Transform Commutation! A People’s Response: Envisioning Release in the time of CoVid and Beyond
The commutation process is broken. Intended as a means to reduce sentences for incarcerated individuals, increasing politicization has reduced commutation to a shadow process instead of a meaningful pathway to release.
In April, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman announced that the Board of Pardons will indefinitely delay the commutation hearing set to take place on June 4th. At this hearing, dozens of applicants would have had the opportunity to have their cases reviewed to determine their potential for release, thus permitting them to escape the life-threatening conditions of prisons in the era of COVID-19. There is no excuse to delay commutation hearings.
If the concern is about commutation applicants not receiving in-person interviews, that question should be left up to the applicant to decide. Some applicants we have spoken with would rather have a video interview than for the hearing date to be in perpetual postponement.
Because Pennsylvania is one of only five states that excludes lifers from parole consideration, commutation serves as the only option for release for individuals serving death by incarceration. Yet since 1980, commutation has become virtually unattainable: the number of life sentences commuted dropped from ~28 per year before 1980 to ~1 per year after. Beyond lifers, commutation is also a vital system for individuals serving long-term sentences.
In the time of COVID-19, where a prison sentence is a death sentence for the elderly and immunocompromised, commutation should be bolstered as a tool to bring more people home.
We mourn the lives already lost to COVID-19 in state correctional facilities. How many of these deaths could have been prevented if our justice system prioritized community healing over retribution?
On June 4th, please join us for The People’s Response, a space for the community to voice our demands for commutation transformation. First, we will hear from individuals who will speak from personal experience about the failures of the commutation process. Next, we will collectively envision what commutation could like if it were transformed to put our communities first. Speakers include Laura Whitehorn, Jose Hamza Saldana, William L. Goldsby, Mageline Stewart, Doug Hollis, Terri Minor Spencer, and Ricky Olds.
Please join this community conversation by registering here . Together we will urge the Board of Pardons to #FreeTheVulnerable and meet our demands.
Laura Whitehorn: A lifelong anti-war and civil rights activist, Laura Whitehorn spent the 70s and 80s organizing against the Vietnam war, white supremacist violence, and U.S. imperialist terrorism abroad. She eventually served 14 years in federal prison as a political prisoner. During her time in prison and since her release, she has focused her efforts on advocating for the release of political prisoners of the black liberation and anti-imperialist solidarity movements. She is the cofounder of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), an organization that advocates for the release of older and aging people, lifers, and long-termers as a way to undermine a key pillar of the racist prison system: the paradigm of permanent punishment and death by incarceration.
Jose Hamza Saldana is Director of RAPP. Jose was released from NYS prison in January 2018 after 38 years and four Parole Board denials. While in prison, Jose earned an Associate’s Degree and founded several important restorative justice and victim awareness programs. He mentored hundreds of men during his years inside and continues to inspire all of us with his energy, commitment, and leadership.
William L. Goldsby: Born in a cotton field, raise in Selma, Alabama and incarcerated for two violent offenses, both during the Jim Crow era, one in Selma, Alabama and the other one while serving in the US Military. Attended Miles College an HBC in Birmingham, Alabama and graduated from Western Washington University with a B.A in Education. Two terns in Central America with the Peace Corp where responsibilities were with Youth Development and “Women-In-Transition”. Travelled to Southern Africa and interviewed members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Founder and the past Chair of Reconstruction Incorporated, a 30-year old community capacity building grass root organization. Architect of the History and Reconstruction Project funded by Pew Charitable Trust that explored Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome which impacts the behavior of society at large and specifically African Americans. Designed and teaches Situation Management as a method in order to realize a new justice paradigm. Co-authored Reconstructing Rage, Transformative Reentry in the Age of mass Incarceration with Professor Townsand Price-Spratlan. Philosophy is that we must access our organic intelligence, manage our own perceptions and liberate our imagination.
Mageline Stewart: Sentenced to life without parole, Maggie Stewart had her sentence commuted by the Governor last December after receiving a unanimous vote in support of her release by the Board of Pardons. She will speak to her experiences undergoing the commutation process and coming home, as well as tell us about the other lifers who are still behind bars.
Doug Hollis: Doug Hollis knows first-hand how broken the commutation process is. A former juvenile lifer, Mr. Hollis was released in 2017 due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision deeming automatic life terms for minors unconstitutional. But before 2017, Mr. Hollis underwent the commutation process six times, even winning the recommendation of the Board of Pardons in 1992, only to be denied release by the Governor.
Terri Minor Spencer: Ms. Spencer, a visionary community activist based in Pittsburgh, founded a grass-roots nonprofit dedicated to addressing community needs, serves as the Director of Community Engagement at the White Lily Baptist Church, and even holds a seat on the Democratic committee for Pittsburgh Ward 20. Having served 16 years at SCI Muncy, including 17 days in solitary confinement, Ms. Spencer is an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform.
Ricky Olds: Public Speaker.Community Educator. Formerly Incarcerated individual. Wrongfully convicted of murder, Ricky served close to four decades before being released in 2017.
This event is hosted by the Campaign To Restore Meaningful Commutation and #FreeTheVulnerable campaign, a collective of organizers from the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) Lets Get Free: Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI), Abolitionist Law Center, and Amistad Law Project among others. We are advocating for the release of older and immunocompromised folks from PA prisons in the time of COVID-19 and beyond.