Opinions: Commutation and Update on Lifer’s Bill

Commutation Update with focus on women

This was written geared to people in prison in mid December by Ellen Melchiando with input from etta cetera.

There has been a lot of media and excitement surrounding the changes made to the commutation process over the past year by Lt. Governor John Fetterman. November saw a historic number (21) of public hearings of people with life sentences. For the last 30 years it felt promising if there were 6 life sentence cases up for merit review a year,  let alone more than 2 for public hearings total! Naomi Blount and George Trudell, both recently commuted from life sentences were hired by the Lt Governor as commutation specialists. Brandon Flood, a returning citizen, was hired as the Secretary of the Board of Pardons and according to friends and family members, he’s doing a great job! There is talk of changing the unanimous vote at the public hearing stage from 5 to 4 votes. People are coming home! 

Naomi Blount speaking in Pittsburgh on October 19, 2019

Despite the progress, which is unquestionably important and exciting, the outcomes of merit reviews and public hearings for women seeking commutation has been disappointing.

In 2018, the previous makeup of the board of pardons resulted in the votes for recommending Tina Brosius and she made it successfully with Governor Wolf’s signature. She was the first woman in PA to receive commutation in 30 years.

This year we have had 6 women make it to the public hearing stage. The current members of the BOP have commuted two: Naomi Blount and Magaleen Stewart. As you know both Henrietta Harris and Cynthia Gonzalez’s applications have been resting in the mysterious “reconsideration” pause pile.  Naomi was recommended in May and released in July. Magaleen and Naomi are now both in Philly at the same facility. They are allowed to sign out from 7am – 7pm and need permission to leave the city. They are very strict about people spending the night out though they made exceptions for this recent holiday – for Naomi.

A recent change in the process is that the DOC Office of Pardons Specialists will not be representing lifers at public hearings. This job falls to a staff person at the prison.  This doubly places the importance in having the institution’s recommendation. We witnessed these changes to the process at Magaleen Stewart and Terri Harper’s public hearing. SCI Muncy’s Deputy Frantz spoke to the board in support of Terri’s release.  SCI Muncy’s Superintendent Wendy Nicholas spoke in support of Magaleen Stewart.

What if a staff person supports the applicant but the institution as a whole doesn’t? Will they break from their superiors and support this person at a public hearing? This scenario is possible.  What if the culture within a prison doesn’t support a second chance for lifers and long-termers?

Each applicant gets “staffed” by their prison. This “staffing” is also called The Special Review Committee and is generally one or two deputy superintendents, a Major of Unit Management, or a Corrections Classification Program Manager or whoever is designated by the superintendent. The Facility Managers at Muncy and Cambridge Springs are Superintendents Wendy Nicholas and Lonnie Oliver respectively. A person can also request a supportive staff person to be included too.

A note about the video interviews with Wetzel before the Merit Review: Secretary Wetzel instituted the policy of interviewing applicants before the merit review. There is nothing in policy mandating the Secretary to conduct video interviews with people in prison.  This is his policy and this could be discontinued by the next secretary one day. The secretary makes the ultimate decision by the Department of Corrections to recommend or not recommend an applicant for commutation. Your application will not get to the merit review until this interview happens.

After a person passes the merit review, they are moved to SCI Camp Hill for an in-person interview a few days before the hearings. One last noted change is that the prison staff person who supports the applicant at the public hearing will be attending the in-person interview at Camp Hill.

Take a look at the DOC policy on commutation at your law library: 11.4.1

At the September hearings, there was a surprise break from protocol, the Lieutenant Governor spotted Naomi Blount in the audience and asked her to speak on behalf of Magaleen! She did this by walking up to the members on the dais and spoke lovingly of Maggie. Then at the end of the hearing, the Attorney General rushed down from the dais to give Naomi a hug along with wishes for her continued success!  This was indeed surprising and proves that things can change. It also demonstrates how much power people have- it turns out you can just call someone you see in the audience to testify!

One of the most challenging aspects for women lifers (and men, too) who are pursuing commutation is to explain the role they played in the crime. It is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission. The other challenges are knowing how much to share about what led up to the crime. For women in general, this cannot be omitted or separated. That’s my opinion. Since the Board of Pardons doesn’t tell us what swayed them to vote for or against an applicant, a 360 degree perspective is owed to the process. It really is up to women lifers to educate the board of the unique crimes that they find themselves convicted of. It’s a balancing act. You want to provide context for your situation without excusing or diminishing your role.

Currently we are tracking outcomes of staffing, merit reviews and public hearings based on the generalization of the type of criminal convictions of women: battered women, arson, infanticide, trafficking, mental illness, law enforcement, 2nd degrees, DNA conflicts, the family, as well as time served, institutional support or lack of, and “escapes.”

The application was recently revamped again. All applications in 2020 must use this new one. There aren’t any major changes for lifers, so no new information is required but you are required to submit the latest version of the application. Nothing to sweat here! Get the application at the law library.

You can request an application by writing to Board of Pardons 333 Market Street. 15th Floor.

Harrisburg, PA 17126. It takes 3 weeks. Include your name and DOC number or check the law library. Don’t forget this: if you have a negative outcome at the merit review, submit the official Reconsideration form within 30 days.

To make sure your application gets reviewed by the current Board of Pardons who will be presiding until 2022, we are ESTIMATING that you try to get your applications in by July of 2020 at the latest. This is us guessing. You should technically be able to be heard if you submit up until December 2020 but you know how things go. Everything is always getting pushed back. There is a rumor that they are creating 6 – 9 new dates for public hearings, currently there are 4 dates a year. This would help with the increased number of applications and give you a better chance to go before this board.

What kind of support do your family and close friends need to prepare for the public hearing? Let us know. Encourage them to reach out to us if they have questions or just want some moral support. We want to be there for you. This is a link to the full day of public hearings in May  This at least lets you know what to expect. Below is a shorter video highlighting Naomi Blount’s hearing of the same day.

The 2020 dates for merit reviews and public hearings have yet to be posted.

Update: During the December 20th hearings of those sentenced with LWOP – 2 were recommended for commutation, 3 were held under advisement, 12 were not recommended, 1 was continued under advisement and 1 case was not heard and continued. Of the two recommended – Oliver Macklin, 63 years old, served 33 years of a 2nd degree charge. Fred Butler, 72 years old, served 49 years on a 1st degree charge. The longest sentence 49 years and shortest sentence 23 years.  We were very disappointed that many deserving applicants were denied including both Sheena King and Henrietta Harris.

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A Bill’s Path to Law, An Update on the PA Lifers Bill by Jane Hein

Two bills exist that deal with parole for Lifers: HB135 and SB942. The bills are exactly the same but HB135 is a house bill and SB942 is a senate bill. Advocates are choosing to focus on the senate bill, SB942, because the senate is smaller than the house (50 Senators vs 435 Representatives) and it will be an easier task to convince less elected officials at first.

Shandre Delany, Saundra Cole, etta cetera, Ngani Ndimbie, Donna Hill at CADBI rally

To become law, a bill must be voted on and passed by a committee. In the case of SB942, that would be the Senate Judiciary Committee. Fourteen senators serve on this committee, (vs 25 representatives on the House Judiciary) nine republicans and five democrats. It is up to the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Lisa Baker, to decide to hold a vote on any bill before her committee. But a vote should not be called for until enough members of the committee favor the bill. When a vote is held and the bill is passed by the committee, the bill would then go before the whole senate for a vote and if passed by the senate, the bill would go to the house for a vote. Only after passing the committee, senate and house does the bill go to the Governor for signature and only then does it become law.

The legislative branches, Senate and House of Representatives, have two year terms. This means that with each election, every two years, bills have to be re-submitted to wherever the bill is in the process (committee, senate, or house) in order to continue on the path to becoming law. SB942 was quietly re-submitted to the senate judiciary committee on November 12, 2019. It has until January of 2021 to make headway before it will need to be re-submitted again.

The bill essentially changes the parole board statues to allow the parole board to consider parole for life sentences. By PA statue, a sentence cannot be changed, but the PA statues do not say that life sentences cannot be paroled. So if a life sentenced is paroled, the parolee would have to be on parole for life.

Changes were made to SB942 when it was re-submitted last month. In a nut shell, Lifers convicted of first degree murder could be paroled after 35 years. Lifers convicted of second degree murder could be paroled after 25 years. Lifers convicted of killing a cop in the first degree would not be eligible for parole.

So here’s the deal. Advocates will continue to fight for the passage of this bill while continuing to advocate for earlier parole eligibility, say 15 years as the bill was previously submitted. The path to becoming law is a long one and there will be plenty of opportunities to advocate for changing the bill. The path to law is long and hard but do not be discouraged. Five years ago we had no bill! Change is happening because we are putting pressure on politicians, supporting pro-reform candidates in elections, and rallying in Harrisburg! WE WILL NOT STOP!

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Report Back from Rally to End Death by Incarceration and Heal Our Communities – October 23, 2019 by etta cetera 

This now-annual fall gathering in support of legislation changing the laws for lifers has the feeling of reunion for many. Recently released connect with old friends from the inside and people across the state who don’t see each other on the day to day get to hug, commiserate and rejuvenate. This year we brought back singing. After the usual impassioned and insightful speeches by lawmakers, returning citizens, family members, etc. at the podium, surrounded by hundreds of supporters with colorful signs, we lifted our voices harmonizing for redemption throughout the halls. The capitol building’s grand structure creates acoustics that bounce off the high ceilings and reverberate through our bodies. It’s quite moving. This coming together of like-hearted souls singing into the suit-wearing faces at the capitol. We wound back to the steps where an altar had been set up for anyone who had lost someone to violence to place a flower. This rally is a great place for someone who is looking to start participating in our movement to come. You feel the power of the collective. You feel less alone. In addition to all the good it does for the legislation, rallies like this keep us, on the outside, fighting another day. Accolades to the Philly coalition for all their stalwart efforts in pulling this off every year.

October 23, 2019 Photo by NateArt

 

Welcome to Pittsburgh Tamie!

“Everybody in Pittsburgh is in a hurry to go nowhere fast.” — Tamie Gates

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Tamie Gates pictured in front of the  Allegheny River and a train bridge.

On October 16, Tamie Gates moved to Pittsburgh after serving 27 years in PA prisons, mostly at Cambridge Springs.

Tamie Gates spoke with Alan Lewandowski about coming home.

LGF: What would you want to tell someone planning to come home?

Tamie: If possible, make sure you get some computer classes before you get your release.

Even so, what you really need is internet classes. At the moment, those are not offered, and it is a disservice that it is not provided. I have a fair amount of computer literacy and it’s still a big adjustment for me coming out here where everything is on a computer.  Get as much computer experience as you can.

Also, if you’re relocating to a new area, get as much information about the area as you can before your release. It would be great if you are able to get street maps.

The prison really doesn’t prepare you to be successful out in the world, and it is not the concern of the institution.

LGF: So you can’t get maps on the inside?

Tamie: You can look at the atlas in the library or look at a globe. But there is no way to get street maps and bus maps that will actually show where you will be living and need to go, which would be very valuable tools for preparation.

Another thing is be prepared to be thrifty.

I took a money smart class at Cambridge Springs before I left, but they should do a re-entry class demonstrating to people the prices of objects in the outside world.  So you can understand ahead of time how much you’ll need to budget for the things you might need.

Or you can just shop at the dollar store.

LGF: What prices shocked you the most?

Tamie: A gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, and the cost of lunch meat- even baloney.  Who knew it could be so high for baloney- $5 a package?- that’s crazy. At the same time prepare yourself to be very patient, because things don’t move as fast as you think they will, and it could take you quite a while to acquire a job.

LGF: What are the biggest challenges in the job search?

Tamie: The internet.  There is a lack of hand-written applications, and everywhere you go someone says “Apply online. Apply online!!!” Apply online means expect to spend an hour and a half on the computer, and you’ll hear back in a month.  Be prepared to be patient.

In general, prepare as much as possible before you come home.  Prepare for what you don’t think is going to happen. Get all your various resumes as ready as you can.

LGF: You have been volunteering regularly at two local shelters.  What drew you to this kind of service.

Tamie: Because Felicia Chapman was part of the women’s shelter, and she used to come to see me at Cambridge Springs; and my friend Sharon Webb is part of the Shepherd’s Heart church.

Knowing those two people connected me directly to that aspect of community work.

I’ve always been a caretaker by nature, and while incarcerated I always participated in the various community projects we did up there.  So it was natural for me to want to get involved with giving back to the community here; and I have two opportunities to do this; for the veterans and the homeless.

LGF: You told friends at Cambridge Springs that you wanted to buy a lottery ticket when you came out.  Have you bought one yet?

Tamie: Yes.  One. Just because I could. It was a wasted dollar. But if I had won $500, it wouldn’t have been.


Post Script: Tamie brought to our attention that the alloted time for meds after you are released is not enough. The prison will give you 30 days of your prescription. What they didn’t factor in is that it takes more than 30 days to sign up for health care, make a doctors appointment and get your prescription filled. Only if you hotfoot it to get signed up can you manage it just under the wire. 2 months would be sufficient. This is something to ask prison officials about and try to get this policy changed.

FREE HER National Conference brings people together!

Free Her is a yearly conference sponsored by the National Council for Formerly Incarcerated and Incarcerated Women and Girls. Each year it brings people from across the country and even the world in one place to learn from each other, share stories & strategies and heal.  Last October, the conference was held in Montgomery, Alabama and kicked off with a tour of the Legacy Museum.

48 workshops were presented and several plenaries!! Some of the topics included were: reproductive justice, how to apply for clemency, healing with family after incarceration, climate change and prisons, sister circles  and the power of research. Susan Burton Brown was there leading a conversation about housing! Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP) in the house! The opening panel was international featuring participants from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and conference founder Andrea James was there reppin’ the U.S – all talking about how to connect with Sisters Overseas.

Ronna Davis at Free Her Conference

Our very own Ronna Davis attended this year’s conference. She reflects, “We got in that room and there was so much power. We could feel it. People like me, who knew where I was coming from. It’s so important to see women with their heads held high, formerly incarcerated people who are lawyers, who are running business, who are RNs, who got their lives back. Sometimes you don’t know why you do what your doing you just do it.  And then you go to a conference like Free Her and it all makes sense.”

Ronna was really moved by the powerful performance of “The Graduates.” This ensemble is comprised of former members of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) Drama Club. Ronna reported, “All of the women had white on. One of the older women told her story – she was dancing to her own story. You could see the excitement in her dance. They all sang their stories.  It showed the unity of the women that were incarcerated.”

Another local Free Her attendee, Terri Minor Spencer has been home for 12 years and Pittsburgh hasn’t been the same since. She is 100%  devoted to educating her community on the political process and taking action to solve problems she sees in her neighborhood.

Terri writes,  “I hosted a workshop on Community Educational Civics. The whole weekend was nothing less than Amazing, the unity under one roof, my heart swelled with joy! I learned from some awesome women about the importance of staying in the fight! I’m looking forward to the next one!”

Sometime after the conference one of the participants of Terri’s workshop reached out to her and is considering running for office!! Build that civic power Terri!!

Terri Minor Spencer, pictured top row 4th in from left with other FREE Her participants

The following reflections are from people on the National Council’s email list:

“I have been home for 11 1/2 years after serving 20, what struck me profoundly was sitting in space with women that experienced what I had experienced, and hearing my emotions come from another’s mouth. Being at the conference was the next step of my freedom being real.” — Dana Jenkins, Director of Operations for Second Chance Center in Colorado

“I met Andrea James when the Council was in its infancy. I was serving a 55 year sentence in an Indiana women’s prison. I began speaking at the Council’s event while still on the inside via Skype. This past Feb. the federal court overturned my conviction, not only granting my equitable tolling (the statue that bars filing in the fed court due to missing the 365 day deadline) they also granted my habeas corpus. I am the first woman in modern times to do this (look up my case and PLEASE share it with ANY woman who can legally benefit from the precedents set within or argument grounds). I was released on 27 Aug 2019 after serving 18 1/2 years of that sentence. On 3 Oct 2019 (my birthday) I headed to AL to attend the conference, for the first time in person, meeting all my Council sisters in the flesh for the first time. There are no words to describe that joy and emotional flood! I was HOME! THIS IS MY FAMILY!!!! Blessings to ALL my sisters, especially those on the inside. NEVER give up hope and NEVER stop fighting for your freedom. I have literally done what everyone said was impossible, so can you. Believe in yourself. I am out here continuing the fight for all the rest of you. For years I have told people to call me Moses, I swear I’m coming to set the captives free. Blessed Be! Infinite love and gratitude always.” — Anastazia “Moses” Schmid, Indiana

“I was sentenced to state prison for a substance disorder for a short time. I then fought for years to get my 3 daughters back from the system.  Compared to many of the women I have had the honor of meeting at the two conventions I attended, I was humbled and inspired beyond words. These women became my shero’s, real-life superwomen.   It was like a family reunion, education, and healing retreat. Taz, Mother Phyllis, I love all of you. Thank you for everything. The convention simply gave me a sense of pride I did not know was inside of me. Incarceration cannot stop true leaders! So grateful for all of you! #Freedom #FreeThemAll” —Cassandra Bensahih, coordinator for the MA Against Solitary Confinement Coalition/UU Mass Action.

“The conference for me was more than I could ever dream or expected it to be. Each day was a different experience. After about the 4th day I was overwhelmed with the resources and all the info that was available to us. After walking into a room with my head hung low with a lot of shame and guilt of the struggles I had gone thru of my incarceration, the guilt of leaving my children to live with family members, the guilt of substance abuse for 15 years. All of the missing – birthdays, graduations, holidays. All of the sessions were informative but the one that struck me the most was the YOUTH. After this session I begin to find a sense of FREEDOM.  To hear the youth share their experience of abandonment. Their experience of parents missing birthdays, graduation and other holidays that we all look forward to. I was able to feel the pain I caused my children. The strength of the youth to stand before hundreds of people to share their deepest pain was awe inspiring. After being out of prison for 6 years, the week of the conference I was finally able to hold my head up, forgive myself, to embrace the forgiveness from my children and to start a new beginning. I was able to take off the mask that I carried for so many years… and begin to live again.” –Royal Johnson,  Board Member of Reforming Arts Reentry Project in Atlanta Ga.

“I KNOW the FREEHER conference is important because women from all over convene to share experience, strength, hope and resources. It’s always a humbling and amazing experience. I thank Andrea James for being such a humble yet fierce leader.

It didn’t take me decades of incarceration to see that the criminal justice system is broken. I did not have proper representation and was offered 2 flat, by the time it was all over I did 3 1/2 years and 8 years on Parole.” – Starr Blue, founded NYC based non profit, STARZ CLOSET in 2009, three years after her release. Starz closet provides gender specific hygiene kits and immediate needs clothing.

Thanks to all the participants for sharing their reflections!

 You can become a member of the Council for just $5 dollars a year. Outside supporters can also sign up people in prison on their website.  https://www.nationalcouncil.us

National Council’s Facebook

Andrea James and Ronna
Andrea James and Ronna Davis Moore

RSVP for Upcoming Events Here

Gallery Hours for Glow Home

October 4th – 26th Gallery Hours are every Thursday thru Saturday 1- 7pm and Sundays 1-4pm

Gallery Hours are suspended during events. Check Boom’s Calendar More info? Contact etta: 443-603-6964

 

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October 12th – 12 – 3pm – Saturday
A 3 hour participatory workshop With Kempis Ghani Songster

The event is free but please rsvp  Sign up on Event Brite Here

Back by popular demand, Ghani Songster returns from Philly to lead an interactive space in effort to free ourselves from the mental chains that inhibit our progress. Ghani believes that our salvation hinges on our ability to liberate our imagination.

Back by popular demand, Ghani Songster returns from Philly to lead an interactive space in effort to free ourselves from the mental chains that inhibit our progress. Ghani believes that our salvation is in the liberation of our imaginations. etta says, “It’s gonna be like going to the gym for your mind.”

Listen to Ghani shares 5 Lessons of the Geese from last years workshop.

Snacks will be provided.


Blountly Speaking:
Lifting Up Women in Prison

Words and Songs by Naomi Blount  Followed by a Panel Discussion:  Impact of DA’s Office on Incarcerated Women with local community leaders.

October 19th – 12pm – 3pm  Saturday @ Boom Concepts 5139 Penn Ave
Free Lunch served at 1 pm

The event is free but please rsvp on Event Brite- Space Limited

Naomi Blount, 69, is the second Pennsylvania woman to receive commutation in nearly three decades after serving 35 years of a life sentence. Released this past July, Naomi will share reflections of her experiences from prison to the commutation process as well as lift up the women she left behind.

Community Dialogue Impact of DA’s Office on Women (1:30pm)

Following lunch, we will convene for a panel discussion to speak on the impact that the DA’s office has on people impacted by the criminal injustice system. This dialogue will be facilitated by Ronna Davis founder of Za’kiyah house and LGF Board member.

Speakers include:

State Rep Summer Lee who recently visited Cambridge Springs Prison and sponsored legislation as a part of the Dignity Act, Gabrielle Monroe, a Sex Workers Rights Advocate & Activist, Members of the Bukit Bail Fund and Jane Hein, LGF Board and member of CADBI-West.

Lisa Middleman, candidate for DA will have time to respond to comments made and there will be time for community participation.

The event will conclude with a musical performance by Naomi Blount.

“Glow Home” Opens October 4th – Event Series Overview

For the 3rd year running, Let’s Get Free teams up with Boom Concepts for a prison justice art fundraiser and series of events. 

Artists were asked to create work around the ideas of home and relationships to create a show that encapsulates the feeling of home: What does home look like? Feel like? A space? A state of mind? 

The call was to create things that literally glowed. People were encouraged to create work with ships and pun off concepts like relationSHIP, friendSHIP, leaderSHIP, etc.

Glow Home is an homage to friends old and new recently released from prison and a prayer that our loved ones still behind bars will be home soon. There will be an altar where you can leave something for a loved one who you wish to come home. 

Over 60 artists from both sides of the prison walls have submitted provocative pieces utilizing ceramics, photography, textiles, beadwork, silk screen, collage, stained glass, digital drawing, water colors etc. There are close to 100 pieces of art up for auction benefiting the work of this local prison advocacy group. The opening and auction will take place on October 4th from 6 – 10pm with the auction closing at 9pm. The show will stay up through October 26th.

Click on photos below a for a quick preview slide show.
Click here for more information on Glow Home

Overview of October Events

Gallery Hours for Glow Home  October 4th – 26th
Gallery Hours are every Thursday thru Saturday 1- 7pm and Sundays 1-4pm
Gallery Hours are suspended during events. Check Boom’s Calendar 

Liberate our Imaginations:  A Vital Step Towards a World Without PrisonsIMG_7463
October 12th – 12 – 3pm – Saturday
A 3 hour participatory workshop With Kempis Ghani Songster & etta cetera

Back by popular demand, Ghani Songster returns from Philly to lead an interactive space in effort to free ourselves from the mental chains  that inhibit our progress. Ghani believes that our salvation hinges on our ability to liberate our imagination. etta says, “It’s gonna be like going to the gym for your mind.” How do we stay connected to the bigger movement of abolition?

Listen to Ghani shares 5 Lessons of the Geese from last years workshop.

The event is free but please rsvp letsgetfreepa@gmail.com
Snacks will be provided


Blountly Speaking:
Lifting Up Women in Prison

Words and Songs by Naomi Blount, (Pending Travel Permission but we are speaking it into existence!) Followed by a Panel Discussion:  Impact of DA’s Office on Incarcerated Women with Lisa Middleman and local community leaders.

October 19th – 12pm – 3pm  Saturday @ Boom Concepts – 5139 Penn Ave
Free Lunch served at 1 pm

Naomi Blount, 69, is the second Pennsylvania woman to receive commutation in nearly three decades after serving 35 years of a life sentence. Released this past July, Naomi will share reflections of her experiences from prison to the commutation process as well as lift up the women she left behind.  Community leaders and Lisa Middleman, candidate for District Attorney, will then convene for a panel to speak on the impact that the DA’s office has on people impacted by the criminal injustice system. The event will conclude with a musical performance by Naomi.

The event is free but please rsvp letsgetfreepa@gmail.com


October Monthly Sustainer Drive

Collective Donations towards Collective Liberation!

Sign Up to be a sustaining donor during the month of October to help us reach our goal of 50 new monthly sustainers! You will receive a special Thank You Gift of your choosing including limited edition artwork or a bouncing baby house plant (Pittsburgh only:)

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Jade and Hoya babies will be gifted to people signing up at levels $ 20 & $25

Monthly sustainers are a critical part of community organizing and help us gather unrestricted funds. This money is used for: direct assistance to people in prison and returning citizens (hard to write a grant for that) stamps, printing newsletters and commutation kits, speaker stypens as well as transportation costs to visit prisons, the state capitol and faraway meetings and conferences. 

Our goal is to sign up: 

20 Sustainers @ $5 a month
15 Sustainers @ $10 a month
10 Sustainers @ $15 a month
5 Sustainers @ $20 a month
5 Sustainers @ $25 a month

If achieved would raise collectively $575 a Month. Simply click the donate button and check the “recurring donation box”


Come to Harrisburg with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration

Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration(CABDI)
Day of Action to End DBI & Heal Communities 
October 23rd – 7am – 7pm Wednesday in Harrisburg
Sign up for Vans from Pittsburgh by filling out this form

Let’s Get Smart Launches Today!

It is proven that access to higher education reduces crime and recidivism. There are currently hundreds of online college level courses free on the internet. Why can’t we figure out a way to get these courses into the prisons?

Let’s Get Smart is a small group of people supporting the ideas of Russell Maroon Shoatz, Brandon Moody and Bray Jibril Murray who are  incarcerated at SCI-Dallas. We believe all people in prison deserve access to higher education regardless of college credit (although that would be nice). Our vision is based upon providing all people in prison including prisoners, correctional, custodial, probation and parole personnel access to 21st century education and training, which is easily accessible and affordable through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), offered by Harvard, MIT, Stanford and a plethora of other prestigious education and training institutions. Join us in bringing this vision to fruition!

Today we have sent letters to both Governor Wolf and Secretary John Wetzel urging them to support and implement these efforts.  Below is our letter to the Governor. Scroll down to check out the amazing list of endorsers. If you would like to endorse please fill out this form

August 6, 2019

Dear Governor Wolf,

Thank you for voicing support for higher education “behind bars” in Pennsylvania’s prison at the recent pre-screening of the documentary “College Behind Bars”.  It’s gratifying to know that both you and Secretary Wetzel are behind the idea of better-preparing those in prison for the day they will be returned to society. We are writing on behalf of a new campaign called Let’s Get Smart. We share similar ideas of education access and safe communities for people in prison. Our goal is to make college level courses available to all prisoners in the PA prison system.

The Bard program in New York State is certainly an impressive example of how to give prisoners access to post-secondary degrees.  We believe that if there were more education in general regardless of class credit or the sentence of student, society both inside and outside of the prison would improve. Many long timers, those with LWOP sentences and “life by numbers” are often excluded from continuing education classes. These very people are often the mentors to many of the young prisoners. Is there not value in allowing them to further their education so that they may be better equipped to mentor? It is also well known that the lifers keep the peace in the prisons. Why not acknowledge this by creating more access to knowledge.

Did you know that Harvard & MIT founded an online platform that offers 1000’s of college- level courses online for free?  These are known as MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses). PA’s own University of Pennsylvania offers MOOC 

Our group is comprised of family members and volunteers who work with people in PA prisons. We have no doubt that there is plenty of interest and ability in our prison populations.

We believe there are innovative ways around a high cost, technology and internet access.  The DOC could implement internet control. For example, a class facilitator would download the course onto a USB drive. The course would be approved by the DOC or facilities security. The class facilitator would show the course to approved students in a classroom setting using monitor. This way you can bypass the need for internet access. All it takes is the motivation to make these already free classes available to people who have a lot of time on their hands and desire to learn.

Whatever technological or security obstacles that may seem daunting can be overcome! We have seen the DOC make very fast and sweeping changes to the prison system. In order to keep the staff and prisoners safe you figured out a way to change the whole statewide mail system in one month! If there is a will, there is a way! And, many institutions set up firewalls to create limited and specific internet access.

But to speak to the point you made the night of the screening,  isn’t this a smarter way to invest in the human potential currently languishing in our prisons?  Mr. Cochran indicated that their program is funded by a combination of public and private resources.  Maybe something similar can be managed in PA.

We would love to meet with you to discuss these ideas. Please connect with us.

Thank you for your time, 

Sharon Shoatz, Sue Wooley and etta cetera

Campaign Coordinators

Endorsers

{Unless listed alone, organizations & institutions are listed for identification purposes.}

Sharif El-Mekki, The Center for Black Educator Development

Lisa B. Freeland, Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Pennsylvania

Jake Goodman, Executive Director, Opportunity Fund

Gabriel Rockhill, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Villanova University

Marie DiLeonardo, Division Manager of the Petey Greene Program

Five Mualimm-ak, President & CEO of The Incarcerated Nation

James Forman Jr., Yale Law School

Jared Ball, Professor of Communication Studies, Morgan State University

Katy Ryan, Professor of English, West Virginia University

Chris Taylor, Associate Professor, University of Chicago

Sandra Joy, Ph.D., LCSW, Professor Rowen University 

Carl Redwood, Adjunct Professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work.

Dov CB Chernomorets, Inside Out Facilitator

Danielle M. Wenner, PhD, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Associate

Director, Center for Ethics & Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

Dan Berger, Associate Professor, University of Washington

Caitlin J. Taylor, Ph.D., La Salle University

Peter Odell Campbell, Assistant Professor of English, University of Pittsburgh

Alison Reed, Assistant Professor of English, Old Dominion University & Director, Humanities Behind Bars

Jasiri X, 1Hood Media

yvette shipman, MA

Priscilla Wahrhaftig

Benjamin Kline , Returning Citizen

Elaine Selan RN, MSN

Bekezela Mguni

Art For Justice

Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project

The Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op 

Alliance for Police Accountability

Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project 

——-

If you would like to join the growing list of endorsers please fill out this form.

Contact us at: letsgetfreepa@gmail.com

Updated Tips for filing Commutation Applications in PA

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Naomi Blount pictured here is the 2nd women in 30 years to receive a commutation of her life sentences. Here she is in Philadelphia shortly after being released. We are so happy for you Naomi!

We just updated our Commutation Kit with the new information from the Board of Pardon (BOP) website.  Essentially, it’s all the information in this post in an easy to print pdf. All the kits have a copy of the new form for appealing merit review or public hearing outcomes.

These tips are tailored for people serving death by incarceration

  • Ideally you would have a lawyer represent you when you get to the public hearing. If you do not have one, Applicants seeking representation should contact: Ross Miller, Interagency Liaison Bureau of Treatment Services Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050  Phone:  717-728-0377
  • When we are trying to find out if our people are up for merit review or what is going on with their application we contact John Johnson, Pardons Case Specialist Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050. Phone: 717-728-0386 johjohnson@pa.gov Let it be known that there is most often incorrect information about who is going up for Merit Review – even if one of the BOP people tell us who is going up. Several times they have listed peoples names and several times they were not on the list. Try to call Johnson the week before the scheduled merit review to obtain the most accurate info.
  • Supporters can now email letters of recommendation to the board of pardons. Contact as of July 2019 is Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov He will distribute the letter to the board and put it in the applicants packet. It’s always important to send a paper copy to your person filing the application.
  • People in prison can get a copy of the application by going through a counselor. People on the outside can also send an application by downloading it through the Board of Pardons website. As of 2019 there are on longer fees associated with this application.  Let’s Get Free can send person in prison an application on request.
  • You can now appeal a negative outcome during the Merit Review phase. You have 30 days to submit a Letter of Reconsideration along with a form you can find on DOC website. Both Naomi Blount and Farouq Wideman were denied at the merit review stage last winter, filed the reconsideration letter, were granted public hearings in May and are now in half way houses as of July 2019 (glory be!) They are part of the 11 people commuted this far under Governor Wolf.

Upcoming Schedule for Board of Pardon Hearings

Thursday, August 8, 2019 – Merit Review Session – Senate Hearing Room – 3:00 p.m. Wednesday, September 11, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 Thursday, September 12, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 Friday, September 13, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. -1:00 p.m. Thursday, November 7, 2019 – Merit Review Session – Senate Hearing Room – 3:00 p.m. Wednesday, December 18, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m.-1:00 Thursday, December 19, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. 1:00 p.m. Friday, December 20, 2019 – Public Hearing – Supreme Courtroom – 9:00 a.m. and 1:00

NOTE:  The Public Hearings & Merit Review Sessions are NOT held at the Board of Pardons office.

  • The Public Hearings are held in the Supreme Court Courtroom, Main Capitol Building, Capitol Rotunda, Room 437, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
  • The Merit Review Sessions are held in the Senate Hearing Room, 8A East Wing, Capitol Building, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
  • Scheduled Merit Review Sessions and Public Hearings are subject to change as deemed necessary by the Board.

Tips for writing a commutation application during the Wolf administration Updated July 2019 By Ellen Melchiondo, The Women’s Lifer Resume Project

The new commutation application is free and there is no filing fee. The application is available on the BOP website and in the prison library. Supplemental pages must be used-no “see attachment.” Click her for application

If you are not in prison and assisting an applicant what I do is download the application pdf.  Then on my Mac I click on tools, annotate, text box. (Magically the text box appears without having to do all of that clicking! I don’t know why that is happening these days but its great.)

Here’s a rundown on each section for life sentenced people:

Section 1: Check “Commute Life Sentence to Life on Parole” and do your best to remember each time you previously applied.

Section 2: Just the facts. If using the DOC-Parole for representation click the box, the address is below. If using someone else, give that information.

Section 3:  Less information is asked here. I type two lines of text in bold between two lines for the narrative in role of crime: “place, role and caught.” Use a supplemental page if needed.

Section 4: Fill out Section 4 to the best of your ability however parole provides the rap sheet to the DOC commutation office. No one is expected to pay for their criminal history report.

Section 5: is now totally optional. No more checking boxes to address reasons for applying. However, the line spacing on the page doesn’t line up with any font size or spacing! It’s terrible. So what I do is print a page, cover the lines with a blank piece of paper then print.  I type the narrative in Pages (10-12 font size)  then print on the paper without lines. Looks great and easy to read. Print more than you need. Remember to hit return a few times to get the words below the header.

I think now, less is more in Section 5. An explanation about your life circumstances before and during serving time is good. Accomplishments in list form. Home plan if you have one: the one year required residency at a CCC and then after if you have one.  You can list your supporters and how they will help you.  Be creative!

Section 6: sign and date. Mail to Mechanicsburg on Section 2. Keep a copy for yourself!

Do write a cover letter. State you are applying for commutation, list a few good points about your rehabilitation efforts, home plan if you have one and thank the BOP for considering your application. 2 paragraphs in length.

Good luck!

Ellen

Letters of Support and Letters of Recommendation

A support letter shows real support while on parole: housing, money, job, transportation, clothes, etc…

A letter of Recommendation explains why a person believes you are no longer a threat to public safety and have been rehabilitated. They can express other things like looking forward to spending time with you, showing you how to navigate the free world, etc..

Asking Friends and Family for Letters – Support your friends in supporting you!

Here is a sample letter people in prison can use to mobilize family and friends to write letters:

Re: (Your name) Commutation Support Letter

Dear

I am working on my commutation application. I would like to know if you would be interested in writing a letter of support, a character witness letter to the board of pardons on my behalf.

If you are open to this the letter should be addressed to The Board of Pardons 333 Market St, Harrisburg, PA 17126 and include the following – RE: (commutation applicant’s name) Commutation of Life Sentence, letter writer’s return address and phone number.

The letter should state the following:

  1. Briefly touch on who you are, your background, employment, degrees, etc.
  2. Include Commutation Applicant’s Name, DOC Number and Prison
  3. How we came in contact with each other.
  4. Your thoughts on my maturity and rehabilitation.
  5. Your thoughts on my remorse for the offense I am convicted of.
  6. Your thoughts on my chances for successful reentry into society, employment and participation in society upon my release.
  7. Any willingness you would have in assisting in my reentry to society i.e. references, referrals, etc. when I am released.

When you are finished with the letter please send the original back to me. Please also keep a copy for yourself. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.

Thank You,

XXXXXXXX

Reminder: Supporters can now email letters to the board of pardons. Contact as of July 2019 is Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov and then he will distribute the letter to the board the applicant’s packet. It’s always important to send a paper copy to your person filing the application.



This following is all from the BOP website: Filing Of An Application:

When an application is received at the Board of Pardons office and is found to be complete and accurate, it is considered “filed.” A letter will be sent to confirm the filing of the application. If incomplete, it will not be considered filed until all requirements have been fulfilled.

Filing an application to commute a Death sentence to Life imprisonment entails special procedures. The presentation may last thirty minutes, and every filed capital application is granted a public hearing. A capital applicant must submit every pertinent piece of material at least ten days prior to the date of hearing. 

Board of Pardons Process Flowcharts for public and incarcerated cases are now available.

Incarcerated Process Flow Chart_Page_1

Incarcerated Process Flow Chart_Page_2



Procedure:

After an application has been filed, a copy of the application is sent to the following interested parties:

Board of Probation and Parole – Staff from the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole conduct investigations for the Board of Pardons. They will report all criminal history and driving violations found.  They will also conduct a telephone interview or an in-person interview in your home to provide our Board with your present personal status.

The following is a list of items you will need to gather in advance of the meeting with the investigating staff:

  • Residence: rental agreement, mortgage statements, rent receipts, etc. as applicable;
  • Marital Status and Family Composition: marriage decrees, divorce decrees, birth and or death certificates, etc. as applicable;
  • Employment: pay stubs, W2’s, evidence of income to include alimony, unemployment, VA benefits, etc. as applicable;
  • Resources: investment statements, life insurance policies, checking and savings account statements, total family income, value of all property to include vehicles, vacation property, rental property; etc. as applicable;
  • Liabilities and Indebtedness: loan statements, mortgage statements, installment (credit card) statements, delinquency on any utilities, etc. as applicable;
  • Membership in Organizations and/or other Civic Organizations: membership cards for any volunteer, civic, church related organizations, etc. as applicable;
  • Religious interests: interests and activities of the Applicant, as applicable;
  • Mobility and Travel: addresses and dates of residences for the past ten years;
  • Employment History: record of jobs held for the past ten years as shown by W2’s, pay stubs, etc. as applicable;
  • Educational History: history of education as shown by diplomas, certificates, transcripts, etc. as applicable;
  • Military Service: branch of service, dates of entry and discharge, type of discharge, rank attained as shown by a DD-214; as applicable;
  • Community Reputation and Reference: names and contact information of at least 3-5 references to be contacted by the investigating Agent, or letters of support.

If you do not reside in Pennsylvania, parole staff’s standard procedure is to send you a worksheet to complete followed up by a telephone interview to confirm the information contained in the worksheet.

You should expect a delay from the time your application is filed until you are interviewed.  This will ensure that the information regarding your present personal status is current and accurate when it is reviewed by the Board.

Department of Corrections – This agency is responsible for preparing a report for incarcerated individuals only.

District Attorney/President Judge – The District Attorney and President Judge in the county where the crime(s) occurred are given a chance to provide an opinion on the merits of every application. In cases involving more than one jurisdiction, a copy of the application will also go to the appropriate District Attorney and President Judge in that county.

Once all of the necessary reports have been received, the Board Secretary and staff will send to each Board Member in advance an applicant’s file to be reviewed for a hearing. The Board will grant a hearing if two (2) of the five Board members approve. Hearings for lifers or prisoners serving time for crimes of violence may only be granted upon approval of three (3) Board members. Attempted crimes of violence are included in this and offenses committed while in visible possession of a firearm, for which sentencing was imposed, will also require a three (3) member vote. If the required number of votes are not obtained, the process has ended and the applicant will not receive a pardon/commutation.

If a hearing is granted, the following individuals/agencies will be notified of the time and place of the hearing:

  • Applicant/Representative
  • Board of Probation and Parole
  • Department of Corrections (If incarcerated)
  • District Attorney, President Judge
  • Victim(s) or Victim(s) Next of Kin
  • Newspaper in the county where an applicant committed the crime(s) for which he/she is seeking clemency. At least one week prior to the public hearing, notice must be published stating the applicant’s name, the crimes(s) with respect to which the applicant has applied for clemency, clemency type, the institution, if any, in which the applicant is confined and the time and place of the hearing at which the application will be heard. Newspaper publication is required for every application to be heard by the Board.

A calendar is prepared, listing each application to be heard at the specified public session. It is distributed to all interested parties in advance of the public session.


The Hearing:

Hearings are held in the Supreme Court Courtroom in Harrisburg. The Board meets on a regular basis, as determined by the Board. On the scheduled day, the Board convenes at 9:00 A.M. for morning sessions or 1:00 P.M. for afternoon sessions. The Board’s secretary will call the session to order and the Board’s chairman will present opening remarks. Following the opening remarks, the first case, as listed on the calendar, is called to present their case. No more than fifteen minutes is allowed for each applicant’s presentation. Each case is called in consecutive order with each informal presentation adhering to the following format:

  • Applicant’s presentation
  • Supportive speakers’ presentation
  • Victim’s and/or victim’s next of kin’s presentation or anyone who would like to speak in opposition of the application.

Visit the Public Hearing Presentation page for more information on preparing for your presentation to the Board.

The Results:

Following the public hearing session, the Board meets in Executive Session. The Board reconvenes to vote in public. If a majority of the Board vote in favor of an application, the Board recommends favorable action to the Governor. If less than a majority of the Board vote in favor, the result is a denial by the Board and the application is not forwarded to the Governor. Life or Death sentence cases require a unanimous vote by the Board to be recommended to the Governor. The Governor, at his discretion, may approve or disapprove any favorable recommendation submitted by the Board. When the Secretary of the Board has received the Governor’s action, all interested parties will be notified of the decision.

Post Result Actions:

Reconsideration – A request for reconsideration of any decision may be made to the Board. The applicant must show a change in circumstances since the application was filed, or other compelling reasons, sufficient to justify reconsideration. Dissatisfaction with the Board’s decision is not grounds to request reconsideration.

Effective Monday, June 3, 2019, a formal request for reconsideration must be accompanied by a Reconsideration Request Form, which is prescribed by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons (BOP).  From the effective date and anytime thereafter, any request that does not include a Reconsideration Request Form will be automatically rejected by the BOP.

Download Reconsideration Request Form

Reapplication – An application may not be filed before the expiration of 12 months from a final adverse decision on any prior application. If an application receives two consecutive adverse decisions, an application may not be filed before the expiration of 24 months from the last adverse decision.

tyronewertzspeaking
Press conference at Avis Lee’s merit review hearing in 2014. She received unanimous denial. She is awaiting decision on her 6th attempt at commutation. We expect the merit review to take place in November. Tyrone Wertz, commuted lifer is speaking, surrounded by many supporters.