The drive to abolish prisons is at the heart of the Abolitionist Law Center.
For years Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) has defended the rights of political prisoners, changed the narratives around justice, and insisted on the inherent violence and racism of the carceral system. ALC has achieved countless wins fighting in the courts and organizing the grassroots: from stopping the construction of a new $500 million federal prison to freeing people from solitary confinement. But in order to end death by incarceration (DBI) and free people on a mass scale, legislation needs to change.
Straight Ahead was born from the need to enact legislation that would bring freedom to incarcerated people who need that freedom now.
This means applying direct pressure in Harrisburg. This would look like parole eligibility for nearly 11,000 people currently serving long or life sentences that will likely end with their death in prison unless parole reform is achieved. Pennsylvania needs powerful legislation to end death by incarceration and allow the possibility of parole for those serving lengthy and life sentences.
Rally with CADBI and HRC members at the state capitol in 2018
Our leaders emerged from dedicated grassroots abolition groups whose work we intend to build on.
Straight Ahead strives to center the leadership of those affected by carceral violence. We pull from the lessons of ALC’s organizing, litigation, and ongoing collaborations. We are building strong coalitions with abolitionist groups across the state and the communities most directly harmed by prisons.
Straight Ahead’s Executive Director, Robert Saleem Holbrook, also leads ALC. He survived 27 years of incarceration after an offense committed in his youth. Holbrook co-founded the Human Rights Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration all while imprisoned.
We believe those who have survived incarceration can speak best to its failings. Change requires organizing people on the inside and their loved ones. Straight Ahead’s organizers David Garlock and Tyree Little were incarcerated, and have engaged in transformative mentorship inside and outside of prisons. In particular we will be working with dual victims who have lost loved ones both to prison and to violence.
Power has been pushing our communities around—we need to push power around instead.
As the lobbying wing of ALC we have the ability, funds, people power and leadership to build a mass movement that pressures legislators for change. This change doesn’t look like building nicer prisons. It looks like reducing our prison populations. We want to see people returning to their communities, back to the empty seat at the kitchen table.
The state capitol is a site of carceral violence, where calls are made that determine the confinement or freedom of massive numbers of people. That makes it a space where we need to be. We can and will leverage our power to push legislation to bring our people home through every means available to us—the power of mass organizing, of lobbying, of supporting leaders to become advocates.
The sentence of DBI is a cruel and inhumane practice.
Otherwise known as life without parole, DBI sentencing is astronomically high in Pennsylvania compared to the rest of the United States. More than 1 in 10 people serving DBI sentences in the United States are in Pennsylvania prisons. In Philadelphia County, more people are serving DBI sentences than the entire prison populations of 83 different countries and territories.
In Pennsylvania, every adult convicted of first or second degree homicide is automatically incarcerated without the chance of parole, regardless of the circumstances, until their death. These mandatory DBI sentences are based on the assumption that people do not change and should be forever defined by one harmful action. This assumption is clearly disproved by the success of juvenile lifers freed to return home. Straight Ahead seeks to show the redemptive ability of those who are incarcerated. We want to name the source of violence as social, rather than personal failings.
We believe in freedom because the violence of the carceral system cannot be reformed out of it.
Violence is the basis of our prison system, implementing physical and mental harm while withholding healthcare which produces disabling and deadly conditions. People are dehumanized through loss of rights. They are disconnected from all social supports, and tortured through extended solitary confinement. We cannot build our way toward a world of humanity and healing while prisons still persist.
Straight Ahead responds to the tension between abolition and reform by holding the door open to free as many people as possible, while refusing to close it for others, because dying in prison is not a punishment we accept for any person or any crime.
The expansion of prisons is a political choice.
The prison population has grown dramatically not as a reaction to increased harm but through the adoption of tough-on-crime policies and the stoking of racist fears among white people. Corporations created multi-billion dollar industries profiting off of slave labor and selling prison tech and resources, like charging $1 or more per minute for phone calls. Disconnected legislators have built this system on the backs of BIPOC and the poor with increased criminalization, longer sentences and mandatory minimums, and the expansion of surveillance. Black Pennsylvanians are sentenced to DBI at a rate 18x higher than their white neighbors. More than 1 in every 300 Black Philadelphia residents are serving a sentence of death by incarceration.
DBI sentencing is on the rise, but not because of increased violent crime. Despite a 21% decline in violent crime between 2003 and 2015, Pennsylvania’s population of people sentenced to DBI has risen by 40% between 2003 and 2016. What, then, is the purpose behind locking up increasing numbers of people with no possibility of freedom?
Abolition is a solution we must build.
Mandating that people be locked away for life fails to address social problems. Instead, an increasing number of people and organizations in Pennsylvania are asking: what are our alternatives to addressing harm? What would it look like to take the $460 million spent each year to enforce DBI prison sentences and put it towards healthcare, schools, and basic income? What if we took all the labor behind upholding the carceral system and directed it into transformative justice practices, focusing on what victims need in order to heal? This is what we mean by moving towards abolition: it is a world we must create.
Building power in the capitol to break the stronghold of the carceral system is no easy task.
We will need as many people as possible to join in the dream of moving toward abolition—even if you have never been an advocate before, there is room for you here. Join the Straight Ahead mailing list and be part of the fight to bring our people home.