Endorsing simply means that you or your organization believe commutation is a viable option for people who are no longer a threat to public safety & support the ideas listed in the 12 point platform and will sign your name to it.
Donate to our Harrisburg Trip
One more way you can support our campaign is to chip in to our Go Fund Me! We are trying to raise $1,000 to pay for Vans, Tolls, and Gas. Please consider giving – $5-50
Thank you so much for supporting and believing in us!
On March 29, 2016, members of the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation sent the following letter to PA officials, including our 12 point platform:
To the Board of Pardons, The PA General Assembly and Governor Tom Wolfe,
We are the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation, a Pittsburgh based group that is pursuing criminal justice reforms for people serving Life Sentences. We wish to bring to your attention a number of problems with the commutation process that we believe should be addressed by this current legislature. There is a growing understanding about the significant personal, social, and monetary impacts mass incarceration has had on our state. We imagine that you share many of our concerns, and look forward to working with you toward more efficient and just Parole and Pardon systems.
In the 1970s approximately 35 people a year were given a second chance through commutation. That’s 380 commuted lifers from 1967-1990, but for the last 25 years, only 7 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released.(i) The dramatic decrease in the use of commutation as a result of the “tough on crime” political climate has contributed to mass incarceration and has left many innocent and reformed people serving excessive sentences with no mercy.
Restoring our commutation process would allow us to redirect public funding away from imprisoning many aging individuals who are not a threat to public safety, and channel that money into initiatives for violence prevention. While elderly inmates released from prison will require medical care and other public services, Pennsylvania could save an average of $66,000 per year for each of the 1,500 geriatric lifers released.(ii) Studies show that the chances of a person re-offending over the age of 50 dramatically decreases.(iii)The prison system is among the highest expenditures in the budget, costing the state more than $2 billion a year.(iv) SCI- Laurel Highlands (a Prison Hospital and Hospice Unit), cost $75 million to operate in 2014, almost half of the total cost of all prisons in PA.(v)
Working in coalition with a number of groups across Pennsylvania made up of concerned citizens, current and formerly incarcerated people, and interfaith human rights advocates, we have drafted a 12 point platform to restore Pennsylvania’s commutation process. We have prioritized three changes that we think could have a watershed effect on the meaningful restoration of this process.
We ask that you consider all aspects of our 12 point platform and draft legislation including these changes:
Return the Board of Pardons vote requirement for a recommendation of commutation for a lifer to 3 out of 5 votes, rather than the unanimous vote requirement.
Amend the commutation regulations of the Board of Pardons to grant an automatic approval for a public hearing after an applying lifer has served 15 years.
Require that the Board of Pardons provide a written reason for denial of a commutation application for people serving life sentences.
With the recent decision by the Supreme Court that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual punishment, and also President Obama’s actions to commute the sentences of 163 people serving life, we believe the time is right to start addressing these same issues here in Pennsylvania. Please prioritize prison reform, and bring these issues to the legislature.
Restoring commutation does not mean releasing anyone immediately, it only guarantees they’ll have a chance to prove that they’ve changed, are not a threat to public safety and are ready and able to participate in society!
We look forward to hearing your thoughts and collaborating in the future.
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation
i Ogletree, C. (2012). Life without parole America’s new death penalty? New York: New York University Press.
Funds raised will be used to cover legal work, including financing an international investigation to locate Suat Erdogan, the key witness against Charmaine who is likely living outside the U.S. A private investigator has drawn up a plan, and we need to ensure that research, consultation, travel, and labor costs are covered.
Charmaine Pfender deserves to be released from prison. Any amount of time in prison for self-defense is too long, and 31 years is an injustice of massive proportions. Charmaine’s trial attorney and later appellate attorneys never provided her the representation she deserved and was constitutionally entitled to. Every day for more than three decades Charmaine has contributed positively and selflessly to those in her life both inside and outside the prison. She is not, and never has been, a threat to public safety, and we need your help to free her from prison.
We are raising $5,000 so that our committee can take the next steps to gather evidence and build an effective legal defense. We are committed to doing whatever work is needed, and we humbly ask you to join our quest for justice by donating to our vital funding campaign. If a financial contribution is beyond your means, we gratefully suggest that you can effectively support our campaign by sharing the details with as many individuals you can reach.
Charmaine Pfender was 18 years old in August 1984 . She was on a date with man who pulled out a knife and attempted to rape her. As she struggled to protect herself, she reached for a gun, fired a warning shot and tried to flee to safety. The man chased after her, still wielding his knife. Fearing for her own life, she shot again and killed him.
At age 19, after a highly publicized and problematic trial, Charmaine was sentenced to life without parole. She has served over thirty years of that sentence.
About the Trial
Although Charmaine fought for her life the night of the shooting, her trial attorney failed to fight for her, by committing serious errors that deprived the jury of a fair opportunity to consider all the relevant facts, and deprived Charmaine of her freedom.
Charmaine’s attorney failed to call critical character witnesses who knew Charmaine as a peaceful and law abiding teenager. In fact, Charmaine had no criminal record or record of violence before the night of the shooting, and she has maintained that peaceful record ever since. However, the jury never heard this powerful character evidence that Charmaine’s attorney inexplicably failed to present. Instead, the prejudicial, inflammatory, negative depiction of Charmaine made by the prosecution and in the press was the only narrative the jury heard.
The sole witness for the case against Charmaine was Suat Erdogan of Turkey, a friend of the attempted rapist. He was present in the vehicle during the assault of Charmaine. His account of what happened that night changed in meaningful respects each time he told his version.
In police reports, Erdogan stated that Charmaine was struck in the face by his friend. This claim disappeared from his testimony both at the coroner’s inquest and trial.
In Erdogan’s version of events, Charmaine pulled a gun on him and his friend without warning or motive. He also changed details on why and how Charmaine retrieved the gun, demonstrating his willingness to invent details to make his story sound more plausible and move guilt away from his friend to Charmaine.
Erdogan testified that Charmaine attempted to tie his friend’s hands prior to the shooting, but he was shot as he pursued Charmaine, knife in hand.
Charmaine’s attorney disregarded these and any other inconsistencies in Erdogan’s testimony, and even apologized to the jury if he seemed to be “nitpicking” during his cross-examination of Erdogan. He ended the trial by asking for a “fair verdict,” but not an acquittal based on self-defense. Charmaine Pfender was then found guilty of murder.
History of Trauma
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Charmaine suffered physical and psychological trauma. On the night of the shooting, she acted in self-defense, and in accordance with the emotional maturity of her age and her specific history. Expert witnesses were not presented to help the jury form vital context regarding the complexities of trauma, sexual assault and mental health. Without such testimony, the jury could not have sufficient understanding that rape survivors are very commonly disbelieved, mocked, stigmatized and criminalized. Nor was there discussion of the resulting neurological traumatic impact from exposure to high adversity in childhood which affects the brain’s and body’s still developing stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response. Charmaine’s attorney failed to assertively argue that her only choices were to be raped or to fight back.
Self Defense is Not a Crime!
Life-without-parole is a human rights violation, as recognized by the European Court of Human Rights as well as governments around the world. Individuals that receive a sentence to die in prison with no possibility of release, are legally and permanently excluded from society, forever defined by a single criminal conviction regardless of culpability or the person they become.
Pennsylvania has the largest percentage of its prison population serving life-without-parole of any state in the country. In Charmaine’s case, the sentence of life-without-parole carries a particularly sinister message: if a woman defends herself against sexual violence, the state will imprison her until she dies.
Rehabilitation, forgiveness, redemption, transformation, and the ability to reconnect with families and communities in healthy and meaningful ways are not valued in PA. The only hope for Charmaine to spend any part of her life outside of prison is for her case to be retried.
Charmaine’s ability to return to court and challenge her conviction largely rests on our ability to locate Suat Erdogan, the key witness against Charmaine who misled the jury with dishonest testimony. As the Free Charmaine Campaign launches this indiegogo fundraiser, we launch an international investigation to track down Suat Erdogan, whether he is in Turkey or anywhere else on this planet. For the sake of Charmaine’s freedom, we will scour the ends of the Earth to find him.
Char’s Present Activities
Charmaine leads a model life in prison.While at SCI Cambridge Springs, Charmaine has devoted herself to personal growth and service. She is housed in the honor cottage and has received the highest prisoner rating available to lifers. She is educated as a certified carpenter, already completing over 10,000 hours of training. She works diligently at her prison job transcribing texts into Braille. She gives back to the community by training service canines and knitting sweaters for children in need. She maintains close and loving relationships with her mother, sister, and extended family. In short, she is a grounded, compassionate person living as meaningful a life as possible despite the constraints of the state. Just imagine who she could be if she were allowed to be free!
“Women have always been the change agents of our society,” said Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, an organization committed to educational advancement for women with criminal record histories and their families.
Nixon was keynoting the landmark conference, FreeHer, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 4 and 5, where more than 43 formerly incarcerated women and their allies convened to rally an audience of 300 at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Leaders from across the country highlighted why this is the time for the United States to fund and support strategies to decrease the number of women behind bars and to end the mass criminalization of Black and poor women.
Women’s incarceration has not been fully addressed, however. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison system.”
Nixon had barely landed from a whirlwind week, the culmination of her years of fighting to return federal Pell Grants to prisoners. Her activism had landed her a seat at the table with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She was at the Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup on July 31 as the Obama administration unveiled a pilot program that will allow a group of prisoners to use federal Pell Grants to fund their education behind bars. Nixon also urged the FreeHer audience to fight for the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, far-reaching legislation sponsored by Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards and others that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for federal and state prisoners. She said her path from incarceration to national leader taught her that “education is a path to escape the cycle of poverty and criminal recidivism.”
Nixon was passionate about the problem: “When we include probation, 7 million people are experiencing mass criminalization and racial discrimination. … Women’s incarceration has not been fully addressed, however. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison system.” According to the Sentencing Project, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for women is 1 in 56. But the likelihood increases to 1 in 19 for Black women; 1 in 45 and 1 in 118 for Hispanic and white women, respectively. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics special report, “The number of children under age 18 with a mother in prison [has] more than doubled since 1991,” and, “Sixty-four percent of mothers in state prisons lived with their children before they were sent to prison, compared to 47 percent of fathers.”
Nixon declared that “Locking up women means paying the tab for the care and shelter of kids.” Her call for activism echoed Alice Walker from In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Those who fight for women’s justice are “womanish,” she said. “Freedom and justice for all means every woman,” she added. “We care about all oppressed peoples, and we must turn the current moment into a movement.”
Building a Network
FreeHer is an attempt to turn this moment into a movement – at a time when criminal injustice is undeniable nationwide, and the leadership of Black women is crucial to justice. The term is the brainchild of Andrea James. James, a founding member and executive director for Families for Justice as Healing (FJH), is a formerly incarcerated woman, former attorney and current Soros Justice Fellow. Her intention is to build a network of formerly incarcerated women and their allies to create change through action.
James met many compatriots when she was sentenced to 24 months behind bars and served time at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, the women’s prison “camp” made famous by Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black. James described that experience, collaborating with other incarcerated women, and the development of FJH in her book, Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts On The Politics of Mass Incarceration, published in 2013. Since her release in 2011, she has worked relentlessly, traveling throughout the country to connect with other leaders.
Her Soros fellowship is “an incredible opportunity” to build this network, James told Truthout. She now becomes one of Open Society’s core change-makers: “challenging the overreliance on incarceration and extreme punishment, and ensuring a fair and accountable system of justice.”
Last year, James and members of FJH, held a rally in Washington, DC, to bring attention to the needs of female prisoners, unjust sentencing, and the inequities of justice, and to demand an end to the mass incarceration of women.
The FreeHer Conference, this year, was the kickoff for James’ Soros Justice project. The Open Society Foundation is funding James, one of only 15 to be so honored by the foundation this year, to create a national network.
In an interview, James said she aims to expand awareness of how prison and jail impact women, their children and their communities: “My purpose is to connect those I have met throughout the country, who are doing work to restructure the criminal justice system, and to bring on board other formerly incarcerated women – with the goal of giving everybody a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on.” To that end, James organized the conference with panels according to theme, and panel by panel, the conference speakers articulated both current activism and ideas to inspire leaders to future action.
Ending the Criminalization of Women
Kemba Smith never touched a drug but was the girlfriend of a man who sold drugs, and still, in 1994, she received a 24 and a half-year sentence, making her a poster child for overly-harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing policies. Her book Poster Child tells the story of her path from being a college student to experiencing domestic violence to giving birth to her son behind bars at 23 – and finally to receiving executive clemency after six and one-half years.
Smith acknowledged that she was one of the lucky ones. She has been able to turn her unjust criminalization into a book, a movie, and a series of speaking engagements around the country, fighting for those left behind. “There are still thousands of women in prison,” said James, adding to Smith’s story. “And young women are still going to prison for things they should not be going to prison for.” The National Institute of Corrections estimates, as of 2013, 1 million women were under some kind of correctional control.”
Throughout the day, advocates said the United States must end the criminalization of women because of addiction, poverty, race and sexual violence.
Smith left behind a son when she went to prison. She said that years later, after her release, he told her,”As much as you tried to make my life normal, it wasn’t.”
Jasmine Barclay was one of those youngsters left behind. “One in nine African Americans have a parent in prison,” said Ellen Barry, a social justice activist who has worked on behalf of prisoners, their children and their families for her entire career.
Barclay’s short film, When Life Hands You Lemons, tells the story of how her father was incarcerated when she was 14, and her family, including her mother, turned their backs on her. But Barclay didn’t cave. In a summer youth program, she worked at a local TV station and got involved in creating and producing films to deal with her pain. Barclay is now connecting with others, teaching film at that same station, attending college, and acting as a support for other young men and women who have family members behind bars. She said, “When someone dies, people send a casserole, but when your parent goes to prison, no one is sending anything.”
Powerhouse Deborah Peterson Small brought down the house when she shared her vision of “Why We’re Here.” Small, who has been at the forefront of changing drug policy and sentencing is the executive director of Break the Chains, an advocacy group fighting the failed “war on drugs.” She said, “The United Racist States of America” has allowed people to be destroyed. She said we must “bury that conversation” and understand that the real conversation is about “freeing our minds,” not just getting us out of prison. She challenged everyone to decide how to fight mass criminalization by deciding what purpose they had in this movement and what each could bring to the table. She received thunderous applause with her words, “What are you built for?”
Building a Movement
Barbara Fair, a community organizer in New Haven, Connecticut, who founded the original “My Brother’s Keeper,” an advocacy group, said she is the mother of seven sons. “Every one spent time in prison,” she added. “If not for our drug policy, I never would have been in this position. … Prison destroys and tears you down.”
In 2012, Fair testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights about the horrors of solitary confinement. At 17, one of her sons was sent to Connecticut’s Northern institution, a supermax facility, and the conditions there caused him to suffer a severe mental breakdown and lead to multiple hospitalizations. “Solitary confinement stole my son from me,” she told the FreeHer audience. “After 30 years of doing reform work, I have learned that we need to tear the whole system down.”
Now she is one of a number of women answering Deborah Small’s question by sharing stories of their lives and their family’s incarceration, creating organizations, filing legislation, testifying before Congress and working for change. Advocates shared bills they were working on, trending legislation and the value of education to create change in people’s lives.
Many spoke of how they have faced the incarceration of their children, partners or parents. Gina Clayton, founder and executive director of the Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit in California named for her great-grandmother, said that “One in 4 women have a family member in prison, but for Black women it is 1 in 2.” Her work, also as a Soros fellow, has enabled her to create a safety net for women with incarcerated loved ones.
Dorothy Johnson-Speight channeled her anger when her son, Khaaliq was shot to death, at age 24, over a parking space in Philadelphia. She created Mothers in Charge, a grassroots organization dedicated to violence prevention, education and intervention. Johnson-Speight knew that going inside prison and meeting those who had murdered boys like her own would be difficult, but she did, believing “they are all our sons.”
“My journey is different from your journey but it brings me to the same place,” she said. “Collectively we’re all just a sister away, and we’ve got to work together to make a difference.”
Christina Voight, a formerly incarcerated woman who gave birth to her son in shackles, was denied access to the prison nursery program for her son at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
“When I was incarcerated, I did everything I could to teach women what to do. Women need love. If you can’t get it from the world, you can get it from each other.”
After her son was taken away, she sued and eventually regained custody, becoming one of the first women prisoners in a New York state prison to win a suit against the Administration of Child Services. In spite of the fact that she is a program coordinator with Soros Justice Fellowships, Voight said, the government doesn’t see her that way: “I am a violent offender for the rest of my life.” She summed up why the FreeHer movement was important to her: “Legislation begins with the true stories of people.”
At the end of the conference, Andrea James honored “Grandma” Phyllis Hardy, by giving her time to speak to the gathering on Skype. Hardy, who was released from Danbury in March, 2015, after 23 years and five months, had been ill and unable to attend. James said she had been the matriarch for many of the women on the stage at Harvard.
“When I was incarcerated I did everything I could to teach women what to do,” Hardy said. “Women need love. If you can’t get it from the world, you can get it from each other. We as women who are free have to help the ones who are left behind. We can teach them from the outside in.”
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Patricia Vickers showing her son Shakaboona
Kayla Bower from Amachi Pittsburgh!!
Families of Prisoners Panel
The Youth Panel
PA Represent! Patrica Vickers from HRC – Philly, etta & Ursula from Let’s Get Free
The Legislative Panel
Patricia Vickers and Lois Ahrens
etta cetera and Ms. Lillie Branch- Kennedy celebrating 10 years of prison justice solidarity & frienship!
This past Saturday, August 8th, was the 31st anniversary of Charmaine Pfender’s unjust incarceration. Organizers with Let’s Get Free visited her at SCI-Cambridge Springs one week ago. It was wonderful to spend some quality time with her!
Let’s Get Free will be launching a new campaign to get Charmaine out of prison in the next couple months – stay posted for more details!
In the winter of 2014, with the help of Avis Lee, Let’s Get Free (LGF) created a short survey to learn more about the lives and histories of female lifers in Pennsylvania. Focusing on the women’s prison SCI-Cambridge Springs, where LGF members Charmaine Pfender and Avis Lee are currently incarcerated, we sent surveys to 27 inmates, all of whom have Pennsylvania’s mandatory “life without parole” sentence. Our goal was to learn more about the personal narratives of the women who have these sentences. Pennsylvania is one of only 6 states that have no parole options for lifers, which makes commutation the only possibility of release for these individuals, and which requires an admission of guilt, which is not an option for all inmates. For the last 25 years, only 6 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released.
We quickly received 18 responses to our questionnaire, many from inmates who were anxious to have their voices heard for the first time in decades.
This is the beginning of a series on the Let’s Get Free blog that will feature their voices, stories, and perspectives. Our first post is two poems that were submitted by Tracey “Nadirah” Shaw, #OD4315, who has been incarcerated for over 20 years:
We’re More Than Just A Number
We’re More Than Just A Number
of that I have no doubt
So much aggression and humiliation
This we can do without
We’re More Than Just A Number
Why can’t you see?
We strive to be humble
But that’s only part of me.
We’re More Than Just A Number
We have families and friendships too
So the next time you criticize or judge US
THINK of how EASILY WE CAN BE YOU!
Here I Sit Doing Time Here I sit doing time for a crime I didn’t commit. Here I sit doing time when will they see there was not enough evidence to convict me But here I sit doing life. Here I sit doing time When the GUILTY one is running free Here I sit doing time for his crime, WHY! could he not just let us be free We no longer wanted him couldn’t he see. Now MY Angels are looking down on me. For I know the God will listen and give me strength to go on because He knows I’m INNOCENT. He’ll open my eyes to see a brand new dawn. One day this time will be over as I sit and wait One day again I’ll feel FREEDOM as I proudly walk through that GATE!