May 18, 2018 10:51 am

Meet Amistad Law Project, the West Philly legal center fighting death by incarceration

The nonprofit's "prison abolitionists" provide free and low-cost legal services to incarcerated Pennsylvanians and advocate for a new criminal justice system.

Amistad Law Project's Sean West, Kempis “Ghani” Songster and Kris Henderson in Cedar Park in 2018.

(Photo by Danielle Corcione)

Correction: Sean Damon's name has been updated. (5/18, 11:27 a.m.)
A few years ago, friends Kris Henderson and Nikki Grant were trying to figure out their next move together after graduating from Temple University Beasley School of Law. They were involved with organizing against mass incarceration but weren’t sure how that could translate to careers.

Then something happened. The Pennsylvania legislature passed the Revictimization Relief Act, which has been otherwise known as “The Silencing Act” because it punished those in prison for speaking publicly by allowing “victims of personal injury crime to bring a civil action against the perpetrator of that crime.”

The bill was targeted toward incarcerated journalist and former Black Panther Party member Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had recently given a commencement speech at Goddard College in Vermont. By 2015, this legislation was shot down, but by then, a new project had blossomed.

In 2014, Henderson and Grant formed the West Philadelphia-based public interest law center, Amistad Law Project. The organization has since provided free and low-cost legal services to the Philadelphia community and those incarcerated in Pennsylvania and has also organized events to educate the public about the criminal justice system.

It’s organizers call themselves “prison abolitionists.” From its mission statement:

“We are prison abolitionists who view the prison industrial complex as directly related to the massive divestment from our communities the things that make them safe and strong. We believe that good public education, affordable health care, healthy and affordable food, safe and affordable housing, and the ability to care for our families, no matter what they look like, are human rights.”

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There are only five people behind Amistad. Henderson serves as legal director while Grant serves as policy director. Their friend, Sean Damon, joined as a paralegal. Also involved are Saleem Holbrook and Kempis “Ghani” Songster, who have both been incarcerated.

In just three years, Amistad has celebrated some major victories. The organization successfully sued the Department of Corrections on behalf of Darrick Hall, who’d been in solitary confinement on death row for 24 years until his February release. The team has also supported the December 2017 release of former juvenile lifer Songster.

“Working for the Amistad Law Project is more meaningful than you might imagine,” explained Songster, who was incarcerated for 30 years starting at the age of 15. “The work that Amistad Law Project did on my behalf — organizing the communities and mobilizing people to turn out at our sentencing and all of those things — were really impactful. They made a difference.”

According to Amistad cofounder Kris Henderson, it's crucial for Philadelphians to understand how issues such as poverty, racism and criminal justice are connected.

Henderson said it’s crucial for Philadelphians to understand how issues such as poverty, racism and criminal justice are connected. For instance, most people serving death by incarceration in Pennsylvania are from Philadelphia which is also the poorest major city in the country. (“Death by incarceration” is how some activists refer to life-without-parole sentences.)

“If you’re committing to incarcerating someone until they die, you have to pay for the costs of housing someone for who knows how many years, and that money that goes toward making sure someone [stays] a cell is still money that could be going toward things that would actually make our communities better, safer, stronger,” they said.

To help keep its momentum going, Amistad is asking local nonprofits to get involved with issues surrounding mass incarceration.

“Some ways that Philadelphia nonprofits can support our work is to learn about issues of mass incarceration and join in advocating for the abolition of mass incarceration and for policies that would free people and free up resources to go to our communities when we really need them,” Damon said. “We’re always eager to be building up the movement and alliances to … push for policies that would allow for more resources for things like restorative justice programs.”

Henderson also stressed the necessity for inclusive language. Too often, incarcerated people are dehumanized by being referred to as “criminals,” “prisoners,” “felons,” and “inmates.” Using “incarcerated,” they said, helps us bring back the humanity to those in prison, reminding them (and ourselves) they are human beings as well.


Full disclosure: Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen participated in the Fall 2017 cohort of Bread & Roses Community Fund’s Giving Projects, which collectively funded $10,000 grants for several Black-led, Black-centered social justice organizations, including Amistad Law Project. That relationship is unrelated to this article.


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