Human Rights Advocates, Hunger Strikers, Gather to Tell Wolf: “Free People Now!”
Philadelphia, PA (June 7, 2020) Hundreds of human rights advocates gathered outside
Eastern State Penitentiary on June 7 to demand that Governor Wolf release thousands of
vulnerable people from prisons and detention centers--as COVID-19 continues to spread and kill incarcerated people. This demonstration is in solidarity with dozens of family and supportive community members who launched a hunger strike on Thursday, May 28th called the Free
People Strike. Hunger strikers are at the forefront of a coalition of 27 organizations calling for
the release of vulnerable people to prevent mass death in Pennsylvania prisons.
“My husband, Omar Askia Ali, was wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury and given a life
sentence 49 years ago,” said Karen Ali, who went on hunger strike for 10 days. “This hunger
strike has been a test of my power of will, but I’ve learned a lot from my husband who has been fighting for his freedom for 5 decades. As an elderly man in prison he is at risk from COVID-19.
No one should die just because they are in lock down.”
The advocates gathered outside of Eastern State Penitentiary, the world’s oldest penitentiary,
and marched to Governor Wolf’s office in Center City Philadelphia. The protestors and hunger strikers are calling upon Governor Wolf to meet the demands set forth by the coalition: release the 1,800 individuals eligible under the reprieve order signed by Governor Wolf on April 10th,
2020, the more than 4,000 people over the age of 60, and the 12,000 people Secretary Wetzel named as “medically vulnerable.” To date, the PA Department of Corrections has only released 146 people.
The hunger strikers are also calling for Governor Wolf to issue an Emergency Removal Order and close down the Berks County Residential Center, where immigrant families and children as young as 2 years old are incarcerated and remain vulnerable to COVID-19. Many governors across the US have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by releasing elderly and sick prisoners and those nearing the ends of their sentences, but Governor Wolf continues to stall.
“Governor Wolf holds an invisible knee on the necks of Black and Brown prisoners where they will die in prison because they can’t breathe,” says Sandra Hill from the Human Rights Coalition.
“We are choosing to demonstrate our anger and frustration through a hunger strike. Will Governor Wolf pay attention and do the right thing?”
The hunger strikers’ complete list of demands also includes provisions intended to prevent
incarceration due to technical probation violations and to make prison conditions safer for those
who are still incarcerated. They call upon the PADOC to conduct more testing, provide PPE,
and guarantee access to communication with loved ones outside.
Three advocates went on hunger strike on May 28 and continued for 10 days. Since then, more hunger strikers have joined, along with over 50 people who have fasted in solidarity for a day. Hunger strikers are acting in solidarity with incarcerated people whose lives are at risk every day they are locked up during this pandemic.
“Today we remember those in prison that we have already lost to COVID-19, such as Bumpy
Johnson and Clarence Sutton,” says Patricia Vickers, a member of the Human Rights Coalition.
“We also cannot forget those who have died at the hands of prison guards, such as Tyrone
Briggs and John Carter. We cannot allow our loved ones to die in a merciless prison system.
Incarcerated people’s lives matter. It’s time to free our people!
Organizations supporting the coalition’s demands are the Human Rights Coalition, Black Lives Matter Philly, Philly for REAL Justice, Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, 215 People’s Alliance, ACT UP Philly, the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, Hearts on a Wire, Juntos, LifeLines Project, Live Free, The Mann Up Association, Movement Alliance Project, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (Philadelphia), National Lawyers Guild (Penn Chapter), Party for Socialism and Liberation (Philadelphia), Philadelphia Teachers Union (Racial Justice Organizing
Committee), Philly Anarchist Black Cross, Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform, PA Poor People’s Campaign, Put People First! PA, Reawakening Agency, Reclaim Philadelphia, Shut Down Berks Coalition, Silicon Valley De-Bug, Solidarity Food Not Bombs, VOCAL SP2, the West Philly Participatory Defense Hub, and the Youth Arts & Self-Empowerment Project.
To interview any of the long-term hunger strikers, contact Jackson Kusiak, a member of the
Human Rights Coalition and the Free People Strike, at 215-251-2179.