24 Hour Speak In Celebrates Defeat of the Silencing Act and Demands an End to all Forms of Silencing Prisoners
Just after midnight on May 5th, a group of activists with Decarcerate PA sat together on the steps of the Capitol building in Harrisburg. A full moon shone overhead as we read excerpts from numerous books by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. These works represented the vital contributions to our movements, cultures, and communities of those most impacted by mass incarceration. Had the Silencing Act been allowed to stand, such works could have been repressed and their authors could have faced legal consequences.
In October of 2014, then Governor Corbett signed the Revictimization Relief Act, also known as the Silencing Act, into law. The passage of the Silencing Act was sparked by a commencement speech recorded by Mumia Abu Jamal and played at the graduation ceremony of his Alma Mater, Goddard College. Mumia’s speech was met with outcry by the Fraternal Order of Police, and the Pennsylvania legislature took advantage of this moment to quickly pass the “Revictimization Relief Act.” into law.
Though lawmakers claimed the Act was intended to help victims, Decarcerate PA and others viewed the bill as a cynical move to stop people in prison from speaking out and participating in movements for social change. In response, we decided to hold a 24 Hour “speak-in” at the state capitol--in defiance of the law--to amplify the voices the state was trying to silence. We asked people incarcerated in PA’s prisons to send us statements to read on the capitol steps during this action. In one such statement, Anthony Hannah sums it up nicely: “The law is titled the Revictimization Relief Act. It should be called: the Lock Them Down and Shut Them Up Act.”
We received nearly one hundred submissions, including essays, stories, poems, and plays. The incredible response to DPA’s call for submissions inspired us and guided our vision for the action. DPA would bring these words to the Capitol to drive home the message that our movements will not be silenced by unjust legislation.
On April 28, 2015, a federal Judge struck down the Silencing Act, declaring the law “manifestly unconstitutional.” This was a big victory for incarcerated people, for movements against oppression, and for all who have and will benefit from the countless contributions of people in prison.
However, the fight against silencing is far from over. There is a world of difference between the right to speak and the ability to be heard. Pennsylvania laws and policies silence people in prison in many different ways, and Pennsylvania lawmakers routinely pass legislation that leads to mass incarceration and erodes prisoners’ rights. Even though the law was struck down, we decided to move ahead with the protest.
At 11am on May 4th, the Speak-In began with an audio recording of the commencement speech by Mumia Abu Jamal that had sparked the law’s passage. Following Mumia’s speech, formerly incarcerated men and women spoke out against the law and members of the Youth Arts Empowerment Project shared poems and songs. The day continued with the reading of the numerous works sent to us by people incarcerated in Pennsylvania. Some of these statements directly addressed the Silencing Act, while others addressed ways in which the prison system silences people on a daily basis, such as by limiting visitation rights and the censorship of mail.
In one of these statements, Lamont Pugh writes: “No one is in your best interest who demands your silence, takes away your right to grow and speak, and demands your solitude.”
In Harrisburg, we demanded an end to all forms of silencing, including full media access to DOC prisons, an end to mail censorship and the restriction of people’s visitation rights, and an end to the use of solitary confinement as a means of silencing those who speak out in protest.
The 24 hour presence maintained by DPA on the Capitol steps was a powerful experience for those involved and a powerful testament to the importance of the voices and stories of incarcerated men and women to movements against mass incarceration. After 24 hours, we departed with renewed resolve to fight for an end to censorship and repression and the dismantling of mass incarceration.
The action demonstrated the importance of the voices and leadership of incarcerated people to our movements in Pennsylvania and nationwide. The stories we heard both outraged and inspired us. The words we read made us reflect and think. Through it all, we envisioned how much stronger we would be when one day the people whose words we read and heard would be there with us in body as well as in word.
Special thanks to all those who contributed writing and artwork to the 24 Hour Speak In and to our co-sponsors of the event. Thanks as well to all those who came out for the 24 Hour Speak In. Your work and energy made the event a success and makes our movements strong!