Lethal injustice: Standing against the death penalty and harsh sentences

Reports from the national speaking tour


Reports from a speaking tour that looked at what’s behind the massive prison buildup, why so many people of color are locked up and what we can do about it.

Delaware/New Jersey 

The Delaware chapter hosted two tour stops. The first stop took place in Wilmington on February 17 at Barbara Lewis’ church, Christ Center Inc. The speakers were Mark Clements from Chicago and Amir Varick Amma from New York. Approximately 60 people filled up the room, and most stayed after the presentations to participate in a lively discussion. Outrage was expressed toward a criminal justice system that would lock up these innocent men and steal such a significant portion of their lives. 

The next day, Mark and Amir traveled to Rowan University in New Jersey to speak to 15 students in Sandy Jones’ “Race and Social Change” class. They told their stories of their wrongful convictions and shared how their experiences are illustrative of many of the points in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which the class had read.

After speaking to Sandy’s class, Mark and Amir gave an afternoon presentation for the university community. They were joined by Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy with the Sentencing Project. They spoke to an audience of approximately 25 students and faculty. After Mark and Amir shared their stories, Kara shared research focused on the racial disparities found between sentences for possession of crack vs. powder cocaine. 

Those in attendance expressed their appreciation for the panelists’ opening their eyes to the depth of injustices that can be found with both the death penalty and the excessive number of harsh sentences.

Champaign, Ill. 

About 30 people attended a stop on the Lethal Injustice tour at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign on March 7. The event was sponsored locally by the International Socialist Organization, the Minority Association of Future Attorneys and Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice. 

Mark Clements spoke of his ordeal when at age 16 he was tortured by Chicago detectives under former Commander Jon Burge, forced to sign a confession to an arson he did not commit, and sentenced to life without parole. Randi Jones Hensley of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty also spoke, highlighting the racism of the death penalty and the systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the U.S. at the hands of the political system. Many of those in attendance were clearly moved, and a number of questions revolved around how we could reach out to our brothers and sisters behind bars. 

Allendale, Mich. 

On March 30, Grand Valley State University hosted a tour stop of the Lethal Injustice Tour. Speakers included Randi Hensley, Victoria Law and Mark Clements, speaking about women in prisons, police torture and fighting the death penalty.

The turnout was around 90 students, faculty and community members. The event was sponsored by the campus chapter of Amnesty International, the International Socialist Club and the politically active LGBT rights group known as Students Advocating Freedom and Equality (SAFE).

Students asked how to get involved with the Troy Davis case. There was a heartfelt moment as Victoria Law met a prison pen-pal for the first time on the outside. 

Southern Calif. 

Over 75 people attended the California tour stop. Mark Clements spoke about his experience spending 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Paul Wright of Prison Legal News explained how he spent eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He explained how the criminal justice system operates to deprive inmates of their rights and keeps them in inhumane conditions. 

Many who attended were interested in juveniles’ rights, including a public school teacher who brought six of her students. After hearing Mark’s and Paul’s stories, she was eager to get involved with the fight to abolish the death penalty. Attendees asked insightful and intelligent questions and were excited by the news of the Illinois repeal of the death penalty, which happened the same day. They remained determined to make the same thing happen in California. 

Austin, Texas

Over 60 people turned out to the tour stop on April 7 at the University of Texas in Austin. 

CEDP activist Laura Brady spoke about the massive prison buildup in the U.S., unfair sentencing, the criminalization of poor youth of color, and the role that harsh punishment has played in swelling the prison population. 

Lawrence Foster spoke about his grandson Kenneth Foster Jr.’s case, whose death sentence was commuted in 2007 after a major mobilization against his execution. Kenneth is currently serving a life sentence. Lawrence talked about the conditions in prison and how we are still working to try to free him.

Anthony Graves, who was freed from Texas death row last October after being declared innocent of the crime he spent 17 years in prison for (14 on death row) spoke last. The audience was riveted as Anthony shared his powerful story. He is warm and engaging, and people were really moved just by having him there to talk. He spoke of his determination to speak out against the death penalty every chance that he can. 

Many people spoke in discussion, including Kenneth Foster’s father and Delia Perez Meyer, whose brother, Louis Castro Perez, is innocent on Texas death row. Several students asked questions and lots of people signed up and expressed interest in joining the fight against the death penalty! 

New York City

New York’s Harlem Chapter joined with the Prisoner Justice Club/CEDP at City College to host a powerful tour stop on April 16 with about 70 participants and a range of activist groups represented, from the NYS Prisoner Justice Network to the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow. Chicago police torture victim Mark Clements joined a panel of New York state activists and advocates, including Bob Gangi, former director of the Correctional Association, and Rockefeller drug law survivor Amir Amma.

The event theme was harsh sentencing in New York and beyond, with Amir speaking to the toll of his experience serving over twenty years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, and Mark painting the picture of a juvenile sentenced to life without parole.

Against the backdrop of massive budget cuts and a recent promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to close prisons upstate, Gangi spoke to the need for ongoing grassroots work to ensure these prisons are closed for good. 

Yet as some in the audience raised, social justice activists need to set their sights beyond the budgetary pressures of closing prisons and need to challenge cuts that are slashing social programs behind bars and services for the formerly incarcerated. As the president of City College’s Black Student Union reminded the crowd in his welcoming remarks, resistance against the entire system of mass incarceration is more urgent now than ever. 

Oakland, Calif. 

On May 6, around 40 people packed a classroom at Laney Community College in Oakland. Michelle Simon spoke about the death penalty, what the CEDP does to combat it, and what we need to do to end it. Jabari Shaw of the Black Student Union connected the issues of the death penalty with the cops in the schools, the school to prison pipeline and the executions by cops on the street. He spoke about mistreatment in prison from firsthand knowledge, having been in San Quentin when California executed Stanley Tookie Williams. 

Death Row prisoner Correll Thomas called in and explained how the guards try to make life on the row as hard as possible, including alienating visitors and cutting outside resources. He talked about how people are pushed to suicide. (On California’s death row there have been 13 executions but 18 suicides.) The discussion was impactful as Correll asked folks to keep spreading the word against the death penalty. 

Chicago 

The Chicago CEDP chapter hosted three tour stops. Most attendees were students at the University of Chicago and DePaul.

Jordan Flaherty flew in from New Orleans to talk about instances of police brutality in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and organizations that popped up to hold police accountable. He also spoke about the Jena 6. Mark Clements spoke about the need to organize around the issue of juvenile life without parole. Darby Tillis told his story of being wrongfully put on death row. Darby emphasized the grassroots movement that won abolition in Illinois. Social worker Helen Redmond voiced disgust at the “war on drugs” that has put so many poor people of color behind bars without offering any treatment to those in need. Activist Ken Richardson drew from ideas presented in the book The New Jim Crow to expose the racism of the system. He highlighted Troy Davis’s case as an avenue to fight the racist death penalty. Professor Kimberly Moe challenged attendees to imagine a world without prisons.

All of the speakers emphasized the need for grassroots movements to confront the criminal justice system. Although the death penalty is off the table in Illinois, those who came out to the Lethal Injustice tour stops know that the fight for justice continues. 

Denton, Texas

The Denton CEDP held its second annual tour stop on April 15 at the University of North Texas. Our speakers included: Lawrence Foster, Lily Hughes of the Austin CEDP, New York death row exonoree Lawrence Hayes, and a call-in from Illinois prisoner Stanley Howard. A statement from Rob Will, co-founder of DRIVE and an innocent man on TX Death Row, was also presented.

Each presenter brought a compelling perspective, whether it concerned working with families, what the CEDP does, organizing on the inside, how to stay motivated in the struggle. The presenters spoke about why they stand against harsh punishment and struggle to abolish capital punishment. Questions ranged from current prison conditions to issues surrounding gender and class. 

Our chapter provided merchandise for sale, fact sheets, pen pal letters and petitions. It was incredible to see such active participation and to meet new people interested in abolition. The Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance asked us to present at their meeting to discuss how the Prison Industrial Complex affects women, where we saw familiar faces from our event. Our Tour Stop was integral to coalition building and provided a space to discuss harsh punishment and who it affects.