Abolitionist Law Center published this on February 13, 2021: Avis Lee is finally out! At the age of 18, Avis was sentenced to die in prison. She was denied commutation five times during her 41 years in prison. Brilliant organizer and friend who co-founded Lets Get Free with Avis in 2013 is etta cetera. etta reflects, “When Avis learned that she was first denied a merit hearing in 2016, she said, ‘Guess, I’ll start working on my next application, tomorrow.’”
Unfazed and unrelenting, Avis believed in her own freedom; she is her own liberator.
Don’t get it twisted – Governor Wolf has not “freed” anyone. He did the bare minimum by signing off on commutation applications that sat on his desk for a half-year, and only signed them after the death of Bruce Norris who should be with his family right now.
In other words, Wolf finally did his job as Governor.
There is no praise for Wolf. Only mad love for ALL the organizers, volunteers, friends, families, movement lawyers, movement donors and survivors of state violence who, over many years, have signed countless petitions, created commutation kits, sent letters to Avis, attended rallies, public hearings, and workshops, and litigated on Avis’s behalf, guided by her own vision of emancipation.
Let’s Get Free is raising a whopping $40,000 to amplify the message that ‘Life Sentences are Death Sentences’ in Pennsylvania. PA has one of the largest populations of people sentenced to die in prison in the US–5,300. We need to build public awareness to strengthen our movement to bring our people home. We need to push our cause outside of our committed justice bubbles. We want lawmakers and residents across PA to see a few of the faces who have been sentenced to die.
Help us reach the unthinkable!! One billboard on the turnpike for 2 months can make 1 million impressions. Millions of people who have never thought about this issue will be exposed.
The billboards will be launched in conjunction with each of the four sessions of merit review and public hearings in 2021. These hearings are important stages in the commutation process, one of the only ways for people with life sentences to be released from prison.
Each billboard lease for 2 months is : $3000 3 billboards for 2 months : $9000
Multiplied by 4 equals $36,000 to rent for billboards for the whole year. Total cost of printing 3 boards: $3,900
This totals: $39.900
We have already raised $7000 for the billboard campaign. All the remaining money that does not go to billboards will go to ads on city bus shelters and public buses.
We have been working to transform the amazing art we received from our art contest into public service announcements. Don’t you want to see this art and messaging raising awareness about Death by Incarceration on buses all across the state? We do!!
If 2,000 people donate $20 bucks – We got this! If 1,000 people donate $40 bucks- We got this! If 500 people donate $80 bucks -We got this! If 250 people donate $160 bucks– We got this!
The women featured on this image are Tameka Flowers, Charmaine Pfender and Sarita Miller. Their images will not be posted on billboards without their consent. This graphic was designed by the People’s Paper Coop and the stills are from footage shot by Tusko films.
GRATITUDE ACROSS THE LATITUDES Community!!
With your contribution, this messaging will truly be an effort of the grass roots! Help us shift the punishment paradigm and bring our loved ones home.
[Image Description of Billboard: This graphic is rectangular and has an orange pink sherbert back ground. Featured on the right of the image are photographs of three faces: Tameka, Charmaine and Sarita. Tameka is a Black woman with her hair pulled back in a neat pile on top of her head. She has a cross necklace. Char is a white person that appears gender neutral with a round face and short hair. Sarita is Black woman with straight hair that frames her face and ends at her shoulders. All the faces are wearing expressions as if in conversation. In big letters on the left the words: 5300 people in PA are sentenced to die in prison. To the bottom right are the words yellow: End Death by Incarceration. Underneath in white: letsgetfree.info]
We learned just last week that our beloved elder Russell Maroon Shoatz contracted COVID 19. Maroon is a prisoner in Pennsylvania and a former Black Panther who has been imprisoned since 1970. He is 77 years old. He has been living with stage 4 colon cancer since last year.
Just as he was exiting the prison walls last week to get the tumor removed at a hospital, he was stopped at the door and asked to take a COVID test. He tested positive. Immediately they sent him to a small gymnasium where others with COVID are being quarantined in the prison. When he got there, he found 29 senior prisoners who said to him: “welcome. We’ve been waiting for you, we figured it wasn’t long before you got it too.”
This means that there are 30 seniors with COVID in a dank, cold gymnasium in a prison in PA. They are being held under the most inhumane conditions imaginable. 30 men including Maroon had access to only one bathroom. Maroon was put in a space without a light and had go to the bathroom on himself because he couldn’t risk getting up and falling.
Maroon’s family and the community mobilized and we won his transfer to the infirmary. But we need him to come home.
But this human rights catastrophe is repeating itself across the state and across the country because prisons are a death trap in the age of COVID. Prisons are on lock down in PA right now because the virus is spreading like a storm. Country’s around the world like Iran and Turkey but the United States has refused to decarcerate it’s mostly black and latinx prison population.
Russell Maroon Shoatz is no danger to his community. He has stage 4 cancer and he has COVID. The civilized and humane thing to do is to allow him to go home to his family. We are asking for his immediate release and for the immediate release of all other aging prisoners over the age of 50 and those with pre-existing conditions for whom incarceration is a death sentence. We ask for the immediately and unconditional release of Maroon!!
Continue to Call Governor Tom Wolfe Contact: (717) 787-2500
Let them know that Russell Shoatz’s (DOC# AF3855) health is rapidly deteriorating. and demand immediate release. They track the calls from different phones and how many times they same number calls so please keep calling and activate your networks.
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 judgement?
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-possibly. Always file for a reconsideration.
The last weekend of January was full of activity across the nation and in Philly. Trump had just announced the travel ban that Friday evening, and people all over the country were flocking to airports to speak up, sit in, and support Muslim travelers from the seven named countries who were being detained. Philadelphia was no different. Several of the 50 attendees of the state-wide strategy meeting of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) cut out at lunch to legal observe and participate in the resilient and spirited uprising. This energy infused our meeting space; several signs were hung declaring solidarity with Muslim people and denouncing deportations.
The bulk of the eight-hour strategy meeting was spent divided into break-out groups developing goals for the year. The Membership group strategized around sustaining, supporting, and recruiting new members. Ideas generated from this session included creating a resource sharing tool kit for family members, developing a formal orientation, and having parties to bring people together. A dinner honoring family members of lifers is already on the calendar for March 25th.
The Media group talked tactics on messaging, writing op-ed’s, developing workshops, and creating one-page talking points that would be supportive of different audiences.
Next we had the Statewide Coalition crew and the Legislative crew. There are many overlapping ideas here centering our goal of passing HB 135—the parole expansion for lifers bill, also called the Dawkin’s bill. We talked about reaching out to the rural communities and outlying counties where our campaign is underrepresented. A power mapping initiative is already underway, and once the priorities are articulated, we can call on our incarcerated comrades to locate people and potential constituents in those regions. In other words, we need lifers from the rural regions to get their families involved so their representatives will listen to us when we say “Liberation In Our Lifetime!”
We plan to host three trips to Harrisburg to build momentum and lobby, as well as a lot of traveling around the state with community dialogues, townhalls, and meetings with lawmakers. This post was reprinted from the Global Network to Free Maroon‘s March Newsletter.
How we gonna bring our people home alive? Gonna Pass HB- 135
Ellen Melchiondo writes: The hearing lasted about half an hour.
Before the hearing began, the assistant to lawyer Susan Ricci of the Philadelphia Defenders Association, took the names of the people who came in support of Paulette: four members of Paulette’s family, two women from The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, Pastor Collins and Richard “Tut” Carter of the Church of The Overcomers, Paul Mack, Ellen Melchiondo,Mike Lyons, Yvonne Newkirk and 3 others from CADBI, FFL, PA Prison Society and The Redemption Project, Susan Beard-Nole, wife of Freddie Nole a juvenile lifer, Cecilia Velasquez, sister of Ben who is a lifer and who spent some time at Muncy. (All of the names were submitted to the court for the record and some names were read by Ricci during her presentation.) A card was signed by everyone to be given to Paulette.
Paulette’s family provided her with new clothes to wear. Paulette looked at everyone as she was seated upon entering. Susan Ricci frequently had her arm on Paulette’s back and arm.
The ADA said little, except to verify the plea deal and supported it. 35 to life. Paulette served 38 years. There was no opposition.
Susan Ricci explained Paulette’s life before the incident and the training, work and programs that Paulette completed while in prison. Paulette spoke as she struggled with tears as she expressed her remorse and wishes to help young people avoid her situation.
The judge, Katheryn Streeter Lewis, read about the crime, the GED and HS Diploma that Paulette achieved. The judge said she was aware that Paulette is the first female juvenile lifer in PA to get this far. The judge expressed her confidence in Paulette’s ability to be successful after prison.She also expressed her desire to see that children like Paulette get the support they need to avoid tragedy and that the system had failed them.
Paulette agreed with all of legal limitations that she pled to. The supporters applauded at the end and Paulette was escorted out by the sheriff, who sat by her the entire time. No hugs allowed.
Paulette will return to SCI Cambridge Springs to work out parole arrangements and within three months she will return to Philadelphia to live in a transitional home for six months before joining family.
From Cecilia Velasquez whose brother Ben is serving LWOP for decades: As Paulette begin to talk about her crime, she choked back tears as she expressed her remorse for the life she had taken. The audience felt her pain as tears rolled down many in the audience. I, Cecilia, met Paulette many years ago, over 36 years ago. At that time, she was a young teen even young for her age, yet, there was already a sense of a heavy laden burden from the sentenced she had been given.
Yesterday I met the woman she had become despite all she had experience in those 38 years, the people she had lost, the oblivious suffering and pain written on her face. Paulette had overcome her situation and circumstances to develop, grow, improve herself and help those around her.
As I sat in the audience I couldn’t help feel Peachies’ presence and the ground work with her life!Paulette is truly a testament to all of us on how to live in spite of our Circumstances. I felt honored to be part of this history making event to change the destiny of juvenile women lifers. Paulette, Thank you.
From Susan Beard-Nole whose husband Freddie has been serving JLWOP for 47 years:
It brought great sorrow to hear that Paulette lost her only child to violence. Just a reminder of the harm done to children who are separated from their mothers/fathers due to prison. Despite that sadness, Paulette continued on to help the young women who crossed her path.
From Susan Ricci, Paulette’s attorney at the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia:
I agree that Paulette’s story is a very powerful one and I too thought the court staff and the judge were moved by it. Of course it is terrible what happened to the deceased in this case, but Paulette was truly a victim in all this as well. A life sentence was so incredibly unjust. Judge Lewis has now handled a number of resentencing hearings in juvenile lifer cases but this was the first time I have heard her question out loud who is responsible for all the trauma inflicted on the children who then went on to act out in a way that ended so tragically. Paulette is such a strong woman. I am grateful to have been assigned her case so that I got the opportunity to know her. And I am very thankful you and the others were there to support her. It meant so much to her.
There are over 5000 people serving Life Without Parole sentences in Pennsylvania. In PA, ‘life’ means your entire life, which is why many instead call it Death By Incarceration (DBI). This harsh sentencing does not improve public safety and disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color.
We believe that denying people the right to transformation and redemption is an affront to everyone’s humanity. Join the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) and our allies from across the state as we converge at the state capitol to ask our legislators to end Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania.
There is now a bill in the PA House that would make people serving DBI eligible for parole after 15 years. The bill is HB2135 and was introduced by Rep. Dawkins. But we need mass public pressure in order to move the bill forward.
$10-15 Sliding Scale – No one turned away for lack of funds, formerly incarcerated come for free.
In 2012, Mariposa was sentenced to fifteen months in solitary confinement. Through letters with longtime friend and current collaborator, Julia Steele Allen, Mariposa brings her experience to the stage.
Every performance followed by a dialogue with Prison Justice advocates.
“Mariposa‘s story is one I now carry with me in a visceral and alive place. This is a must-see, and a must-share. And it will stir a must-respond from all who encounter it.”
– Rev. Laura Markle Downton, Director of U.S. Prisons Policy & Program
National Religious Campaign Against TortureClick here for Facebook Event
Currently, more than 5,000 people in Pennsylvania are serving life without parole, a full 10% of the imprisoned population, a higher percentage than any other state. As people in prison age the cost of incarcerating them goes up while simultaneously their likelihood of recidivism decreases. Many of these people are deeply remorseful about the situations that brought them to prison and want to be able to give back to their communities by sharing their wisdom with today’s youth to keep them from making similar mistakes., many of whom are now senior citizens. Restoring Meaningful Commutation is one way to help deserving lifers get a 2nd Chance.
In Pennsylvania, one in 10 inmates is sentenced to life in prison. Because state law gives them no possibility of parole, nearly all of more than 5,300 inmates serving life terms will eventually die inside prison walls.
“They have no choice but to age and die in place,” said Julia Hall, a criminal justice professor and gerontologist at Drexel University.
In the Laurel Highlands prison, seven rooms are the final stop for some of the state’s sickest and oldest inmates. With breathing tubes and IVs, the mostly gray-haired inmates wait for their bodies to fail.
When their vital signs slip and they struggle for breath, other inmates hold vigil so they won’t die alone.
Sometimes death is sudden. Other times, volunteers like Christian, a 32-year-old inmate from Philadelphia, watch as life slowly slips away.
“They get to the point that they can’t talk no more,” he said. “That last breath of air they’re taking — and you’re really there holding their hands.”
Christian, along with four other inmate volunteers, was describing his work at the hospice unit at State Correctional Institution – Laurel Highlands, a former state mental hospital that was converted in 1996 to a prison hospital for male inmates.
The facility has had a full-time hospice service for two years with room for seven inmates at a time. Previously, the hospital had a less formal system where the nursing staff tried to make inmates comfortable as they neared death.
PublicSource was granted access in August under an agreement that the last names of inmates would not be used.
Life means life
Only Florida has more inmates serving life without parole than Pennsylvania, according to a nationwide ranking of 2012 numbers by the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.
State law mandates life in prison for defendants convicted of first and second-degree murder.
Accomplices to murder are treated the same as a killer, even if they themselves did not cause the death. First-degree murderers can also be sentenced to death.
Repeat violent offenders can also be sentenced to life under Pennsylvania’s three-strikes law, and other inmates serve de-facto life sentences with minimums so lengthy that they will almost certainly die before release.
From 2009 through 2013, 144 lifers died in Pennsylvania, according to state statistics. Over the same period, only four inmates had life sentences commuted by the governor after unanimous recommendation by the Board of Pardons.
Since 2010, just six inmates have been granted compassionate release, which is available to inmates nearing death who meet strict criteria, according to the Department of Corrections.
‘Nobody dies alone’
At SCI – Laurel Highlands, volunteers like Christian visit patients several hours each week, playing games, helping them write letters and sometimes just keeping them company.
“Those guys need help. They don’t have no family coming to visit,” said Elvis, an inmate volunteer from Venango County.
In the seven rooms for dedicated hospice care referred to as cubes, the focus is on reducing pain, providing comfort and helping them reach out to family members.
The program is based in part on a hospice unit in California where Laurel Highlands’ former superintendent sent Annette Kowalewski, a corrections healthcare administrator, and Paula Sroka, a quality improvement nurse.
In August, the hospice rooms were full until a 68-year-old inmate died after declining treatment for liver disease and lung cancer.
Medical staff are responsible for all the patients’ health care, while inmates provide companionship and physical help such as lifting patients out of bed.
Terminal illness strikes young inmates too, and a life term is not a prerequisite to dying in prison.
Special arrangements are made so family members can visit — sometimes for hours at a time — and the prison ensures that they’ll have access when the patient is dying.
If family doesn’t come, the inmates are there.
“Nobody dies alone,” Kowalewski said. “That’s our primary concern.”
Care across the state?
Christopher Oppman, director of the Bureau of Health Care Services for the Department of Corrections, said the state has adequate resources to ensure prisoners can get hospice care in infirmaries across the prison system.
But dedicated rooms for hospice care are less common outside of Laurel Highlands, so inmates at many facilities die in open wards.
“We would not be able to operate hospice on the scale that Laurel Highlands would,” Oppman said.
Staff at some facilities lack expertise in pain and symptom management, said Phyllis Taylor, a nurse and hospice expert who has previously worked as a consultant for the department.
In other words, not every prison gives the same quality of care.
“Some of the places maybe,” she said, “but not across the board.”
Taylor assisted researchers from Penn State University in a pilot program with the department to improve end-of-life care at six prisons that have high populations of aging inmates or lifers.
Staff at those prisons received specialized training to improve and standardize end-of-life care.
Currently, the corrections department is establishing best practices for prison hospice care statewide, Oppman said.
Paying until death
In Pennsylvania, inmates are classified as geriatric at 55. Common health problems are diabetes, cancer, liver disease and heart problems. Kowalewski said that an inmate who is 40 might look several decades older.
Of the roughly 5,300 geriatric inmates in Pennsylvania prisons, about 1,500 are serving life terms.
Because parole is not possible for lifers, Hall argues that the state is committed to a geriatric prison system.
“You’re going to keep paying until they die,” she said.
The state spent more than $35,000 for each inmate in the 2012-’13 fiscal year. The state does not keep numbers on the specific cost for inmates over 55, but costs increase as more medical care is needed.
The prison system is among the most expensive institutions in Pennsylvania, costing the state more than $2 billion this fiscal year.
At the end of September, 19 of the state’s 26 correctional institutions were at or above capacity, according to the most recent population numbers available.
Laurel Highlands, which was at 99.4 percent of capacity, costs $75 million to operate for the year.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, compared parts of the facility to a nursing home.
“When you see someone who’s on oxygen or in very poor health, we’re spending a lot of money to have that person in a prison,” Bergstrom said.
The state acknowledges that the risk of reoffending drops off with age.
The department’s 2013 recidivism report said released inmates under 21 are more than twice as likely to reoffend within three years as inmates over 50. Age has a “strong negative correlation” on recidivism, the report said.
Few ways out
Rather than paying costs indefinitely, Hall advocates for more compassionate release, criticizing a system with requirements so strict that it’s almost never used.
Politicians, she said, consider compassionate release “going easy” on offenders guilty of heinous crimes.
“It’s such a joke,” Hall said.
The state’s compassionate release rules were updated as part of a broader prison reform in 2008.
Under the law, a sentencing judge has the power to release inmates only if they are near death, have a nursing or hospice facility that will take them and have shown that their needs aren’t met in prison.
Rarely do inmates qualify.
Taylor, who has assisted prisoners seeking compassionate release, said an inmate needs to be immobile and essentially “on death’s doorstep” before a discharge is considered.
Victims and prosecutors get to weigh in, and the risk to public safety is considered.
“If they’re lifers, it doesn’t happen,” Taylor said. “That’s been my experience.”
For others, paperwork may take so long that an inmate dies before a decision is made.
Taylor said the state needs a method to evaluate whether inmates should be released if they are many years into a life term and have demonstrated that they’re not a threat.
Movement to change sentencing laws for lifers has been slow, Bergstrom said, though interest in Harrisburg is greater now than 10 years ago.
But lawmakers knew about the issue then.
In 2002, a Senate resolution directed the Joint State Government Commission to form a bipartisan task force and advisory committee to study the state’s handling of geriatric and seriously-ill prisoners. The group delivered a report in 2005 about the high-cost of an aging prison population and offered potential fixes, including the possibility of parole for lifers.
Hall, who was a member of the committee, said lawmakers ignored their suggestions and made compassionate release more difficult, not less.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that ruling does not apply to inmates already serving time, and the federal Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
However, Bergstrom said the Supreme Court ruling might give inmates already sentenced to life as juveniles traction with the state Board of Pardons.
Decades ago, commutations were common, meaning inmates serving life without parole would be given a lesser sentence by the governor. In the 1970s, for instance, Gov. Milton Shapp commuted 251 life sentences.
But commutations have become rare since, and under a 1997 amendment to the state constitution, the state’s Board of Pardons must unanimously recommend commutation before the governor can act.
Since the rule change, Gov. Mark Schweiker commuted one sentence and Gov. Ed Rendell commuted five.
Gov. Tom Corbett has commuted none.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Don’t want him to go’
With few ways out, sick inmates live their last days in facilities like Laurel Highlands.
The prison looks like a hospital, but with razor wire out front and vertical bars in the hallways. Patients sit in wheelchairs, breathing bottled oxygen and numbly stare into the distance.
Watching prisoners die has given the inmate volunteers perspective on their own lives and made them think about what it would mean to live the rest of their days — and die — in prison.
“I don’t think that people on the outside really understand what it’s like for a person to die in prison,” said Travis, a volunteer who was at Laurel Highlands and is now out on parole.
Among the men in hospice care at Laurel Highlands is a 96-year-old inmate named Simon — the oldest inmate in the Pennsylvania prison system.
He’s built relationships with the volunteers, and they’ve watched his health slip as he moved into hospice care.
“I don’t want him to go,” Elvis said. “He’s like a grandpa to me.”