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Obituary: Carl Upchurch / Prisoner advocate whose life was subject of Showtime movie

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By Jim McKinnon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With a life that began with one foot in a cell and the other on an oil slick, it surprised no one that Carl Upchurch eventually went to prison. That he went through the system is a testament to what turned out to be his life's work and the legacy he has left behind.

He spent four years at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, better known as Western Penitentiary, where he birthed the ideas that led to his vocation as a prisoner advocate. He also returned to Pittsburgh in 1994 to orchestrate the city's first-ever gang peace summit.

Mr. Upchurch died May 2 at his home in Bexley, Ohio. He was 53. His wife, Andrea Santoni Upchurch, said he had been ill that day. The results of tests are pending.

Since 1982, Mr. Upchurch tended to the needs of thousands through his work with prisoners, his public speaking, his writing and his leadership. His ideas on prison reform inspired him to found the Progressive Prisoners' Movement in the mid-1980s.

Kenneth Davenport, a friend and fellow inmate at Western Penitentiary, said Mr. Upchurch made important contributions to improving the criminal justice system, including work with the American Friends Service Committee.

"His single most novel idea was the establishment of the Progressive Prisoners' Movement," Davenport said. "He was always very serious, committed and as thorough as he could be."

Mr. Upchurch was awarded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's National Peace Award and the Fellowship of Reconciliation's Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Award in 1988 for his work with the Progressive Prisoners' Movement.

In 1992, Mr. Upchurch, along with Khalid Raheem, co-founded the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice, which is still headquartered in Pittsburgh.

"Many of the ideas and things we had worked on, we worked on years and years ago when we were younger in a whole different environment," Raheem, the council's president, said yesterday. "It was a blessing to be able to do some of the things we had talked about years before."

The organization held its first national gang peace summit in 1993 in Kansas City, Mo., a year before the march against gang warfare came through Pittsburgh. The events have been credited with curbing the incidence of gang-related violence in cities across the nation.

In 1993, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition awarded Mr. Upchurch its National Humanitarian Award.

Mr. Upchurch's 1996 autobiography, "Convicted in the Womb," was made into the Showtime cable movie, "Convicted," which premiered last year, starring Omar Epps and Mr. Upchurch. The film garnered an NAACP Image Award nomination.

Andrea Upchurch said yesterday that she has been strengthened by how their children reacted to the news of their father's death.

Quoting one of her daughters, she said, " 'Mom, it's not that I'm sad he's gone. Dad did what he was meant to do on this earth.' I take great strength from that in these days of grief. He was a man with a very specific, powerful calling and he responded."

Mr. Upchurch was a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and he did graduate work at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Ind., and at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Bexley.

Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Mikayla, Kiana and Mia; his mother, Clementine Upchurch of Philadelphia; three sisters, Janet McGill and Stella and Dorothy Upchurch, and a brother, Drew Upchurch, all of Philadelphia.

Memorial contributions may made to the Upchurch Children's Trust, c/o Morris, 125 W. 76th St., No. 9A, New York, NY 10023.

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