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Law Center Co-Founder Dedicates Every Day To Defending The Incarcerated

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Bret Grote leans back in his Regent Square office on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, surrounded by letters, clippings and reams of paper dedicated to providing a better life for his clients.

It's possible that Bret Grote gets more mail from state prison inmates than anyone else in Pittsburgh.

As the co-founder and legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, he says he is “dedicated to the abolition of race- and class-based mass incarceration.”

The non-profit law firm provides legal services for people who are incarcerated.

“It could be anything from inappropriate or non-existent medical care, to conditions of solitary confinement that cause extreme psychological and other injury, to acts of censorship in the prisons," Grote said. "Anything that occurs inside of the institutions that violates a person’s constitutional or statutory rights."

Grote spoke with 90.5 WESA's Mark Nootbaar about how he got started with the ALC and how he chooses his cases. 

On the founding of the center with Dustin McDaniel in 2013 when Grote was still in law school at the University of Pittsburgh:

“It grew out of work I had been doing since 2007 with the Human Right Coalition, which lead me to law school … What drives us is a recognition of the way that the system of policing, surveillance of poor communities and communities of color and the system of mass incarceration is fundamental for keeping an unequal and oppressive social system intact. And in order to fight for broader changes throughout the society and to fight for social justice there needs to be a very central focus on the role that policing and imprisonment plays in those particular communities.”

On how the center decides which letters it can respond to with legal help:

“One of our central priorities is solitary confinement. Solitary confinement (often for years at a time) has really grown in correlation with the rise of mass incarceration ... It is one of the ways that prison officials cause the most damage and the most trauma to those who are incarcerated. Another area of high concern for us right now is hepatitis-C… The problem that jails and prisons have is that they have a disproportionate number of individuals who are infected with hepatitis-C. So providing treatment to cure all those individuals would literally break their (the prison’s) budgets, but not providing treatment and allowing people to suffer from a progressive illness… is cruel and unusual punishment… And another major priority is life without parole.”

On working with grassroots organizations to pass legislation to end sentences of life without parole:

“It has to be integrated with challenges to other aspects of economic and social policy in the country. Just organizing around criminal legal reforms alone is going to be politically adequate to deal with the problem. You have to deal with the fundamental disempowerment of communities of color and poor communities who have been shut out from decision making in the economic and political arenas."

Bret Grote speaks about his group's work with inmates suffering from Hepatitis C.