Letter from Phill on June 26, 2014
What strategies have you used in your organizing/advocacy work over the years that felt most effective and why?
The only strategy I used most of my incarceration up until a few years ago was my fight to get myself out through the courts. Only recently since joining R2R have I expanded my energy to the larger fight to end DBI. I’m sorry to say that I don’t think any of our efforts have been effective. We’ve been trying to change the conversation to include every human being’s right to redemption, that all people have the capacity to change and should have some opportunity to prove they are more than their worst act. We also have been trying to change the language with which we talk about these issues. By avoiding negative labels and giving common phrases more appropriate and critical titles, we believe minds can begin to change. We believe these are good strategies but we haven’t been able to implement or spread them much.
Are there any strategies you have used that in hindsight you feel were not effective in the ways that you had hoped? Why do you think that was the case?
One ineffective strategy was sending hundreds of letters to churches, mosques, and synagogues around the state and not getting a single reply. We also sent a bunch out to legislators and got the same results. Why? I think that “convicted murderers” aren’t a group of people folks generally want to support or rally around. And the letter might not have been written in the best way.
Tell us more about your restorative justice work and what you see as the values and benefits of taking this approach.
Restorative Justice is something I am very passionate about. I believe it provides an alternative framework for justice that can appeal to many. People generally want to be included in fixing their own problems. RJ tries to bring people with a stake in the situation or a harm together to come up with an appropriate process to put things right. This is not what happen in our current criminal legal process, which is more focused on what laws were broken, who did it, and what they deserve. RJ actually provides a greater likelihood for accountability than simply locking people up. In RJ, people who have harmed others must face those people and learn from them the impact of their actions. As far as my RJ work, I co-coordinate the Restorative Justice Project here at Graterford. I also chair our Steering Committee, coordinate our Alumni Project, facilitate all the levels of our workshops, train other facilitators, and am the Block Rep for my block. I love his work because I can share with others what I’ve gained over the years. People leave our workshops with new views of crime and justice, a greater awareness of the impact of our actions, and are hopefully empowered to live in ways that are life-giving.
How would you respond to those individuals who argue that highlighting the voices of those who have been convicted of crimes harms victims?
I’d say that it could also have the effect of liberating people who’ve been victimized from the prison of fear. Because of how prisons banish and isolate, victimized people usually live with a frozen-in-time image of the person or people who harmed them. Learning that people do change could bring about feelings of safety and can lessen worries about someone continuing to harm.
How has your own incarceration (or high incarceration rates more generally) impacted your family and community?
My family missed me dearly and suffers because I have been away for 19 years. My community is without someone who can be out there making a positive difference, steering young people away from the streets. And their taxes are paying for my continued incapacitation when I am no longer a risk to public safety.
If your voice could be heard anywhere, where would you want it to be heard? (Note: Use your imagination – be creative – but please keep this within 200 miles of Philadelphia if possible!)
My hometown of Reading, PA. I did so much damage to that city and want to be able to repair some amount of it, however small it might be.