By: Mari Morales-Williams
It was October 2019. The legislative body of Pennsylvania had just suppressed legislation to end death by incarceration for first and second degree convictions. In Harrisburg, Jennifer Storm, who headed up the Office of Victim Advocate (OVA) at the time, was celebrating this as a win. Storm was an advocate willing to maintain OVA’s legacy of emboldening a “tough on crime” agenda under the pretense of justice. Using a survey filled out by mostly white, middle class constituents outside of Philly, Storm also preemptively celebrated this as a win for all people whose family was murdered. This “win” implicitly included the scores of Black and Brown families they had never engaged or supported.
Among those families typically excluded from the conversation are people like Sandra Hill. Antoinette Osei. Julee Barnett. Kim King. Christina Reyes. Lorraine Haw. Gigi Brooks. The list is long and growing. These are family members who understand the dual grief of losing a loved one to homicide and losing a loved one to a life sentence, or more accurately, a Death by Incarceration sentence. While the former head of OVA Jennifer Storm claims that “dual victim” isn’t a classification recognized by the state, this is the reality that these family members face on a daily basis. They are families who have channeled their compounded grief into organizing rooted in redemption and racial equity. In 2019, the loss of HB 135, which would have given second chances to people sentenced to die in prison, added a layer of grief: OVA using their trauma to suppress transformative legislation. As organizers debriefed this defeat, Gigi Brooks, asked the question we all should be asking: “What about a justice that heals?”
In this moment, an emergent vision was born for a survivor network that could thwart the OVA’s branding of “victims.” Branding was a tactic on the slave plantations rooted in ownership. It is clear that without strategic interventions, the OVA aims to maintain a broad level of “ownership” of families impacted by homicide. This approach encourages us all to define healing as punishment, directly serving the right wing agenda of mass incarceration. Yet, Danielle Sered from Common Justice reminds us in her book, “Until We Reckon” that there is no empirical evidence that supports the notion that people feel safer or more whole with long-term sentencing.
That said, the goal of the survivor network is to build a base of families in the state of Pennsylvania who are impacted by homicide and Death by Incarceration sentences, and interested in a justice that heals and transforms. Parole eligibility through SB 135, a bill that would provide a chance for freedom to people sentenced to die in prison, is one of many entry points to that. Using small, intimate cohorts of about 10 family members, the survivor network at Straight Ahead (SA) engages in political education, healing justice, and leadership development. Together, families study the history of death by incarceration movement, abolition, healing justice, how to pass a bill in PA Congress, power mapping the Office of Victim Advocate, and role playing for advocating with legislators and government officials.
The first cohort of family members this past summer found the workshops to be a carefully curated space that centered their experiences as families and as whole people. For some, it refreshed a decades-long commitment to the movement as well as demystified the daunting legislative process to bring loved ones home. For others, it helped to decrease the sense of isolation that COVID-19 has exacerbated while making connections between their stories and patterns in the data for carceral injustice. For everyone, it was a space that centered their collective resiliency and capacity to step into leadership that motivates other families to push pain to power. Cohort by cohort, the survivor network is building a movement of families for the 2022 legislative session. And if Suzanne Estrella, the new interim director of OVA, is truly “committed to bringing the marginalized center stage,” then she will listen to them. She must refuse to allow the OVA to continue its history of co-opting pain for the sake of right-wing politics.
To get involved in our Survivor Justice Network, please fill out this form! If you have any questions, contact Tyree Little at firstname.lastname@example.org.