In this edition: Mumia Abu-Jamal held in "conditions more onerous than those on death row"; Murder conviction overturned after 16 years of a life sentence; CA reduces prison population by thousands and more…
News from the Inside
Mumia Abu-Jamal held in “conditions more onerous than those on death row”, wants supporters to take action to shut down all solitary units: Political prisoner and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal is being held in solitary confinement at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy in central Pennsylvania after being transferred from SCI Greene last month. Last month Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced that he would not seek a new sentencing phase to attempt to reinstate the death penalty in the thirty-year-old case. In October, the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that declared the death penalty was unconstitutionally applied in the case of Abu-Jamal.
Abu-Jamal has stated that he wants all of his supporters to broaden this call, to not just focus on his case, but to understand that all torture units must be shut down.
Prior to leaving Greene, Abu-Jamal was removed from death row, where he had been held since being framed for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer in a 1982 trial that Amnesty International declared was “manifestly unfair and failed to meet international fair trial standards." Despite being moved off of death row, Abu-Jamal has continued to be held in solitary confinement, although Pennsylvania Department of Corrections policy mandates his placement in the general population now that the death sentence has been lifted.
A statement released on behalf of Abu-Jamal
noted that “he is in solitary confinement, with lights glaring 24/7, without adequate food, or the opportunity to buy food to supplement his diet. He is shackled and handcuffed whenever outside his solitary cell—including when he goes to shower. And he is isolated without regular phone calls, or access to his property, including legal materials, books and typewriter. His visiting hours are limited. In short, Mumia is being subjected to conditions in AC that are more onerous than those on death row. There is no legal basis for Mumia to be confined in Administrative Custody. At the point he was no longer under a death sentence, he should have been transferred into general population.”
Letters sent to PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel and SCI Mahanoy Superintendent John Kerestes by an attorney for Abu-Jamal stated that “The degrading, dehumanizing, torturous conditions of Mumia Abu- Jamal’s confinement in administrative custody at SCI Mahanoy are an abuse of authority, counter to DOC regulations, punitive, discriminatory, in violation of his protected liberty interests and his civil rights, including First Amendment rights.”
Abu-Jamal’s supporters are asking that people call and write to Secretary Wetzel and Superintendent Kerestes, demanding his immediate release to general population:
John Wetzl, Secretary Department of Corrections, 2520 Lisburn Road, P.O. Box 598, Camp Hill, PA 17001-0598
(717) 975-4928 Email: email@example.com
John Kerestes, Superintendent, SCI Mahanoy, 301 Morea Road, Frackville, PA 17932
(570) 773-2158; fax 570-783-2008
DOC reduces number of envelopes provided to prisoners: In a cost-cutting measure that will will reduce the ability of many prisoners in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections by 20%, the DOC has recently slashed the number of envelopes granted per prisoner per month from 10 to 8. Since the overwhelming majority of state prisons are located in rural areas of Pennsylvania that are far removed from urban areas that provide much of the incarcerated population, the ability to send letters to loved ones, lawyers, and other support people is a critical means for prisoners to stay connected to the outside world. Correspondence also has the ability to lift a prisoner’s spirits in the grim environment of prison life.
This policy change will be especially harmful to the approximately 2,500 prisoners held in Restricted Housing Units, as they are prohibited from holding prison jobs that could supplement their allotment of envelopes. In addition, those in solitary are already severely limited in their ability to communicate with other people, and restrictions on the number of envelopes they are provided diminish this even more.
Human Rights Watch Report Gives Voice to Juveniles in Adult Lock-Up:
After interviewing 500 prisoners in many different states who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole, Human Rights Watch compiled and released, "Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States."
The report concludes that conditions of confinement, including prolonged isolation in solitary units and the consequences of serving life without parole, are in violation of U.S. Constitutional and International Law and the International Standards for the Minimum Treatment of Prisoners. Human rights violations in the report include prisons failing to keep young people safe from abuse, and failing to meet the physical and developmental health needs specific to developing people.
High rates of physical and sexual abuse are counted and described in anecdotes by young people who express fear, confusion, anxiety and depression. One young prisoner writes “I was the target of covert sexual predators. Adults would pretend to be your best friend to get close to you, then they would try you…. Officers would be hard on me more so than the adults for they believe that the younger inmates need rougher treatment.”
The report offers some statistics, that juveniles in adult facilities are twice as likely to be beaten by staff and fifty percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than minors housed in juvenile facilities, but acknowledges that there is currently no oversight body responsible for monitoring conditions for juveniles housed in adult prisons. The United States is the only country that charges young people with sentences of life without parole, and there are approximately 2,500 juveniles currently in adult facilities.
A common management response to housing youth in adult prisons is segregating the young people from adults by placing them in solitary cells in isolated conditions. Suicide rates are extremely high for young people who are separated from their families, have no future outlook, and have little access to programming and mental health support. Juveniles facing life without parole experience insurmountable barriers to accessing education behind bars as there are not enough resources for everyone, and priority is given to people who are going to be released. One young prisoner outlines the barriers he faced to accessing resources and participating in programs:
“See, there’s no time for program,” wrote Jose Luis C. “It’s a continuous thing, we’re always locked down…. I’ve been here since last March 2006 and in those 17 months I’ve only been able to go outside or go to programs for a total of maybe two-and-a-half months. You do the math.”
The report quotes Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Press Secretary Susan McNaughton stating, “Youth offenders with life without parole are not sitting around doing nothing, because the prison industries program is a good one for them.”
Human Rights Watch calls for the abolition of sentencing juveniles to life without parole and an
end to the direct transferring of youth to adult courts for specific crimes. Recommendations are made for governing bodies of the United States to ratify the bill of rights of the child, monitor conditions of the current juvenile population, meet minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners under international law, prevent and respond to instances of abuse, and give juveniles meaningful access to education, mental health care and the courts.
In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court determined it unconstitutional to impose a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile convicted of a nonhomicide offense in the case of Graham v. Florida. The court will begin accepting arguments for the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles charged with homicide offenses to life in prison in March of 2012.
Murder conviction overturned after 16 years of a life sentence In October of last year, Pennsylvania state prisoner Lorenzo Johnson had his murder conviction reversed in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals after serving sixteen years of a life sentence. The opinion of the court stated there was insufficient evidence for a murder conviction for Johnson, who was charged with first-degree murder as an accomplice in the murder of Taraja Williams. Though Johnson’s co-defendant Corey Walker was identified as the shooter, Johnson was convicted as an accomplice and conspirator in the crime. All evidence of Johnson’s conviction was based on accounts of him following Walker into the alley where the shooting took place and being present in the bar where Walker and Williams had argued before the shooting. The reversal came after a long line of denied appeals in state court in which Johnson claimed that there was insufficient evidence linking him to the crime, that there was no disclosure of a plea bargain offered to one of the witnesses in his original trial, and that his sixth amendment rights were violated due to ineffective counsel. This reversal has come after Johnson filed a writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court, which ruled on whether there was an unreasonable application of Federal Law in his case.
The court found that Johnson could not be convicted of first degree murder, which is defined as an “intentional killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful deliberate and premeditated killing”, as an accomplice, without clear evidence that he shared his co-defendant’s intent to kill. The court’s opinion was that there was not sufficient evidence to prove this intent, that the evidence presented only proved that Johnson had the intent to confront, threaten or harass Williams. The opinion found that none of the evidence presented in trial could conclusively place blame or intent upon Lorenzo Johnson as an accomplice to the murder of Taraja Williams. Lorenzo Johnson remains incarcerated pending an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by the prosecution, and he has a bail hearing scheduled for this Thursday, January 12 in Harrisburg.
Across the Nation
CA reduces prison population by thousands: In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must obey a lower court order to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 in two years to repair a health care system that lower courts found was defying constitutional standards and endangering guards as well as inmates. Since the governor’s realignment plan took effect this fall, California’s prison system has been shedding an average of 933 inmates a week. The court also set a series of benchmarks for state officials to reach before the two-year goal, the first of which was on December 27.
As of today, the state’s prisons held 134,804 inmates — just 1,800 short of the first benchmark target and far closer to that goal than many expected. In a short statement announcing the numbers, prison officials appeared to credit Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan for the progress. The plan calls for most lower-level and nonviolent offenders to serve their prison sentences in local jails and report to county probation departments instead of the state parole agency upon release. The next benchmark date is June 27, when the prison population is expected to be reduced to 124,000 inmates.
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 6-9 pm. Come help us stay connected with the many prisoners who write to us with news from inside, learn to document crimes committed by prison staff, and help bring an end to the abuse and torture of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, come to Write On!, to our monthly general meetings (second Monday of each month, 6pm), or call us at 215-921-3491, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org/
Write On! – Letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh, email: email@example.com
or call 412-654-9070.
You’ve been listening to the Human Rights Coalition’s PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.
Keep up the fight!