Lacing Up Our Boots

Tyrone Wertz speaking at a podium with banner that says “Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers” surrounded by supporters on Rotunda steps

On the Road to Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers in PA Words by etta cetera Photos by Tom Jefferson

Despite the disappointment of Avis Lee’s unanimous denial by the Board of Pardons for a public hearing, the August 28 mobilization to PA’s capital with the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers was fruitful and rejuvenating.  We received great coverage from the Harrisburg ABC affiliate and, met with about 20 different legislative offices including a meeting with one of the governor’s aides and DOC policy person, and strengthened our relationship with other justice seekers from around PA. The day was sponsored by Let’s Get Free: The Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, Decarcerate PA, New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice and Fight for Lifers West.

40 Supporters from across the state came to stand in solidarity with Avis Lee, who after 3 years of waiting was finally up for decision at the Merit Review Hearing. Three times a year, the board of pardons announces whether or not they think the applicant deserves to go to the next level of the commutation process – the public hearing.  The secretary announces the names of about 133 people in alphabetical order with all types of sentences. When their names are called each member of the board announces how they voted. There is no discussion– 4 board members are by speakerphone – one is in person. Very impersonal, unfeeling, uncomplicated, cold, hard and mechanical like the prison system is known to be. No No. No. No. No. There is no reasons given as to why or how the board makes decisions about lifers.

I wonder. Did they even read her application? Did they notice the hundreds and hundreds of postcards and letters and names on petitions that supported Avis Lee walking out the prison doors? A woman who gardens and transcribes braille in the prison? A woman who hasn’t had a misconduct in 22 years? A woman who was sentenced at 18 for being a lookout? Who, I ask, are they protecting spending potentially 60 thousand a year to keep this woman locked up?

The press conference started with a contestoria. Whatever, pray tell, do you mean young warrior? Well, a contestoria, which I believe is an Italian word – though I’m not placing any bets – is a giant cloth book popularized by the Bread and Puppet Theater and commonly seen on the streets as a creative way to tell a story. Let’s Get Free created an 8 page book that explains the commutation process of Lifers in PA.  There were only a couple fights while designing it because the process is so confusing –  even with the DOC pardon specialist power point at hand AND the advice from several loved ones on the inside – that it was hard for us to keep our facts straight.  😉

Some Voices from the Dayconte

Suzanne South spoke on Avis Lee’s behalf sharing her story and making connections between the foster care system and the criminal justice system. Describing how family support, both emotional and financial, plays out in sentencing. Author Jeffries, Avis’s co-defendant had a lawyer. He barely did any time for the same situation. Both Avis and her brother, Dale, had public defenders/appointed counsel. They were all charged with second degree. Avis and Dale are both serving life.

Martha Conelly, Official Visitor with the PA Prison Society and long time justice advocate from Pittsburgh, also made the trip. She spoke about the cost of aging prisoners ranging from 40- 120 thousand dollars a year and how people age out of crime.

“It is time we shine a light on the success stories of those that have had a life sentence commuted. They have not simply avoided crime, they have made a difference in their communities as priests, neighborhood center directors, Soros Fellowship recipients, and mentors. The power of mercy has instilled a purpose in these individuals to make amends and to make a difference.”  says Dr. Brian O’Neill PHD in Criminal Justice and is currently working on a book about commutation.

That Soros Fellow of which Brian speaks is none other than Tyrone Wertz. Tyrone is one of the six men that have had their life sentences commuted in the past 15 years. He is a powerful example of what the commutation process can do for our communities because he has done nothing but give and give of himself since he has been released.opening circle
Brenda Emerick, whose son Heath is serving a life sentence, spoke on behalf of Marie Scott. Marie is one of the oldest women serving life, and we heard of all of her accomplishments – they went on and on –  from awards received to programs Marie created focusing on parenting and women. Her resume is remarkable. She has done so much important work of building community and creating healing spaces inside the walls. We hope to meet you one day Marie!!

Ellen Melchiondo, Official Visitor of the PA Prison Society and Fight For Lifers East member, spoke about the life of Sharon Peachie Wiggins.

Terrell Johnson and Saundra Cole McKamey spoke about the fight to free Terrell, who was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life. He did 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Terrell delivered a powerful speech noting that if Avis did 22 years without a misconduct that’s saying something – it’s hard to stay out of trouble on the inside.  Saundra led the charge on the outside and spoke about how the prison system is a business and it’s all about the money.

Michael H. Fox came all the way from Japan – by way of Oregon, to attend the rally. Mike is the Executive Director of Worldwide Women’s Criminal Justice Network and has an online global database of women serving life sentences.  WWCJN supports those overly charged, wrongfully convicted, and unfairly sentenced.

Sarah Morris from Decarcerate PA read a few statements from mentors in prison and explained that, “I’ve been involved in organizing around mass incarceration for the last 10 years. For last 8 years I’ve been lucky enough to have mentors on the inside who all happen to all be serving life sentences. They spend all of their time thinking and strategizing about creating a better world and they have been condemned by the  state of PA to die in prison. Some of the most brilliant minds I know are sentenced to die by incarceration and I believe all of our communities would be stronger if we gave them a chance to come home and to join us in the struggle on the outside.”

Blakk Rapp Madusa  had this to say, “I’m a revolutionary hip hop artist. I’m here to talk about the prison state, mass incarceration and abolishing life without parole sentences.  I’m a hip hop artist so to speak. I use my art to create social change and awareness about issues that effect black and oppressed communities. For PA to be truly beautiful we can’t continue to uphold these unjust laws. The education system in PA needs to be examined. Is PA preparing its students for a successful life? Or are they giving students pyschotropic drugs to deal with attention issues and setting them up to go to jail? I’m working on a documentary called Bring the Beat Back. Bringing the original hip hop back to using it as a tool for empowerment. Bring the Beat Back! Lets get this movement started!”

bkzlasmlBekezela Mguni – “Hi. I’m a Reproductive Justice activist with New Voices Pittsburgh, a human rights activist and librarian. I am here in solidarity with Avis Lee and all people fighting for justice and liberation.  I think it’s important to examine the impact of the prison industrial complex  on the lives of black and brown people. We have been facing so much violence  and criminalization. This society it is killing us. It is tearing our communities and our humanity is not respected. I’m here today because I believe that we are all valuable. I believe that we have the right to speak up for the ones we love. There is no better time than now. It is an urgent time in the world. From Pittsburgh to Ferguson, to Gaza to Chicago to Florida. I’m here in solidarity with Marissa Alexander. I am here in solidarity with Mike Brown.  I hope that we can make a difference today by speaking truth to power.”

Zoe Mizuho – “I’m here because I’ve been working with The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee for the past couple of years and I correspond with Avis Lee. I believe that the current state of criminal justice system is one of the biggest human rights abuses going on in our country. It’s fundamentally flawed. It’s racist. It’s costing the state millions of dollars. It has lost sight of its purpose. I’m hoping we can talk some sense into the legislators here. “

bretsmlBret Grote from the Abolitionist Law Center– “Prison is a place where your rights and humanity are violated and where your health and safety are threatened. A place where you are subjected to arbitrary and brutal violence. PA has the largest percentage of its prison population serving life without parole. It has one of the oldest prison populations in the country. It’s crucial to recognize that life without parole sentences are not being dealt out in PA because overzealous legislators are very concerned about public safety in communities that they have never stepped foot in.  LWOP is a pillar of race and class based mass incarceration. It does not serve the value of deterring crime. There is no compelling evidence what so ever that increasing excessive sentences decreases crime.”

A delegation did meet with the Governor’s office, an aide named Jeffery and a DOC policy person named Deborah I believe. Jeffery asked a good question. He asked, “Who would you want on the Parole Board?” Tyrone Wertz suggested more people from effected communities. Brian O’Neill said to get the LT. Governor and Attorney General off of there.  Bret Grote looked around and said, “Us.  People like us. Lawyers, formerly incarcerated people that had served over 30 years, members from the prison society. people against all forms of violence with justice in their hearts who have time to make decisions.”  The board of pardons isn’t even the main job of those who sit on it.  How much time do they actually spend on their caseload of 500 a year, which is totally backlogged?

After an amazing lunch, hand made by a team back in Pittsburgh, many participants broke up into groups to meet with legislative aides to talk reform.  We left with three main leads.  One, of course, was Senator Daylin Leach’s Murder Felony Rule (MFR) Bill. His office is working on it. When we have more information we will be encouraging support of his bill. The DOC policy aide told us these statistics about Lifers sentenced under the Murder Felony Rule – 1,100 are men – maybe 42 are women – and 200 of them were sentenced as Juveniles. That means that almost half of the juveniles sentenced to LWOP were sentenced under MFR. Then there was a transformative meeting with Ed Gainey’s office. He is a local Pittsburgh rep, who is from everything I can tell  a great guy.  I know. I was totally surprised. A politician? Anyway. He organized at the Education Vs. Incarceration panel in Pittsburgh a couple months ago. His aide was awesome and was totally vibing with the delegation and she was very interested to draft legislation. Let’s Get Free has a meeting set up with them in early October. And finally, the longest shot was  Rep Dan Miller’s office. So one of our angles is for Parole Board Reform – we want the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General off of the board. Lou, Dan’s aide, said that his office was excited about “de-politicizing” systems.  So that might appeal to him to try to reform the board so that people who stand to lose their jobs by voting a certain way won’t be making decisions about people’s lives.

I wonder if an upsurge of people filing for commutation would send any messages that this process is broke? With salt in our eyes and conviction in our hearts, there is movement for Lifers in PA. Throw your discouragement to the wind and lace up your boots comrades! Let’s move! Let’s get free!



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