant inmates in solitary confinement.
The women are represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm of Reed Smith LLP. Four of the plaintiffs spent time ranging from six to 22 days in solitary confinement while pregnant and incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail (ACJ).
“We are grateful that officials in Allegheny County have recognized how harmful it is to keep pregnant women in solitary confinement,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It’s unfortunate that it took a federal lawsuit for them to recognize this, but we’re pleased the county has agreed to a progressive, comprehensive, and humane policy. People who are incarcerated have a right to basic healthcare needs and to be treated humanely.”
The plaintiffs were typically placed in isolation for minor, non-violent rules infractions, including possession of too many pairs of shoes in one case and possession of a library book in another. During their time in solitary, they stayed in their cells for 23 to 24 hours per day and were rarely given the opportunity to even shower. They were also denied access to proper nutrition for pregnancy throughout their incarceration.
“The women who brought this lawsuit exhibited tremendous courage under harsh and despairing conditions, and through their efforts they have secured important human rights protections for pregnant women at the Allegheny County Jail,” said Abolitionist Law Center Legal Director Bret Grote.
As part of the settlement, officials from Allegheny County have agreed to numerous new policies and accountability measures that are among the most comprehensive and progressive procedures for housing pregnant inmates in the United States. The settlement prohibits the jail from placing pregnant women in restrictive housing except in rare instances where the inmate poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm, and decisions to place pregnant women in restrictive housing must be reviewed by the deputy warden and cleared by a medical professional.
In addition, administrators at the jail will provide appropriate diets for pregnant inmates and will track the distribution of meals, and women who are lactating will be allowed to use a breast pump.
The county also agreed to specific enforcement measures. The federal district court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement’s terms for three years. ACJ will also provide a current list of all pregnant women at the jail to the plaintiffs’ lawyers on request and will provide copies of documents related to the placement of any pregnant women in restrictive housing to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“Allegheny County has taken an important step in joining the national trend that recognizes there are better alternatives to solitary confinement within our prisons and jails,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “These policy changes will provide a healthier and safer environment for pregnant women detained at ACJ.”
The case is Seitz v. Allegheny County, and the plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and David Fawcett and Aleksandra Phillips of the law firm Reed Smith LLP.
Shawn Bridges remains on death row despite his conviction being overturned in 2013
August 4, 2017: Lawyers for Shawnfatee Bridges, a 40-year-old man held on death row in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) at State Correctional Institution Graterford, filed a lawsuit on August 2nd challenging his perpetual solitary confinement. Mr. Bridges has spent 19 years in solitary confinement on death row.
Mr. Bridges also filed for a preliminary injunction ordering his immediate release to the general prison population, where he would be permitted contact visits with his five children – who he has not hugged in nearly 20 years – and his three grandchildren, who he has never held or embraced. He is challenging his continued isolation as a violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s procedural due process clause
Originally sentenced to death in February 1998, Mr. Bridges’ conviction and sentence were overturned in 2013.
In February 2017, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark decision that held that the continued solitary confinement on death row of individuals who, like Mr. Bridges, have obtained relief on their death sentence violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Williams v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 848 F.3d 459 (3d Cir. 2017).
Despite this ruling, the DOC continues to hold Mr. Bridges in 22-24 hour solitary confinement without any prospect of release to the general population in violation of the Williams decision.
According to the Complaint, for 19 years, nearly half of his life, Mr. Bridges has lived in a cell that “is no larger than 7 feet by 12 feet, smaller than a typical parking space,” where “the lights in his cell [are kept] on 24 hours a day while officers shine flashlights in his face every thirty minutes during night rounds.” These conditions have been imposed despite Mr. Bridges receiving only two minor disciplinary infractions in nearly two decades, neither of which were violent or resulted in any disciplinary custody time. One of the misconducts, for instance, was for making more than the three allowed phone calls per week, which he could only do if staff provided the phone for him.
As a result of the conditions on death row Mr. Bridges is experiencing worsening depression, short-term memory problems, cognitive and concentration difficulties, anxiety, and hopelessness despite the fact that his conviction and sentence were reversed four years ago. These symptoms of long-term, perpetual solitary confinement were warned about by the Third Circuit in the Williams case when it said these conditions can “trigger devastating psychological consequences, including a loss of sense of self.”
Mr. Bridges is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Cozen O’Connor law firm.
On Friday, April 14, 2017, the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decisions of the Western District Court of Pennsylvania in the case of Palakovic v. Wetzel, ruling that the Palakovics claims challenging the conditions of solitary confinement and deficient mental health care of their late son, Brandon, could move forward into the discovery phase. In a precedential ruling the Court held that the lower court’s June 2015 dismissal of the Palakovics’ Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement and mental health care claims, as well as the February 2016 dismissal of their Eighth Amendment vulnerability to suicide claim, constituted legal error and the case could move forward to discovery.
Renee and Darian Palakovic issued a statement following the ruling:
Knowing that we can move ahead with our case is an incredible feeling and we are extremely thankful to everyone who has worked so hard on Brandon’s behalf. This fight is about him and for him at its core; but, this victory has also set a precedent. Yes, a precedent. The satisfaction we feel knowing that the young man who they felt no compassion for and treated like trash is going to stop them from doing it again or haunt them in a court of law if they dare to do it to another is beyond words. This victory is the sweetest we’ve ever felt.
Palakovic v. Wetzel was filed in July 2014 in the Western District of Pennsylvania on behalf of the late Brandon Palakovic by his parents Renee and Darian. The suit claims that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) Secretary John Wetzel and other officials in charge of the now-defunct State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson “created and sustained conditions of solitary confinement that subjected Brandon Palakovic to torture, causing him to take his own life on July 17, 2012, at the age of 23. Defendants transformed [Brandon’s] 16-48 month term of imprisonment into a death sentence.”
In its decision dismissing the original complaint’s Eighth Amendment claims in June 2015 the district court held that the Palakovics were barred from raising claims challenging Brandon’s conditions of confinement and inadequate mental health care, and instead had to bring claims under the Third Circuit’s vulnerability to suicide standard. The Third Circuit, in a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Judge Smith, disagreed: “Here, to the extent Brandon could have brought an Eighth Amendment claim contesting his conditions of confinement while he was alive, his family should not be precluded from doing so because he has passed away. We agree with the Palakovics that their original claim need not have to fit within the vulnerability to suicide framework, and the District Court erred in dismissing it solely for that reason.”
The Third Circuit then recognized that the factual allegations in the original complaint were more than sufficient to state a claim allowing the case to proceed into discovery:
“[W]e first acknowledge the robust body of legal and scientific authority recognizing the devastating mental health consequences caused by long-term isolation in solitary confinement. In our recent decision, Williams v. Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 848 F.3d 549 (3d Cir. 2017), we observed a growing consensus—with roots going back a century—that conditions like those to which Brandon repeatedly was subjected can cause severe and traumatic psychological damage, including anxiety, panic, paranoia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, and even a disintegration of the basic sense of self identity. 18 Id. at 566–67. And the damage does not stop at mental harm: “Physical harm can also result. Studies have documented high rates of suicide and self-mutilation amongst inmates who have been subjected to solitary confinement. These behaviors are believed to be maladaptive mechanisms for dealing with the psychological suffering that comes from isolation.”
. . .
“Considering these factual allegations in light of the increasingly obvious reality that extended stays in solitary confinement can cause serious damage to mental health, we view these allegations as more than sufficient to state a plausible claim that Brandon experienced inhumane conditions of confinement to which the prison officials—Wetzel, Cameron, Boyles, Luther, and Harrington—were deliberately indifferent.”
The Court then went on to rule that the Palakovics mental health care claims, as well as the vulnerability to suicide claims that were dismissed by the lower court could move forward also.
The case sheds light on the life-and-death consequences of solitary confinement, seeking accountability for illegal conditions of confinement that are increasingly recognized as torture.
SCI Cresson was under investigation by the DOJ at the time of Brandon’s suicide for holding prisoners with mental illness and intellectual disabilities in solitary confinement and depriving them of mental health treatment. The DOJ found that SCI Cresson’s use of solitary confinement on the mentally ill and intellectually disabled constituted cruel and unusual punishment
According to a report issued by the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), “despite a history of self-harm and suicide attempts, [Brandon] continued to be placed in isolation, eventually leading to his death.”
Contact: Bret Grote bretgrote(at)abolitionistlawcenter.org