By Lucy Gleysteen
On Monday May 4th and 5th, Decarcerate PA and its allies occupied the capitol steps in Harrisburg for 24 straight hours to share the words of individuals currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s prisons. This protest was originally a response to the Revictimization Relief Act (The Silencing Act), a law designed to silence prisoners by allowing the DAs, victims, and Attorney General the power to sue people convicted of personal injuries crimes for simply speaking publicly. Anthony Hannah, who is currently who currently at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Somerset writes, “The law is titled the Revictimization Relief Act. It should be called: the Lock Them Down and Shut Them Up Act”. This law was not geared by a genuine desire to support victims but instead as a means of silencing those who are most likely to speak out against mass incarceration.
A week before the protest, the Federal Judge overturned this outrageous law on the basis of its unconstitutionality. The decision for the law to be overturned was a huge victory for currently and formerly incarcerated people, for the movements against oppression, and for all the people who have benefited and will benefit from the endless contributions of people in prison. Despite this major victory, the fight to stop the silencing of prisoners is just getting started. In an era where media does not have full access to DOC prisons, mail is censored, phone use in prisons is exorbitantly expensive, and where solitary confinement and transfers are used as a means of punishing prisoners who speak out and organize against mass incarceration, overturning the Silencing Act is just one step.
The speak-in involved the amplification of prisoner voices over the steps of Capitol Hill for 24 hours. From a block away, as politicians in their suits walked up to the capitol building, they would heard the voices of incarcerated people sharing their stories.
We started by playing the audio of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech to Goddard College, a speech that sparked the creation of the Silencing Act. Decarcerate PA received over 80 submissions from our members on the inside. These submissions included poetry and stories of silence, testimonials of solitary confinement, death by incarceration, juvenile life without parole, medical neglect, abuse, and torture. Lamont Pugh from SCI Rockville writes: “No one is in your best interest who demands your silence, takes away your right to grow and speak, and demands your solitude.”
On the first day, we got through most of our submissions and also heard audio from the Dallas 6, individuals serving Death by Incarceration sentences (also known as life without parole sentences), poetry from the Youth and Art Self Empowerment project, and prison radio segments. A group of organizers camped out on the capitol steps to continue reading the works of incarcerated people. This included the works of Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Marilyn Buck, and countless others whose writing would not have been published had the Silencing Act been in effect during their incarcerations. The sun rose as we read “Affirmation” by Assata Shakur. Until 11AM on May 5th we continued reading the remaining submissions ending with the poem “Let this be the Year” by Eduardo Ramirez, a Decarcerate PA member currently serving time at SCI Graterford.
“Let this be the year that keeps warm the feet of those who march towards freedom; let the light of day shine magnificently on the hearts of those who boldly proclaim their solidarity with justice; make still the violent winds of oppression so that the call for human dignity will be heard in the valley and upon the hill.
Let this be the year that fear is forfeited and bravery is born – nourished on an unwavering desire to be more than huddled masses, forgotten in the cold machine of politics; let the definitions of society and civility be reestablished to include all persons as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and lovers whose consent is sacred to the religiosity of democracy.
Let this be the year that hunger is met with the Bread of Angels, ignorance is confronted by the understanding hands of love, and greed is overcome by the will of The People who believe that investments should be made in the liberation of people rather than their confinement.”
We will not stop fighting until the silencing of prisoners ends. We will not stop fighting until the legislators in Harrisburg stop passing draconian anti-prisoner legislation. We will continue to be in their face every time they try and pass a law that further serves to strip prisoners of their rights. We will not stop fighting until the full human rights of all prisoners and formerly incarcerated people are restored. We will not stop fighting until Pennsylvania stops investing money in prisons and denying schools access to the resources they so desperately need. We will not stop until investments are made in the liberation of people rather than in their confinement.
Lucy Gleysteen is an organizer and artist fighting to end mass incarceration with Decarcerate PA. By day, Lucy works at the Institute for Community Justice, linking individuals who are locked up in the Philly jails to health care upon their release.