Protesters seeking justice, reform ask “Where is the love?” on Valentine’s Day in Lancaster

Signs at the Where is the Love protest in Lancaster, Pa. on Sunday, 2/14/21 (Capital-Star photo by Lauren Manelius)

LANCASTER, Pa.  — A group of about two-dozen citizens calling themselves “The Love Coalition” gathered at the Lancaster County Courthouse on Sunday to call on the city to better address the needs of average residents by implementing swift reforms, particularly to the prison and police systems. 

“At this point we have about eight or nine juveniles incarcerated in Lancaster County Prison,” Jessica Lopez, a co-organizer of the rally, said. “We have children incarcerated in Lancaster County Prison, suffering, in a pandemic, in conditions that aren’t feasible for adults. Where is the love in that?”

The Capital-Star reached out to Lancaster County Prison to verify the number of juveniles housed in the facility, but was told it could not verify or deny this claim until the warden returns to work on Tuesday.

In outlining problems with the criminal justice system, Lopez juxtaposed her treatment after being arrested in September 2020, after a protest about the police shooting of Lancaster city resident Ricardo Muñoz, to that of Riley Jean Williams, a Mechanicsburg resident who allegedly entered the U.S. Capitol illegally on Jan. 6 and stole Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s laptop with the intention of selling it to the Russian government.

Lopez was initially charged with two felonies and seven misdemeanors and held on $250,000 bail. 

After her case attracted the attention of the  state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union,, a different judge dropped several charges and released her seven days later on unsecured bond, placing her under home confinement. Williams is currently charged with two federal felonies and two misdemeanors, and was released on unsecured bond in her mother’s care after three days.

“Our jail system deteriorates and dehumanizes people on a mass scale. Our police system terrorizes people. They’re not here to protect and serve. They’re here to tax and collect. They’re here to make sure they get every penny out of the brown dollar that they can. They’re here to make sure we’re in the system, and not in those board rooms, addressing the real problems,” Lopez said. “We’re here to remind them that there is a real problem. Our brown faces remind them that their problem is this. And years and years of systemic oppression have added up to the issues that we have today. Keep band-aiding problems, we’ll keep bleeding from our wounds.”

Protesters release balloons during the ‘Where is the Love’ protest in Lancaster, Pa. on Sunday, 2/14/21 (Capital-Star photo by Lauren Manelius).

“I’m here on behalf of my ancestors, the ones who laid down and died for us, paving our way,” said coalition speaker Jerona Rokins, a minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church, who opened her remarks with a spirited prayer. “This is our life and we’re tired.”

The group later moved to Penn Square, where volunteers set up a distribution center to give bagged lunches, Valentine’s Day candy and cards, and cold weather gear to unhoused city residents. 

Kascena Thomas, a Harrisburg resident, spoke there about what she said are unsafe conditions for inmates at Pennsylvania prisons. 

Her husband, Kasine “Mitch” Thomas, contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated at SCI-Mahanoy, a 1,000-bed medium-security prison in Schuylkill County. At the time, its inmate population was estimated at 2,264 people. 

Kasine Thomas died on Nov.  23, 2020, at age 33. He was about three-and-a-half years into a 5- to 10-year sentence for illegally possessing a firearm, Kascena Thomas told the Capital-Star.

“They failed to protect and treat him,” Thomas said at the rally. “We need to be their voice, because if we don’t, they’ll die in there.”

Her husband had called her approximately two weeks before his death to tell her he wasn’t feeling well, Thomas told the Capital-Star. 

She says he requested medical attention for several days before being sent to the infirmary, and was told to drink more water in the interim. It was only after his entire cell block reported feeling ill, she says, that they were tested for COVID-19. Her husband told her that all of the inmates on his block tested positive.

Thomas told the Capital-Star that she called every day to check on her husband, but was told on most days that they’re “dealing with a lot of people” and couldn’t provide any current information. He was put on observation at the infirmary when his oxygen levels dipped below normal, and when his condition worsened, was sent the next day to Lehigh Valley Hospital – Schuylkill, she said. 

The last time she spoke to him, Thomas told the Capital-Star, was shortly before he was transferred to the hospital. 

“The last conversation … he was in so much pain that the last words I keep hearing him say were that he did not wish that pain on anyone, and that the way they were treating them in there was so horrible,” she said.

Thomas now runs a support group on Facebook for individuals who have lost a loved one to COVID-19. Many of the group’s members are the family of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania, she said, and they share information on prison conditions, and help families who can’t afford  the high cost of inmate calls by relaying updates.

Thomas told the Capital-Star that her husband said pandemic precautions are not being followed at SCI-Mahanoy, and that individuals in her Facebook group report similar conditions at prisons across the state. Protocol for quarantining new inmates isn’t being followed, she says, and inmates who test positive for the coronavirus are housed with those who test negative.

LaRock Hudson, an activist with Unite Central PA, spoke about what he says citizens should do to make policy changes within local government.

“We need to build the system we need, so we don’t have to come to the center of town to ask, ‘Where is the love?’” Hudson said. “Right now in Lancaster we have a unique opportunity to bring marginalized people to the surface. It takes an alliance. When we stand out here we’re not echoing through the halls of power, because it starts on these streets. When the people realize we have power, we’ll have a revolution.”

Coalition speakers listed examples of what they view as recent failures of local and state government, including the closure of the community hospital known as “St. Joseph’s,” and the use of about $1 billion of Pennsylvania’s federal coronavirus relief — meant for initiatives such as rent relief and support for small businesses and their employees — to finish funding the state budget, in particular payroll for the state Department of Corrections.

“There’s no love in Lancaster city,” said Lopez, gesturing to one of the large personalized hearts hanging from a nearby lamppost, an annual Valentine’s Day initiative of the Lancaster Penn Square Rotary Club. “Brackets, bolts, screws, and washers to hold up hearts over homeless people’s heads. There’s the love our city shows us.”

The group concluded its event by distributing hot dinners to unhoused individuals in Binns Park. The meals were provided by Micky’s Mission of Hope, a group dedicated to feeding and caring for the houseless population in Lancaster, according to its Facebook page.

Correspondent Lauren Manelius covers Lancaster County for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @El_Manels.