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CITIZEN OF THE YEAR AWARDS: Robert Saleem Holbrook

The A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Social Justice Champion spent 27 years in prison before a Supreme Court ruling set him free. Now, he teaches about criminal justice at Penn and heads the Abolitionist Law Center

CITIZEN OF THE YEAR AWARDS: Robert Saleem Holbrook

The A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Social Justice Champion spent 27 years in prison before a Supreme Court ruling set him free. Now, he teaches about criminal justice at Penn and heads the Abolitionist Law Center

When A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. was just 17, he started college. When Robert Saleem Holbrook was just 17, he started a life sentence in prison for a crime he committed when he was 16.

Higginbotham went on to become chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, an adjunct professor at Penn and an international civil rights champion.

Holbrook went on to spend the next 27 years in prison, including 10 years in solitary confinement. It wasn’t until 2018, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled life sentences for minors unconstitutional, that Holbrook was released.

In a fitting crossing of paths, Holbrook thinks about Higginbotham every time he comes to work at Penn Carey Law School, where he passes Higginbotham’s portrait on his way to teach a course in Community Lawyering and the Fight to End Mass Incarceration.

“There’s a long hallway and, as at many universities, there are so many portraits of old White men,” he says. “One day I was walking down the hall and was like Damn, who is this guy with the ’fro and the brown skin? I looked closer, and it said Justice Higginbotham. Here was a man I’d learned so much about for his commitment to protecting people’s civil rights.”

“I didn’t have to go to law school to know that life without parole was unjust.” — Robert Saleem Holbrook

Holbrook is now executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), a 10-year-old public interest law firm working to dismantle the carceral state as we know it and raise awareness about the injustices of so many of our public systems. The ALC emerged from advocacy started by the Human Rights Coalition, an organization Holbrook co-founded while incarcerated, along with other people in solitary confinement and their families on the outside. Bret Grote, ALC’s Legal Director, had been a member of HRC’s Pittsburgh Chapter since 2008. He and Holbrook started corresponding when Holbrook was incarcerated at SCI-Greene, which is 45 minutes from Pittsburgh.

Holbrook was released on February 20, 2018. His first day at ALC was March 1, working as a paralegal and community organizer.

For his commitment to social justice, Holbrook is The Citizen’s first-ever recipient of the A. Leon Higginbotham Social Justice Champion of the Year Award. Holbrook, along with 10 other astounding Philadelphians, will be honored at a celebration on January 30 where MSNBC’s Ali Velshi will hold a conversation with actor/activist George Takei about the critical importance of civic participation.

Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce

A calling for life

“Justice Higginbotham and I have very different vantage points, but we were/are both focused on protecting people’s civil rights,” Holbrook says. “I’m using the tools of this system to liberate people, to lessen and weaken police powers. And he was using the system to try and help from the inside as much as he could to protect people’s civil rights.”

Lauren Fine, co-founder of Philly’s Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP) and now Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and the Supervising Attorney of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Duke Law School, worked on Holbrook’s Mitigation Report and says she was was honored to partner with him on his case, and on advocacy and policy reform in his role at ALC.

Fine first knew Holbrook only through her friendship with his sister, Anita, who tirelessly fought for his freedom — and others like him. Then she got to know him on his own.

“During those many years when he was incarcerated, Saleem impressed me with his intelligence, empathy, keen insights into our justice and carceral systems and the ways they oppress people. He understood the larger context and always connected his own struggle with historic and contemporary movements for freedom and justice,” she says.

Once he came home, Holbrook — unsurprisingly, Fine says — continued his fight for human rights. “He has been a teacher and a friend to me, and so many others. He is brilliant, passionate, compassionate and righteously indignant about the injustice that our ‘justice’ system perpetuates in all our names,” she says.

A Philadelphia boyhood

The call to protect civil rights harks back to Holbrook’s upbringing, growing up on Fairmount Avenue and Spring Garden Street. His mother graduated top of her class from Temple University with a degree in psychology and went into social work. “She was a radical feminist who supported the civil rights movement and was a fierce anti-apartheid activist,” he says.

His father was functionally illiterate. “He wanted to join the Black Panther Party, but he couldn’t because he couldn’t read or write.” Instead, he joined Wheels of Soul, the outlaw motorcycle club.

“He is brilliant,  passionate, compassionate and righteously indignant about the injustice that our ‘justice’ system perpetuates in all our names.” — Lauren Fine, co-founder, Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project

Before Holbrook was kicked out in fifth grade, he went to Catholic school, where he says he learned lifelong lessons: about discipline, yes, but also about racism and fighting and power. Ultimately, the streets and the drug game called him. “I deviated from the values that I had at home,” he says. On his 16th birthday, he was arrested.

While incarcerated, he was mentored by political prisoners who set him on a path of learning the law. “I didn’t have to go to law school to know that life without parole was unjust,” Holbrook says. “I saw every day that this legal system was not helping us. I saw what it did not just to me, but to hundreds of children who were sentenced to life without parole. I went to sleep at night hearing kids getting beat up or raped, and having to sharpen my toothbrush into a knife to protect myself.”

Changing the system

He learned how the law could be used to oppress communities. “But I also saw that it had liberating qualities, that it could set me free,” he says.

His students at Penn Carey Law School see it too: He’s been teaching for three years now, having started in the role after presenting in classrooms there. Of the three dozen students he’s taught, many have gone on to intern with ALC. One is currently a full-time staffer, as an attorney. Several others volunteer on compassionate release cases, and the issues of ending both solitary confinement and life without parole litigation.

ALC has litigated extensively to end solitary confinement for death row. They’ve brought home people who have been in prison for decades. And they’ve raised public awareness about the inhumanity of life sentences, and how mass incarceration is tied into so many other issues: disinvestment in public education, mass unemployment, mental health trauma, lack of access to universal healthcare and childcare and living wages and home ownership.

The first case ALC filed was to get Russell Maroon Shoatz, a mentor of Holbrook’s, out of 22 consecutive years of solitary confinement. The second case ALC filed was to represent Holbrook in a censorship lawsuit against the Department of Corrections. ALC also represented Holbrook in another censorship lawsuit, along with Mumia Abu Jamal, when the state legislature sought to strip prisoners of the ability to write articles. ALC won all three lawsuits. (Money from the censorship lawsuit settlement was used to pay Holbrook’s salary when he first started at ALC.)

“These systems have created horrible conditions that many people are living under, which is why we have to start from scratch and build new ones,” Holbrook says. Recently, he testified in Geneva, Switzerland, before the United Nations Human Rights Committee about the inhumanities of the U.S. prison system.

“I want to dismantle the system, Justice Higginbotham was tied to the system,” Holbrook says. “However we both recognize the need to engage the system in order to help people.”

Robert Saleem Holbrook is one of 11 Philadelphians who will be honored on January 30 at the inaugural Citizen of the Year Awards, featuring MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in conversation with actor and activist George Takei. To buy individual tickets for $500 each, please click here. If your company or organization would like to sponsor the event or purchase seats for a full or half table, please contact [email protected] . We’d love to see you there!


Robert Saleem Holbrook.

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