“Everybody in Pittsburgh is in a hurry to go nowhere fast.” — Tamie Gates
On October 16, Tamie Gates moved to Pittsburgh after serving 27 years in PA prisons, mostly at Cambridge Springs.
Tamie Gates spoke with Alan Lewandowski about coming home.
LGF: What would you want to tell someone planning to come home?
Tamie: If possible, make sure you get some computer classes before you get your release.
Even so, what you really need is internet classes. At the moment, those are not offered, and it is a disservice that it is not provided. I have a fair amount of computer literacy and it’s still a big adjustment for me coming out here where everything is on a computer. Get as much computer experience as you can.
Also, if you’re relocating to a new area, get as much information about the area as you can before your release. It would be great if you are able to get street maps.
The prison really doesn’t prepare you to be successful out in the world, and it is not the concern of the institution.
LGF: So you can’t get maps on the inside?
Tamie: You can look at the atlas in the library or look at a globe. But there is no way to get street maps and bus maps that will actually show where you will be living and need to go, which would be very valuable tools for preparation.
Another thing is be prepared to be thrifty.
I took a money smart class at Cambridge Springs before I left, but they should do a re-entry class demonstrating to people the prices of objects in the outside world. So you can understand ahead of time how much you’ll need to budget for the things you might need.
Or you can just shop at the dollar store.
LGF: What prices shocked you the most?
Tamie: A gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, and the cost of lunch meat- even baloney. Who knew it could be so high for baloney- $5 a package?- that’s crazy. At the same time prepare yourself to be very patient, because things don’t move as fast as you think they will, and it could take you quite a while to acquire a job.
LGF: What are the biggest challenges in the job search?
Tamie: The internet. There is a lack of hand-written applications, and everywhere you go someone says “Apply online. Apply online!!!” Apply online means expect to spend an hour and a half on the computer, and you’ll hear back in a month. Be prepared to be patient.
In general, prepare as much as possible before you come home. Prepare for what you don’t think is going to happen. Get all your various resumes as ready as you can.
LGF: You have been volunteering regularly at two local shelters. What drew you to this kind of service.
Tamie: Because Felicia Chapman was part of the women’s shelter, and she used to come to see me at Cambridge Springs; and my friend Sharon Webb is part of the Shepherd’s Heart church.
Knowing those two people connected me directly to that aspect of community work.
I’ve always been a caretaker by nature, and while incarcerated I always participated in the various community projects we did up there. So it was natural for me to want to get involved with giving back to the community here; and I have two opportunities to do this; for the veterans and the homeless.
LGF: You told friends at Cambridge Springs that you wanted to buy a lottery ticket when you came out. Have you bought one yet?
Tamie: Yes. One. Just because I could. It was a wasted dollar. But if I had won $500, it wouldn’t have been.
Post Script: Tamie brought to our attention that the alloted time for meds after you are released is not enough. The prison will give you 30 days of your prescription. What they didn’t factor in is that it takes more than 30 days to sign up for health care, make a doctors appointment and get your prescription filled. Only if you hotfoot it to get signed up can you manage it just under the wire. 2 months would be sufficient. This is something to ask prison officials about and try to get this policy changed.
Free Her is a yearly conference sponsored by the National Council for Formerly Incarcerated and Incarcerated Women and Girls. Each year it brings people from across the country and even the world in one place to learn from each other, share stories & strategies and heal. Last October, the conference was held in Montgomery, Alabama and kicked off with a tour of the Legacy Museum.
48 workshops were presented and several plenaries!! Some of the topics included were: reproductive justice, how to apply for clemency, healing with family after incarceration, climate change and prisons, sister circles and the power of research. Susan Burton Brown was there leading a conversation about housing! Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP) in the house! The opening panel was international featuring participants from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and conference founder Andrea James was there reppin’ the U.S – all talking about how to connect with Sisters Overseas.
Our very own Ronna Davis attended this year’s conference. She reflects, “We got in that room and there was so much power. We could feel it. People like me, who knew where I was coming from. It’s so important to see women with their heads held high, formerly incarcerated people who are lawyers, who are running business, who are RNs, who got their lives back. Sometimes you don’t know why you do what your doing you just do it. And then you go to a conference like Free Her and it all makes sense.”
Ronna was really moved by the powerful performance of “The Graduates.” This ensemble is comprised of former members of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) Drama Club. Ronna reported, “All of the women had white on. One of the older women told her story – she was dancing to her own story. You could see the excitement in her dance. They all sang their stories. It showed the unity of the women that were incarcerated.”
Another local Free Her attendee, Terri Minor Spencer has been home for 12 years and Pittsburgh hasn’t been the same since. She is 100% devoted to educating her community on the political process and taking action to solve problems she sees in her neighborhood.
Terri writes, “I hosted a workshop on Community Educational Civics. The whole weekend was nothing less than Amazing, the unity under one roof, my heart swelled with joy! I learned from some awesome women about the importance of staying in the fight! I’m looking forward to the next one!”
Sometime after the conference one of the participants of Terri’s workshop reached out to her and is considering running for office!! Build that civic power Terri!!
The following reflections are from people on the National Council’s email list:
“I have been home for 11 1/2 years after serving 20, what struck me profoundly was sitting in space with women that experienced what I had experienced, and hearing my emotions come from another’s mouth. Being at the conference was the next step of my freedom being real.” — Dana Jenkins, Director of Operations for Second Chance Center in Colorado
“I met Andrea James when the Council was in its infancy. I was serving a 55 year sentence in an Indiana women’s prison. I began speaking at the Council’s event while still on the inside via Skype. This past Feb. the federal court overturned my conviction, not only granting my equitable tolling (the statue that bars filing in the fed court due to missing the 365 day deadline) they also granted my habeas corpus. I am the first woman in modern times to do this (look up my case and PLEASE share it with ANY woman who can legally benefit from the precedents set within or argument grounds). I was released on 27 Aug 2019 after serving 18 1/2 years of that sentence. On 3 Oct 2019 (my birthday) I headed to AL to attend the conference, for the first time in person, meeting all my Council sisters in the flesh for the first time. There are no words to describe that joy and emotional flood! I was HOME! THIS IS MY FAMILY!!!! Blessings to ALL my sisters, especially those on the inside. NEVER give up hope and NEVER stop fighting for your freedom. I have literally done what everyone said was impossible, so can you. Believe in yourself. I am out here continuing the fight for all the rest of you. For years I have told people to call me Moses, I swear I’m coming to set the captives free. Blessed Be! Infinite love and gratitude always.” — Anastazia “Moses” Schmid, Indiana
“I was sentenced to state prison for a substance disorder for a short time. I then fought for years to get my 3 daughters back from the system. Compared to many of the women I have had the honor of meeting at the two conventions I attended, I was humbled and inspired beyond words. These women became my shero’s, real-life superwomen. It was like a family reunion, education, and healing retreat. Taz, Mother Phyllis, I love all of you. Thank you for everything. The convention simply gave me a sense of pride I did not know was inside of me. Incarceration cannot stop true leaders! So grateful for all of you! #Freedom #FreeThemAll” —Cassandra Bensahih, coordinator for the MA Against Solitary Confinement Coalition/UU Mass Action.
“The conference for me was more than I could ever dream or expected it to be. Each day was a different experience. After about the 4th day I was overwhelmed with the resources and all the info that was available to us. After walking into a room with my head hung low with a lot of shame and guilt of the struggles I had gone thru of my incarceration, the guilt of leaving my children to live with family members, the guilt of substance abuse for 15 years. All of the missing – birthdays, graduations, holidays. All of the sessions were informative but the one that struck me the most was the YOUTH. After this session I begin to find a sense of FREEDOM. To hear the youth share their experience of abandonment. Their experience of parents missing birthdays, graduation and other holidays that we all look forward to. I was able to feel the pain I caused my children. The strength of the youth to stand before hundreds of people to share their deepest pain was awe inspiring. After being out of prison for 6 years, the week of the conference I was finally able to hold my head up, forgive myself, to embrace the forgiveness from my children and to start a new beginning. I was able to take off the mask that I carried for so many years… and begin to live again.” –Royal Johnson, Board Member of Reforming Arts Reentry Project in Atlanta Ga.
“I KNOW the FREEHER conference is important because women from all over convene to share experience, strength, hope and resources. It’s always a humbling and amazing experience. I thank Andrea James for being such a humble yet fierce leader.
It didn’t take me decades of incarceration to see that the criminal justice system is broken. I did not have proper representation and was offered 2 flat, by the time it was all over I did 3 1/2 years and 8 years on Parole.” – Starr Blue, founded NYC based non profit, STARZ CLOSET in 2009, three years after her release. Starz closet provides gender specific hygiene kits and immediate needs clothing.
Thanks to all the participants for sharing their reflections!
You can become a member of the Council for just $5 dollars a year. Outside supporters can also sign up people in prison on their website. https://www.nationalcouncil.us
Merit Review is one step of the long commutation process. You need 3 out of 5 votes to make it to the next stage which is a public hearing. Applicants are not present in person and an official reads the name and the board of pardons members say yes or no if they support. Feels very clinical, but it is public and community members do attend.
Before the Merit Review, each applicant has a video conference interview with the DOC Secretary Wetzel. He talks to them for 15 minutes and asks questions. He then gets to weigh in on wether he supports the applicant for commutation. We are curious how much weight the board of pardons gives to Wetzel’s recommendation. How can you decide a persons fate in a 15 minute interview?
This is Avis’s 6th attempt for commutation. For the last 4 applications she has had complete institution support for her release. We believe the people who live with her every day should should carry the most weight in these recommendations. Not the District Attorney who has never met her, nor Wetzel who has a 15 minute conversation with her.
Avis Lee turned 58 years old this past January. She was sentenced to Death by Incarceration (DBI) as a teenager and has served almost 40 years in prison. She was the look out for a robbery that ended tragically. This is her 6th attempt at applying for commutation. The last 4 attempts she has had full support of Cambridge Springs Prison.
For clarity, Commutation is different than the superior court case that the Abolitionist Law Center argued on the age expansion for juveniles sentenced to DBI. That case is still in process. For more information on Avis Lee Click Here
On June 19, 2018, we watched the video of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II running away, unarmed, with his hands held high. We watched as he was shot three times in the back by Police Officer Michael Rosfeld.
Antwon Rose II was no threat to Michael Rosfeld.
We believe the family and loved ones of Antwon Rose II deserve justice.We believe that in a democratic society, democracy fails when any citizen is denied a pathway to justice.
We believe that holding police accountable is essential for creating a meaningful relationship between the police and the community.
We believe that in order for justice to prevail, Michael Rosfeld must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for the murder of Antwon Rose II.
We believe that if the Allegheny County District Attorney convicts Officer Michael Rosfeld, then we can finally begin the process of healing and reconciliation.
The focus should be on convicting Michael Rosfeld, not what a community in pain might or might not do.
We’ve all heard the slogan that Pittsburgh is “America’s Most Liveable City.” However, without justice, without accountability, without racial equality, the question remains, “For WHOM?” Only a two-tier system of justice that offers police preferential treatment would accept the notion that Michael Rosfeld is innocent of wrongdoing. Such a conclusion would send a very clear message to our community and the world that Black Lives Do NOT Matter.
The outcome of this trial can either deepen the division or show that we are truly “Stronger Together”.
The whole world is watching.
Concerned Citizens of Allegheny County
120 Organizations signed onto this open letter initiated by the Alliance for Police Accountability and 1HOOD
Let’s Get Free is pushing off the new year with a flurry of heartfelt activity. Excitement is brewing because we have secured a date for our annual prison justice art fundraiser (October) and our dear friends from Philadelphia are coming to lead a training on self governance. That’s right! Reconstruction Inc. will be here the 3rd weekend of March to share their Capacity Building Curriculum, and you are invited!
We continue to confront laws and policies upholding Death by Incarceration sentences, with our participation in CADBI-West. We have been channeling love in the form of visits, letters, phone calls, books, financial and commutation application support to not just the women at Cambridge Springs but many people serving life sentences.
We are bursting with ideas and an overwhelming workload – perhaps you are ready to get more involved? Next meeting this Wednesday Feb 20th @ 6:30pm at the TMC Annex 5119 Penn ave! You coming?
Read on dear ones for news, updates and ways to participate.
Support Pittsburgh’s New Bail Fund!
The Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh is doing its first set of BAILOUTS over the week of Valentine’s Day!
To celebrate this righteous return of people to their communities, you are invited to join on February 14, 2019 for a celebration of love and freedom with dinner, conversation, performances by radical artists, and more!
This secret café pop-up restaurant will begin serving dinner at 6:45, with a short menu made to satisfying all (vegans/carnivores/gf/nut free)
There is no cost for this event, though donation jars will be present for those who feel called to contribute.
~Why do we need a community bail fund in Pittsburgh?~
81% of inmates at ACJ have not been convicted of a crime. They are only being held because they cannot afford to post bail before their trial. Their freedom cannot wait. Black people and other People of Color end up behind bars more than anyone else — Black people get incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people. People needlessly suffer and often even die in jail while waiting on their hearings, especially if they are POC, trans, disabled, or poor. In 2017, four people died at ACJ due to medical neglect, and historically such deaths occur within the first few days of someone’s arrival.
Join this new exciting group on this day of action in memory of Frank “Bukit” Smart, Jr. and everyone else who has lost their life to the neglect and active abuse of the ACJ. In solidarity with all their families, friends, and loved ones, let’s spread the #LoveBeyondBars!
For more info on Bukit’s story, please visit the Facebook page: Bukit Bail Fund
Call for Artists
Our 3rd annual prison justice art fundraiser is set for October of 2019. Calling all artists on both sides of the walls to create pieces on the theme – “Glow Home:
What does HOME look like? Feel like? A space? A state of mind? how do you glow there?
How would you draw, paint sculpt your dream home? If you are incarcerated, what are your hopes, dreams, fears about coming home?
So many of us had fun creating lamps and light boxes at last years show we wanted to extend that theme. Spruce up a lamp shade or string of lights.
Another angle is that of relationSHIPS. We believe relationships are really what makes coming home GLOW. Think of all the ships:) relationSHIP. friendSHIP, companionSHIP, hardSHIP, worSHIP, partnerSHIP, citizenSHIP, leaderSHIP -it is a fundraiser. People love ships. loveSHIPs.
Please submit your art by July 31 2019.
As always, we accept old art that wasn’t made specifically for this show. Additionally, if anyone is still inspired to make art out of letters from people in prison please do!
Do you know an incarcerated artist? Share their contact with us so we can send them the call to artists.
Questions, encouragement or need some letters from people in prison? Contact etta cetera: firstname.lastname@example.org – 443-603-6964
Capacity Building Curriculum
-a training for self governance and group sustainability-
March 23 & 24 (Saturday and Sunday)
Details to be decided: Save the Date!
Please join Reconstruction Inc. in collaboration with Let’s Get Free in a two day training & learning from the Capacity Building Curriculum.
Reconstruction Inc. is a grassroots organization based in Philadelphia whose purpose is to affect social change by forging individuals that were formerly incarcerated into an organized community of leaders working together to transform the criminal justice system, their communities and themselves. This curriculum has been developed over many years of direct implementation with groups in Philadelphia and recently at the State Correctional Institution-Muncy. It is important to note that the curriculum is not only for people impacted by the criminal injustice system, but for everyone.
Reconstruction Inc. believes that each human being is sacred and is valuable to themselves, their family, the community and to society. Each of us should be critical thinkers, good decision makers, and give principled leadership to our family and eventually change the world. This curriculum has three pillars, and is both interactive and transformative.
Ricky Olds founder of Let’s Get Free’s new program, The Real Deal on Reentry, spoke as a part of Law & Disorder panel at the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit on January 25, 2019. The Real Deal is a budding program supporting returning citizens. The program is organically occurring on the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, on buses across the city and through the prison walls. Ricky has been offering emotional and financial support for fellow returning citizens as well as to his brothers on the inside. To learn more about Ricky’s story
October 2nd – People’s Senate Vote! Rally in Harrisburg 11:30 AM Rotunda (check in for details coming from Pittsburgh on http://cadbiwest.org or email email@example.com October 20th – CADBI New Member Launch – Details To be Announced October 23rd – Avis Lee’s Hearing in Philadelphia – Many people in Pittsburgh will attend leaving both Monday night and Tuesday early morning.
Let’s Get Free is meeting regularly every other Wednesday at the Thomas Merton Center Annex. See sidebar for details or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Oral Argument for Avis Lee – Tuesday- October 23, 2018
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has scheduled en banc (meaning the full court, i.e. 9+ judges) oral argument in the case of Avis Lee for Tuesday, October 23rd at 9:30 a.m. at in Philadelphia, address: 17th Floor, 530 Walnut St.
The Court is sitting “en banc”, which means 9 or more judges, and when they are en banc they have super judicial powers and can overturn their existing precedent that prohibits 18+ Miller claims.
The issue in this case is whether Avis is permitted to challenge her mandatory life-without-parole sentence as excessive in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment due to her being only 18 years old at the time of the offense. Avis raised a claim that she had the same characteristics of youth and immaturity that the U.S. Supreme Court found relevant in striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children younger than age 18 in Miller v. Alabama, then applied retroactively to older cases (like Avis’) in Montgomery v. Louisiana.
Art Gallery as an Organizing Tool
For the 2nd year in a row, Let’s GetFree has facilitated a collaborative art show in effort to raise funds for our basic needs like transportation, stamps, speakers fees and copies. Not only do we get filled up on funds and creative inspiration, we also take full advantage of the space through having weekly gallery hours and 3 events. The opening event and auction saw over 1,000 people come through the doors of Boom Concepts and almost all the art sold raising over $5,000. Etta Cetera, co-founder of Let’s GetFree and curator of Letters and Liberation, gave two tours to youth groups including, 1Hood Media’s summer interns and the Hazelwood Arts Excursion. One participant wants to help etta curate the show next year and many of the young people said they would donate art to future events. This years art show funded the Let’s GetFree retreat which took place on August 12. Overlooking Edinboro Lake we reflected, assessed and strategized. This years art show also helped to fund two new programs – The Real Deal a support group for returning citizens and Let‘s Get Smart – an initiative to build educational opportunities in prisons across PA.
THANK YOU SO MUCH TO ALL THE ARTISTS WHO DONATED ART, ALL THE VOLUNTEERS WHO SET UP, BROKE DOWN AND HELPED WITH EVENTS, ALL THE PEOPLE WHO BOUGHT ART, ALL THE ATTENDEES WHO SHARED THEIR WISDOM WITH US THROUGHOUT THE MONTH OF JULY AND TO BOOM CONCEPTS.
Below is the newsletter we will be sending to our loved ones on the inside, we send out about 350 newsletters mostly to women serving death by incarceration and our close friends and advisors. Let’s GetFree is:
Devon Cohen, Donna Hill, Alan & Nancy Lewandoski, Sara Coffey, Darlene Williams, Jess Cox, Lauren Stupartiz, Jane Hein, Carol Speaks, Josie Young, Cat Besterman and etta cetera [Lauren, Devon, etta, and Alan pictured on left at retreat.Photo by Nancy]
Get Out the Vote in the Midterm Elections
What can you do? Get out the VOTE in the midterm elections this November! Ask the candidates if they will support the lifer bills and vote for the candidate who will. In District 28 (Allegheny County) there is a very important race. The incumbent, MikeTurzai, is being challenged by Emily Skopov. Let’s GetFree has tried to meet with the incumbent to ask for his support of the lifer bill but he will not schedule a meeting. The incumbent is the speaker of the House so he has great power to appoint committee chairs and wield influence. His head of the house Judiciary committee does not support our cause. Let’s GetFree has met with Emily Skopov and she will support the lifer bill. She is committed to serving the interests of her constituents, not her financial backers. So please support Emily Skopov and other candidates who support reforms leading to redemption. Go to https://ballotpedia.org/Pennsylvania_elections,_2018 to find out who is running in your area.
Just as important as the midterm elections is next year’s election for DA in Allegheny County. Legislators tell us they will vote on the lifer bill as the District Attorneys tell them. Philadelphia County has a new DA who is committed to being smart on crime and reforming the system. All other PA counties need like minded DA’s. In Allegheny County the DA is up for reelection in 2019. Turahn Jenkins is running against the incumbent. Jenkins has the endorsement of LGF and CADBIwest. What can you do? Please support his campaign anyway you can and especially by telling your friends and family his name.Turahn Jenkins for DA!
If Fetterman wins LT. Governor, hold him to his word
On July 11 2018, Let’s GetFree hosted a Community Dialogue on Pardons and Parole. Panelists included CADBI members Robert Saleem Holbrook, Carol Speaks, Liz Guyer, Marcie Marra and Pittsburgh based politicians: John Fetterman, Ed Gainey, Sara Innamorato, Summer Lee. (Ed, Sara and Summer have already spoken in support of SB942 and HB135.
During the discussion the Democratic Candidate for Lt. Governor John Fetterman stated the following:
1.) He opposes the Unanimous Vote on the Board of Pardons for Lifers and believes it is a impossible burden for a Lifer.
2.) He supports Judges having Discretion when it comes to sentencing prisoners to Life, which is a tacit support of parole for lifers that we can use.
3.) He said he supports changes to the Board of Pardons
4.) He would consider presumptive parole for prisoners
The Real Deal on ReEntry – From B Block to the Streets
Contact: Ricky Olds
Email – email@example.com
Snailmail – The Let’s GetFree ATTN: THE REAL DEAL 460 Melwood #300 Pittsburgh, PA 15213
What is the Real Deal? The Real Deal is a support group, a discussion group, a problem sharing and a problem-solving group tackling the many issues that face people coming home from prison. The Real Deal is made up of Re-entrants, by Re-entrants and for Re-entrants.
Who is it for? Initially, we are focusing on returning juvenile lifers and longer term returning citizens, however, we foresee quickly expanding to include all formally incarcerated individuals, men as well as women. We also hope to include spouses, children, and family members of returning citizens. Any persons integral to the support and long term success of the returning citizens. We also encourage spouses and family members of those yet to be released to attend. So they might better understand the challenges their loved ones will be facing upon release. This will create a network of support, a network made up entirely of people in the same or similar circumstances. In many cases, a strong network can make all the difference.
Speak it into Existence: Our dream is to build a solid network supporting people coming home. We hope to create strong lines of communication through the walls sharing our meeting minutes, what we have learned, discovered and created, with those still incarcerated. Any questions, comments or concerns coming from the inside can be addressed and forwarded at the next meeting with the goal being a smooth and seamless return home for all. We also plan to develop a Website and eventually simulcast our meetings to those unable to attend physically. We would like a presence on all relevant social media so that the community at large can see who these Re-entrants are and recognize the talent, skills and knowledge represented by many of our returning citizens.
Connect with the Real Deal: Anyone wanting to participate or knowing of someone who may benefit or have some skill or expertise they may want to share, please contact us at the following: The Real Deal – firstname.lastname@example.org Ricky Olds – Coordinator – 412-503-2319
After attending my second merit review session with the Board of Pardons I wanted to find out what factors in determining a decision to vote for or against a public hearing for lifers besides the application’s contents. Secretary Wetzel interviews each applicant before the merit review and after the staffing. He reads the staffing reports. Many of us feel that if you get Wetzel’s approval that should at least translate to a yes vote by the DOC’s BOP representative. That is not the case. The battery of tests taken also likely influences their decision.
If Lt. Governor Stack embraces second chances and votes no, how does he get to that judgment?
I learned that once a commutation application is officially filed with the BOP, the application is shared with the committing county’s DA, judge or president judge, victims and possibly the magisterial district. This information is found on page 6 in the Pathways to Pardons booklet.
I am starting to believe that it is necessary that family members and supporters of a commutation applicant reach out and have a conversation with the DA and president judge before the merit review. At that time stress the applicant’s humanity and emphasize the support you are willing to give.
Recently an applicant was denied commutation after a public hearing even with the victim’s family support. The committing county’s DA opposed it. Would it have helped if the victim’s family in this case had a conversation with the DA before the merit review and the public hearing? (I don’t know which member of the BOP voted yes to move on to the public hearing. This information would help to analyze the outcome; three members voted yes for the public hearing.) On one hand the DA’s MO is to protect the victims. But what happens when the victim’s don’t want the DA’s protection?! Who does the DA work for? Did the DA influence the AG and corrections expert who voted no at the public hearing? Interestingly, the DA and corrections expert are from the same county-Bucks.
This is a very frustrating process especially since we know so much about the nearly non-existence in reoffending by life sentenced people. The reality of commutation for lifers in PA is dark and complicated but to not apply is not only giving up hope, it keeps the system in place. By putting your life story out there and facing the consequences it is only then that we on the outside can push to dismantle it thereby improving the outcomes-possible. Always file for reconsideration.
Let’s GetFree continues to share Commutation Kits – A resource for people in PA applying for commutation. The Kit includes a sample application, tips for writing your application and tips for your loved ones to write a support letter for you.
Operation Break Bread Update
We are celebrating a year of growing connections and building friendships with our project Operation Break Bread, which started the summer of 2017 and grew out of last years art show. With this initiative we’ve organized people in Pittsburgh to visit people serving life at SCI Cambridge Springs, the closest women’s prison to Pittsburgh. For the last year, there have been visits organized at least once every other month, with over 20 people visiting and 20 people receiving visits. We recently organized two prison visit trainings to invite more people to participate and learn the ways to create connections with folks on the inside across the concrete and communication barriers.
If you or someone you know who is serving life at SCI Cambridge Springs would like a visit, reach out to us at: Let’s GetFree 460 Melwood Ave #300 – Pittsburgh, PA 15213 – Please keep in mind we can’t promise a visit and we are very slow to respond but as always we will do our best!
I see her walking out of prison
by Alan Lewondowski
The song is from a daydream I had over breakfast about my friend Marsha Scaggs, currently serving Life Without Parole at SCI Cambridge Springs, PA.
The women sentenced to life at SCI Cambridge Springs and SCI Muncy are some of the best and sweetest people I’ve ever met. They are care giving individuals who act as mentors, teachers and role models to the younger folks with lesser sentences who come through the prison. They have long ago been re-habilitated and transformed into incredible human beings. They do not belong in prison and their being held there until they die constitutes a Human Rights disaster. We make the laws. Let‘s fix these broken ones.
This song is my vision of Marsha coming home. Let it be soon!
I See Her Walking Out Of Prison
Locked away in a foreign land
Still paying for a mistake from her distant past
Doing way too much time
For tip-toeing over the line once upon a time
She turned into a saint just to survive
She’s a teacher by trade. I know justice is blind
But it doesn’t have to be stupid every time
I see her walking out of prison
I see a door opening
She’s working and waiting
It’s a moment we’ve been hoping to see
Now someone on the inside’s saying
Maybe this means something good’s gonna happen to me
Now she’s on the outside, reaching back, getting sisters free
I see her re-uniting families
I see her walking out of prison
It’s like a day breaking
Or the long-awaited peace
Of night waking
The mother of stone they buried her in is giving birth
Saying “Go on home. You belong to all of Mother Earth”
And now I see her walking
Walking, walking, walking, walking
I see her walking out of prison
I know one day she’ll walk free
From this cage of entropy
I see her walking out of prison
Ghani shares 5 lessons applicable to humanity learned by Geese. He shared this at the end of a workshop entitled “Peace, Forgiveness and Ubuntu” which happened on July 21, 2018 in Pittsburgh, PA as part of the Letters & Liberation Art Show at Boom Concepts.
We ❤ you Ghani, and hope to celebrate your freedom this September! There are so many behind bars who deserve a second chance at parole and commutation. Even after decades of incarceration, people are dreaming of contributing back to society and helping make things right. Support House Bill 135 in the Judiciary Committee so we can see more folks like Ghani get a second chance at parole! Read more here
Below are pictures from Ghani’s Community Resentencing which happened on Sunday July 23 in Philadelphia organized by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and pictures of us the next day, Monday July 24th outside the JV court house during Ghani’s actual appeal hearing.
etta and yvonne
Inside the community resentencing
outside JV court night before hearing reading the community’s ideas for resentencing ghani
On way to JV courthouse
Outside JV Courthouse
Old comrades pose for a pic – Andy, etta and Theresa.
Sharon Shoatz and Russell Shoatz
Russell Shoats III and Theresa Shoats
Hanging outside Juvinile Court during Ghani’s hearing
Wispy on the mic and Theresa in the back
Outside JV Courthouse
Outside JV Courthouse
On way to JV courthouse
The Community guidelines for resentencing
Flyer we handed out about ghani
Mama Patricia Vickers talking about Hope is as Weapon!
The last weekend of January was full of activity across the nation and in Philly. Trump had just announced the travel ban that Friday evening, and people all over the country were flocking to airports to speak up, sit in, and support Muslim travelers from the seven named countries who were being detained. Philadelphia was no different. Several of the 50 attendees of the state-wide strategy meeting of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) cut out at lunch to legal observe and participate in the resilient and spirited uprising. This energy infused our meeting space; several signs were hung declaring solidarity with Muslim people and denouncing deportations.
The bulk of the eight-hour strategy meeting was spent divided into break-out groups developing goals for the year. The Membership group strategized around sustaining, supporting, and recruiting new members. Ideas generated from this session included creating a resource sharing tool kit for family members, developing a formal orientation, and having parties to bring people together. A dinner honoring family members of lifers is already on the calendar for March 25th.
The Media group talked tactics on messaging, writing op-ed’s, developing workshops, and creating one-page talking points that would be supportive of different audiences.
Next we had the Statewide Coalition crew and the Legislative crew. There are many overlapping ideas here centering our goal of passing HB 135—the parole expansion for lifers bill, also called the Dawkin’s bill. We talked about reaching out to the rural communities and outlying counties where our campaign is underrepresented. A power mapping initiative is already underway, and once the priorities are articulated, we can call on our incarcerated comrades to locate people and potential constituents in those regions. In other words, we need lifers from the rural regions to get their families involved so their representatives will listen to us when we say “Liberation In Our Lifetime!”
We plan to host three trips to Harrisburg to build momentum and lobby, as well as a lot of traveling around the state with community dialogues, townhalls, and meetings with lawmakers. This post was reprinted from the Global Network to Free Maroon‘s March Newsletter.
How we gonna bring our people home alive? Gonna Pass HB- 135
Looking back on this year, Let’s Get Free has done a lot of work, made solid connections, grown in community, and has been supported and built by so many amazing folks. In 2016, we officially launched our Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation, hosted a legislator call-in day to begin laying tracks for future commutation reform, lobbied in Harrisburg and held a press conference in support of HB2135 and commutation reform. We sent our first newsletter, organized ongoing support for Juvenile Lifer cases in PA, began fundraising in earnest to be able to realize our goals for mobilizing and organizing across the state, and lobbied again with CADBI on October 18 to end Death By Incarceration.
The last 6 months have felt big, working to ride on the crest of the wave stirred up by our rally and lobbying efforts in June and October, and the introduction of HB2135–legislation for Parole Expansion for Lifers. We have been successfully fostering and growing relationships with PA state representatives who support HB2135, and have begun working with representatives in SW PA to craft a strategic approach to statewide campaigning for this legislation. We had the opportunity to participate in a historic Lifer’s Retreat at SCI Graterford, making incredible connections and community with others in the struggle across the state, and are collaborating to expand a scholarship fund. We hosted a deeply moving listening event with Samantha Broun, who has produced a singularly important radio piece about violence, harm, healing, and commutation. Our statewide collaboration and networking with other justice groups across the state has been growing stronger, and we have successfully started to expand our working group. Building our house up so we can invite more people in to keep on in 2017!
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation has gathered a Commutation Support Kit. It includes tips from Ellen, a copy of an application that ended up winning freedom for a lifer, and sample letters to write to family and friends to help them support you in this process.
Char and her dog
Carol Speaks at one of our weekly meetings
Rep. Patty Kim joining our press conference
Sarah banning the box!
Commutation Lobby Day June 23
photo by Harmony
October 18, CADBI Lobby Day
Beautiful Women at Muncy
Devon and Cat hold a banner “Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers” at the Fight for 15 labor march.
Ellen Melchiondo writes: The hearing lasted about half an hour.
Before the hearing began, the assistant to lawyer Susan Ricci of the Philadelphia Defenders Association, took the names of the people who came in support of Paulette: four members of Paulette’s family, two women from The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, Pastor Collins and Richard “Tut” Carter of the Church of The Overcomers, Paul Mack, Ellen Melchiondo,Mike Lyons, Yvonne Newkirk and 3 others from CADBI, FFL, PA Prison Society and The Redemption Project, Susan Beard-Nole, wife of Freddie Nole a juvenile lifer, Cecilia Velasquez, sister of Ben who is a lifer and who spent some time at Muncy. (All of the names were submitted to the court for the record and some names were read by Ricci during her presentation.) A card was signed by everyone to be given to Paulette.
Paulette’s family provided her with new clothes to wear. Paulette looked at everyone as she was seated upon entering. Susan Ricci frequently had her arm on Paulette’s back and arm.
The ADA said little, except to verify the plea deal and supported it. 35 to life. Paulette served 38 years. There was no opposition.
Susan Ricci explained Paulette’s life before the incident and the training, work and programs that Paulette completed while in prison. Paulette spoke as she struggled with tears as she expressed her remorse and wishes to help young people avoid her situation.
The judge, Katheryn Streeter Lewis, read about the crime, the GED and HS Diploma that Paulette achieved. The judge said she was aware that Paulette is the first female juvenile lifer in PA to get this far. The judge expressed her confidence in Paulette’s ability to be successful after prison.She also expressed her desire to see that children like Paulette get the support they need to avoid tragedy and that the system had failed them.
Paulette agreed with all of legal limitations that she pled to. The supporters applauded at the end and Paulette was escorted out by the sheriff, who sat by her the entire time. No hugs allowed.
Paulette will return to SCI Cambridge Springs to work out parole arrangements and within three months she will return to Philadelphia to live in a transitional home for six months before joining family.
From Cecilia Velasquez whose brother Ben is serving LWOP for decades: As Paulette begin to talk about her crime, she choked back tears as she expressed her remorse for the life she had taken. The audience felt her pain as tears rolled down many in the audience. I, Cecilia, met Paulette many years ago, over 36 years ago. At that time, she was a young teen even young for her age, yet, there was already a sense of a heavy laden burden from the sentenced she had been given.
Yesterday I met the woman she had become despite all she had experience in those 38 years, the people she had lost, the oblivious suffering and pain written on her face. Paulette had overcome her situation and circumstances to develop, grow, improve herself and help those around her.
As I sat in the audience I couldn’t help feel Peachies’ presence and the ground work with her life!Paulette is truly a testament to all of us on how to live in spite of our Circumstances. I felt honored to be part of this history making event to change the destiny of juvenile women lifers. Paulette, Thank you.
From Susan Beard-Nole whose husband Freddie has been serving JLWOP for 47 years:
It brought great sorrow to hear that Paulette lost her only child to violence. Just a reminder of the harm done to children who are separated from their mothers/fathers due to prison. Despite that sadness, Paulette continued on to help the young women who crossed her path.
From Susan Ricci, Paulette’s attorney at the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia:
I agree that Paulette’s story is a very powerful one and I too thought the court staff and the judge were moved by it. Of course it is terrible what happened to the deceased in this case, but Paulette was truly a victim in all this as well. A life sentence was so incredibly unjust. Judge Lewis has now handled a number of resentencing hearings in juvenile lifer cases but this was the first time I have heard her question out loud who is responsible for all the trauma inflicted on the children who then went on to act out in a way that ended so tragically. Paulette is such a strong woman. I am grateful to have been assigned her case so that I got the opportunity to know her. And I am very thankful you and the others were there to support her. It meant so much to her.