Hundreds Rallied in Harrisburg, Demanding an End to Death by Incarceration
On Tuesday September 20th at 1 pm, hundreds of people from across the state rallied on the front steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg to demand an end to Life without Parole, also known as Death By Incarceration.
Participants called on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass legislation to end Death By Incarceration and instead embraced policies that heal communities. Amongst these proposed policies are two bipartisan bills— SB 135, which provides parole eligibility for people serving life, and SB 835, which ends virtual life sentences through medical and geriatric parole.
In the face of a new wave of gun violence and homicide, community members impacted both by violence and mass incarceration urged legislators to divest from mass incarceration and address violence with real solutions like community based violence prevention efforts, fully funding schools and social services, and providing accessible mental health and addiction treatment.
“The General Assembly has a chance to help reunite families and rebuild communities by passing a common-sense bill that would give more than 5,000 people a chance at returning home,” said Christina Reyes, whose loved one is serving Death by Incarceration and who also suffered the loss of her family members to violence in the street. “We need to end these draconian policies of perpetual punishment and replace them with policies grounded in accountability and healing.”
Speakers included Senator Sharif Street, the sponsor of bills SB135 and SB835; Kempis ‘Ghani’ Songster, a former juvenile lifer and transformative justice organizer; Ed McCrary, a small business owner who served 36 years in prison; Avis Lee, a formerly incarcerated union organizer active in Let’s Get Free; Andre Simms, a formerly incarcerated artist and organizer with the Youth Arts and Self-Empowerment Project; Christina Reyes, a directly impacted activist with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration; and Andre ‘Shabaka’ Gay, a former juvenile lifer who served 50 years in prison. There were additionally musical performances by Naomi Blount and Blak Rapp Madusa.
Those who have seen both sides of the prison walls highlighted the ways in which hundreds of those behind bars have the skills, experience, and influence to help disrupt violence. They will call for new pathways for them to come home, along with better programs for facilitating the healing of survivors.
“So many formerly incarcerated people who have returned as citizens, after receiving a second chance, have shown extreme dedication in serving and giving back to the community” said Patricia Vickers, an original member of the Human Rights Coalition and co-editor of the Movement Magazine.
The event was part of a larger movement to generate support from Pennsylvania lawmakers for legislation that would give every person serving Death By Incarceration the opportunity to go before the parole board and make a case for their freedom. The granting of parole eligibility for all would impact over 5,300 people serving these sentences in Pennsylvania, representing over 10% of the state’s incarcerated population.
“People who come home from serving death by incarceration sentences are some of the brightest examples of redemption and rehabilitation,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, who was sentenced to die in prison at the age of 17 and is now the Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “In Philadelphia alone, you can find hundreds of us in all walks of life: from uplifting at-risk youth to rectifying injustices in the legal system. We are examples that human beings are not disposable, and should be provided an opportunity to contribute to their communities.”
This year’s rally was cosponsored by:
ACLU, ACT UP Philly, Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project , API PA, Art for Justice, Decarcerate PA, Free The Ballot, HCUSA, Human Rights Coalition, HRC-Fed Up, ITCHY, Juntos, Let’s Get Free, Lifelines, PA Bikers for Justice, POWER, Prison From the Inside Out, Inc., Put People First, Straight Ahead Organization , Shut Down Berks, Unincarcerated Minds, UUJusticePA, Vietlead, Why Not Prosper, YASP
The Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration is a coalition that is working to end Death By Incarceration (aka Life Without Parole) sentences in Pennsylvania. The coalition includes Decarcerate PA, Fight for Lifers, The Human Rights Coalition, and Right to Redemption. Learn more at http://decarceratepa.info/CADBI