Fighting for Redemption in an Unjust System

Image caption: CADBI organizer Mrs. Dee Dee. Photo by Maddie Rose.

By Maddie Rose

For those serving life in prison in Pennsylvania, there is no parole. Ever. As a result, nearly 10% of our prison population is serving life sentences (over 5,000 people). This is why one campaign is choosing to rename “life without parole” for what it really is—Death by Incarceration.

The Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) is a campaign fighting to end life without parole, or death by incarceration, sentencings in Pennsylvania. In a recent victory, the Supreme Court ruled that those sentenced to life while young teenagers should now have a chance at parole. Some are starting to come home after decades in prison. But for those handed their Death by Incarceration sentences at the age of 18 or older, the story is much different.

“Sixty years, to someone that’s already 40, that’s a death sentence,” says Mrs. Dee Dee, a proud member of CADBI since its very first meeting. “To someone that’s young, you’re taking their whole childhood away. My son went in when he was 18, and my baby just turned 42.”

Mrs Dee Dee has a unique vantage point to our justice system. She speaks both with confidence and a heavy heart.

“Being the mother of a lifer, but also the sister of a murdered brother, I’m on both sides of the fence. I’m not in this just for my son, because my son’s a lifer, but that man that killed my brother? I’m fighting for his freedom just as much.”

And fight she does. CADBI is currently backing two bills, one in the PA Senate (SB942) and one in the PA House (HB135). Both allow for presumptive parole eligibility after 15 years for those currently serving Death By Incarceration sentences.

CADBI_Patricia Marshall Vickers_photo by Suzy Subways
Patricia Marshall Vickers, a CADBI organizer, with mementos from her imprisoned son Shakaboona’s youth. Photo by Suzy Subways.

However, CADBI is a group that not only is fighting for justice, but simultaneously suffering constant injustice. Key elements of CADBI’s work include community support and relationship building. Members show up at resentencing and parole hearings, and carpool together to visit loved ones on the insidemost recently, they took a multi-hour trip to both Huntington and Smithfield prisons.

These trips are also opportunities to organize. A significant portion of CADBI’s membership is on the inside. Visits and paid email interactions allow information to move between members who are connected to politics on the outside and members who report about prison conditions and organizing on the inside.

“They’re letting us know what we need to do, what bills we need to fight for, how we need to get out here and march, so you knowwe’re one,” Mrs. Dee Dee explains. “They’re on the inside and we’re on the outside, but we’re one.”

Every day, money is sunk into keeping prisons afloat. “We could spend that same money on schools, on education, on building programs where we can keep our young people out of going to prison. Keep these recreation centers open. And these people that are coming out can start grabbing these young people and say ‘Look, because of a simple mistake I made I wasted so many years of my life in prison, and that’s not the place to be.’ They could be advocates for these young people.”

To those who would voice concern over the return of people with serious offenses to free society, Mrs. Dee Dee asks:

“If they did years, don’t you think that’s enough? I mean, they could spend a thousand years in there. It’s not going to bring your loved one back. People have this tendency of saying ‘closure,’ but no. There is no closure. Our loved one is not coming back. I tell people that about this guy that killed my brother. Had they asked me when it had happened, I would have said ‘Execute him. Fry him.’ When your hurt is so fresh, you don’t think. You’re going by emotions. But you see, after all these years, I realized, you know, he’s somebody’s son. He’s somebody’s brother. He made a mistake like all of us do.”

“Mistake” is the word that she and many other CADBI members use to describe the reasons for incarceration. It isn’t an attempt to downplay the harm done, but to combat the narrative that people who have done things as serious as murder are heartless, or beyond hope. They made mistakes, many of them when they were very young. What would happen if we treated everyone the way we treat incarcerated people? If, decades after making a mistake, we were assumed too dangerous to be allowed even a chance of freedom? She gives a sad laugh. “What would we do? We’d all be in jail.”

Meanwhile, the man who murdered her brother, Peter Angel, is currently on death row. Mrs. Dee Dee only learned last year: “It just blew me away. I cried like I had never cried before, ’cause I didn’t want them to kill this man before I had a chance to tell him, ‘I forgive you for what you did. And I’m fighting for your freedom like I’m fighting for my son’s.’”

She has grown worn out, over the years, of the bitterness of the court models of retributive justice. When cases finally reach courtoften many years after the eventall the pain and suffering is dragged up again. “Let’s try to find a way where we can come together and work. Yeah you’re hurting, because you lost someone. I’m hurting because mine caused yours to be lost. So we both lost somebody. Let’s come together and work together.”

The values of CADBI are unwavering: everyone deserves a second chance. It is a deeply spiritual and political refusal to write off anyone as beyond saving, beyond hope, beyond change. “Even the worst of the worst,” Mrs. Dee Dee says, “deserves a second chance. If we can learn to forgive, we can have a way better world for the next generation that comes in. Let’s rehabilitate people. Let’s help people. Let’s transform people. Stop locking them up like animals.”

Connecting with others with similar struggles and similarly passionate feelings on redemption makes a world of difference to many inside members and their families. The stigma of having a child in prison keeps many people suffering in silence, a silence Mrs. Dee Dee is happy to finally break. Between the victory of Krasner for DA, and finding CADBI in her life, she says she’s more hopeful than ever. “More hopeful than I’ve been in these 24 years that my baby’s been in jail.”

CADBI_Robert Saleem Holbrook_photo by Suzy Subways
Recently released CADBI organizer Robert Saleem Holbrook, who was sentenced to life without parole when he was 16. Photo by Suzy Subways.

Sidebar: An Even Worse Prison?

By Kerry Shakaboona Marshall

Pennsylvania is still building more prisons — and filling them. The Partisan asked organizer Kerry Shakaboona Marshall how people where he is incarcerated feel about being moved to a newly built prison.

The majority of prisoners here at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Graterford have expressed to me and to the SCI Graterford administration major concerns about moving to SCI Phoenix. The majority of prisoners have expressed that they were suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. They have expressed anger at the officials for making them pay to have their personal property shipped to Phoenix or shipped home or forced to destroy it. The elderly prisoners and prisoners with major health problems are expressing anger at being told that they will have to be double-celled with a cellmate now. Prisoners are afraid that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections isn’t going to allow the variety of programs and the number of inmate organizations at Graterford to be continued at Phoenix. Prisoners are upset about the religious services being severely limited or outright denied. Prisoners believe that the Department of Corrections has no-good intentions of turning Phoenix into a really restrictive, oppressive, and racist institution, as exists at most correctional facilities in the rural parts of Pennsylvania. Prisoners fear a change for the worse at Phoenix.

Kerry Shakaboona Marshall is a co-founder of Human Rights Coalition and CADBI. He is editor of The Movement magazine and has been active with the Lifers’ Association at Graterford and other organizations in Pennsylvania prisons, where he has been locked up since 1988, when he was 17. CADBI organizers hope Shakaboona will be coming home to Philadelphia soon, due to recent movement victories. His re-sentencing hearing will be held May 17th.

CADBI meets every 3rd Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., Mosaic Community Church at 123 S. 51st Street.


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