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Life Means Death for Thousands of PA Prisoners

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Death in prison is not rare.

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 relatPublicSource-logo-square-REDionships 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.”

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.

Reposted with permission from Public Source. Link to original article here.

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5 Minute Action Today for a Mother in Prison!

characters-bgPlease take 5 minutes to tweek this letter. Sign it  Print it out and MAIL  the letters to June Maxam –Box 408 Chestertown, NY 12817! Today is THURSDAY THE 7TH.

Tanika Dickson was the victim of racial violence then blamed for the attack and separated from her children. She has already done over 15 years in prison. Tanika who was featured in the Mothers of Bedford will see the parole board on January 12th.

 

Address the letter to: New York State Department of Corrections Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDCCS) Board of Parole
1220 Washington Ave Building 2 Albany, NY 12226

IT WILL ONLY TAKE 10 MINUTES OF YOUR TIME TO PERFORM THIS SMALL ACT OF SOLIDARITY THAT COULD HAVE A MEANINGFUL IMPACT – WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT

To Hear Tanika Dickson tell the story in her own words see the movie The Mothers of Bedford.

Background on Tanika’s Case –

Tanika Dickson pled guilty to the Murder of David Gallup. Accounts from witnesses indicated David Gallup, the brother of a Glenville police officer was in Casey’s Bar in Schenectady, NY, drinking for approximately 12 hours prior to the instant offense. He was severely intoxicated, and made some other patrons in the bar uncomfortable from acting strangely. Several witnesses knew this victim and indicated that on the day the crime was committed, he had been fired from his job at Wal-Mart for making racially offensive remarks. It was verified through police reports, the victim had a history of domestic violence against women and alcohol-related offenses.

The instant offense involved Ms. Dickson stabbing David Gallup in the neck while trying to exit the bar resulting in his death. Several disturbing things took place prior to the stabbing that led up to this event. A verbal altercation took place at the bar where David Gallup referred to Tanika as a “n*#%!r slut bitch.” At this time, the parties were separated by the bar’s security. David Gallup should have been escorted out of the bar due to the fact that he had been in the bar for at least 12 hours and was clearly in an intoxicated state. The bar continued to serve him alcohol.

Tanika tried to leave the bar peacefully. She recalls Mr. Gallup blocking her exit to the street. Out of fear, she reacted and stabbed Mr. Gallup. She was charged with Murder in the second degree. A plea was negotiated within 12 hours of the instant offense. Ms. Dickson was intoxicated at the time of the instant offense.

Because Tanika entered a plea waiving her right to appeal, she has limited legal remedies available to her. All post-conviction remedies pursued have failed.

During preparation of Tanika’s clemency packet, Tanika was evaluated by a psychologist who stated:

“From a record review and direct observation of Tanika Dickson, this examiner opines there is a mitigating factor of extreme emotional disturbance that contributed to the instant matter. Tanika was extremely intoxicated at the time of the crime after drinking that evening. The blood alcohol level probably present in Tanika would have diminished her control as well as diminished her capacity for rational thought. Secondly, Tanika felt threatened by the victim. His face was angry and he was saying threatening things. Tanika stated, “I was scared…I didn’t know what he was capable of doing to me.”

He continued:

“Tanika had a history of being raped as well as being physically abused. These strong memories also affected her emotional state in that she saw herself as a potential victim with no sense of being helped or anyone else as she approached the victim who suddenly blocked her exit from the bar.”

He further indicated:

“It is this examiner’s opinion that when Tanika refers to being blacked out that she is referring to an emotional black out caused by her extreme emotional disturbance and fear. This was not an alcoholic black out.”

The psychologist concluded:

“Tanika’s behavior was motivated by an understandable fear that she would be physically harmed and killed by the victim. He had threatened her verbally and non-verbally to a significant degree enough that the staff felt compelled to make him go to the other end of the bar.”

Tips : Do not say anything like “it was a mistake”

Do highlight remorse .

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Happy Birthday Chelsea Manning

chelsea

Today marks the 28th birthday of inspirational fighter for freedom and U.S. military whistelblower, Chelsea Manning, and her sixth birthday spent incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Celebrations are being held in her honor today, in London, Boston, and beyond as a show of continual support. In a year that has brought so much tragedy to so many, let us stand in solidarity with people like Chelsea, who are leading us on the path towards justice and self-determination. Feel free to leave your own birthday wishes below. One day she’ll be free to read them.

Leave Messages HERE

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New Report Highlights Growing Number of Aging People in Prison

by Kanya D’Almeida, Race and Justice Reporter, RH Reality Check

Reposted with permission

“When I got out nine years ago, it was like being thrown from the top of the stairs to the bottom—I had nothing,” Gloria Rubero wrote in a recent policy paper, part of a new report on reducing elder incarceration in New York state.

“When I got out nine years ago, it was like being thrown from the top of the stairs to the bottom—I had nothing," Gloria Rubero wrote in a recent policy paper, part of a new report on reducing elder incarceration in New York state.

(Rubero pictured on right. The Justice Initiative at Columbia University / YouTube)

Gloria Rubero served 26 years in New York prisons. Between being incarcerated at the age of 30 and her release at age 56, she was denied parole five times, suffered two major strokes, and earned her GED and a college degree.

Rubero’s account of life after prison following her release in 2006 chronicles her struggles to find work, receive Medicaid, get an apartment, and adjust to a new and fast-paced world—struggles that countless returning citizens, and particularly older people, confront on a daily basis.

Published by Columbia University’s Center for Justice, the report is a collection of policy papers produced in the aftermath of a Spring 2014 symposium organized by RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison), the Correctional Association of New York, Be the Evidence Project, and others, aimed at addressing the fast-growing population of aging people in prison.

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RAPP Director Mujahid Farid

Experts in the field, including numerous formerly incarcerated people, argue that the rapid growth in the number of elderly prisoners demonstrates the punitive nature of the U.S. justice system, and further contend that the huge costs associated with locking up aging citizens—defined in the report as anyone over the age of 50—is incommensurate with the risk they pose to society.

According to the report, just 6.4 percent of people incarcerated in New York state prisons who were released after the age of 50 returned for new convictions, a number that fell to 4 percent for those who were 65 or older.

The authors say that expediting their release is a “critical part of reducing mass incarceration, and of creating a more fair, just and humane justice system.”

The state’s aging prison population shot up by 81 percent, from 5,111 in 2000 to 9,269 in 2013, according to the State of New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The paper suggests this has largely been the result of so-called tough on crime legislation, such as mandatory life sentences without parole associated with the “three strikes, you’re out” law, and rigid release policies.

Prisoners older than 50 now comprise 17 percent of the state’s total prison population, the vast majority of whom are Black men and women.

Numerous studies have documented the financial, medical, and societal costs of locking people up for decades and allowing them to grow old behind bars.

The United States spends an estimated $16 billion a year to imprison the elderly. Since older prisoners typically have greater health needs, and because the very fact of incarceration often leads to premature aging, the price tag for incarcerating a person over the age of 50 is at least twice and sometimes five times as much as the cost of imprisoning a younger person, the report found.

Quite aside from the exorbitant expense associated with housing the elderly in state and federal correctional facilities (one report by the ACLU put the annual cost of housing a single elderly prisoner at $68,270), the report offers a close analysis of the personal and social consequences of “greying” behind bars.

These include inadequate medical and geriatric care on the inside, housing and employment discrimination on the outside, a parole process that has been defined as “dehumanizing,” and a lack of reentry services tailored to the specific needs of older people.

While the report offers numerous recommendations for New York state—including Rubero’s suggestion that formerly incarcerated people be empowered to guide the reentry of returning citizens—it contributes a larger analysis of the entire penal system in the United States.

In the words of RAPP Director Mujahid Farid, one of the lead authors of the paper who began a 15-year sentence in 1978 at the age of 28, but ended up serving 33 years in prison, the report “allows us to challenge a fundamental pillar of mass incarceration: the reliance on a system of permanent punishment, a culture of retribution and revenge rather than rehabilitation and healing.”

The ACLU estimates that state and federal prisoners over the age of 55 quadrupled between 1995 and 2010 from 32,600 to 124,900. If growth rates continue, that number could hit 400,000 by 2030.

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Let’s Get Free’s Vision for Restoring Meaningful Commutation in Pennsylvania

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. PA is one of only 6 states that have no parole options for lifers which makes commutation the only possibility of release for these individuals, many of whom are now senior citizens.

From 1967-1990 about 380 people in PA had their life sentences commuted. In the 1970s approximately 35 people a year were given a second chance. But for the last 25 years, only 6 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released. The dramatic decrease in the use of commutation as a result of the “tough on crime” political climate has contributed to the explosion of the prison population and has left many innocent and reformed people serving excessive sentences with no mercy.

We believe the commutation system must be brought back into use and we have several proposals to revitalize this process:

Reform the Board of Pardons

  1. Depoliticize the Board of Pardons

Currently both the Lieutenant Governor and the Attorney General serve on the board and the Governor has the final say on any releases.

Elected officials are overly-cautious because of concerns that any recidivism will reflect negatively on them and cost them their jobs. This is at the expense of the lives of many people.

We propose that no elected officials serve on the board and that the governor no longer has a vote (though they still would appoint the board). Six states already have this system (Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, South Carolina, Utah).

  1. Diversify the Board of Pardons

In addition to the current positions for a psychiatrist, a criminal justice expert, and a victims advocate, the board could include:

  • a formerly incarcerated person
  • a reentry support professional
  • a human rights advocate
  • a member of a police oversight board
  • a trauma specialist
  • a restorative justice professional

It is also important for the board to reflect the communities most impacted by violence. It is irresponsible for there to be no Black people on the board when 66% of all lifers and 77% of all juvenile lifers are people of color in Pennsylvania.

  1. Institute Regional Full-Time Pardon Boards

Currently, 5 people with other full-time jobs are tasked with deciding the fate of hundreds of lifers who apply for commutation as well as all other currently incarcerated and released people with felony convictions seeking commutation. There is no possible way that they can take the time to consider each individual’s situation and make an informed decision.

We propose that there be at least 3 regional boards (Eastern, Central, Western) staffed by full-time members to enable them to give the lives in their hands the attention they deserve.

Reform Public Hearings

  1. Give Equal Time to Both Sides

As it stands, the applicant is given 15 minutes to present their case and the District Attorney and Victim’s Advocate are each given 15 minutes, which leads to the opposition getting twice as much time. This imbalance needs to be righted.

  1. Mandate Public Hearings at Certain Benchmarks

Currently, there is no transparency on when a hearing is granted. We believe that granting a hearing should be discretionary in general, but that if someone has served 20 years, is housed in an honors unit, and has been recommended for release by prison officials, they should automatically be eligible for a public hearing.

Reform the Commutation Process

  1. Require a Written Reason for Denial

Three other states require that the board provide a reason for denial to any applicant. This measure ensures that each case has in fact been considered. It also provides the applicant with an understanding of the judgement that has been handed down.

  1. Provide Clear Requirements for Reapplying

In the current system inmates can reapply 2 years after their denial (which itself often takes as much as 3 years) and many continue to do so without any changes in their application, contributing to the backlog of cases. If the board provides both a reason for denial and clear steps to undertake before reapplying it will give prisoners something to work towards, increase the likelihood of commutation being granted, and eliminate unnecessary paperwork.

  1. Require 15 Years of Time Served Before First Lifer Application or 10 Years if Under 27 When Convicted

This is already an unwritten rule.  We propose that it be made explicit to discourage wasting resources on early applications. Once it is established, it will no longer be reasonable to merely cite time or the crime itself as a reason for denial.

  1. Acknowledge that All People are Capable of Change

Anyone, no matter what their crime, can change dramatically in 15 years and all cases must be considered on their own merit.  Gut reactions to certain crimes keep us from recognizing the complex histories and individual stories of their perpetrators. We must not reduce people to their convicted crime, and have faith in their potential to transform and contribute to society. The question should not be why should someone get a second chance, but why shouldn’t they.

  1. Allow the Wrongfully-Convicted Access to Commutation

Many innocent & wrongly convicted people are sentenced to life, but under current rules, admission of guilt is required for commutation. Emotional maturity, good character, and meaningful participation in prison life should be sufficient when a person asserts their innocence.

  1. Rescind Unanimous Vote Requirement for Lifers

Since 1997 the PA constitution has required a unanimous vote for the commutation of life or death sentences. We recommend a return to a majority vote since this level of agreement has brought the system to a halt.

  1. Eliminate Lifelong Consequences

If a person is granted commutation, after a clearly defined period of parole, they should  be completely free from the criminal justice system and have their civil rights restored (voting, running for public office, etc.)

This is platform is a work in progress. For thoughts, concerns, advice and counsel please email LetsGetFreePA@gmail.com

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Maya Schenwar | Women’s Prisons as Sites of Resistance: An Interview With Victoria Law

Originally published Sunday, 28 June 2015 00:00 By Maya Schenwar, Truthout | Interview – Re-posted with permission2015_0625law

In Resistance Behind Bars, regular Truthout contributor Victoria Law provides much-needed documentation of collective organizing and the daily struggles inside women’s prisons. This second edition inscludes powerful new sections examining the challenges facing trans, intersex and gender-variant people in prison as well as their acts of resistance. Order this award-winning book today by making a contribution to Truthout!

When we think of protest behind bars, what comes to mind? For many people, that list would include the Attica uprising, the work of George Jackson, the struggles of the Angola 3 activists, the 2013 California prison hunger strike and other crucial instances of resistance – mostly organized by incarcerated men.

Too often, organizing work done by incarcerated women goes wholly unrecognized. In her book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Victoria Law focuses on the many forms of activism happening inside of women’s prisons, most of which never reach the dominant media.

In the following interview, Law shares stories of little-known actions, insights into what constitutes “activism,” and ways in which individual acts of resistance are building toward a transformational new reality.

Maya Schenwar: You discuss in the book how, when you first got interested in resistance within prisons and noticed a dearth of information about women’s organizing, you were often told, “Women don’t organize.” I’ve definitely noticed that the actions that we hear most about (particularly in mass media, but even among outside activist communities) are focused on men. What are some of the factors that create and perpetuate this myth that women behind bars aren’t “politicized” or engaged in resistance?

Victoria Law: We don’t hear very much about what’s happening in women’s prisons. If we hear about what’s going on inside, it’s usually framed as “these are the conditions,” not “these are the conditions, and this is what people inside these jails and prisons are doing about it.”

Even in this day and age, prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues.

Even in 2015, prisoner resistance is still largely thought of as male. Part of it is that more attention is paid to men’s jails and prisons – they do, after all, make up approximately 90 percent of those behind bars. Part of it is that support networks for men are different than for women (including trans women) behind bars. For example, during the Pelican Bay hunger strike, we saw women family members stepping to the forefront to speak about the conditions their loved ones have been enduring. Although we know (barely) that people in California’s women’s prisons had also been fasting in solidarity – and we know that there is also a SHU (Security Housing Unit) at the women’s prison – we’re not seeing (or hearing) outside loved ones amplifying their voices and efforts to the same extent that women like Dolores Canales, Marie Levin and Daletha Hayden are doing for their male loved ones.

In addition, even in this day and age, prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues (unless it’s an issue like pregnancy, reproductive health or sexual abuse). So when we talk about solitary confinement, even though solitary confinement is used throughout women’s prisons and jails, coverage is often about what happens to men. The people spotlighted are men. Sometimes, women will speak, like Evie Litwok and Donna Hylton about their experiences in solitary at a NYC hearing. But, unless it’s specifically a story about women in solitary or trans people in solitary, we don’t often see recognition that these conditions affect people of all genders. It’s not just solitary confinement where male becomes the default gender.

Prisons isolate people. … People inside prisons can be punished for simple, humane acts like hugging or sharing.

Finally, some of the ways women are challenging and resisting aren’t seen as fitting what we might think of as “resistance” or “organizing.” For example, currently and formerly incarcerated women have been involved in challenging policies around parenting – or maintaining their right to parent. It’s an issue that disproportionately affects incarcerated mothers because, when a father goes to prison, he often has a female relative willing to take care of his children. When a mother goes to prison, she is less likely to have that same network of support and faces a greater chance that her children will end up in foster care. Children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than children of incarcerated fathers, which makes fighting to maintain custody an issue that many incarcerated women face.

Some women have individually helped challenge these policies – I wrote about Mary Glover, the legendary jailhouse lawyer in Michigan’s women’s prison, who helped women with their custody cases during the 20 or so years she was behind bars. (She also filed Glover v. Johnson, which required the prison to have equal educational and vocational programing for men’s and women’s prisons, a landmark 1970s case.) More recently, Arlinda Johns did the same for moms in the federal system. Moms have also organized to change policies around termination of rights – collecting and compiling testimony on the effects of permanent separation from their children, sharing their stories, etc.

Not all of the forms of resistance you discuss correspond to a normative idea of what “protest” means. For example, you chronicle the prisoner-led establishment of unique literacy programs at a prison in New York – a process that involved collaborating with prison officials (working “with the system”). You even discuss “listening” – in the service of community-building – as a type of action behind bars. Can you discuss why it is important to recognize this wide variety of activities as political acts?

Prisons isolate people. They’re not meant to strengthen bonds between people or build community. People inside prisons can be punished for simple, humane acts like hugging or sharing. Prison rules and staff discourage people from helping each other out. One example: A woman in an education program recently told me that one of her classmates has arthritis and thus cannot type the paper assigned to the class. Prison rules prohibit anyone else from typing her paper for her. “Do I type the paper for her so that she can pass the class or do I go by the rules?” the woman wondered.

While typing a paper doesn’t overturn this particular rule, the act of doing so not only helps the woman with arthritis, but also demonstrates caring and compassion in an environment designed to break it out of people. I’ve heard from women who have lost family members or custody of their children. … A listening ear makes all the difference in how they are able to process their grief.

Sometimes these acts of listening turn into something more widespread – for example, through the act of creating an environment in which women could share their experiences, the support group for women serving long sentences in Ohio realized that abuse and domestic violence were a pathway to long or life sentences and launched the first successful mass clemency campaign for battered women. But this wouldn’t have happened without that first step of listening.

I think it’s so important that your book contains a chapter about grievances and lawsuits, and the importance of the media in amplifying those efforts. How do these legal tools, which often stem from individual harms, contribute to larger goals of resistance? And how can we as the media serve to amplify them in a way that supports the work?

We need to remember that, while a grievance might reflect one person’s experience of individual harm, that experience is frequently reflective of a larger, more systemic reality affecting everyone in that jail or prison. A woman filing a grievance against a particularly abusive officer, for example, is probably not the only person who has experienced abuse from that person. One woman’s complaint about inadequate or negligent health care probably reflects many other women’s experiences. These grievances are important because, under the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act, people in prison are required to exhaust every administrative remedy before filing a lawsuit in civil court. In other words, if the person hasn’t been filing grievances and appeals, the court won’t hear their case.

In jails and prisons, movements are very restricted. So strategies that might work on the outside … don’t work in prison.

Individual – or even collective filings of – grievances don’t make the news. Lawsuits occasionally do. Covering lawsuits allows journalists to highlight some of the conditions that people in prison are litigating to change, conditions that may not be considered newsworthy otherwise because they happen all the time. One of the ways in which media can serve to amplify these efforts is to talk with people most affected – the people inside and their family members and friends on the outside. Those are the people doing the on-the-ground work and who know exactly what’s happening. Of course, trying to communicate with people inside takes time, patience and sometimes money (especially if you’re relying on collect calls, for-profit email servers and snail mail). These may seem to be luxuries for people who are on a deadline or operating on a small budget, but they are crucial to understanding the crux of the problem from the people who are forced to live it every day.

I love the section of your book that talks about how women behind bars do their own media work, finding creative ways to raise consciousness. Can you discuss some of the ways that women in prison get the word out about what’s happening behind bars?

As I said earlier, the networks that women are able to tap into are often different than those that men utilize. But women in prison use the networks and resources available to them to get the word out. Some of them use whatever email service the prison has to let people know about conditions. Their supporters then post their emails online, whether on dedicated sites, blogs or Facebook pages.

Contrary to what … Orange is the New Black may have you believe, most trans women are not placed in women’s prisons.

In the past, these networks have often included feminist publications. During the 1970s, off our backs regularly published writings by women in prison or updates by outside supporters about what was going on inside women’s prisons. Several other feminist publications also had regular imprisoned contributors. They also sent copies of their publication to women inside so that they felt connected to the outside world – and the various political struggles. In the online age, that kind of inside-outside connection is a little harder to maintain, but several groups continue to produce print newsletters that can be mailed into prisons: For instance, Black & Pink has a newspaper that they send to over 7,500 LGBTQ people imprisoned across the country, while the California Coalition for Women Prisoners has, since the 1990s, produced The Fire Inside and sent it to its members imprisoned in California.

They also write letters to anyone and everyone whose snail mail addresses they can get their hands on, letting them know what’s going on inside.

Sexual abuse by correctional officers is rampant in women’s prisons, and you discuss some of the ways in which incarcerated women are confronting the issue. This is a particularly difficult battle to wage, given the real threat of retaliation for women who speak out about sexual violence. What are some of the strategies that women use to protect themselves and each other, and to challenge the larger problem of sexual violence that is ingrained in the system?

Keep in mind that in jails and prisons, movements are very restricted. So strategies that might work on the outside – like staying in groups or avoiding deserted areas – don’t work in prison. Staff not only hold the keys to people’s cells, but also have the ability to give orders to those in custody. If they refuse, they risk being charged with “disobeying a direct order,” which can lead to time in solitary confinement and/or be used against them during a parole hearing.

Despite this, women have figured out ways to try to protect themselves and others. One woman, incarcerated in the mid-1990s, recalled a guard who constantly harassed her cellmate. He threatened her and her friends that, if they tried to report him, he would place cocaine among their possessions. His threat worked – the women kept quiet about his harassment. Then, one night, they heard their friend screaming; they found her with semen on her face. Despite his threats – and their fears – they filed a complaint with prison officials and later testified before a grand jury, which led to the guard’s arrest and conviction. After that, the woman stated, the nastiness and vulgarness that had been part of staff treatment of the women began to decrease. Other women felt less afraid of reporting sexual abuse, and at least two other officers were escorted out of the prison.

Women have also filed lawsuits to try to change policies that allow such abuse to happen. In Michigan, one of the dozen lawsuits Mary Glover filed led to a change in policy banning men from pat-searching women, being in the housing units and limiting other areas they could be in (such as medical examining rooms).

The newest edition of your book has a chapter that’s specifically focused on trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people in prison. What are some specific struggles that trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people face in prison – and some sites of resistance?

Keep in mind that trans people behind bars face all of the same struggles as their cisgender (or people who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth) counterparts. But, being trans also means that they face a whole host of other problems, too.

Let’s start with placement. Contrary to what the Netflix series Orange is the New Black may have you believe, most trans women are not placed in women’s prisons. Sentencing usually goes by the sex on a birth certificate, meaning that trans women are often sent to men’s jails and prisons. There, they face the very real threat of sexual harassment and assault by both staff and the men with whom they are incarcerated. They also face physical (and often brutal) violence.

People who are on hormones before entering prison often have to fight to maintain access to hormone treatment. Some prison systems only allow hormone treatment if the person had a legal prescription before their arrest. But, like their cisgender counterparts, many who end up in prison are low-income or underemployed and may not have had health insurance or access to legally prescribed hormone therapy. Without that prescription, they can be denied treatment altogether.

But even having a prescription is no guarantee that the prison will honor it. As I reported in one of my earliest stories for Truthout, CeCe McDonald entered prison with both a legal prescription and a court order for 20 milligrams of hormones. Despite that, prison staff only gave her 6 milligrams until supporters from around the world flooded the prison with calls, demanding that she receive her full treatment.

Ashley Diamond had to file a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections to get access to hormone therapy. Her lawsuit led to a New York Times profile and several articles about her struggles against medical, physical and sexual violence in a men’s prison, which led to the Department of Justice getting involved on her behalf. In response, the Georgia Department of Corrections changed its policy around hormone therapy and began issuing her a small amount of hormones.

These are the stories that we know and that have been publicized. There are many more names and experiences that we don’t know – I recently received a letter from a trans woman in California who said that she had been sexually assaulted by a guard. She was only believed after she showed prison officials his semen and took a polygraph test. The guard was allowed to retire with full benefits. She remains in prison.

You discuss how activism extends beyond the bars – how the work that women have done while they’re incarcerated “doesn’t stop at the prison gate.” Can you talk about some of the resistance work currently being done by  formerly  incarcerated women?

Yes! Since Season 3 of Orange is the New Black is now out, readers should know about the work of Families for Justice as Healing, an organization that was started at the real-life prison where OITNB takes place. The organization has worked to raise awareness about the impact of the War on Drugs on women. Last year, it held the FreeHer! rally in Washington, DC, bringing together people working against incarceration as well as formerly incarcerated women, like Dorothy Gaines and Susan Rosenberg, both of whom were issued clemency by Clinton before he left office. Families has also worked to free women incarcerated as part of the drug war: Earlier this year, they celebrated the release of “Grandma” Hardy after nearly 23.5 years in prison.

Now, they’re pushing for a bill that would push Massachusetts judges to consider whether a person is a primary caregiver and, if so, to sentence them to a community-based alternative rather than to prison. This summer, they’re also organizing a summer camp for daughters of incarcerated women in which the girls will have the opportunity to learn both computer coding and criminal justice organizing. And, because incarceration not only isolates people inside prisons, but family members on the outside from their communities, it gives the girls the opportunity to connect and build with each other.

Andrea James, the director and one of the cofounders of Families for Justice as Healing, was recently awarded a Soros Justice fellowship to organize a national network of formerly incarcerated women. I’m hoping that the award indicates a lifting of the invisibility surrounding incarcerated women’s organizing and resistance.

Maya Schenwar is Truthout’s editor-in-chief and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Follow her on Twitter @mayaschenwar.

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Sentencing Reform, Grandparents Behind Bars and Reform Efforts Worldwide

Incarcerated Grandparents: Unlocking the Secrets of Trauma, Abuse, and Resilience from our Elders in Prison Interview with Dr. Tina Maschi

Graying Prisoners August.18, 2013 By Jamie Fellner New York Times

Life Goes On – The Historic Rise of Life Sentences in America – A slide show with lots of statistics – December 11, 2013 by Ashley Nellis from The Sentencing Project

Prisoners of Age by Ron Levine – “Prisoners of Age” is a series of photographs and interviews with elderly inmates and corrections personnel conducted in prisons both in the United States and Canada since 1996.

Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty edited by Charles Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat — Chapter  6 by Rachel Barkow– Life Without Parole and the Hope for Real Sentencing Reform

What The U.S. Can Learn From Prison Reform Efforts Throughout The World  By April 10, 2015 Huffington Post

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photo by Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
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photo by Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
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Support Families for Justice as Healing

Phyllis “Grandma” Hardy

It is with great joy that Families for Justice as Healing celebrates the release of elder member Phyllis “Grandma” Hardy.

News from FJH eblast:

Following our national FREE HER rally, countless phone calls, letters, and more than 10,000 signatures in support of her release, At age 70, Ms Phyllis Hardy was released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons on March 19, 2015, after serving more than 20 years in prison. And our work continues but we cannot SURVIVE without your support. In the past year we have helped end the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women during labor, drafted and received sponsorship for the Primary Caretaker alternative to incarceration bill, contributed to over 100 conferences and criminal justice reform efforts, organized the national FREE HER rally, created Coding for Justice for high school age daughters of incarcerated women, and most importantly, established Real Women, Real Voices, to continue to join together incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to raise our voices and public awareness about the need to reduce the prison population of women and demonstrate what else is possible toward the goal of helping people heal and advance their lives, families and communities.

Please help us continue this important work and reach our goal of 10,000.

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Chin to the Sky performs at Women of Color Herstory Month!

Join New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice for a special multi-media presentation of Chin to the Sky: The Life Sentence of Avis Lee. madusawith wings

Hill House Kaufmann Center
1825 Centre Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Sunday, March 15th at 6:00-8:30pm

Tickets are $10-$25 sliding scale. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.
Chin to the Sky is a multi-media creative storytelling of the circumstances surrounding the Life Sentence of Avis Lee. When Avis was 18 she was the look out in a robbery that ended in death. Avis is now 54 years old and has spent 34 years in prison. She has no chance of getting out unless her sentence is commuted. She never pulled the trigger. We believe she deserves a second chance.

Co-written by Avis Lee, etta cetera, Jasmine Hearn, Ben Crouse, Zoe Mizuho, and Amanda Johnson with script advice from Paul Kruse. Julia Steele Allen, Suzanne South, Azania Lane and Joan Mukogosi also gave great input.

Cast includes – Blakk Rapp Madusa starring as Avis Lee, Ciera Young, Ben Crouse, Amanda Johnson, Jason Clearfield, KT Tierney, etta cetera and Suzanne South.

This production is sponsored by New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice and the Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoners Defense Committee as a part of Women of Color HERStory Month®

You can also purchase tickets on eventbrite here:
http://goo.gl/htwqDI 

Please call 412.363.4500 or email herstory@newvoicespittsburgh.org for more information. Visit www.womenofcolorherstory.org to learn more about Women of Color HERStory Month and also visit Let’s Get Free athttp://goo.gl/DfYA7D to learn more about the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.

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2 Local Mothers Honored in Philly for International Women’s Day

doonatoastTwo very special Pittsburgh freedom fighters will be honored in Philadelphia on March 8th as a part of the International Women’s Day 2015 in Philadelphia. The theme is to Honor caregivers & community campaigners. Shandre Delany and our very own warrior mother Donna Hill will be recognized. Congratulations Shandre and Donna! We love you!!shandre

A Living Wage for Mothers and other Caregivers!

Honor caregivers & community campaigners

Sunday March 8, 3-5pm
Tabernacle United Church 3700 Chestnut St W. Philly

Award ceremony, refreshments, music, exhibition, petition launch, community resource & information tables. Donations gratefully accepted.

Join us in honoring

Welfare rights activists of the 60s & 70s Beulah Sanders, Johnnie Tillman, Roxanne Jones, Louise Brookins…..
Campaigners for the rights of children, mothers & prisoners Shandre Delaney, Carolyn Hill, Maryanne Godboldo, Ruth Todasco
Honorary award to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez champion of a caring economy who died two years ago on March 5.
Come speak out about the women you would like to honor (bring a photo if you can)

Special tribute to Ida B Wells
& modern day campaigners against lynching
including of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, Brandon Tate-Brown

“If I were President,… I’d start paying women a living wage for doing the work we are already doing—childraising and housekeeping. And the welfare crisis would be over. Just like that. Housewives would be getting wages, too.” Johnnie Tillman, National Welfare Rights Organization “Women are the primary caregivers everywhere in the world…, Every worker is entitled to a living wage, but most carers, starting with mothers, don’t get wages and aren’t considered workers.” From the International Petition for a Living Wage for Mothers and Other Caregivers
Planning Committee includes members of: Decarcerate PA, Every Mother is a Working Mother Network, Fight for Lifers/West, Global Women’s Strike, Human Rights Coalition Fed Up!/Philly, Payday men’s network, Peacehome Campaigns, Welfare Warriors, Women’s Int’l League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF), Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.

Contact: Global Women’s Strike Philly 215-848-1120 philly@allwomencount.net

16th annual Global Action called by Global Women’s Strike and Women of Color/GWS in: India, Ireland, Peru, UK, US www.globalwomenstrike.net