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  • Solidarity Not Solitary

    By Val Kiebala The coronavirus sparked an unprecedented public health crisis in the U.S., hitting prisons and jails especially hard. In the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections alone, 112 incarcerated people have reportedly died from the virus, though advocates believe the number may be even higher. But the response of the PADOC and prison administrators across the country to lock down the incarcerated population in solitary confinement created another national pandemic: a mental health crisis. In 2011, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture at the time, declared, “Any imposition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Yet, during the past year, departments of corrections across the country inflicted this torturous practice on upwards of 300,000 people often for months at a time, in the name of curbing the pandemic. Public health experts condemned the use of solitary not only because of its harrowing psychological effects but also because the threat of isolation has proven to deter people from reporting symptoms, ultimately exacerbating the spread of sickness. Tyree Little, who spent eight or nine years in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons, said, “Being in solitary can be even more depressing because of what’s going on. You really don’t get access to news media and all that or the TV to watch the news or contact your family, so you’re going to be even more depressed not knowing if your loved ones are catching COVID.” One of the most harmful aspects of the department’s mismanagement of the pandemic, according to Little, is the lack of access to visitation and phone calls. The last in-person visit was on March 11. And while of course, physical contact must be limited with the outside world to contain the virus, Little says that pervasive technical difficulties prevent incarcerated people from communicating with their loved ones. While the PADOC originally used the Zoom application for video visitation, they switched to a telecommunications company called Polycom a few months ago. “It’s bad,” Little said. “Sometimes you can’t even hear them. You can see your folks but you can’t hear them. So y’all trying to do sign language or write on a piece of paper. The quality is bad on this new system they’re using.” JT, who spent a total of 14 years in solitary during his time in prison, said, “I know quite a few people who have been on [video visits through Polycom] and most people say the same thing: that they sit there and waited and waited and waited and nothing happened. They called the prison to try to find out what happened and couldn’t get no answers, so they never got their visit…I don’t know why they would switch it from Zoom to [Polycom].” Contact with family and loved ones on the outside has been proven to significantly reduce the likelihood of someone returning to prison. And depriving someone of the right to communicate with loved ones has deeply damaging effects. A study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that even just one visit reduced the likelihood of recidivism by 13 percent for new crimes and 25 percent for technical violations. “All in all,” JT said, “I think that the lockdown that the DOC is under means the whole state prison system is in solitary for real because they’re not getting out of their cells. They say sometimes they don’t even get out for their phone calls and stuff…If they say they don’t have enough guards, then you’re not coming out. It’s a really bad situation.” Even long before the pandemic, solitary confinement has been at the crux of mass incarceration, warehousing several tens of thousands of people in squalid conditions. Depriving people of human contact and sensory stimulation has been destroying the minds and bodies of incarcerated people ever since the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia first used the practice in 1790. Since then, the practice has inflicted violence on Black, Brown, indigenous, and poor communities across the country. Tyree Little and JT are both lead organizers of the Solidarity Not Solitary (SNS) campaign, which aims to eliminate the use of solitary for longer than fifteen consecutive days across the state of Pennsylvania. The SNS campaign has developed legislation that would implement this ban on solitary in alignment with international human rights standards. Abundant amounts of research has proven solitary confinement to be an ineffective penological tool that causes lasting psychological damage to anyone subjected to it. People held in solitary confinement are already more likely to harm themselves or even kill themselves. In January 2020, the PADOC reported holding 2,500 people in solitary confinement in state prisons. And people in solitary are nearly seven times more likely to self-harm than people held in general population. Half of youth suicides in custody occurred in solitary confinement. Additionally, 95 percent of people in prison are eventually released back to society. And between 2008 and 2014, the PADOC released over 400 people directly from solitary back into the community. “Even with myself, being in solitary so long,” Little said, “when they released me back to population, I couldn’t walk too close to people. I didn’t want people walking too close to me. I ain’t used to no human contact…So imagine, I seen people in the RHU released straight home after 20 years of being in solitary confinement. How can you release some-one like that straight back to society? It’s like they’re doomed to fail. No counseling. No nothing. It’s like taking a wild lion out the zoo and just releasing him into the woods.” In addition to making communities more dangerous, holding someone in solitary confinement for a year costs significantly more than holding someone in general population. Eliminating the use of solitary confinement would save the state $75 million a year. JT says that money should be used for “programs that are open to everybody. Programs that actually get you ready for society, as opposed to some of those BS programs they run now. Programs that would actually help people’s skills. Giving people training for differ-ent occupations. Preparing people for when they’re re-leased.” Ultimately, the goal of the SNS campaign is to eliminate solitary confinement across the state of Pennsylvania and replace it with humane, effective practices that keep incarcerated people, correctional officers, and our communities safe and healthy. Anyone interested in becoming involved with the Solidarity Not Solitary campaign through the Inside Advocacy Project, please write to the Human Rights Coalition, attn.: Solitary; PO Box 34580, Philadelphia, PA 19101.

  • The Big Bad Fraud Wolf

    By Folami Irvine An elder told me this story once. One day at an auto manufacturer in Detroit, a guy drove his car up and said “I just purchased this car and it’s not working!” All the top men came down to check it out, the engine, the wiring, the radiator, but they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Finally, they turned to Mr. Willie, an African American man with little education who had a knack for cars. They said “Mr. Willie, something’s not right with this car but we checked everything! What’s the matter?” He got in the car, turned the ignition and the gas pan-el needle was on “E”. “This car ain’t got no gas in it!” Sometimes it’s just common sense. During this past year, we’ve lost a lot of lives. The root of this problem is the big bad fraud, Governor Wolf. He definitely doesn’t care about people. He is able to release over 1,000 incarcerated citizens through reprieve and commutation - people who are ill or vulnerable to illness considering our prisons are overcrowded, poorly cleaned, and lack proper quality healthcare. Governor Wolf had commutation applications sitting on his desk, but because he didn’t move them fast enough. And Bruce Norris died from COVID in the meantime. He’s able to release them but he’s made the choice not to. I can only as-sume it’s because he does not care about our incarcerated family members or the families who are suffering from his lack of action. We’ve lost a lot of loved ones. But to someone like Governor Wolf, our pain is probably insignificant. He doesn’t have family members in prison dying of COVID. But we do, our loved ones are dying. Not because of the crime they supposedly committed, but because of the lack of COVID precautions. Due to overcrowding and guards coming in out of the prisons getting them sick, everyone is at risk. It’s chemical warfare. Many guards come into these prisons without masks, yet families are told WE can’t come visit because we might carry the virus. Governor Wolf is blind to the struggles of real people. His wealth allows him to feel invincible and hide behind a veil of privilege. Which is ironic considering that a portion of the wealth he benefits from is directly sourced from private prisons and similar institutions that are actively endangering our families lives. We get caught up in a lot of data and numbers. I want to deal with the basics of life for a minute. There’s so much emphasis on “evidence-based,” but at the end of the day, some things are beyond evidence. In the hood, we don’t just see what’s “evidence-based,” we see the real deal. We see our family members dying, we see that the GUARDS are bringing this virus into the prison. And we see that politicians like Wolf don’t seem to care. We’re tired of “evidence-based.” We’re dealing with raw, with real “it is what it is” basic outcome. And the outcome is detrimental when dealing with COVID. The outcome is bad for the general population out here. But for those incarcerated, it’s an atrocity. There are so many family members at HRC, alone, that have lost someone. Governor Wolf finally signed 13 commutations. That’s not enough. When there’s a possibility to get people out who are ill or vulnerable or have done 30, 40, 50 years, he should do it. Governor Wolf, take the opportunity to reform your past transgressions and do the right thing. Because while we continue to lose so many people like Bruce Norris, all you had to do was LIFT YOUR FINGER and empathize with the citizens who you are supposed to serve. Governor Wolf, this is year 5. Your karma’s coming. Do the right thing – it’s common sense.

  • Protesting in tribute to George Floyd whose death has sparked protest across the entire US

    On June 7th approximately a thousand people gathered at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly and march to Gov. Wolf's office in Center City. Over a dozen people were on a hunger strike demanding that Gov Wolf keep his promise and release the elderly and sick from prison during this COVID19 Pandemic. In addition to changing a prison system that does not hold value to or respect for the lives they hold, the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) demand that prison guards be held accountable for wrongful deaths and abuse of the men and women held in their custody. INCARCERATED LIVES MATTER! View more images from protests here.

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  • ABOUT | HumanRightsCoalition

    Line separator HUMAN RIGHTS COALITION ABOUT MISSION . Our mission is to empower prisoners’ families to be leaders in prison organizing and to teach them how to advocate on behalf of their loved ones in prison and expose the inhumane practices of the Department of Corrections. HISTORY . The Human Rights Coalition had its first meeting on June 4, 2001 at the house of the mother of one of the men who helped conceive the idea of HRC. ​ The meeting was small and a mix of prisoners’ family members and former prisoners. Many of those who attended, felt powerless in the face of the prison administration and its institutionalized discrimination, abuse, and torture. Yet the lives and well being of their loved ones were at stake – something they could not turn their backs to. ​ At the end of the meeting, however, there was a consensus that a great deal of powerful energy is lying untapped, that if properly focused could change the status quo of the prison system. The source of untapped energy was the constituency of former prisoners and prisoners’ families in this country. Thus HRC was formed, to aid and support prisoners’ families in coping with the stress and hardships created by having a loved one incarcerated, as well as to challenge the punitive retributive nature of the penal system; and, to work to transform that to a model of rehabilitation and successful reintegration to society. VISION . The prison system is based on a foundation of exploitation, punishment and corruption. Most of the people in prison are poor, brown, urban, functionally illiterate, unemployed or under-employed before they were locked down, and are there for non-violent crimes. It reflects all the other social inequalities in our system, and it does not work in its current incarnation. HRC’s ultimate goal is to dismantle and abolish the prison system and replace it with accountability, safety, fairness, and resilience, while focusing on healing instead of punishing. ​ We envision transparency within the criminal justice system – as no one should be above the law. We envision new laws to stop torture and abuse of prisoners, and for the public to show outrage not only for the prisoners in Iraq and other international locations of conflict, but also for prisoners’ rights here in the United States. We envision the prison officials and administration (i.e., guards, counselors, etc.) being held accountable for their actions or in-actions. We envision a “coalition” of families and organizations who seek to eliminate prison abuse and stand up for the human rights of prisoners by educating the public, advocating with prison officials, and lobbying state legislators. WHAT WE DO . We provide a safe place for family members of prisoners where there is no embarrassment associated with having a loved one in prison; HRC members are facing the same stigma, restrictions, dilemmas that you are going through this very minute. We respond to the letters asking for HRC’s help by educating family members on how to build a support system and organize their family, neighbors, and church around their individual issues. We also assure our members that abuse and torture will not be tolerated. The Michael Brown and Eric Garner crimes that were openly committed and excused are routine within the Department of Corrections and affiliations. Empowerment & Advocacy: ​ Bull Horn & Watch Dogs: We collectively address issues of abuse or torture (Emergency Response Network) using Facebook and Email to alert HRC members of reported and confirmed prisoner abuses and/or violations of human rights. To stand up against such violations we bring public awareness, by broadcasting on social media, radio, and newspapers; calling and/or writing to the prison, informing our legislators, and finally collaborating with supporters (i.e., Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project) in moving forward with next steps. A long-term struggle and the den of abuse and torture has been solitary confinement. We fight for a permanent change in the use and abuse of solitary confinement through legislation [could we include a link to our legislative packet of information about solitary confinement here?]. Two bills have been introduced (House Bill 497 and Senate Bill 832) that will end long term solitary confinement which is a noteworthy step in our in our fight for human rights. Learn more about our Solitary Confinement Work

  • OUR MEMBERS | HumanRightsCoalition

    Line separator OUR MEMBERS HRC MEMBERS . We are a community-based organization without paid staff. We are committed and dedicated, but we are not lawyers nor do we have the resources that would allow us to employ lawyers. Our members and allies—both inside and outside the prison walls—share a common conviction in our hearts to fight injustice, and have no ulterior motivation of personal profit to do so. HRC MEMBERS SUPPORTING ORGANIZATIONS Robert 'Saleem' Holbrook As an HRC Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, Saleem has long been at the forefront of campaigns against solitary confinement, incarceration of political prisoners, police violence, and death by incarceration. He was released from prison in 2018 after serving 27 years for an offense he was convicted of as a child. Mama Pat Mama Pat is one of the original HRC members and Co-Editor of The Movement Magazine. She leads HRC's Emergency Response Network and serves as the glue holding HRC together. She is the mother of Shakaboona Marshall and fights for the rights of all incarcerated people. Russell "Maroon" Shoatz Beloved mentor, abolitionist thinker and political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz has been incarcerated since 1972 and spent 30 years in Solitary Confinement. A member of the Black Panther Party and co-founder of the Black Unity Council, he co-founded HRC and has served as a mentor to several HRC members. Kerry Shakaboona Marshall Not only a Co-Founder of HRC and Editor of The Movement Magazine, Shakaboona also contributes commentary to Prison Radio and writings to several publications. He has been incarcerated since age 17 and spent 13 years in Solitary Confinement. Theresa Shoatz Theresa Shoatz is one of the original HRC Members and the daughter of Russell Maroon Shoatz. She has been organizing about issues of prisoners’ rights since a young age. Jerome Hoagie Coffey Jerome Hoagie Coffey is an HRC Co-Founder and activist known for his creativeness, communication, and organizing talents. He is serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit and spent 12 years in Solitary Confinement. Karen Ali Karen Ali is an Activist, Long Standing member of the HRC team, and wife of Omar Askia Sistrunk Ali who is innocent, yet convicted to a sentence of LIFE in prison. Jackson Kusiak Jackson is an HRC Member, Resilient Activist, and Organizer. Andy Switzer Andy Switzer is a Courageous and Committed Advocate for the humanity of men and women behind bars. HRC Member, active since 2004. SUPPORTING ORGANIZATIONS .

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