Greetings friends and family,
We welcome you to the latest installment of the Free Maroon newsletter, and hope this message finds you well. This month we continue in our efforts to keep you informed about promising developments in the campaign to free “juvenile lifers” in Pennsylvania, as well as broader reforms to the state’s criminal justice system since Larry Krasner took office as the new District Attorney in Philadelphia. We’ll be sharing Maroon’s tribute to three “juvenile lifers” he’s grown to know and admire, as well as a message from one of those three, Kempis “Ghani” Songster, recently freed from SCI-Graterford after 30 years in prison. But first, we want to share with you the latest news about Herman Bell…
Herman Bell Granted Parole!
As many of you have likely already heard, Herman Bell, a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, incarcerated for nearly 45 years in a case that greatly mirrors Maroon’s, was recently granted parole, after having been denied seven times over the past decade plus. Recognizing that Herman’s “incarcerated debt has been paid to society,” that he had “a record of consistently solid programming over that time,” and that he “repeatedly expressed regret and remorse,” the New York State Parole Board, in a 2 to 1 decision, determined that it was time for Herman to be freed. We applaud this decision, and look forward to welcoming him home! You can read more about the decision, and Herman’s history of activism and imprisonment, here and here.
Predictably, police representatives, the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) chief among them, have responded with outrage, setting off a campaign of intimidation and pressuring the Parole Board to reverse their decision. Framing Herman as a “domestic terrorist,” and cynically stating that parole should have never been an option for him, they’ve gone so far as to suggest that the Parole Board members who supported Herman’s release should be fired. Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo have expressed their support for the PBA. As a result, Herman’s supporters, along with Parole Justice New York, have issued the following statement and action steps we can all take to support the Parole Board’s decision and ensure Herman’s freedom:
We want the Governor, policymakers, and public to know that we strongly support the Parole Board’s lawful, just, and merciful decision. We also want to show support for the recent changes to the Board, including the appointment of new Commissioners and the direction of the new parole regulations, which base release decisions more on who a person is today and their accomplishments while in prison than on the nature of their crime.
Herman has a community of friends, family, and loved ones eagerly awaiting his return. At 70 years old and after 45 years inside, it is time for Herman to come home.
Here are four things you can do RIGHT NOW to support Herman Bell:
1- CALL New York State Governor Cuomo’s Office at (518) 474-8390
2- E-MAIL New York State Governor Cuomo’s Office
3- TWEET at Governor Cuomo: use the following sample tweet:
“@NYGovCuomo: stand by the Parole Board’s lawful & just decision to release Herman Bell. At 70 years old and after more than 40 years of incarceration, his release is overdue. #BringHermanHome.”
Script for phone calls and e-mails:
“Governor Cuomo, my name is __________ and I am a resident of [New York State/other state/other country]. I support the Parole Board’s decision to release Herman Bell and urge you and the Board to stand by the decision. I also support the recent appointment of new Parole Board Commissioners, and the direction of the new parole regulations, which base release decisions more on who a person is today than on the nature of their crime committed years ago. Returning Herman to his friends and family will help to heal the many harms caused by crime and decades of incarceration. The Board’s decision was just, merciful, and lawful, and it will benefit our communities and New York State as a whole.”
Thank you for your support and contributions.
If interested, you can also watch a recent press conference given by Herman’s lawyer, Robert Boyle, and multiple supporters, in response to the recent backlash, here
Maroon speaks on Long-Term Isolation
Maroon recently penned a short tribute to three “juvenile lifers” he’s come to know since being released to prison general population in 2014, each of whom has not only survived solitary confinement, but emerged from it with greater self-awareness and commitment to the cause of ending “death by incarceration.” He writes:
Long-term isolation is designed to separate and destroy the most challenging prisoners the prison industrial complex has to deal with, many of whom enter isolation without any political convictions, and are intellectually and socially underdeveloped.
Kempis “Ghani” Songster, Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, and Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall symbolize that phenomenon. All were juveniles when they received natural life (i.e. death by incarceration, or “DBI”) sentences.
[Pictured Left: Saleem and Ghani out flyering for Shakaboona’s “People Change People Change the World” event which was held on March 24, 2018. Note: Saleem was not out of prison yet when Maroon wrote this piece.]
In Pennsylvania’s most violent prisons, they landed in long-term isolation due to their youthful struggles to survive. But hellholes that were meant to destroy them had the opposite effect. It forced them to discipline their mental, emotional, and intellectual energies, and channel them into self-education and creative interests.
To their captors, the unforeseen consequences of their torture encapsulates a dynamic whereby to be really creative, one must be less “productive”; and long-term isolation forced these men into that laboratory. They emerged with intellectual, social, and political skills found amongst the privileged minority given access to the best institutions in free society.
After 30 years they won reprieves from their DBI sentences. Ghani has been freed, Saleem will be released soon, and we are fighting for Shakaboona’s freedom as well.
Few segments in free society have developed more intellectual, social, and political worth than these men. Ghani, Saleem, and Shakaboona defeated long-term isolation, and turned that experience into a forge to produce iron!
Updates On Shakaboona And Yaquin
A few weeks ago, Shakaboona was given a new offer for resentencing of a term of 29 years to life (“time served”). Shakaboona’s resentence hearing court date has been rescheduled for May 17, 2018, at the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia. If you’re in town, please come out and support him.
Read more about Shakaboona’s case here.
You can reach out to Shakaboona directly, by writing:
PO Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244
In the past, we’ve also highlighted the case of Ernest “Yaquin” Nedab, and the incredible artwork he’s produced in prison through very limited resources. He recently sent us some news about his case, which we share with you in hopes of garnering him greater attention and supporting his efforts at commutation.
In his own words:
Since my last posting pertaining to the gross miscarriage of justice in my case, new avenues have become available. My latest attempts for relief have been the filing for commutation, sending a notice of appeal to the Superior Court, and submitting an application to the Conviction Review Unit under the new Philadelphia District Attorney, Larry Krasner, demonstrating my actual innocence (polygraph, affidavit, and other circumstantial evidence). I am without representation but still my fight continues.
You can reach out Yaquin directly, by writing:
PO Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244
Ghani’s Appeal For Amistad Law Project
Freed from SCI-Graterford at the end of 2017, Kempis “Ghani” Songster has immediately involved himself in efforts to challenge “death by incarceration” and advocate for restorative justice both within and outside of prison walls. He’s offered us the following insights from his experiences, including an appeal to support the work of Amistad Law Project:
Thankfully, the following facts are no longer up for debate: Mass incarceration is a social problem. The prison industrial complex is an industrial human warehousing complex. The criminal legal system as we know it, and its “tough on crime” sentencing policies and practices, has not been able to prevent or reduce violence and victimization. Sentencing people to life without parole, more aptly known as death by incarceration, has not been able to help families and communities to heal from the traumas of crime and violence. These are all foregone conclusions now; general consensus, common knowledge. However, what has yet to be fully appraised is that through it all, men, women, and children have been condemned. In prison warehouses, they age, become terminally ill, and eventually die. Some of them are actually innocent; some are not innocent but, driven by remorse, responsibility, and a desire to “give back,” have developed themselves into viable assets to their communities. Some are now too old, sick, and feeble to be a threat to anyone in society. Tax-paying citizens foot the bill on all of it.
The Amistad Law Project [Pictured above: Nikki, Wispy, Kris, Ghani and Saleem] is working in a real way to bring as many such people home as we can, as well as to help change the hopeless crime and punishment narrative that the criminal legal system and our communities are apparently stuck in. ALP will continue to work diligently to make meaningful change happen, but it would be so much more doable with your support. On YouCaring, we have announced our crowdfunding campaign, and we list the work ahead of us for just the first half of 2018. That work will exponentially increase as more and more cases pour in, seeking representation before the Conviction Integrity Unit. See where we are in terms of meeting our goal of $20,000. Whatever you can contribute is a blessing. The moment we are in is more pregnant with possibility than ever before. But only if we work together and support one another can we deliver.
Note: This appeal is not for our folks behind the wall. Meaning, ALP is not asking incarcerated people for any funds. But what we would ask our folks behind the walls for is assistance with raising the funds we need to carry out the aforementioned work. If you are able to photocopy this message (making sure to include the web link cited above) and mail it out to people on the streets, especially any organizations you may know, that would be greatly appreciated. Help us help change this reality we’re in.
Kempis “Ghani” Songster
Amistad Law Project
Latest News From The Office Of Larry Krasner, Philly’s New District Attorney
As we’ve been documenting in recent months, Philadelphia’s new District Attorney, Larry Krasner, elected in large part because of the grassroots organizing many in our extended abolition/anti-retribution community were directly involved in, has quickly followed up on his campaign promises to initiate far-reaching reforms to the criminal justice system. In his first week in office, he fired 31 prosecutors who weren’t aligned with his vision for fair and just reforms to the patently racist and classist nature of Philadelphia’s criminal justice practices. He then obeyed a court order to release 29 officers from the Philadelphia Police Department who were on a “do not call” list (meaning, their extensively documented misconduct made prosecutors believe they were unreliable witnesses).
Perhaps most telling, however, is the internal memo Krasner circulated to his staff last month, which became public just two weeks ago. This memo, which begins with the statement that “These policies are an effort to end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing,” is nothing short of groundbreaking. In it, Krasner makes clear that he’s committed to radically transforming prosecutorial norms, namely by instructing prosecutors to stop prosecuting low-level offenses such as marijuana possession and sex work, which have of course led to countless convictions and imprisonment. Krasner further instructs prosecutors to avoid convictions if possible and guide cases for diversion programs instead of jail and prison, in addition to directing prosecutors to stop the wide-ranging practice of beginning plea deals with the highest possible sentencing and, instead, begin those plea deals at the bottom end of the available range of time that can be served. Krasner also instructs his prosecutors to add up and justify the exact costs of every single person sentenced to a crime in Philadelphia, in the interest of transparency to taxpayers, and to further advocate for restorative practices that would benefit both the person charged and the community at large. He concludes by outlining changes aimed at dramatically reducing the length of probationary periods.
In its totality and clear redirection from decades of misguided criminal justice policy, it’s a breathtaking document. We invite you to read a recent article on it, penned by Shaun King for The Intercept, where you can also read the document in full, here.
Musa Henderson Foundation
Hosts Workshop on Maroon’s Teachings
On Friday, March 23, 2018, the Northeast Political Prisoner Coalition (NEPPC) attended a P.E. class at Brownsville Heritage House in Brooklyn, NY. Sharon Shoatz and her father, long-held Political Prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz initiated this gathering with the focus on some of the urgent issues affecting our communities. Maroon has written about the ideas presented at our class: the environmental and food crisis, introduction of STEM programs into the P.I.C. for both the inmates and the employees and a very necessary piece of the effects of poverty/crimes of poverty on our community and how to begin the healing process.
Kempis “Ghani” Songster, a former juvenile lifer, who was recently released from SCI Graterford in Pennsylvania, facilitated our class. Ghani also happens to be a lifetime mentee of Maroon’s. The topics of discussion ranged from community healing via his organization “Ubuntu Philadelphia” to his introduction of “The 5-Phase Strategy” for the survival of the Black community.
Ubuntu Philadelphia’s mission is rooted in the African Bantu word which translates to “I Am Because You Are” or “Human-ness”. There was a gathering held in November of 2016 to address the issues of healing and restoring our communities through the stories of people who have committed crimes as well as the people who were harmed by the crimes committed. Both of these narratives are equally important to begin the process of making real changes in our communities.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) is an initiative which will turn prisons into learning centers which will educate, motivate and incentivize the population (both the prisoners and the correctional officers) via Science and Technology programs. This strategy provides an alternative to the gangsta culture which exists in the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), change the minds and mentalities of those inside which will have a positive impact on the world outside as well.
Ghani also talked about the need for various community organizations collaborating efforts to make a larger impact on the people we are serving, for example, our work fighting to liberate our Political Prisoners. We must focus on the MOSAIC (Movement of Oppressed Sections Acting in Concert) and we’ll be in a better position to affect change.
We also discussed the environmental, climate and food crises in the context of its impact on black and brown communities including the prison population. Our communities may or may not realize this very urgent matter but we need to organize and educate ourselves and then our communities so we can counteract this crisis. Ghani suggested, as a start, urban gardening to provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables and us engaging in political, cultural and cadre building.
Ghani’s presentation was very informative and enlightening. We all asked questions, shared our ideas and perspectives. It was a fruitful gathering and we look forward to keeping the discussion going as well as putting forth efforts and actions.
Valerie Haynes, NEPPC
In conclusion, we want to remind you that Maroon was transferred from SCI-Graterford to SCI-Dallas at the end of 2017. This transfer was due to the fact that SCI-Graterford will soon be closed, and Maroon’s settlement with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in 2014 guarantees him a single-person cell for the duration of his imprisonment. Accordingly, his new mailing address is as follows:
Russell Shoats #AF-3855
1000 Follies Road
Dallas, PA 18612
Please send him your greetings, and share any thoughts or questions you have about his writings, old or new. He’s eager to hear from and correspond with YOU!
Please also consider making a donation to our ongoing fundraising on his behalf. All contributions, no matter how large or small, are deeply appreciated!
We thank you for your continued support, and wish you strength and inspiration in the days ahead.
The Shoatz Family and Friends
[Pictured above: Shakaboona with his mom, grandmother, Theresa Shoatz, and Sharon Shoatz with the quote People Change, People Change the World]