We are enthusiastic to announce Let’s Get Free’s 5th annual art show featuring artists and poets in and outside of prison. This year’s show is themed EMPATHY is the seed, TRUTH is the water, SOLIDARITY is the bloomage, and will be presented in person at the Brew House Gallery as well as on-line. The show will open Friday November 19 from 6:00-9:00 pm, and will run through December 19.
This year’s show features 34 artists in prison and 29 artists in solidarity expressing a range of media, from watercolor to cross stitch to sculpture. First-time participant Marilyn Dobrolenski submitted a beautiful piece entitled “Harmony,” which features a lush and verdant wetland scene with water lilies, done in acrylic paint. Marilyn turned 69 this year and is one of over 70 women serving a life sentence over the age of 65. #LetGrandmaGo
Elena House-Hay submitted a thought provoking piece of a mechanized device that is exploring ideas about “truth.” Elena shares: “Being an artist in prison functions to make art my hard earned salvation. It is restorative, unshakable hope. If my art can be free – of prison, depression, and fear – so can I. And that is the promise, the lure, and the most ambitious expression I can seek.”
Kal-El, one of 5 transgender artists participating from prison, shares a vibrant painting that celebrates the existence of many genders. The experience of trans people in prison is often left out of conversations about mass incarceration. In our efforts to create less distance between the prison walls, Empathy is the Seed uplifts marginalized voices who can teach a lot about what is needed to build a more just world. Kal-El, currently serving a life sentence, discusses his experience of being an artist: “I see color when I listen to music or feel emotions. I thought everyone had this ability. I never knew that I could put those colors on to a canvas and people could see what I was feeling that day. Sharing these feelings verbally is difficult. A painting, to me, is like telling someone when I’m sad, mad, etc..”
Alongside our virtual art show, this is our first year including poetry. Over 40 poets from the inside have sent in poems! Look forward to at least one poetry reading during the show. Other events include:
Art Opening and Auction Begins! Friday November 19, 6:00-9:00 pm – Brew House, 711 21st Street, South Side of Pittsburgh
Gallery Hours: November 19 – December 19, Thursdays 2:00-7:00 pm, Fridays & Saturdays 11:00-4:00 pm at the Brew House
The Sacred Ground Collective transformative justice event series: Thursdays December 2, 9, & 16th, Three virtual workshops including an intro to transformative justice practice
Holiday Market: Saturday and Sunday December 18 and 19, 11 – 3 pm
The Art Auction begins on opening night and runs through December 10th. People can bid in person at the gallery or online. Winners will be able to pick up their art on December 19th or schedule pick up at a later time. All money raised supports the work of Let’s Get Free. Money will be used in printing and shipping for our newsletter and Daughter’s magazine, copious postage needs, direct support for people coming home, like driving lessons and art supply scholarships for people on the inside. There will be a series of limited edition prints available to people who sign up to become monthly sustainers.
Art as a tool for liberation has been a central element of Let’s Get Free’s work since its inception, and its annual art shows have steadily built advocacy for the release of deserving individuals from Pennsylvania state prisons and have created conversations and collaborations that invite meaningful reciprocity between the prison walls.
The PA Board of Pardons has adopted Act 59 a new policy that impact scheduling of commutation applicants, it states:
Due to applicable provisions of Act 59 of 2021, any clemency applicant that has a victim or the surviving kin of a victim registered with either the Office of Victim Advocate (OVA), the Department of Corrections, or the Board of Pardons ( or if their whereabouts are otherwise known), cannot be scheduled for a public hearing until at least sixty (60) days has elapsed since the date of their merit review hearing.
In addition, any clemency applicant serving a sentence of Life Without Parole (LWOP), or who was previously convicted for a crime of violence or any other offense resulting in death or serious bodily injury (regardless of whether their victim or the surviving kin is registered with any the aforementioned agencies), will not be scheduled for a public hearing until at least sixty (60) days has elapsed since the date of their merit review hearing.
In the past, if everything was on time, an applicant would pass merit and then be scheduled for their public hearing in the same session a month later. Because of this none of the people who passed Merit Review in August will be heard at the September public hearings and will be pushed to December. However, the board added an additional merit review this Wed, September 22nd at 6:15 pm which will judge the merit of 6 people with LWOP sentences. The Merit Review applicants is the very last agenda item for 9/22 and the individuals are not listed.
23. Erin D. Canady (LIFE) (3) 24. Amir K. Cartair (LIFE) (3) 46. Anthony G. Eberhardt (LIFE) (3) 49. Ralph C. Fegley Jr. (LIFE) (3) 61. Wade D. Hairston (LIFE) (3) 77. Stephen D. Knight (LIFE) (3) 79. Gary A. Kyles (LIFE) (3) 94. Melvin C. Mitchell Jr. (LIFE) (3) 104. Matthew J. Nichols (LIFE) (3) 120. David A. Richardson (LIFE) (3) 132. Edward C. Silvis Sr. (LIFE) (3) 142. Gregory A. Thomas (LIFE) 154. Jeffrey L. Watson (LIFE) (3) 156. Nathaniel J. West (LIFE) (3) 158. Doris D. Williamson (LIFE) (3)
Phoebe Tomasek [life] and Felix Ocasio [min] are up for reconsideration.
Elaine Selan writes:
This Thursday [8/5] the Board of Pardons will hold their quarterly Merit Review – this is where the Board rapidly votes on both those applicants for both pardons and commutations—this time there are about 167 applicants, of which 15 are commutations [14 men and 1 woman].
There is no discussion of any of the cases—just voting. The entire review takes about 1 hour.
Pardon – an applicant who has completed their sentence and for the most part, has, for a number of years, been successful in their community re-integration. Some have been convicted of relatively minor offenses [i.e., marijuana possession, DUI] while others, more serious crimes [i.e., assault, robbery, drug dealing, vehicular homicide] The Parole/Probation Board does their inspection of these applicants and the Board often relies on their endorsement [or not] in rendering their Merit Review vote. Pardon applicants only need a 2-3 vote to move forward to the Public Hearing.
Commutation – is reserved for those currently incarcerated for life sentences, “virtual life sentences” and other felony sentences. The scrutinizing of each applicant is conducted by the prison where the applicant is located and here too, the Board often relies on the prisons’ support [or not] in rendering their votes. A vote of at least 3-2 must be attained in order for the applicant to move forward to the Public Hearing.
For the most part during the Merit Review, the Board is focused on what the applicant has done to improve their life situation—their accomplishments and contributions—since being sentenced and/or being released.
The Public Hearings will be held on September 22nd, 23rd and 24th. Typically, the commutation hearings are held on Thursday afternoon—however, we won’t know the schedule until 1-2 weeks before the hearing. Posting of the zoom link, along with the Open Hearing schedule, will be posted to this list about one week before. Watching the pardon hearings can be very informative in learning more about how the Board conducts their review, the role each Board member plays, and the impact of all the voices heard during the hearings [i.e., applicant, supporters, victims and victim’s loved ones].
Commutation Hearings Report June 2021 by Elaine Selan
There were six individuals who had open hearings for their application of commutation on June 24th. Decisions were announced the following day. To note, one of the six applicants is not serving a life sentence—Andre Davis is serving what is called a “virtual life sentence”; that is, a term sentence that would typically exceed one’s natural life [i.e., 50-100 years]. Because he is not serving a life without parole sentence:
1. His request for commutation means he is seeking to have his minimum sentence commuted;
2. He only needs a 3-2 vote from the Board in order to be recommended for commutation; and,
3. If and when the Governor signs his commutation, Andre will have the additional hurdle of meeting the Parole Board’s approval; a process that can take a number of months. He will remain incarcerated until this Board’s approval. However, he is not required to reside in a halfway house for one year; he can transition to his home plan immediately upon his paroled release.
Three men were recommended for commutation: Andre Davis, Jamie Faust, and James Miller; together, they have served 116 years of confinement. Two applicants were denied: Denise Crump and Wayne Covington. Denise had received a unanimous [5-0] Merit Review vote; it was thought that she would receive the same outcome in the open hearing. Instead she only received one affirmative vote from the Board’s Chair, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Denise has served 33 years in prison. Wayne Covington was also denied with the same voting outcome [1-4]; he has served 51 years. In both those cases, family members of the victim spoke at the hearing in opposing commutation. It is thought this was a compelling reason for the Board’s vote.
The final applicant, Kennard Scott, had his case held under advisement so that health related concerns could be further evaluated.
Three individuals scheduled for the Board’s reconsideration of their unsuccessful application for commutation failed to get beyond the initial motion stage that is required before the Board determines if they will entertain the individual’s request. Edwin DeJesus, Richard Marra, and Felix [Phill] Rosado all lost their appeals.
Cynthia Gonzalez, who is serving a life sentence, has had her application held under advisement for about two years. She has served 36 years. In their final vote on this hearing day, the Board voted 2-3 to deny her application for commutation.
Today, the Board of Pardons voted to recommend three out of six commutation applications to Governor Wolf for his approval. We are elated for Amistad Law Project client Andre Davis, as well as lifers Jesse Faust and James Miller. Governor Wolf should sign their applications with haste so that they can be reunited with their families after decades of incarceration and our communities can benefit from their presence. Each person’s freedom represents a step in the right direction.
While we celebrate those who are bound for freedom, we are deeply troubled by the Board’s decision to deny Denise Crump and Wayne Covington’s applications for commutation, as well as Richie Marra’s application for reconsideration. All three of these candidates were unequivocally supported by the administrations of the prisons in which they have been incarcerated for decades. In each of these cases, the Board blocked the applicant’s release because family members of the victim opposed their release. Family members of victims deserve a safe place to express themselves, and abundant resources to navigate their grief. However, the question of whether someone is rehabilitated and should be released is necessarily separate from affirming a victim’s pain. The Board’s role is to answer the question of rehabilitation. In the cases of Denise Crump, Wayne Covington, and Richie Marra, the Board absolutely failed in its duty, ignoring the current realities of the applicant’s life and their transformative journey over the course of decades.
The Board has also completely failed in regard to Felix Rosado’s application. Mr. Rosado is an exemplary person who, after being sentenced to life without parole when he was eighteen years old, has earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova and co-founded a restorative justice program. He is deeply remorseful for his crime and a community leader both inside and outside of prison. Many have spoken up about the positive impact that Mr. Rosado will have in our communities as a mentor upon his release. Mr. Rosado’s continued incarceration is simply devastating for many of us on the outside as well as the communities to which he could offer positive contributions.
At its core, commutation is about mercy. It exists in response to the basic truth that all people are capable of change, and that over the course of time, many people reflect and grow and want to make up for the harm they have caused. Our movements are continuing to carve out a righteous path forward towards a Pennsylvania where people are not judged by the worst mistake they have made, and the architects of mass incarceration aren’t stealing the resources and reformed mentors our communities need to be safe, healthy, and thriving. We need Board of Pardons members who believe in this vision. As of now they are failing on most counts, but we will continue to hold them accountable and push this process forward. Our humanity and the future of our communities depend upon it.
On December 15, 2020 The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dawn Guthrie, a transgender woman who says she is being denied vital healthcare, including gender affirmation surgery by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). The lawsuit alleges that plaintiff, a 46-year-old transgender woman currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy, has suffered extreme distress and suicide ideation, including instances of self harm, since her diagnosis of gender dysphoria in 1998.
“It’s well known that transgender individuals are at a greater risk of harm in prisons,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Managing Attorney of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “That risk only becomes greater when DOC officials continue to deny them the essential healthcare they need.”
The plaintiff has lived fully as a woman since 2016, and she has been on hormone therapy since May of 2017. However, she still experiences severe gender dysphoria related distress and requires additional treatment through, among other accommodations, gender affirmation surgery. Medical and psychology personnel in the DOC have consistently approved and recommended the plaintiff’s gender affirmation surgery but a central office committee has denied it.
“The DOC’s actions of denying my surgery without medical reason, it’s inexcusable. I think about suicide a lot,” said Dawn Guthrie. “I’ve had doctors who have said my gender dysphoria will not be relieved without surgery, but the DOC’s panel without any medical experience have just ignored that. Every day is a struggle living with gender dysphoria. The simplest daily chore such as showering or undressing causes severe emotional pain. Not all transgender individuals suffer from (GD) but those who do will tell you that it is not a choice to have this condition. This condition causes emotional pain that no person should wish on anyone.”
According to the suit the DOC has violated her Eighth Amendment rights by refusing to provide adequate healthcare for her gender dysphoria, including gender affirming surgery, despite recommendations from their medical staff. The DOC’s refusal to provide her with this medically necessary care has caused her severe pain and anguish and places her at a substantial risk of future injury.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Secretary John Wetzel, Dr. Paul Noel, Dr. Arlene Seid and Dr. Paluki Reddy. The plaintiff is represented by Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz and Amy Ernst of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. Case number 1:20-CV-2351
Daughters is a new magazine edited by Sarita Miller in collaboration with Let’s Get Free. The first issue was published in December of 2020. Due to printing and shipping troubles our community on the inside just started receiving their copies last month. It’s a wild success!
God bless you everyone! Hello, my name is Sarita Miller. I’m so humbled that you are reading our very first issue of Daughters, and when I say ours I mean every incarcerated woman who is enduring the hardships and the oppression of being imprisoned. Whether it be the brig of our minds or our bodies held in confinement, the number of women coming into the penal system is staggering. What are our issues? What are our struggles? How are we perceived as women serving time? Are we being identified by the meaning of re-formation and strength or by our circumstantial vulnerabilities at the time of our crimes?
Serving this life sentence for 17 years has given me a priceless experience and a sound perspective on the multicultural epidemic of women being incarcerated. Almighty God has given me the vision to believe in the power our written voices will have on those who can and want to make a difference in our lives. I believe Daughters can be that outreach for us. Throughout my time, I have heard a multitude of complaints from my peers relating to gender bias within the criminal justice system and the Department of Corrections. Most incarcerated women have expressed concerns that our needs within the DOC are not being met, but are instead overlooked or just plainly ignored.
Compared to our male counterparts, our medical needs are different. Our housing issues are different as well, especially when it comes to dealing with male officers who work on our housing units. Our psychological and mental health issues are distinct since a lot of women coming into the prison system are mothers dealing with the traumas of sexual abuse, battering and drug addiction. Even our nutritional issues are different. As women age in prison, going through the change of life, this is only scratching the surface of the challenges we face being incarcerated. So ladies I invite and implore you to make your needs and concerns heard through Daughters. Teamwork makes the dream work!!
Finally a publication just for us! Much love and appreciation for the awesome support from Let’s Get Free! etta, thank you for believing in Daughters and stepping out in faith with me. I’d also like to send out my appreciation and gratitude to the wonderful ladies who have helped to make the first issue of Daughters a reality. God bless you Heather Lavelle, Nahesa Gray, Trisha Dippery, and Angela Hellman. To Stephanie M and Andrea Dusha for their amazing artwork and for designing the cover of Daughters. Without your willing participation, Daughters would not be a reality
Giant shout-outs to our men who are also enduring the vicissitudes of incarceration. You are also invited to write to Daughters. Thank you to our soldiers who have paved the way. God bless you!
Sarita Miller, #OJ3158, SCI Muncy
Contact: Daughters ℅ Let’s Get Free 460 Melwood Ave #300 Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Friday, February 12, 2021 was by far the happiest day of my adult life. I left prison after serving 40-1/2 years, and 12 days of a Life Sentence with no parole (LWOP).
As I traveled down the interstate I felt ecstatic, elated, overjoyed, jubilant and relieved. It was happening I was on my way home … to Pittsburgh. The ride was smooth but I got a little queasy about halfway; it took about 2-1/2 hours to get here.
I’m at Pittsburgh CCC (Community Correction Center).
The day arrived I did intake, met the center director and my counselor; was given a new mask, gave a urine and went to quarantine to await my Covid 19 test lab results.
I’m supposed to be here for one year. I’m allowed out Monday-Friday for work and also for two 4-hour segments of Free Time. (Update: Free Time is now 6 hours twice a week), I work part time for Let’s Get Free the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee. Due to Covid 19 restrictions I had to go in quarantine until my lab results came back. I was able to go shopping the day after I got out of quarantine Note: that was one of my 4-hour free times.
· Fill out weekly schedule for free time, work, community service, and outpatient treatment.
· Get a job.
TIP–Local fast food restaurants hire you on the spot or within one or two days!!!
· Due to Covid you must wear a mask when out of your room and stay in your cohort
· You buy and cook your own food but you can cook and share with your roommates
· NOTE: The CCC does have a pantry that we use until we’re able to buy groceries.
· NO FOOD ALLOWED UPSTAIRS EVER!!!
· There are coin-operated washers and dryers for $1 each (you must use quarters only; they will give them to you one time if your new but you have to ask for them). You’ll be given 3 combination locks; one for your closet, one for your refrigerated food bin, and one for your dry foods locker. You’ll also get a bin (like the gray bin on commissary) for clothes, papers etc.
· You have total control over your cash. You can have cash, credit cards, debit cards, and bank accounts. You do not pay rent at CCC. You can have and you need a cell phone because you have to call downstairs before you can leave to go anywhere. You can get food stamps and a medical card because within days of your arrival you will have to choose a PCP (which is a doctor) called a Primary Care Physician and a Health Plan.
· You can have bus passes.
· There are “real” mattresses with built-in box springs, carpeted rooms with air conditioners but there aren’t any TV’s in them and you cannot bring yours. You can have your tablet and headphones there are no kiosks.
· No visitors permitted right now because of Covid but friends and family can drop off a cell phone, groceries, clothing, and cosmetics – TIP Dollar Tree (not Dollar General), sells everything for $1.
· If you ask you’ll be given a voucher for $14 for the thrift store.
· You cannot wear any prison clothing including brown sweats. If you arrive in them you will either be given clothing or sent to the thrift store to get clothing. the Red White and Blue Thrift Store has great deals. I bought Tommy Hilfinger sandals for $4.99 and Coach slip-ons for $14.
Overall the CCC is nice, the staff are very helpful. Secretary Wetzel and Dr. Conti came to see me just to check in with me and see how it’s doing.
It’s been about 65 days now since I’ve been released. I saw a parole agent on Thursday she came from New Castle, PA to talk to me about preparing to see the Parole Board in October. She gave me a parole booklet to read and told me to call her once a week so she could get to know me better because she will not be my field agent (a.k.a. P.O.), but she will be putting in a recommendation to the Parole Board prior to my interview with them in October. If your wondering why I have to see the parole board if my sentence was commuted … it’s because as long as we’re at the Center we are considered furlough status; once we actually see the Parole Board, are paroled and assigned a permanent P.O. we are able to move out of the center and live at our own place on parole.
Basically she asked me a lot of questions about how my reentry is going and what my goals are moving forward. I told her that I work for Let’s Get Free the Women and Trans Defense Committee part-time and that I am currently in a 6-week pre-apprenticeship program with Reimagine Reentry. This program prepares you for jobs in the construction trades. Some of you may remember that SCI Muncy offered a Construction & Maintenance program with Mr. Lou Capaldi; that is where I learned carpentry. I told her that my short term goal was to get my Learner’s Permit (received it on 4-13-21), and my long term goal (by Fall), is to get my PA driver’s license and possibly enroll in a 4-year carpentry apprenticeship and that part of the requirement is that I must have a driver’s license and reliable transportation to get to the various job sites.
Housing Tip: In addition to going to a Center if you can find a home/furlough plan with family or friends I would do that because finding “affordable” housing in the city is difficult; all of the waiting lists are 12- 18 months long at least!!! Most of the housing applications that you’ll fill out ask if you have been convicted of a felony in the past 7 years … which for the many of us is no BUT I tell them up front NO but I have a conviction stemming from a crime committed in 1979; have received Executive Clemency from the PA governor and I am 60 years old and on parole for the rest of my life. I do this because I believe it’s just best to be honest and if you live in an apartment building that has a security intercom system your P.O. has to have the access code, so your landlord would find out you are on parole anyway; also if a landlord would refuse to rent to you because you’re on parole why would you want to live somewhere where your not wanted anyway? That’s how I see that. I’m happy to be associated and spend my hard earned money with people who believe in giving people second chances.
All in all reentry is a beautiful thing. I highly recommend it. PLEASE CONTINUE TO FIGHT EVERYONE WE ARE OUT HERE SUPPORTING YOUR EFFORTS IN MANY WAYS. YOU ARE DEFINITELY NOT ALONE. I KNOW SOMETIMES IT FEELS LIKE IT BUT JUST TRUST ME WHEN I SAY THIS Y-O-U ARE NOT ALONE. It’s a lot of work. I’ve had a lot of victories and a lot of frustrations; mostly with wanting things to happen quickly. For example: I wanted to start looking for and purchase a car on Friday after only having my Learner’s Permit for 4 days. I figured I could just park it and once I had my license it would already be there.
Reality Check – a title can’t be transferred to someone who only has a Learner’s Permit and not an actual PA driver’s license without a co-signer and tons of paperwork.
LOL Rookie Mistakes:
Putting lid upside down on takeout coffee is not a good idea or a good look.
Freezing precut-bagged salad and then running warm water over the bag = soggy salad.
Buying a monthly bus pass at Giant Eagle for $97.50 and finding out from your roommate the following day that you could’ve gotten it for $30 elsewhere.
Beautifully colored slushies at Primanti’s are alcoholic; they’re adults only slushies. Who would have thought? Always ask what’s in anything you’re thinking about ordering as a beverage. Good thing I asked!
Let’s Get Free’s 5th Annual Art Show Featuring artists on both sides of the walls
Call for Art and Poems
This art show is open to people currently in prison and people on the outside.This year’s show will have both online and in person elements. Select pieces will be shown in the physical gallery. All entries will be entered into the contest.
This year’s theme: Empathy is the Seed, Truth is the Water, Solidarity is the Bloomage
This is a recipe we think is crucial to shifting our world from the paradigm of punishment to that of healing.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Truth: the quality or state of being in accordance with fact or reality Solidarity: unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group. Bloomage: The blossoms or bloom of a plant or area taken collectively.
Submissions: We love receiving artwork connected to the theme.
Visual Art: All mediums welcome, no size restrictions. Illustrations, collage, paintings, sculpture, charcoal, textiles, cross stitch, sculpture, blankets…
Poetry: We’re adding poetry to our art show this year! This is a new addition to our annual art show so our process is unfolding. We welcome your poems.
Deadline to Submit Art: August 30, 2021 Art Show Sign Up Form
The show will open in mid November and have in person and online elements. Feel free to reach out if you can’t make the deadline.
Send Art and Poems To: Let’s Get Free: 460 Melwood Ave #300, Pittsburgh, PA, 15213:
Please include: Title, Medium and artists statement
Digital Only pieces will not be accepted this year, If you are an outside digital artist please send us a physical copy of your art to be considered in the contest.
Let’s Get Free’s 5th Annual Art Show is a fundraiser. By submitting art or poems to the show you are consenting for your art to be auctioned and sold to raise money to support Let’s Get Free.
This is a contest. Like last year, there will be two contest categories: Artists on the Inside and Artists on the Outside.The contest categories and prizes will be a little different this year than last year if you participated in that show.
Prizes for Artists/Poets on the Inside
Visual Art Prizes Piece that best expresses Empathy: $100 Piece that best expresses Solidarity: $100 Piece that best expresses Truth: $100 Piece that best ties the theme all together: $100 Best use of materials $100 Best Textile: $100 People’s Choice Award: $100
Poem that best ties the theme all together: $100 People’s Choice Award: $100
Prizes for Artists/Poets on the Outside
Visual Artists in Solidarity Prizes
Piece that best ties the theme all together: $100 People’s Choice Award: $100
Poets in Solidarity Prizes
Poem that best ties the theme all together: $100 People’s Choice Award: $100
Scholarships for Art Supplies: If you are incarcerated and participated in our contest last year or any of our previous art shows, you are eligible for an art supply scholarship if you are planning to participate in this year’s show. Please write for more details. There is a limited number of scholarships with priority to women and trans prisoners.
T H A N K Y O U
Deadline to Submit Art: August 30, 2021 Art Show Sign Up Form
These tips are written for people sentenced to life without parole but anyone filing for commutation can benefit from them. The process is open to anyone who has been convicted of anything.
Your filing Date & Patience. This process requires a lot of patience! After you send in your application it will be officially “filed.” This means the DOC submitted it to the Board of Pardons; once received and reviewed, you should receive correspondence from the Board that has your Filing Date. From that point, it can take up to two years from your filing date to get through the commutation process. With the Board’s goal of getting the time line reduced to 1-year, this target has not yet been reached due to several factors: COVID; increased number of applications; and limited Prison and Board capacity.
Naomi Blount, a Commutation Specialist working for the Lt. Governor, advises: “Stick to the questions asked on the application form. Don’t go into what happened in the courts. Make your application clear, so readers do not have to guess as to what you may mean. Most importantly… TELL THE TRUTH!!!!” Remember, excluding information or facts will be viewed as being untruthful.
Character Statements – letters from family and friends demonstrating support for your release and speaking on your character. The Board will accept these letters of support when you send in your application or anytime after. Find more information about writing letters on Pages 6-7
Reentry Support Letters. The reentry support letters are the most important; these are letters about home plans, jobs, financial support – any tangible support to facilitate your successful reentry. It is strongly advised that these letters be sent once you get your official filing date, or later, because they can become outdated or no longer accurate.
Home plans are important! It’s ok to have more than one home plan but having a home plan that is located in PA is essential. When your sentence is commuted you must reside in Pennsylvania for one year [12 full months]—no wiggle room on this requirement; this is the law. You are technically on Furlough for a year—this means your assignment to a Community Corrections Center [CCC] can be modified so that you will be permitted to spend extended periods of time at your home plan location. You will be able to do this once your home plan is approved. Remember a home plan is simply a promise of a place to stay; you will be able to modify the plan, if needed, once you are living in the CCC.
Interview with DOC Secretary John Wetzel: It has long been thought that Secretary Wetzel interviews each applicant as part of the prison review process; this is not always the case. We have learned not everyone will have a video interview with the Secretary. However, if you get scheduled to meet with him, it is very common for him to postpone these scheduled interviews and as a result, delay your application process.
Changes Are ‘Comin
Innocent Claims and Wrongfully Convicted – The Innocence Project is collaborating with the Board of Pardons to create an addendum that will be used specifically by those who have a claim of wrongful conviction will include questions specific to these issues . This additional form is being finalized; and should be available by the end of 2021. The commutation process is not designed to address or resolve actual innocence claims so unless you can prove it, keep guilt or innocence out of the application. Focus on compassion, mercy and your accomplishments/prison record. If the PA Innocence Project supports your innocence claims, they will write a letter on your behalf to include with your application. [PA Innocence Project – 1515 Market St, Suite 300 Philadelphia, PA 19102 Pittsburgh PA – 914 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219]
Digital Application Coming Soon – The application process is hoped to become completely digital no later than February, 2022. When this happens, each applicant will have their own account – applicants and their support people can help file the application, make modifications and check on status of the application. There should an identified location in each prison where one will be able to use the technology.
As of January 2020 you need to use the newly revised application. People in prison can get a copy of the application by going through a counselor or at the Law Library. People on the outside can also send an application by downloading it through the Board of Pardons website. As of 2019 there are on longer fees associated with this application. https://www.bop.pa.gov/application-process/ There aren’t any major changes for lifers, so no new information is required but you are required to submit the latest version of the application. Nothing to sweat here! You can request an application by writing to Board of Pardons 333 Market Street. 15th Floor. Harrisburg, PA 17126. It takes 3 weeks. Include your name and DOC number. Your counselor should also be able to give you an application
For questions about the application contact John Johnson, Pardons Case Specialist Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050. Phone: 717-728-0386 firstname.lastname@example.org You can also try Brandon Flood at email@example.com 717-409-3913
Application Status Update (717) 787-2596 (From BOP website) All phone calls are taken between 11:00 am and 4:30 pm (Eastern Time).
Supporters can now email letters of recommendation to the board of pardons. Contact Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov He will distribute the letter to the board and put it in the applicants packet. It’s always important to send a paper copy to your person filing the application.
Please write to us if you want a completed sample application of Naomi Blount. This application is from 2016 so it is not exactly the same as the 2020 ones but close. We are trying to get a more updated sample.
Take a look at the DOC policy on commutation at your law library: 11.4.1
Mail your application to: Pardons Case Specialist/Parole Manager Bureau of Standards and Accreditation Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole 1920 Technology Parkway Mechanicsburg, PA 17050
It is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission.
Tips for writing a commutation application
Ellen Melchiondo, The Women’s Lifer Resume Project with help from etta, naomi, elaine
The new commutation application is free and there is no filing fee. The application is available on the BOP website and in the prison library. The application includes supplemental pages and you must use them. Do not write “see attachment” in spaces where information continues. There is a box at the end of each section where you indicate if you will be including supplemental information. Information that you want to provide such as resume or published work should just be sent along with the application.
If you are not in prison and assisting an applicant what I do is download the application pdf. I save it to my desktop and a text box automatically appears. I also get rid of the text lines, and select white to make the background solid. This makes it easier to read.
Here’s a rundown on each section for people with life sentences:
Section 1 Type of Clemency: Check “Commute Life Sentence to Life on Parole” and do your best to remember each time you previously applied.
Section 2 Applicant Information: Just the facts. If using the DOC-Parole for representation click the box, the address is below. If using someone else, give that information.
Section 3 Convictions for Which Clemency is Requested: Less information is asked here: “place, role and caught.” Use a supplemental page if needed. Do not minimize role. Don’t add dialogue. Don’t make excuses. Minimize details, you’re not writing a memoir or screenplay.
Section 4 Additional Criminal Information: Fill out Section 4 to the best of your ability because parole provides the rap sheet to the DOC commutation office. No one is expected to pay for their criminal history report.
Section 5 Optional Personal Statement: is totally optional. No more checking boxes to address reasons for applying. One page is usually enough. In Section 5 write what life was like before the crime and tie that in to describe how your life changed and improved directly. For people who didn’t actually kill someone but were at the scene acknowledge that decisions made or behaviors resulted in being a suspect and ultimately convicted and sentenced. Wanting family members know how sorry you are should be an apology letter sent to the apology bank or Office of Victim Advocate, not in a commutation application.
I think now, less is more in Section 5. An explanation about your life circumstances before and during serving time is good. Accomplishments in list form. Home plan if you have one. You can list your supporters and how they will help you. Be sincere, humble and realistic about your goals.
Section 6: Sign and date. Keep a copy for yourself!
Tips for writing about your crime
One of the most challenging aspects for those who are pursuing commutation is to explain the role they played in the crime. Again,it is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission. When writing about the details of your crime, it is important to be both detailed and concise. Do not leave any information out, but also try to be straight to the point. One challenge is knowing how much to share about what led up to the crime. For women in general, this cannot be omitted or separated. Since the Board of Pardons doesn’t tell us what swayed them to vote for or against an applicant, a 360 degree perspective is owed to the process. It really is up to women lifers to educate the board of the unique crimes that they find themselves convicted of. It’s a balancing act. You want to provide context for your situation without excusing or diminishing your role.
You no longer have to admit to things you didn’t do as was the thought under the old commutation process. Before, your story had to match that of the State. Now you can tell your truth but it is important to take responsibility for your role. If you are wrongfully convicted – you are still convicted in the eyes of the state. So it is basically a plea for mercy. Because this isn’t re-litigation it’s not a retrial – the most you might do is point out some evidence that they could see. This process isn’t set up for the wrongfully convicted – write Lt. Gov John Fetterman about this.
Filing Date and Staffing Stage
After you submit your application is officially filed – this can take awhile from the time that you send it in. And each applicant gets “staffed” by their prison. This “staffing” is also called The Special Review Committee and is generally one or two deputy superintendents, a Major of Unit Management, or a Corrections Classification Program Manager or whoever is designated by the superintendent. A person can also request a supportive staff person to be included too.
Current staff may not write letters of support. They may submit an email to the respective Unit Manager to be included in the staffing packet.
Merit Review Stage
For updates on merit review contact Brandon Flood Bflood@pa.gov 717-480-0793 – Let it be known that there is most often incorrect information about who is going up for Merit Review – even if one of the BOP people tell us who is going up. Several times they have listed peoples names and several times they were not on the list. Try to call the week before the scheduled merit review to obtain the most accurate info. You can also try John Johnson.
Before your merit review you will be interviewed by Wetzel: Secretary Wetzel instituted the policy of interviewing applicants before the merit review. There is nothing in policy mandating the Secretary to conduct video interviews with people in prison. This is his policy and this could be discontinued by the next secretary one day. The secretary makes the ultimate decision by the Department of Corrections to recommend or not recommend an applicant for commutation. Not everyone will have an interview with Wetzel.
To pass merit review you need a 3-2 majority. You can now appeal a negative outcome during the Merit Review phase. You have 30 days to submit a Letter of Reconsideration along with a form you can find on DOC website, this letter of reconsideration is attached below. George Trudell, Naomi Blount and Farouq Wideman were denied at merit review stage, filed the reconsideration letter and are now released!
After a person passes the merit review, you will be scheduled for an in-person or virtual interview a few days before the hearings. This may be at Camphill or at Central Office in Mechanicsburg. The prison staff person who supports the applicant at the public hearing will be attending the in-person interview. Even during COVID these in person interviews happened.
A recent change in the process is that the DOC Office of Pardons Specialists will not be representing lifers at public hearings. This job falls to a staff person at the prison and was Wetzel’s idea. The idea is that Staff here at Central Office will never know the people as well as the institutional staff. Applicants are not permitted to select the designated facility staff person. This is the decision of the superintendent. They are still free to appoint someone else to represent you such as an attorney, friend or family member however, Mr. Johnson would not recommend since the representatives don’t have to speak as much and prepare long presentations as was the case in the past. But the representative must know the case inside and out and now how to prep the supporters in presentation.
Encourage your supporters to reach out to us if they have questions or just want some moral support. If they want to know what to expect, they can find a video on youtube of the full day of public hearings in May by searching: PA Board of Pardons, May 30, 2019. There is a shorter video highlighting Naomi and Cynthia’s hearing of the same day. Search youtube: PA Board of Pardons Hearing for Cynthia Gonzalez and Naomi Blount. Perhaps your counselors can pull it up for you as it is public and pertains directly to your situation.
2021 Board of Pardons Schedule Merit Review & Public Hearing Sessions:
Tuesday, November 30, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting
Wednesday, December 1, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting Thursday, December 2, 2021 – Public Hearing – Zoom Meeting
Friends and Family can get conference call numbers from merit review and zoom link for public hearings at: https://www.bop.pa.gov
Letters of Reentry Support and Letters of Recommendation are Important!
A Reentry Support Letter shows real support coming home: housing, money, job, transportation, clothes, etc… The best time to file these letters is when your commutation application is officially filed. The concern there is that the tangible support will become outdated because the process takes so long so if you can send the letters when you get your filing date they should be good. So wait to hear from the DOC and the BOP that your application has been filed.
A letter of Recommendation explains why a person believes you are no longer a threat to public safety and have been rehabilitated. They can express other things like looking forward to spending time with you, showing you how to navigate the free world, etc.. You can file these letters any time!
Reminder: Supporters can now email letters to the board of pardons. Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov He will distribute the letter to the board and place in the applicant’s packet.
Keep in mind if you are writing to organizations for support letters and they don’t know you personally it is hard for them to write you a letter. Try building a relationship first.
Asking Friends and Family for Letters
Support your friends in supporting you!
Here is a sample letter people in prison can use to mobilize family and friends to write letters:
I am working on my commutation application. I would like to know if you would be interested in writing a letter of support, a character witness letter to the board of pardons on my behalf. If you are open to this the letter should be addressed to The Board of Pardons 333 Market St, Harrisburg, PA 17126 and include the following
RE: (commutation applicant’s name) Commutation of Life Sentence, letter writer’s return address and phone number.
The letter should state the following:
1. Briefly touch on who you are, your background, employment, degrees, etc.
2. Include Commutation Applicant’s Name, DOC Number and Prison
3. How we came in contact with each other.
4. Your thoughts on my maturity and rehabilitation.
5. Your thoughts on my remorse for the offense I am convicted of.
6. Your thoughts on my chances for successful reentry into society, employment and participation in society upon my release.
7. Any willingness you would have in assisting in my reentry to society i.e. references, referrals, etc. when I am released.
When you are finished with the letter please send the original back to me. Please also keep a copy for yourself. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.
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.