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.

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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.

Avis Lee’s Merit Review Date Changed – Now August 8th

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Merit Review is one step of the long commutation process. You need 3 out of 5 votes to make it to the next stage which is a public hearing. Applicants are not present in person and an official reads the name and the board of pardons members say yes or no if they support. Feels very clinical, but it is public and community members do attend.
Before the Merit Review, each applicant has a video conference interview with the DOC Secretary Wetzel. He talks to them for 15 minutes and asks questions. He then gets to weigh in on wether he supports the applicant for commutation. We are curious how much weight the board of pardons gives to Wetzel’s recommendation. How can you decide a persons fate in a 15 minute interview?

This is Avis’s 6th attempt for commutation. For the last 4 applications she has had complete institution support for her release. We believe the people who live with her every day should should carry the most weight in these recommendations. Not the District Attorney who has never met her, nor Wetzel who has a 15 minute conversation with her.

Also, if you want to make a donation we could use it for gas, tolls, t-shirts etc.
Background:
Avis Lee turned 58 years old this past January. She was sentenced to Death by Incarceration (DBI) as a teenager and has served almost 40 years in prison. She was the look out for a robbery that ended tragically. This is her 6th attempt at applying for commutation. The last 4 attempts she has had full support of Cambridge Springs Prison.

For clarity, Commutation is different than the superior court case that the Abolitionist Law Center argued on the age expansion for juveniles sentenced to DBI. That case is still in process. For more information on Avis Lee Click Here

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

 

We Support Justice for Antwon Rose

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Antwon Rose II pictured above wearing a white t-shirt with trees and sun in the backgroundWe are all witnesses.

We are all witnesses.

On June 19, 2018, we watched the video of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II running away, unarmed, with his hands held high. We watched as he was shot three times in the back by Police Officer Michael Rosfeld.

Antwon Rose II was no threat to Michael Rosfeld.

We believe the family and loved ones of Antwon Rose II deserve justice.We believe that in a democratic society, democracy fails when any citizen is denied a pathway to justice.

We believe that holding police accountable is essential for creating a meaningful relationship between the police and the community.

We believe that in order for justice to prevail, Michael Rosfeld must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for the murder of Antwon Rose II.

We believe that if the Allegheny County District Attorney convicts Officer Michael Rosfeld, then we can finally begin the process of healing and reconciliation.

The focus should be on convicting Michael Rosfeld, not what a community in pain might or might not do.

We’ve all heard the slogan that Pittsburgh is “America’s Most Liveable City.” However, without justice, without accountability, without racial equality, the question remains, “For WHOM?” Only a two-tier system of justice that offers police preferential treatment would accept the notion that Michael Rosfeld is innocent of wrongdoing. Such a conclusion would send a very clear message to our community and the world that Black Lives Do NOT Matter.

The outcome of this trial can either deepen the division or show that we are truly “Stronger Together”.

The whole world is watching.

Sincerely,

Concerned Citizens of Allegheny County

120 Organizations signed onto this open letter initiated by the Alliance for Police Accountability and 1HOOD

To find out how you can support the family email justiceforantwonroseII@gmail.com. You can Cash App donations to: $ANTWONSMOTHER .

New Years News

Let’s Get Free is pushing off the new year with a flurry of heartfelt activity. Excitement is brewing because we have secured a date for our annual prison justice art fundraiser (October) and our dear friends from Philadelphia are coming to lead a training on self governance. That’s right! Reconstruction Inc. will be here the 3rd weekend of March to share their Capacity Building Curriculum, and you are invited!

We continue to confront laws and policies upholding Death by Incarceration sentences, with our participation in CADBI-West. We have been channeling love in the form of visits, letters, phone calls, books, financial and commutation application support to not just the women at Cambridge Springs but many people serving life sentences.

We are bursting with ideas and an overwhelming workload – perhaps you are ready to get more involved? Next meeting this Wednesday Feb 20th @ 6:30pm at the TMC Annex 5119 Penn ave! You coming?

Read on dear ones for news, updates and ways to participate.


Support Pittsburgh’s New Bail Fund!
The Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh is doing its first set of BAILOUTS over the week of Valentine’s Day!

To celebrate this righteous return of people to their communities, you are invited to join on February 14, 2019 for a celebration of love and freedom with dinner, conversation, performances by radical artists, and more!

This secret café pop-up restaurant will begin serving dinner at 6:45, with a short menu made to satisfying all (vegans/carnivores/gf/nut free)

There is no cost for this event, though donation jars will be present for those who feel called to contribute.

~Why do we need a community bail fund in Pittsburgh?~

81% of inmates at ACJ have not been convicted of a crime. They are only being held because they cannot afford to post bail before their trial. Their freedom cannot wait. Black people and other People of Color end up behind bars more than anyone else — Black people get incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people. People needlessly suffer and often even die in jail while waiting on their hearings, especially if they are POC, trans, disabled, or poor. In 2017, four people died at ACJ due to medical neglect, and historically such deaths occur within the first few days of someone’s arrival.

Join this new exciting group on this day of action in memory of Frank “Bukit” Smart, Jr. and everyone else who has lost their life to the neglect and active abuse of the ACJ. In solidarity with all their families, friends, and loved ones, let’s spread the #LoveBeyondBars!

For more info on Bukit’s story, please visit the Facebook page: Bukit Bail Fund


Call for Artists

Our 3rd annual prison justice art fundraiser is set for October of 2019. Calling all artists on both sides of the walls to create pieces on the theme –  “Glow Home:
Illuminating relationSHIPS

What does HOME look like? Feel like? A space? A state of mind? how do you glow there?

How would you draw, paint sculpt your dream home? If you are incarcerated, what are your hopes, dreams, fears about coming home?

So many of us had fun creating lamps and light boxes at last years show we wanted to extend that theme. Spruce up a lamp shade or string of lights.

Another angle is that of relationSHIPS. We believe relationships are really what makes coming home GLOW. Think of all the ships:)  relationSHIP. friendSHIP, companionSHIP, hardSHIP, worSHIP, partnerSHIP, citizenSHIP, leaderSHIP -it is a fundraiser. People love ships. loveSHIPs.

Please submit your art by July 31 2019.

As always, we accept old art that wasn’t made specifically for this show. Additionally, if anyone is still inspired to make art out of letters from people in prison please do!

Do you know an incarcerated artist? Share their contact with us so we can send them the call to artists.

Questions, encouragement or need some letters from people in prison?  Contact etta cetera: letsgetfreepa@gmail.com – 443-603-6964


Capacity Building Curriculum
-a training for self governance and group sustainability-
March 23 & 24 (Saturday and Sunday)
Details to be decided: Save the Date!

Please join Reconstruction Inc. in collaboration with Let’s Get Free in a two day training & learning from the Capacity Building Curriculum.

Reconstruction Inc. is a grassroots organization based in Philadelphia whose purpose is to affect social change by forging individuals that were formerly incarcerated into an organized community of leaders working together to transform the criminal justice system, their communities and themselves. This curriculum has been developed over many years of direct implementation with groups in Philadelphia and recently at the State Correctional Institution-Muncy. It is important to note that the curriculum is not only for people impacted by the criminal injustice system, but for everyone.

Reconstruction Inc. believes that each human being is sacred and is valuable to themselves, their family, the community and to society. Each of us should be critical thinkers, good decision makers, and give principled leadership to our family and eventually change the world. This curriculum has three pillars, and is both interactive and transformative.


Please watch this new 18 minute documentary produced by Real Stories featuring women in prison at SCI-Muncy. It’s called Dying Outloud.

This film features Diane Metzger who passed away this month in prison. We send our deepest condolences out to her family both in and outside of prison. Diane was 69 years old at the time of her death. Her crime, not turning in her husband who killed his ex-wife, is explained in the video. In 1989 Diane received approval from the Board of Pardons for a commutation of her life sentence, but was then denied by Governor Bob Casey.

All women featured in the documentary did not commit the murders they are serving life sentences for. They were in the car, the other room, took a plea, etc. Below are two quotes by professionals attempting to understand why the system comes down harder on women than men.  (Please pardon the binary)

“There is more tolerance for male violence than there is for female violence because female violence is so rare.” – Brian O’Neil, criminologist

“There is a long standing assumption that men commit crime because they are bad or in economic need. For women, the idea that women would commit a crime is a violation of their feminine nature … that they are deviant by virtue for violating a larger cultural norm about femininity.”
–Dr. Jill McCorkel, PHD


Ricky Olds founder of Let’s Get Free’s new program, The Real Deal on Reentry, spoke as a part of Law & Disorder panel at the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit on January 25, 2019. The Real Deal is a budding  program supporting returning citizens. The program is organically occurring on the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, on buses across the city and through the prison walls. Ricky has been offering emotional and financial support for fellow returning citizens as well as to his brothers on the inside. To learn more about Ricky’s story

From Prison to Freedom

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This Saturday members of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration-West are hosting a break out session at this years Summit for Racial Justice.

Saturday January 26th
at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
616 N Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Breakout session: 1 (10:25 am – 11:25 am)
Room: Long 204 (capacity 48)

From Prison to Freedom:
Building Pathways Home

The Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI-West) invites you to join us in a workshop/skill share in supporting people transitioning home from prison. Topics covered include navigating homeplans, commutation applications, support letters, housing and employment on release. CADBI-West is comprised of returning citizens, family members of people in prison and community advocates.

There will be a brief panel then small group discussions to delve deeper into different areas of interest.

Carol Speaks – CADBI-West’s newly appointed community organizer shares overview of the work of Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration –
contact: ms.c.speaks[at]gmail.com
Alan Lewandowski – CABDI-West shares reflections on PA’s commutation process, one of the only pathways for peoples sentenced to death by incarceration to come home.
contact: alanlewandowski67[at]gmail.com
etta cetera Let’s Get Free shares tips on writing letters of support before people return home and help with commutation applications.
contact: letsgetfreepa[at]gmail.com
Ricky Olds from The Real Deal shares insights of returning home after 37 years.
Contact: ricky.olds[at]acd.ccac.edu Available for speaking engagements.
Ronna Davis founder of Za’kiyah House Connect on Facebook @ZakiyahHouse
contact:zakiyahhouse [at]gmail.com
Rachelle Quinn – Employment Specialist with East Side Neighborhood Employment Center: 412-362-8580 rachelle[at]enecpittsburgh.com

Let’s Get Free is a proud member of the Coalition to Abolish Life Without Parole

CADBI-West is the Western PA arm of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration. Our founding meeting was September 25 of 2017. The founding organizations are Fight for Lifers West, The Abolitionist Law Center, Let’s Get Free, HRC-Fedup and POORLAW.

News from Let’s Get Free

Upcoming Dates to Save:

October 2nd – People’s Senate Vote! Rally in Harrisburg 11:30 AM Rotunda (check in for details coming from Pittsburgh on http://cadbiwest.org or email cadbiwest@gmail.com
October 20th – CADBI New Member Launch – Details To be Announced
October 23rd – Avis Lee’s Hearing in Philadelphia – Many people in Pittsburgh will attend leaving both Monday night and Tuesday early morning.

Let’s Get Free is meeting regularly every other Wednesday at the Thomas Merton Center Annex. See sidebar for details or email letsgetfreepa@gmail.com

Oral Argument for Avis Lee – Tuesday-  October 23, 2018

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has scheduled en banc (meaning the full court, i.e. 9+ judges) oral argument in the case of Avis Lee for Tuesday, October 23rd at 9:30 a.m. at in Philadelphia, address: 17th Floor, 530 Walnut St. 

The Court is sitting “en banc”, which means 9 or more judges, and when they are en banc they have super judicial powers and can overturn their existing precedent that prohibits 18+ Miller claims.

The issue in this case is whether Avis is permitted to challenge her mandatory life-without-parole sentence as excessive in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment due to her being only 18 years old at the time of the offense. Avis raised a claim that she had the same characteristics of youth and immaturity that the U.S. Supreme Court found relevant in striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children younger than age 18 in Miller v. Alabama, then applied retroactively to older cases (like Avis’) in Montgomery v. Louisiana

These sewn greetings are made with letters from people in prison and sewn onto old sierra club calendars. The phrases are the sign off greetings from the letters. The two lamps shades are also made from using letters from prisoners. (etta cetera made the sewn greetings and Leslie Stem made the lamps)

Art Gallery as an Organizing Tool

For the 2nd year in a row, Let’s Get Free has facilitated a collaborative art show in effort to raise funds for our basic needs like transportation, stamps, speakers fees and copies. Not only do we get filled up on funds and creative inspiration, we also take full advantage of the space through having weekly gallery hours and 3 events. The opening event and auction saw over 1,000 people come through the doors of Boom Concepts and almost all the art sold raising over $5,000.  Etta Cetera, co-founder of Let’s Get Free and curator of Letters and Liberation, gave two tours to youth groups including, 1Hood Media’s summer interns and the Hazelwood Arts Excursion. One participant wants to help etta curate the show next year and many of the young people said they would donate art to future events. This years art show funded the Let’s Get Free retreat which took place on August 12. Overlooking Edinboro Lake we reflected, assessed and strategized. This years art show also helped to fund two new programs – The Real Deal a support group for returning citizens and Let‘s Get Smart – an initiative to build educational opportunities in prisons across PA.

THANK YOU SO MUCH TO ALL THE ARTISTS WHO DONATED ART, ALL THE VOLUNTEERS WHO SET UP, BROKE DOWN AND HELPED WITH EVENTS, ALL THE PEOPLE WHO BOUGHT ART, ALL THE ATTENDEES WHO SHARED THEIR WISDOM WITH US THROUGHOUT THE MONTH OF JULY AND TO BOOM CONCEPTS.

Below is the newsletter we will be sending to our loved ones on the inside, we send out about 350 newsletters mostly to women serving death by incarceration and our close friends and advisors. Let’s Get Free is:
Devon Cohen, Donna Hill, Alan & Nancy Lewandoski, Sara Coffey, Darlene Williams, Jess Cox, Lauren Stupartiz, Jane Hein, Carol Speaks, Josie Young, Cat Besterman and etta cetera [Lauren, Devon, etta, and Alan pictured on left at retreat.Photo by Nancy]


Get Out the Vote in the Midterm Elections

What can you do? Get out the VOTE in the midterm elections this November! Ask the candidates if they will support the lifer bills and vote for the candidate who will. In District 28 (Allegheny County) there is a very important race. The incumbent, MikeTurzai, is being challenged by Emily Skopov. Let’s Get Free has tried to meet with the incumbent to ask for his support of the lifer bill but he will not schedule a meeting. The incumbent is the speaker of the House so he has great power to appoint committee chairs and wield influence. His head of the house Judiciary committee does not support our cause. Let’s Get Free has met with Emily Skopov and she will support the lifer bill. She is committed to serving the interests of her constituents, not her financial backers. So please support Emily Skopov and other candidates who support reforms leading to redemption. Go to https://ballotpedia.org/Pennsylvania_elections,_2018 to find out who is running in your area.

Just as important as the midterm elections is next year’s election for DA in Allegheny County. Legislators tell us they will vote on the lifer bill as the District Attorneys tell them. Philadelphia County has a new DA who is committed to being smart on crime and reforming the system. All other PA counties need like minded DA’s. In Allegheny County the DA is up for reelection in 2019.  Turahn Jenkins is running against the incumbent. Jenkins has the endorsement of LGF and CADBIwest. What can you do? Please support his campaign anyway you can and especially by telling your friends and family his name.Turahn Jenkins for DA!


If Fetterman wins LT. Governor, hold him to his word


On July 11 2018, Let’s Get Free hosted a Community Dialogue on Pardons and Parole. Panelists included CADBI members Robert Saleem Holbrook, Carol Speaks, Liz Guyer, Marcie Marra and Pittsburgh based politicians: John Fetterman, Ed Gainey, Sara Innamorato, Summer Lee.  (Ed, Sara and Summer have already spoken in support of SB942 and HB135.

During the discussion the Democratic Candidate for Lt. Governor John Fetterman stated the following:

1.) He opposes the Unanimous Vote on the Board of Pardons for Lifers and believes it is a impossible burden for a Lifer.
2.) He supports Judges having Discretion when it comes to sentencing prisoners to Life, which is a tacit support of parole for lifers that we can use.
3.) He said he supports changes to the Board of Pardons
4.) He would consider presumptive parole for prisoners

His statements as well as the whole event were recorded and are on youtube. If elected he should be held accountable to his word.


The Real Deal on ReEntry – From B Block to the Streets
 
Contact: Ricky Olds
Phone: 412-503-2319
Email – realdealpittsburgh@gmail.com
Snailmail – The Let’s Get Free ATTN: THE REAL DEAL 460 Melwood #300 Pittsburgh, PA 15213

What is the Real Deal? The Real Deal is a support group, a discussion group, a problem sharing and a problem-solving group tackling the many issues that face people coming home from prison. The Real Deal is made up of Re-entrants, by Re-entrants and for Re-entrants.

Who is it for? Initially, we are focusing on returning juvenile lifers and longer term returning citizens, however, we foresee quickly expanding to include all formally incarcerated individuals, men as well as women. We also hope to include spouses, children, and family members of returning citizens. Any persons integral to the support and long term success of the returning citizens. We also encourage spouses and family members of those yet to be released to attend. So they might better understand the challenges their loved ones will be facing upon release. This will create a network of support, a network made up entirely of people in the same or similar circumstances. In many cases, a strong network can make all the difference.

Speak it into Existence: Our dream is to build a solid network supporting people coming home.  We hope to create strong lines of communication through the walls sharing our meeting minutes, what we have learned, discovered and created, with those still incarcerated.  Any questions, comments or concerns coming from the inside can be addressed and forwarded at the next meeting with the goal being a smooth and seamless return home for all.  We also plan to develop a Website and eventually simulcast our meetings to those unable to attend physically. We would like a presence on all relevant social media so that the community at large can see who these Re-entrants are and recognize the talent, skills and knowledge represented by many of our returning citizens.

Connect with the Real Deal:  Anyone wanting to participate or knowing of someone who may benefit or have some skill or expertise they may want to share, please contact us at the following: The Real Deal – realdealpittsburgh@gmail.com Ricky Olds – Coordinator – 412-503-2319


Preparing For The Merit Review: Commutation proces
By Ellen Melchiondo, Women Lifers Resume Project

After attending my second merit review session with the Board of Pardons I wanted to find out what factors in determining a decision to vote for or against a public hearing for lifers besides the application’s contents.  Secretary Wetzel interviews each applicant before the merit review and after the staffing. He reads the staffing reports.  Many of us feel that if you get Wetzel’s approval that should at least translate to a yes vote by the DOC’s BOP representative. That is not the case. The battery of tests taken also likely influences their decision.

If Lt. Governor Stack embraces second chances and votes no, how does he get to that judgment?

I learned that once a commutation application is officially filed with the BOP, the application is shared with the committing county’s DA, judge or president judge, victims and possibly the magisterial district. This information is found on page 6 in the Pathways to Pardons booklet.

I am starting to believe that it is necessary that family members and supporters of a commutation applicant reach out and have a conversation with the DA and president judge before the merit review. At that time stress the applicant’s humanity and emphasize the support you are willing to give.

Recently an applicant was denied commutation after a public hearing even with the victim’s family support. The committing county’s DA opposed it. Would it have helped if the victim’s family in this case had a conversation with the DA before the merit review and the public hearing? (I don’t know which member of the BOP voted yes to move on to the public hearing. This information would help to analyze the outcome; three members voted yes for the public hearing.)   On one hand the DA’s MO is to protect the victims. But what happens when the victim’s don’t want the DA’s protection?! Who does the DA work for? Did the DA influence the AG and corrections expert who voted no at the public hearing? Interestingly, the DA and corrections expert are from the same county-Bucks.

This is a very frustrating process especially since we know so much about the nearly non-existence in reoffending by life sentenced people.  The reality of commutation for lifers in PA is dark and complicated but to not apply is not only giving up hope, it keeps the system in place.  By putting your life story out there and facing the consequences it is only then that we on the outside can push to dismantle it thereby improving the outcomes-possible. Always file for reconsideration.

Let’s Get Free continues to share Commutation Kits – A resource for people in PA applying for commutation. The Kit includes a sample application, tips for writing your application and tips for your loved ones to write a support letter for you.


Operation Break Bread Update

We are celebrating a year of growing connections and building friendships with our project Operation Break Bread, which started the summer of 2017 and grew out of last years art show. With this initiative we’ve organized people in Pittsburgh to visit people serving life at SCI Cambridge Springs, the closest women’s prison to Pittsburgh. For the last year, there have been visits organized at least once every other month, with over 20 people visiting and 20 people receiving visits. We recently organized two prison visit trainings to invite more people to participate and learn the ways to create connections with folks on the inside across the concrete and communication barriers.

If you or someone you know who is serving life at SCI Cambridge Springs would like a visit, reach out to us at: Let’s Get Free 460 Melwood Ave #300 – Pittsburgh, PA 15213 – Please keep in mind we can’t promise a visit and we are very slow to respond but as always we will do our best!


I see her walking out of prison
by Alan Lewondowski

The song is from a daydream I had over breakfast about my friend Marsha Scaggs, currently serving Life Without Parole at SCI Cambridge Springs, PA.

The women sentenced to life at SCI Cambridge Springs and SCI Muncy are some of the best and sweetest people I’ve ever met. They are care giving individuals who act as mentors, teachers and role models to the younger folks with lesser sentences who come through the prison. They have long ago been re-habilitated and transformed into incredible human beings. They do not belong in prison and their being held there until they die constitutes a Human Rights disaster. We make the laws.
Let‘s fix these broken ones.
This song is my vision of Marsha coming home. Let it be soon!

I See Her Walking Out Of Prison
Locked away in a foreign land
Still paying for a mistake from her distant past
Doing way too much time
For tip-toeing over the line once upon a time
She turned into a saint just to survive
She’s a teacher by trade. I know justice is blind
But it doesn’t have to be stupid every time
It’s time!

I see her walking out of prison
I see a door opening
She’s working and waiting
It’s a moment we’ve been hoping to see
Now someone on the inside’s saying
Maybe this means something good’s gonna happen to me
Now she’s on the outside, reaching back, getting sisters free
I see her re-uniting families

I see her walking out of prison
It’s like a day breaking
Or the long-awaited peace
Of night waking
The mother of stone they buried her in is giving birth
Saying “Go on home. You belong to all of Mother Earth”
And now I see her walking
Walking, walking, walking, walking
I see her walking out of prison

I know one day she’ll walk free
From this cage of entropy

I see her walking out of prison

Ghani shares 5 lessons applicable to humanity learned by Geese. He shared this at the end of a workshop entitled “Peace, Forgiveness and Ubuntu” which happened on July 21, 2018 in Pittsburgh, PA as part of the Letters & Liberation Art Show at Boom Concepts.