Right to Redemption: The Beginning of a Movement

Sometime in the latter part of 2010, the then President of the Lifer’s Organization (Lifer’s Inc), Wayne Battle, approached several members mostly under the age of forty with an idea he had. He wanted to explore the possibility of looking at obtaining parole eligibility for lifers in Pennsylvania, beyond what was already being done within the organization. He felt like they were stuck in a repetitive cycle in search of parole eligibility for lifers. 

We had our first of several meetings in the Graterford Gym; in the initial meetings there were about twenty of us, mostly under the age of forty.  Earl, Wayne, Andre, Bernard, and Wavy were the elders at these early meetings. 

In the beginning we had some serious spirited discussing about what was happening, what wasn’t happening and what should or needs to be happening in the fight for parole for lifers. During this time many of the original attendees begin to fall off for various reason. As we entered into the 2011 New Year, we begin to function more like a committee, instead of a group of men meeting every week. 

Guys started coming on the regular basis and before long we began to form a foundation we would follow–Empathy, Change, Second Chances, Labels, Redemption–and not forever being judged by one bad act. With this groundwork established, we started the process of coming up with a name, a name that represented who we were, what we were and what we stood for.  After throwing out hundreds of names and phrases the word “redemption” kept coming up and eventually Right to Redemption [R2R] was born. Our very first task was to create a Mission Statement that was more than words. We brainstormed what redemption meant to each of us; and, how each of us wanted to pursue parole eligibility.

With twenty different views and positions the meetings were heated, because everybody had an opinion based on a core belief; and, whether it was right or wrong, each person had a right to their own thoughts and ideas on the subject. 

Now this is where the genius of R2R began.

Through all the debates we created a Mission Statement built on our collective ideals compressed into one central understanding. Getting to this point wasn’t an easy task; on a few occasions consulting with a dictionary for clarity. My Brother Ghani was able to put together all of our thoughts and created our Mission Statement; an assertion of feeling and purpose. We then created a Board. And next, started to prioritize our undertaking to obtain parole eligibility for people condemned to a life without parole sentence in Pennsylvania. 

One of my initial goals was to build relationships and partnerships with grassroots organizations on the street, with whom we could unite, because this was one of the things I didn’t see being done with the Lifer’s Inc. organization.  That is, forging relationships with politicians, organizations, and community leaders. All types of distinguished people were coming in and out of Graterford during this time, but I didn’t see any real movement as a result of all these guest appearances. This isn’t a knock to Lifers, Inc.  This is just what I saw and as a member it was my duty to fill in the blanks. 

Next, we tackled the use of the words; such as, “Wheel”, “Elbow”, “L”, “Lifer”. Words people used over the years to describe a life sentence. “Yo, they gave me a ‘wheel’” or, “You see him over there, he got a ‘L’”. We used these phrases like it’s cool to have a life sentence; it never was and never will be cool! We knew our way of thinking wasn’t going to sit well with some of the members mainly because for decades they were accustomed to things being done a certain way. In 2013 some of us were given a book from another program/group we participated with, titled “Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough: An Anthology”, by The Other Death Penalty Project.  The phrase, “Death By Incarceration” was used frequently throughout the book. Two meetings latter, we begin to use this phrase to describe our sentence, “Death By Incarceration,” or “DBI.” Yes, and just like we anticipated, most of the brothers weren’t feeling this new way to describe being sentenced to life in prison.

Shortly after coming up with our “Right to Redemption” name, we were at a Lifer’s Inc. meeting where fellow member, Terrell, and I were asked to introduce our special committee to the members of the organization. We started with our name and what our mission would be. We explained how we planned to pursue parole eligibility, in part, by highlighting the work being done from behind the walls, sharing with the communities we had harmed.   The programs we created, facilitated inside and out. 

We stated that one of our primary charges is to appeal to the people, reach out to folks from all walks of life throughout the entire state and hopefully the world, to abolish DBI! One member shouted out, “Ya’ll presenting a moral argument, we need legislation passed”. My response was, “What’s the best way to get to these legislators?  The people, their constituency, they may not listen to us, but they will listen to them… and how do we get our people to listen? With, morals, empathy, and humanity. Politicians were our target as they have been for decades.” 

The one difference is for the past 35+ years we approached legislators directly for meetings, attending events like banquets and such. They may show up if it’s an election year, but for the most part, once they left, that was it.  I witnessed this countless time in my first 15 years…. Another thing we wanted to change was the culture of lobbying for one person because he or she had 35-40 years of incarceration. 

There wasn’t a real movement during this time, life sentences were not even mentioned whenever anyone spoke about prison reform. We wanted to be included in the conversation. 

One night while attending another meeting I had a conversation with a friend and comrade about Decarcerate PA, a group openly protesting the building of a new state prison on the grounds of Graterford. 

They had an idea…I had a thought…we had a conversation…and the movement I envisioned was born, The Coalition To Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI). Our position initially was not accepted because people were not open to something new, something different. So instead of constantly defending ourselves and fighting our detractors, we became determined to show them better than we can tell them.  While building relationships with grassroot  organizations on the outside–Decarcerate PA,  Human Right Coalition [HRC], Fight for Lifers and Reconstruction, Inc–we learned from each other new creative ways to reach the masses to bring our collective vision to fruition. We had workshops, trainings, retreats, strategy meetings. No stone left unturned in our mission to end DBI in Pennsylvania. Meetings, social gatherings, social media, rallies and protests…R2R’s membership has spread into multiple camps throughout the state, we stand in solidarity for one cause, one mission. CADBI has had multiple events, four rallies at the State Capital, with each year increasing participation and more attention paid to the issue of DBI. Membership has expanded into several counties from Philly to Pittsburgh. We are in it for the long haul! I love the many men and women who stand with us through any weather. Many have no personal stake in this fight, but are dedicated agents of change for what is right! Every human being has the right to redeem themselves. Right to Redemption doesn’t claim to have all the answers, we just want everyone to know that change is possible, everyone deserves a second chance, and at least the opportunity to be judged on their own merits.

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