On June 6, 2015, after months of meeting and organizing, the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) officially launched its campaign at the Vineyard Community Church in West Philadelphia. Over 300 people attended the launch. At this moving event, community members and activists, loved ones of those in prison, formerly incarcerated people, children and families, shared delicious food, personal stories, and campaign strategies,while signing hundreds of postcards urging legislators to abolish death by incarceration (DBI), more commonly known as life without parole (LWOP).
Many people gave powerful testimonies about why and how we must end DBI. Those currently in prison participated via phone and prerecorded audio.
CADBI also revealed its three core demands for legislative change:
Parole eligibility for everyone after 25 years of incarceration.
Presumptive parole: automatic release after minimum date of sentence, with the burden of proof on the State if they want to continue to incarcerate the individual.
A maximum sentencing law that will stop the Commonwealth from incarcerating people for indefinite periods of time.
CADBI is currently made up of four organizations that have been working for years to address issues related to the prison industrial complex. Three of the organizations, Decarcerate PA, the Human Rights Coalition, and Fight for Lifers, are based in the community, while a fourth, Right to Redemption, is located within SCI Graterford.
Pennsylvania prisons currently hold over 5000 people serving DBI sentences. In PA, a life sentence means your natural life—it is a sentence that condemns you to die in prison. CADBI believes that death by incarceration is a violation of human rights and an affront to all of our humanity. Furthermore, DBI sentences deprive our movements and communities of the presence and contributions of those serving these sentences. Prisoners, their loved ones, our communities and movements are all negatively impacted by DBI and other harsh sentencing practices. As CADBI and Right to Redemption member Felix Rosado says, “The lifetime confinement of people who are proven by study after study to pose little to no threat to public safety is not only a cancelation of human potential but a huge waste of scarce tax dollars.”
Only one other state, Florida, holds more people in prison for life without parole than Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is one of only six states that denies parole to all lifers. Life without parole is unconstitutional in 25 countries, and the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole. Over 500 of the 2500 people nationally serving juvenile LWOP sentences are held in Pennsylvania, more than anywhere else in the country.
“I believe that sentencing someone to die in prison, with no hope of redemption, is a human rights violation,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, member of CADBI and a Philadelphian who was sentenced to life without parole when he was a child. CADBI seeks to increase the number of family members of incarcerated people involved in this fight, working together to develop an effective, inclusive strategy and organization to educate the public about this dehumanizing practice. Instead of sentencing adults and children, men and women, to die in prison, PA must invest in education, healthcare, jobs, housing, and transformative forms of justice that address root causes of violence and inequality.
Following the launch in June, CADBI held its first public meeting in July. The turnout at this meeting was excellent, with almost 100 people in attendance. Over the coming months, CABDI will work to advance its demands in the legislature and in our communities. According to David Lee, who is serving a DBI sentence at SCI Coal Township, ending DBI “will require massive amounts of organizing and education. People must understand the facts surrounding our imprisonment. People in society are fed a heavy diet of propaganda regarding how dangerous we are, and how we never deserve to be back on the outside again. We must find ways to pressure legislators into doing the right thing—not the politically expedient thing!”
CADBI aims to create a shift in public consciousness, asking people across the state to consider who is really being served by making thousands of people—people who could be at home working to improve their communities—spend their entire lives in cages.
Want to get involved in CADBI? Check out the Action Steps section of this newsletter to find out how to get in touch.
Parts of this article originally appeared in Prison Health News, Issue 25, Summer 2015. To receive a free Prison Health News subscription write to Prison Health News, c/o Philadelphia FIGHT, 1207 Chestnut Street, 2nd Floor, Phila., PA 19107.