Tired of the politics, a press conference is sidelined by its audience

A state legislator’s unveiling of a prison reform measure is overtaken by frustrated crowd demanding concrete changes in policing and criminal justice

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari/PA Post

About 30 people gathered outside of state Rep. Patty Kim’s Harrisburg district office on Monday afternoon. They were part of a coalition of prisoners’ rights groups, including Voice for the Voiceless, Black Lives Matter and members of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. 

The Democratic legislator called the press event to announce a new bill that would create a county prison and jail oversight board.

Kim’s proposed legislation, set to be formally drafted in two weeks, would establish citizen oversight committees in most counties made up of four elected officials and four people from the general public. The idea is similar to citizen police review boards, which have been longstanding in cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Only Allegheny County has a county jail civilian oversight board. 

Kim and prison reform advocates say the coronavirus epidemic highlighted the lack of transparency by county jail administrators, as well as shortcomings in how jails protect inmates and correctional officers. Testing programs for inmates vary widely across the state, while county jails embrace restrictions on inmates’ movement — requiring them to remain in their cells for 22 hours a day and go days without showers or recreation — that experts say pose significant threats to inmates’ mental and physical health. Even before the pandemic, waves of complaints came from family members who said inmates were being treated like animals, beaten by corrections officers or served rotten food. 

“What’s happening now is not working,” said Rep. Kim. She said jails are black holes of information, leaving family members in the dark about the status of their incarcerated loved ones. 

But as the details of the bill were being laid out by Kim at the press conference, the crowd was noticeably fed up. The press conference devolved into shouting matches between members of the community – arguing for more direct action against bad cops and abusive corrections officers – and the bill’s proponents, including Brandon Flood, secretary for the state Board of Pardons and a formerly incarcerated person. 

“This isn’t going to do anything!” screamed Rakita Easter, 38, who said she was beaten by guards when she was held at the Dauphin County Prison and wasn’t able to file grievances about the assault. “This was a problem 80 years ago, and the problem hasn’t been fixed! We have to shut the system down!”

The crowd pushed closer to the lectern, shouting questions and venting to Kim and Flood about being abused by police and corrections staff. 

“I’m tired of being outside the prison protesting!” shouted an elderly woman over the cacophony of frustrated citizens. “I’m tired of it! Do I have to do the commissioners next?”

“Yes!” Flood yelled back. “You should be. You should go after this.”

“This is the purpose of this, to give you all a voice,” said Flood. “What would you have us do? Nothing?”

The frustrations on display at the press conference are emblematic of what’s happening across the commonwealth in smaller communities where George Floyd protests have resulted in little to no change in how police interact with Black or Latino communities, nor in how the media covers them. 

Few cities outside of Philadelphia have implemented significant police reforms. Many departments have created task forces, but with little or no follow up. After almost three weeks of protests in Allentown over a police officer’s use of force against a mentally ill suspect, the city has yet to institute any meaningful changes that the public can look to and say progress is being made. 

Activists fault political leaders for talking a good game but failing to deliver reforms.. 

“This is sugar-coating everything,” said Easter’s mother, Alease Roberts, a Harrisburg resident. She said that police and corrections staff needed to start being held accountable. 

These concerns were echoed during heated arguments at a town hall held two weeks ago in Harrisburg. Community members there became increasingly angry at local leaders who they believed weren’t doing enough to address immediate police reforms.

Harrisburg, for example, saw a full week of demonstrations in the wake of Floyd’s death that included both Gov. Tom Wolf and Harrisburg City Mayor Eric Papenfuse marching alongside protesters who were arguing to defund police and fix the criminal justice system. Since then, Papenfuse has called for more police officers to address the city’s spike in violent crime, but has yet to announce any major reforms of his department to address racial profiling by police. 

At Rep. Kim’s press conference-turned-protest, citizens heatedly declared why they no longer trust their elected officials in the absence of actual reforms being implemented. 

“How do we gain your trust? How do we trust you?” one man said while recording the press conference on his phone. 

Michael Roberts, 26 and recently released from Dauphin County Prison, was watching from the sidelines in his car, but jumped out and interrupted Flood’s speech, getting his attention by calling him a “Brother in a tux.”

“I just buried my friend today,” he screamed at Flood. “And nobody here is talking about how the police killed him. Not you, not the media, nobody! You’re trying to segment this problem.”

Roberts was referring to his friend Wallace Small, who while being chased by police on July 24 ran a red light and died in the resulting accident. The local media covered Small’s death, with headlines portraying him as a criminal.

Half an hour into the press conference, the crowd had encircled the podium. In the face of the crowd’s anger, Flood called an end to the press conference and walked away. While he was leaving, this reporter caught up to him and asked whether he thought the event was successful in illuminating what sort of criminal justice reforms are needed. 

“Someone said it earlier, it’s about trust,” he said. “We need to build it somehow. This will do that by giving citizens representation.”

As he walked away, some members of the crowd gathered and gave each other hugs,  reassuring each other that someday, at some point, change might come. 

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