On January 19, 2014, representatives from Decarcerate PA, Fight for Lifers, and the Human Rights Coalition gathered together for a meeting to discuss launching a campaign to end Life Without Parole in Pennsylvania. The conversation was guided by messages from Right to Redemption (an organization of people serving Death By Incarceration at SCI Graterford) and by a position paper authored by three politicized prisoners -- Robert Saleem Holbrook, Kerry Shakaboona Marshall, and David Lee. It was the first meeting of what would eventually become the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration.
On the five year anniversary of that meeting, we are publishing the position paper. It is both a testament to the amazing work that CADBI has done over the last five years, and a marker of how far we still have yet to go.
TO: DECARCERATE PA
RE: LIFERS CAMPAIGN
Greetings of Solidarity and Struggle,
We have been informed that Decarcerate PA has been exploring the idea of establishing a Lifers Campaign. As Lifers who have a collective total of over 70 years imprisoned we would like to offer our voice, vision, and experience in radical advocacy to such a project, which we believe would introduce fresh ideas, from a radical/oppositional framework, into the Lifers debate in Pennsylvania which has stalled in recent years due to the formidable opposition and absence of public discourse on the issue. In the 20+ years we’ve all been down, we’ve watched parole for Lifers being on the verge of enactment (1994 Lt. Governor Seigel campaign) to Parole for Lifers being shelved along with commutation (Governor Ridge/Rendell).
We start this position paper with the reality that there is no easy way out and no magic bullet that will produce freedom for the 5,000 plus Lifers in Pennsylvania. We accept the fact that any real Lifers Project must start with the reality that freedom for those of us Lifers who have over 20/30+ years in prison is unlikely and we very well may not reap the benefits of our struggle. Yet we struggle because we are fundamentally opposed to injustice and state repression, not because we are desperate for freedom. Every prisoner, regardless of his sentence, wants to be free, for freedom is the natural disposition of humans. As conscious and politicized prisoners however, we connect our freedom to the need to struggle against societal injustice. Therefore if we were released tomorrow our struggle would not be over, we would continue to struggle against all forms of oppression i.e. political, social, cultural, gender, etc. We do not believe prisons are a unique problem within the United States, we believe the social contract that governs the United states is the ultimate problem and prisons are merely an extension of that problem.
In recent years we have seen some relief in the form of parole opportunities being granted to Juvenile Lifers, though as you are aware the state and its more reactionary elements (Right wing politicians, District Attorney's Associations, Victims Rights Orgs) are fighting tooth and nail to prevent the retroactive application of the US Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama to the state's 400+ Juvenile Lifers. They are in essence attempting to hold the line and their conduct is reminiscent of the old hardline Southern segregationists who shouted "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" following the victories of the civil rights movement in the US Supreme Court. If there is one thing certain it is that Right wing, conservative politicians and their allies are consistent in their opposition to any legal measures that roll back mandatory sentences of any kind, but in particular draconian mandatory sentences because these sentences constitute an assembly line that feeds the prison Industrial Complex and sustains the politics of Mass lmprisonment. These sentences also to serve to check the political power of minority communities to chip away at the discriminatory cultural and social domination the white majority has enjoyed in this country but also its unjust cultural and social contract. This is the battle we are engaged in.
When it comes to Lifers issues in the state, this is an issue that must be addressed as a gross human rights violation and should be attacked within a human rights framework. The assembly line manner in which Life sentences are imposed negates any individual characteristics of the offender. Before it is addressed from purely legal dimensions, in terms of parole for lifers, it must be addressed from the social point and human rights opposition. The reason for this is based on the facts on the ground. If the Commonwealth (its conservative political and judicial foundation) is vigorously opposing the retroactive application of parole relief to a couple hundred Juvenile Lifers imagine the opposition they'll mount when we start seriously talking about gaining parole relief for over 5.000 Lifers in Pennsylvania. The state’s Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches have all shown their hand in opposing parole opportunities for Lifers. Relief cannot be expected to come from those quarters at this stage so the first steps should be an aggressive human rights campaign against Life without parole sentences/terminal sentences.
This campaign though would have to be augmented by incorporating numerous human rights violations associated with PA's Plc and by extension criminal justice system. For example, we'd attack the criminalization of drug offenders and drug addiction from a public health and safety problem as drug addiction isn’t a crime but a disease which require a city and state drug rehabilitative program - which would be less expensive than building massive prisons to house drug offenders. The human rights angle however would proceed the financial benefits as we’re not “fiscal advocates,” we’re human rights activists. From this posture, we would call for a US Health & Safety Policy to address drug addiction to replace the US War on Drug policy which has been a complete failure. We should advocate that CCC centers be turned into Drug Rehabilitation centers, instead of being mini-prisons within our territory that are designed not to transition a prisoner to the streets but to relieve the DOC of overcrowding and allow it to continue bringing in technical parole violators.
Next, we should equate the closing of schools to clear up money for the construction of more prisons as a human rights violation, not against prisoners, but rather against the children of Philadelphia, who overwhelmingly are youth of color that will eventually occupy future prisons! It's not enough to call it the school to prison pipeline, we have to seriously connect the dots and submit petitions to the Human Rights Court of the Americas as access to education is a human right and the mass closing of schools in Philadelphia, resulting in overcrowded classrooms which studies have shown impedes the educational development of children, is a deliberate policy that violates the human rights of children. We also have to write editorials about this human rights violation and initiate public education/outreach projects.
Under this proposal or rather from this Human Rights framework, the Lifers issue would be a component of a larger campaign that starts with social policy being the primary reason behind a failed prison policy. We must also understand that this social policy is no accident. The criminalization of youth of color is an accepted policy issue in the American political discourse and social contract. The state has endless statisticians and policy makers who track and predict - through demographics associated with the unemployment rate, high school drop out rate, arrest rate, and murders rate – the percentage of youth of color who will essentially be written off from the social contract. Therefore our posture must be that the problem starts not at the prison gates but at the steps of the state Capital's Rotunda, Any campaign that does not factor this into its strategy and instead only focuses on Lifers as a distinct issue will be overwhelmed by the opposition to parole for Lifers. So while we certainly have to address how assembly line Life sentences constitute a human rights violation we must connect the issue within a larger campaign/coalition with human rights as the motor. We should also align ourselves with other regional, national and international human rights movements/orgs.
These are just our preliminary thoughts on how we should frame this issue. We're anxious to hear your thoughts and ideas. We think the potential exists for activists in Pennsylvania to create a Abolitionist and Lifers campaign with teeth, that could shake up the state's archaic social, judicial and cultural white supremacist foundations.
We look forward to your responses and would like Decarcerate to please consider adding us as advisors to Decarcerate's Lifers Committee or Campaign. Please feel free to contact any of us at the addresses at the top of this letter.
In Solidarity & Struggle,
Robert Saleem Holbrook
David Dawud Lee
Kerry Shakaboona Marshall