Petey Greene Panel Tackles Mass Incarceration, Prison Abolition, and Activism

On Thursday, November 1st at 5:15, members of the Swarthmore community gathered for Beyond Bars: Stories of People Impacted by the Justice System, a panel hosted by Swarthmore’s chapter of The Petey Greene Program, which trains volunteers (mostly college students) to tutor incarcerated people to help foster their academic achievement. The panel was sponsored by the Lang Center’s Urban Inequality and Incarceration (UII) program and the Swarthmore Department of Political Science.

The event featured two previously incarcerated panelists: prison abolitionist, paralegal and community organizer for Abolitionist Law Center, board member of the Amistad Law Project, Co-Founder of both the Human Rights Coalition, and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, Robert Saleem Holbrook, and Derek Cain, owner of his own real estate business, speaker, and advocate for criminal justice reform. The panel was moderated by Celeste Trusty, PA Regional Organizer for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which Co-President of Petey Greene Anya Slepan ‘21 described as, “a national, non-profit organization dedicated to creating a more fair and effective justice system.”

Trusty began the panel by discussing the grave state of the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, which she says has a “bad problem with mass incarceration.” Northeast Philadelphia, she says, has “the highest number of people incarcerated in the state [of Pennsylvania].” She said, “we have a very high budget for corrections. It’s 2.5 billion dollars that we spent on corrections in 2016.” She then went on to discuss the ways FAMM combats this, fighting for reform.

The panelists then by introduced themselves and told their stories of their experiences with the criminal justice system. Cain was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and for possession of a firearm, which he had a permit to carry. He was a father of a three-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter at the time of the incident. Even as a first time offender, he “was looking at ten to life - mandatory ten, none less, to life, and anywhere in between.” By the time he was released, his children were 11 and 18.

“They told me that if I choose to go to trial, he’s going to make sure I get more time...this is the U.S. attorney, this is how it goes in the federal system. They have a 98% conviction rate,” Cain said. Because of these threats, he chose to plead guilty rather than go to fight his conviction, and the judge was forced to sentence him to the minimum 10 years even though they were willing to give Cain a lighter sentence.

Cain’s experiences with the criminal justice system have gravely affected his life, especially his relationships with his children. “Basically becoming a parent again is even more traumatic,” he shared. He lamented the extremely detrimental effects his incarceration had on his son’s mental health, emotional state, and even schoolwork. “My son had a whole lot of issues, is angry, doesn’t even know why he’s angry. I was a father through visits...there’s nothing I can do to get that time back.”

Saleem Holbrook, on the other hand, was sentenced to mandatory life without parole at the age of sixteen for his involvement in a drug-related homicide for which he was a lookout. He was charged with first-degree murder, and in Pennsylvania the mandatory minimum sentence for this crime is life without parole. Had he decided to go to trial, he would have put himself at risk of receiving the death penalty.  

Just like Cain, Holbrook emphasized the idea that judges were often forced to give much longer sentences than they would like based on mandatory minimum laws. According to Holbrook, the judge said, “look, I’m sorry about this but based on your actions that night you knew someone was being killed. I have no option here but to sentence you to life without parole. I can’t take into consideration your age, I can’t take into consideration your character, I can’t take into consideration your family’s character, I can’t take into consideration that you’re 16-years-old...I can’t take any of that into consideration. I have to sentence you to life without parole.”

He served 27 years in prison, and spent most of his first 10 years in solitary confinement. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that children could not be sentenced to the death penalty. For many, life without parole is a death sentence. As Holbrook said, “the difference is, you’re dying every day slowly in a life without parole sentence.”

Holbrook also mentioned the 2011 Supreme Court case that outlawed the sentencing children to life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Then, in 2012, the Supreme Court also ruled that children could not be sentenced to mandatory life without parole regardless of the conviction. However, Holbrook said, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided that it would only follow this ruling going forward rather than go back and change the lives of those who were imprisoned as teenagers before this ruling. Luckily, lawyers took states like Pennsylvania and Louisiana to court, where they were forced to re-examine Holbrook’s case.

“Had it not been for the activists and activism of prisoners and families, I would still be in prison, no closer to going home than the first day I entered prison,” Holbrook said. He also mentioned the 5000 people sentenced to life without parole because they were sentenced on or after their 18th birthday, as legal adults.

When Trusty asked Holbrook how serving lifetime parole affects his life today, he turned to a discussion on the “punitive role, the punitive mindset that still guides corrections and prisons today.” For him, these measures serve no purpose other than to work as “a part of the mass incarceration chain that we need to roll back.” He lamented the fact that taxpayer money was going towards lifetime parole, which “serves pennsylvania no purpose,” rather than for Philadelphia schools or increased access to health care.

Trusty added on, saying “it costs $42,000 a year at the state level to incarcerate someone. So if you multiply that by the 27 years that Saleem spent on the state-level...when we think about incarceration, think about mass incarceration, think about lifetime parole and the surveillance costs, it really does seem like there’s gotta be something better.”

Trusty also briefly spoke about death row, which in Pennsylvania means solitary confinement. Until last year, prisoners were only allowed out of their cells for one hour per day. Though this amount of time has been bumped up to 12 to 20 hours a week, as Trusty pointed out, this only adds up to two work days a week. Furthermore, she described the seclusion of SCI Greene, which is located on the border between Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. “You don’t hit anything for 45 minutes whenever you’re driving out there, and it really does show you that they really meant to build that prison there...when you leave, you really bear the weight of that facility on you.”

To begin the audience question and answer portion of the panel, one participant asked about the prison abolition movement, to which Holbrook spoke about his work with the Abolitionist Law Center. “We aspire to a world where prisons will not be necessary, and if there are people who need to be dealt with, there will be other options than prison. At the same time, I’m not naive; you do 27 years in prison, you do any time in prison, you really can’t afford the luxury of being naive. But, as I said, that’s the society and the world that we aspire to.”

For Cain, a more just system would include house arrest whenever possible, specifically for any nonviolent offenders. This, he argues, would take the burden off of taxpayers and allow those on house arrest to work. Holbrook added that restorative justice is necessary for all offenders or else mass incarceration will continue. He continued by saying, “when it comes to harm...we’re gonna have to have a restorative justice model that definitely involves accountability, and would involve community participation.”

“A lot of offenders are also victims,” Trusty said. “These communities that have a lot of criminal justice involvement, we need to look at these communities and say, ‘what can we do to help you?’” She emphasized the need for returning citizens to sit down with the community and work to heal the harm done. She pointed out the fact that the policy of incarceration completely neglects rehabilitation and only focuses on punishment, and not only on the individual but also on their family.

She even shared her personal story, saying that her father was in and out of jail during her childhood. “What that was like, not knowing if my dad would come home that night, not knowing whether he was coming home if he was working another shift, or if he was just in jail, and I wouldn’t know, I wouldn’t be able to see him.” She argued that society causes many of these issues and that we cannot then turn around and blame it on one person when they make a mistake.

When Citlali Pizarro ‘20, Editor-in-Chief of Voices, asked the panelists how they maintain hope in fighting for a world that people often say is not possible (a world without prisons), Holbrook immediately jumped in, saying that his freedom is an example of hope. He also emphasized the idea that “in humanity’s history, prisons have only been around for maybe 500 years. Some cultures didn’t have a term for prison...it’s primarily a product of Western civilization, so for me, it’s understanding the long view.”

Cain maintains hope by remembering that while people do bad things, that doesn’t make them bad people. “You realize you’re not a bad person,” Cain added. “They might say it, they might paint that picture of you, of being a bad person. You just made a bad decision, or decisions, so for me...we’re not monsters.”  

Another attendee asked about public defenders and their roles and relationships with their clients. Both Holbrook and Trusty called for an increase in funding for public defenders and for attendees to call their legislators to provide that funding, especially since our tax dollars go towards funding prisons. Cain shared his own chaotic experience of interacting with his public defender, listening to jargon he didn’t understand and agreeing to things he was not fully aware of.

That being said, they also reminded attendees that the ultimate goal would be to keep people away from the justice system in the first place. “The best way to educate first-time offenders is not having first-time offenders, or even better, having programs in place that are very preventative,” Holbrook suggested. Both he and Cain agreed that schools should offer prevention programs to educate students before ever interacting with the justice system.

Holbrook also brought up Participatory Defense, an organization in Philadelphia with various locations (“hubs”) that provide free legal services to the families of people charged of a crime, though Cain again emphasized that a preventative maintenance program that was offered in schools would be most effective. Trusty also brought up the fact that $13 million was spent on efforts to screen prisoners’ mail when that money could have been invested in preventative programs.

Coleman Powell ‘20, co-founder of Students for Transformative Justice, Abolition, and Reform (STAR), felt hopeful after attending the event. He said, “It was good to see so many people coming out to learn more about the ways in which our society discards people via the so called justice system...People were really interested in talking more about Prison Abolition as a viable thing to organize around, and I was super excited about that! It's important that we expand our political imaginations to include ways to keep our communities safe without the punitive measures of the state.”

To close out the panel, an attendee asked where the greatest need was for those fighting for criminal justice reform. All three panelists enthusiastically agreed that the most important factor in making a difference is finding a passion and channeling that towards the cause.