New Pennsylvania Legislation Sucker Punches Inmate Speech

The serious injustice endured by Pennsylvania prison inmate Lorenzo ‘Cat’ Johnson, detailed yesterday in Part I of this series, is the subject of a website and numerous other postings on the Internet. Those Internet postings detail gross misconduct by police and prosecutors that have kept Johnson imprisoned for a murder that evidence indicates he neither committed nor had anything to with.

Johnson served 16-years of a life sentence before a federal appeals court ordered his release in October 2011 after ruling insufficient evidence existed to maintain his conviction. Prosecutors never claimed Johnson was the killer only that he was present when the killing occurred.

However, a perverse appeal by Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office prosecutors forced Johnson’s return to prison in June 2012 –- following six-months of freedom.

Those websites supporting Johnson’s release, which contain documents and other evidence detailing Johnson’s wrongful conviction, are in danger of being wiped under terms of legislation recently approved by Pennsylvania’s Republican-dominated House and Senate.

That legislation, fast-tracked through the legislature in an election-timed attempt to boost the hugely unpopular Republican Gov. Corbett’s flagging re-election bid, allows victims of crime to go to court for an injunction against the conduct of convicts “which perpetuates the continuing effects of the crime on the victim.” This new law applies to all convicts: those currently incarcerated and even those who have completed their sentences.

This law gives prosecutors (state and country) the power to act on behalf of victims who simply claim they are suffering “mental anguish.”

In the case of Lorenzo Johnson, the state AG’s office whose misconduct perpetuates his unjust incarceration is empowered under this new law to silence the websites that detail the misconduct of AG office prosecutors.

Pennsylvania’s new free speech suppression law is about to be signed into law by Corbett. “Nobody has the right to continually taunt the victims of their violent crimes,” he says.

However, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has blasted this bill, noting that it “completely undermines the fundamental value of free speech” found in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

While this hastily conceived and passed bill gives unusual new powers to victims and prosecutors to limit the voice and activities of the incarcerated and those who have completed their prison terms, the bill’s stunning lack of specifics creates further problems for its “fair” implementation. The lack of objective standards provided in its language for proving “mental anguish” leaves enormous latitude for abusive implementation, critics contend.

A the state ACLU’s letter urging rejection of the law noted, victims of crime “have existing legal avenues available when they are truly being harassed and abused by an offender.” That ACLU letter also noted that the new law could curtail activities by inmate advocacy groups, like the 200-year-old Pennsylvania Prison Society.

The PPS is an organization founded to monitor issues related to prisons and prisoners including ex-offenders. The PPS work of exposing problems inside prisons and also persons released from prison is ripe for target by a crime victim claiming to suffer ‘mental anguish.’ Imagine the irony of this new law silencing the PPS — a venerable organization actually founded by some of the very people who drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution!

The same day that the state’s lower chamber approved this speech-curtailing bill, thousands of high school students in Philadelphia had their dreams of attending college assaulted by lack of funding arising from deep public school funding cuts initiated by Corbett, who has been pouring money into the state’s prison system.

The cash-strapped Philadelphia School District did not provide money for most high school students to take a prep test for the PSAT until hours before administering that test. That late notice of the test date left students unprepared and/or unavailable to take that test. The PSAT is a critical test that helps students prepare for the formal SAT. Most universities require high SAT scores for admission.

Over one-third of the 51,000-plus inmates in state prisons come from Philadelphia. Most of those Philadelphia inmates come from neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, unemployment and now featuriing schools closed by Philadelphia officials due to lack of funds. Many of the students caught in the PSAT fiasco live in neighborhoods that feed into the state’s overcrowded prison system.

Public education advocates in Philadelphia link Corbett’s public education funding cuts directly to the state’s notorious classroom-to-cell pipeline. Those advocates could now have even their advocacy silenced by the new bill should some crime victim or alleged crime victim claim such advocacy causes him or her “mental anguish.”

The bill known as the “Revictimization Relief Act” would impact state inmate activist/authors like Robert Saleem Holbrook.

Holbrook is one of the 500+ teen-lifers languishing in Pennsylvania prisons. Pennsylvania imprisons the largest population in the U.S. of persons sentenced to life terms for crimes committed while a teen. Like most teen-lifers, Holbrook did not commit the murder that took place on his 16th birthday which led to his life sentence. (In Pennsylvania life means in prison until death with no possibility of parole.)

Issues related to teen-lifers — from the penal propriety of permanently imprisoning children to the enormous costs of caring for elderly inmates — are hotly debated nationwide. This is the very essence of free speech. But under Pennsylvania’s draconian new law, an expert on that form of injustice like Holbrook can be silenced.

The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed sentencing teens to mandatory life in 2012 but in October 2013 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that teen-lifers sentenced before that federal high court ruling are not entitled to any relief from their life sentences — a ruling Holbrook has condemned in his writings.

“When judges and politicians allow the politics of injustice and vengeance to supercede justice then the prisoners impacted by these decisions become political prisoners, “ Holbrook wrote in a November 2013 essay.

Pennsylvania prison authorities placed Holbrook in solitary confinement in early September 2014 despite their having no documented infractions by him to justify this action. That solitary confinement, curiously, came in the wake of a federal judge rejecting attempts by prison authorities to kill a lawsuit Holbrook filed against prison authorities for their censorship of human rights literature.

Philadelphia’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, spearheaded the speech suppression law as part of its incessant campaign to silence activist/author Mumia Abu-Jamal. Gov. Corbett is scheduled to sign this bill into law at the downtown Philadelphia site where Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was killed in 1981 – the incident that put Abu-Jamal in prison.

The FOP exploded in late September when news circulated that some students at Goddard College in Vermont had selected Abu-Jamal as the speaker for their early October 2014 commencement ceremony. Abu-Jamal had attended Goddard briefly in the early 1970s and he later graduated from that institution in 1996 via a correspondence course completed while he was on death row (Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was later vadated by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and he is now serving a life sentence without chance of parole.)

Curiously, Abu-Jamal delivered a Goddard commencement address in 2008 without much of a ruckus from the FOP or politicians like Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, a Tea Party Republican who has castigated Goddard about Abu-Jamal. But in 2008, brutality by police was not generating bad publicity nationwide. Now, thanks to incidents like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and a growing number of phone videos documenting an epidemic of police brutality, the issue of police militarization and brutality is on the front burner. Furthermore, in 2008, Gov. Corbett was not running for reelection as he this year, where he currently trails in the polls by double digits.

The FOP and other conservatives have for decades unleashed lynch-mob-like onslaughts designed first to get Abu-Jamal executed, and then, since that was no longer possible, aimed at squelching this incarcerated journalist’s free speech, fair trial and other constitutional rights.

A mid-1990s effort to block book writing by Abu-Jamal resulted in a federal appeals court ruling confirming that Abu-Jamal and all prisoners have a First Amendment right to write. One of the three judges in that unanimous appeals court ruling was Samuel Alito, who now serves on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he is staunchly in the court’s conservative camp.

That mid-1990s campaign also evidenced a gross assault on Abu-Jamal’s constitutional trial rights.

Pennsylvania prison authorities, under FOP pressure during that book publishing attack, opened Abu-Jamal’s correspondence with his attorneys and forwarded that mail to the office of then Gov Tom Ridge. That ’98 federal appeals ruling questioned why prison authorities had sent Abu-Jamal’s legal mail, which is suppposed to have protected status, to the governors office.

Ridge issued an improper death warrant on the eve of a critical 1995 appeal hearing for Abu-Jamal based on information gleaned of Abu-Jamal’s illegally opened legal mail. While that official interference helped sabotage Abu-Jamal’s appeal hearing, by giving the biased Judge Albert Sabo an excuse to push the hearing forward and not allow delays for subpoening important witnesses, state and federal courts have refused to rule that deliberate disruption as an improper rights-robbing violation.

This history of depriving Abu-Jamal of his constitutional rights began at an early age.

In October 1968 Philadelphia police beat Abu-Jamal to a pulp when he was among hundreds exercising protest rights violations during the Philadelphia appearance of then presidential candidate George Wallace — the staunch segregationist governor of Alabama.

A news account of that Wallace rally stated that Philadelphia police had made the Alabama segregationist candidate feel “right at home” as police “wrestled and man-handled black and white protestors outside” the Wallace event. Wallace supporters LAO assailed the protestors. But, that news article noted, horse mounted Philadelphia police only attacked the protestors as local Wallace’s supporters “roared their approval.”

That news account in The Philadelphia Tribune stated that when 14-year-old Abu-Jamal was hauled into court on false charges filed by the police who had beat him “his face was a mass of bruises.” Those charges were withdrawn in exchange for Abu-Jamal’s parents promising not to sue the Philadelphia Police Department for the assault on their son.

Philadelphia’s then FOP president, who also headed the national FOP, had endorsed the candidacy of Wallace. That Wallace endorsement outraged black Philadelphia police officers. Tribune news articles detail the protests by black police against the FOP and its president. Black Philly cops in 1968 also battled the FOP over that organization’s reflexive backing of officers accused of police brutality –- a battle that is still being fought today.

This latest speech suppression law, which was introduced by Mike Vereb, a Republican legislator from a Philadelphia suburb, has ignited widespread criticism.

One critic is Tony Norman, a columnist for the conservative libertarian Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, who, it should be noted, is convinced of Abu-Jamal’s guilt.

“One can sympathize with the outrage generated by Abu-Jamal’s invitation to speak without supporting [Vereb’s] goofy effort to shred the First Amendment,” Norman wrote recently. “Taking away anyone’s right to free speech in a knee-jerk attempt to silence Abu-Jamal is a threat to us all.”

Linn Washington Jr. is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. His work, and that of colleagues JOHN GRANT, DAVE LINDORFF, LORI SPENCER and CHARLES M. YOUNG, can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net

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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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