We Will Not be Silenced: 24-hour Prisoner “Speak-in” Will Defy Unjust Law

On May 4th, Decarcerate PA and our allies will travel to the Capitol in Harrisburg for a 24-hour protest against the Revictimization Relief Act, a law designed to silence incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

The Revictimization Relief Act, also called the “Silencing Act”, was introduced by Representative Mike Vereb and rushed through the legislature during Governor Corbett’s final days in office. The bill was introduced in response to political prisoner, writer, and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech at Goddard College, and is a clear attempt to silence Mumia and other prisoners and formerly incarcerated people from advocating for their human rights or participating in movements for social change. The Silencing Act allows victims, District Attorneys, and the Attorney General to sue people who have been convicted of “personal injury” crimes for speaking out publicly if it causes the victim of the crime “mental anguish.” This law is so broadly written that seemingly any statement, no matter how unrelated, could be construed as causing “mental anguish.” And it can apply to any form of public speech: from a commencement speech to an interview on the radio to a letter to the editor.

We believe this legislation is not a genuine attempt to help victims, but a cynical move to stop people in prison from speaking out against an unjust system. The bill was pushed forward by the Fraternal Order of Police, passed by cowardly legislators more interested in what is politically expedient than what is right, and signed into law by an unpopular Governor hoping to mobilize right-wing voters on Election Day. If this law is allowed to stand, it will be a huge blow to the movement against mass incarceration. People behind the walls play a leading role in these struggles and provide analysis, perspectives, and strategies that are essential to this work. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who speak publicly, write books, contribute to newspapers, or testify about prison conditions run the risk of being criminalized simply for sharing their ideas.  

Already two lawsuits have been filed in Federal Court to try and overturn this law on constitutional grounds. One of these lawsuits, Abu Jamal et al v. Kane et al, was filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project (featured later in this newsletter) and others. The second lawsuit, filed by the ACLU, is Prison Legal News et al v. Kane et al. Both legal teams have filed preliminary injunctions to try and stop the law from being implemented.

But the fight against this law won’t just be waged in the courts. We also want to send a clear message to Governor Wolf and the state legislature: For years, politicians have rubber-stamped repressive legislation like this without any fear for their jobs--but those days are over. That’s why on May 4th, we will stand on the steps of the capitol and share the words of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people for twenty-four straight hours. Through this public act of civil disobedience, we will defy the Silencing Act and show that unjust legislation like this will never hold our movement back. We’ll also highlight the profound contributions that people who have been and are imprisoned have made to our culture, our literature, and our social movements. Finally, we expect to bring nationwide attention to this issue as we build momentum not just to repeal this law, but to dismantle mass incarceration altogether.

The protest will begin at 11 AM on May 4th, 2015, and continue all day and all night. We will read words from people inside Pennsylvania’s prisons and hear speeches from formerly incarcerated individuals who are also targets of this law. We’ll hear music and watch plays by and about people in prison, and we’ll read important works from history that could have been suppressed by laws that silence prisoners: What if Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have published his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”? Or if Henry David Thoreau had been sued for writing his essay on “Civil Disobedience”? Or if Angela Davis had been barred by a court order from publishing her autobiography? When the sun rises on May 5th, we’ll still be there. We’ll also make sure to visit our legislators while we’re in town and let them know how we feel about legislation like the Silencing Act.

Our protest will make clear demands on our political leaders. To the legislature, we say: Repeal this law! To our new Governor, we say: Take a stand against this law by asking Attorney General Kathleen Kane not to defend it in court! And last, but not least, to the Department of Corrections, we say: Stop all forms of silencing prisoners! Allow the media full access to DOC prisons, stop mail censorship, don’t restrict people’s visitation rights, and cease all retaliation against individuals who speak out in protest!

The Silencing Act is an especially heinous law, but it’s only one of the many ways that the punishment system tries to silence people. When prisoners are afraid to speak out for fear of retribution, when they must pay exorbitant fees to use the telephone, or when their mail is censored and tampered with, the state is working to silence people in prison. When politicians and TV pundits demonize people who have convictions, they are saying that people in prison have nothing to teach us. Through stigma, steel bars, and outrageous legislation like the Silencing Act, the punishment system tries to deny a voice to people in prison and people with convictions. Our protest will demonstrate not only that Pennsylvania’s prisoners will not be silenced, but that we all need to hear what you have to say.

That’s why we are asking  for your contributions for this event. We would like to read your words on the capitol steps and share them through social media so the whole world can hear you. We welcome your thoughts on the Silencing Act, your testimony about Pennsylvania’s prison system, and your vision for building strong, safe, healthy communities instead of prisons. Long or short, funny or sad, poetry or prose--we want to hear from you, and we would be honored by your participation. (If you submit a piece to be read, please let us know whether you would like us to share your name and/or the facility where you’re incarcerated, or if you’d like to remain anonymous.)

The politicians who passed the Silencing Act are doomed to fail because they do not understand that prison walls aren’t strong enough to keep the truth locked away. The very fact that they created this law is a sign that they are frightened of what people in prison have to say. Together, inside and out, we all must raise our voices against the rotten system of mass incarceration and demand real change. From Ferguson to Philadelphia, resistance is rising against mass incarceration, institutionalized racism, and police brutality. Change is in the air, and no one’s voices are more critical to hear in this moment than those of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Our movement can’t be contained by walls or laws--and we’re going to make sure Harrisburg knows it. We look forward to hearing from you.