The photo above shows advocates on August 27th holding signs at the City County Bldg in Pittsburgh. The signs read “We believe in second chances. Yes on Commutation – Reunite Communities. Commute deserving Lifers. Commutation is a legal process to reduce a sentence. commutation is a second chance” Rallies held in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg a week before the hearings were meant to demonstrate physical support for people coming before the Board of Pardons.
This spreadsheet shares the schedules for this weeks first ever virtual public hearing. Over 200 cases will be heard the vast majority are people seeking pardons from marijuana related charges. 22 people seeking commutation from life and long term sentences will be heard. The spreadsheet is much easier to read if you download it onto your computer.
The applicants have an interview with the board of pardons the day before their hearings. They will be virtual as well and no public is allowed to attend. The applicants are not allowed to attend their own public hearings – even virtually.
The following info tracks people in the extended CADBI network who are coming before the board.
Tuesday September 1: 2pm Henrietta Harris – Interview
Thursday September 3 11 – Avis Lee, Mildred Strickland- Hearing 12 – Richie Marra, Horton Brothers – Hearing 2pm – Felix Rosado, Kevin Butler – Interview
Friday September 4 10 – Felix Rosado, Kevin Butler – Hearing 12 – Votes heard for all cases probably in Alphabetical Order like the merit review.
According to the BOP spreadsheet, the Board’s vote on all cases [pardons and commutations—all 202] will be made on Friday, 9/4 at 12pm. In other words, voting will not take place on the same day as the hearings, with the exception of those cases heard on Friday morning.
If the applicant receives 5 yes votes (we will rejoice) and will then wait for the governor to sign on to the application. Once signed, the person will be transported to their Community Corrections Center by the DOC.
Photos below depict the Harrisburg rally from last Thursday where 200 photos of people supporting commutation applicants were displayed on the steps of the Harrisburg Capital building. Each poster has brightly colored words stating “Yes to Commutation. Reunite Communities” with a color photograph of a different friends, family members and supporters holding signs of support for release. Read more on this coverage from the Pennsylvania Capital Star.
Avis Lee received a unanimous 5 yes votes at the May 7th merit review hearing.
This is the farthest she has ever made it in the lengthy commutation process of which she has applied 6 times. Just two more steps to go. The next is the public hearing, including a personal interview with the board, in which she will need the same unanimous 5 yes votes and finally a signature from the governor. 8 out of 13 people sentenced to ‘Death by Incarceration’ were granted public hearings including Mildred Strickland and Phil Rosato.
Commutation Hearings have been postponed due to Covid.
The Board of Pardons is postponing the public hearings scheduled for June 4th. They claim that they have security concerns due to technology and said LT. Governor Fetterman expressed that having a video interviews rather than in-person interviews would be unfair to the applicant. We think the applicant should be given a choice wether they want to proceed with a video interview. Cambridge Springs has said they have all the technology they need to conduct video interviews and in this day and age the technology concerns are unfounded.
The board will be hearing some pardon cases that don’t involve violence or sexual assault. Board secretary, Brandon Flood said that depending on COVID, the board could have the public hearings before the next scheduled hearing date which is in September.
Save the Date: June 4th → 6 – 8 pm→
Transform Commutation! The People’s Response: Envisioning Release in the Time of Covid and Beyond
On the day the commutation hearings were to take place, Let’s Get Free and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration are planning a people’s response! Hear from people who have been commuted, people who have lived along side those seeking commutation, demand reform and dream of a new way of holding justice. What can you envision? Dream with us! One of our beloved movement fathers, Dr. William Goldsby will be present!
Commutation Application Status
Many prisoners are curious about the status of thier submitted applications. For all those who have already submitted their applications, they are in que just as before. (It is always hard to get information about exactly where you are in the que.) While the DOC Board of Pardons website states that the board is not taking new applications at this time – that’s not all the way true. Brandon Flood assures us that the board is not rejecting or denying any applications they receive. The reason the board is asking people not to submit is because there are quite a few clerk of courts that are not open, so people are submitting incomplete applications. Depending where the applicant is coming from they may not be able to complete their applications because they may not have access to all the forms. If your clerk of courts is open and you have all your documents you can submit your applications.
Covid in the PA DOC Update:
SCI-Huntingdon remains the current hot spot within the DOC reporting 143 positive cases among prisoners and 44 positive cases among guards. Just today we learn that 2 people died at Huntington, including the passing of a widely beloved elder, Bumpy Johnson who died from covid at the age of 76. SCI Phoenix is claiming 35 positive cases with 3 deaths reported among the prison population. Camphill, Chester and Fayette are all reporting one positive among prisoners. People on the outside can check for daily covid updates here. It’s hard to tell what’s real because there is limited testing everywhere. Out of the 5 deaths reported 3 of them were people with life sentences.
Additionally, Governor Wolf has still not signed the 3 commutation applications on his desk. This is a simple ask – they have been vetted by the board. This demand was articulated to Governor Wolf in a joint letter from the ACLU, Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project. The letter demands Covid relief to the over 4,000 people in prison over the age of 60 and 12,000 people in prison who are medically vulnerable.
You can hear from PA prisoners directly regarding Covid this Thursday, May 21st 6 – 8pm at the virtual town hall: Voices From the Inside: Pennsylvania Prisoners Speak Out – Register Here
Rest in Peace Eliza Medley
Eliza Medley passed away on Sunday May 10th. She did receive a medical release and went to live with her sister on April 27. Sentenced to life at the age of 21, Eliza served 44 years succumbing to liver cancer at the age of 65. Eliza is remembered as being down to earth, bubbly, always with a smile and treating others equally. It is both a relief and heart wrenching that she had just two weeks home. Love to all of her friends and inner circles on both sides of the walls.
Let’s Get Free was invited to host:
Cocktails with a Conscience: Art and Activism Thursday, May 21st, 7:00-9:00PM
Artists James Yaya Hough, Morgan Overton, Todd “Hyung-Rae” Tarselli and etta cetera will discuss their own creative endeavors with a special video from TR who is currently incarcerated speaking about being an artist in prison. Yaya has collaborated with Let’s Get Free years before his release and is now the resident artist for the Philadelphia District Attorney. Let’s Get Free is just beginning a collaboration with Morgan for our latest endeavor to uplift the stories of women sentenced to death by incarceration. Learn more on Thursday!
Zoomed out? Tune into a few noteable quotes from some national Zoom Room’s we have entered.
“Despair is a tool of our enemies.” — Audre Lorde
“I insist! We have power.” –Mariame Kaba leading abolitionist from Chicago founded Project Nia
“Prisons are a pre-existing condition.” Monica Crosby- recently released New Yorker speaking from her new apartment.
“Individual fingers can be easily broken but together they make a mighty fist.” —Sitting Bull
“Recognizing the brilliance of ourselves, of our people, the diamonds polished by years of oppression, war and struggle and survival among our ancestors and today as we face a pandemic.But also remembering that sometimes it was us who were not only the oppressed, the marginalized but we were the queens, the leaders, the shamans, the witches, the wise ones, the council.
We are not only shaped by our oppression and the hardness of endurance.
We are shaped by our creativity, our love, our legacies, our history, our families of birth and chosen, our beautiful cultures, our music, our food, our poetry, the land that we once belonged to and sometimes still do. The things that we have intact and not only those things broken…
Who we are and what we are come from this alchemy of struggle and life force”
-Mimi Kim on abolitionist feminists
15 minutes to Celebrate 65 years of Cyd!
This! Saturday May 23, 12:00-12:15pm, Zoom party
As Cyd turns 65, she has served 40 years of a life sentence. We want to lift her up on this day, because she has lifted up so many others, and to shine a light on aging prisoners who should be freed during this crisis! We have 75 people signed up – wonder if we can get a 100 people to wish Cyd a happy day?
To participate, please register here. We can text remind you!! Please bring a bell AND something colorful to wave in the zoom, bright fabric, a happy birthday sign, streamers. All of our research has said it’s really hard to sing happy bday together on zoom – so Naomi Blount will lead us in song and we can ring bells. Paulette Carrington will also be present sharing the importance of birthday celebrations on the inside.
The Pittsburgh arm of the Dignity Act Now Collective and community members of Allegheny County held a car action and press conference outside of the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) on May 12, 2020. Our goal was to bring awareness of the conditions at the jail and the harm that it is causing the black women and caregivers who are held there. We have seen the ACJ:
Hold a 20-year-old Black woman, Kimberly Andrews, in solitary confinement for over 70 days;
Continually place Black Trans Women in male facilities;
Leave our community warehoused with no hot water as temperatures dropped to 45 degrees;
Place our community members in solitary confinement as a result of behavior which are common symptoms of their mental health conditions.
This was before COVID19. This was before we recognized racism as a public health crisis in Allegheny County. This was before we know that Pittsburgh is the worst place in the US for a Black Woman to Live. Recognizing the medical apartheid state that Black Women in Pittsburgh already have to survive in, in addition to being locked in the Allegheny County Jail in this current COVID-19 pandemic; we know that their conditions will not improve without us calling truth to power. In light of these harms, we demand the courts:
End cash bail
Prioritize the release of Black Mammas from the ACJ.
Carmen Alexander of New Voices and Brandi Fisher of Alliance for Police Accountability can be seen speaking below in front of the ACJ. Check out the Pgh City Paper’s coverage here.
For Immediate Release: Betty Heron turns 80 in a PA prison this week; Let’s Get Free joins national demands for immediate release of aging and vulnerable people in Pennsylvania prisons at risk of COVID-19
On Wednesday, April 8, 2020 Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee will join national demands to release aging people in prison in light of the current coronavirus pandemic. Pennsylanian Betty Heron, for whom Wednesday is her 80th birthday, has served 38 years at SCI-Cambridge Springs. Heron was convicted of killing her abusive husband in 1982 and sentenced to life without parole. “He systematically and continuously abused me, mentally, physically, and emotionally. It was going to be one or the other,” she states. According to Survived and Punished, the majority of people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in women’s prisons, are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence and trafficking.
Let’s Get Free is joining the national call from groups like New York-based Release Aging People from Prison demanding that governors address this problem of aging behind bars that has been around long before the novel coronavirus.
This is how the numbers break down in PA:
There are 62 Pennsylvania women over the age of 60 serving life without parole.
Six of those 62 women are in their 80’s, with Alice Green, the oldest woman in a Pennsylvania prison, turning 90 in August.
In total, there are 1,297 people over the age of 60 serving LWOP, also known as death by incarceration.
On average, it costs $60,000 to $100,000 a year to house an aging prisoner while the public safety risk of releasing them is extremely low
“Ms. Betty’s incarceration gives no benefit to society, but instead deprives society and her family of big-hearted leadership. In the United States, in a state with a forward-minded governor, no family or community should be deprived of their grandmas, aunties and other elders. This is a moment of crisis! Betty and so many others are not a threat to society; but now due to close confinement during a pandemic, considering her age, she is very much at risk,” says Alan Lewandowski, board member of Let’s Get Free.
Supporters and friends of Let’s Get Free are encouraged to partake in this day of digital action imploring Governor Wolf, Lt. Governor Fetterman, and PA legislators to use their power to free Betty and other aging and vulnerable people in PA prisons. Additionally, there is an online petition to gather signatures in support.
Sample messaging and graphics for this digital action can be found here on Let’s Get Free’s website soon: https://letsgetfree.info and social channels: @womeninprison on Instagram, @vivamarilynbuck on Twitter, and @LetsGetFreePA on Facebook.
The concept of Compassionate Release is the idea that if a person in prison is so ill that the state would have mercy on them and allow them to live the end of their life outside of prison. Here in PA the phrasing of medical release is more accurate. The PA statute does not say “compassionate” and it is decidedly not compassionate.
In the time of the corona virus Pa needs compassionate release now more than ever.
In a March 16 press release, Families Against Mandatory Minimum announced that the FAMM General Counsel and compassionate release expert, Mary Price, is available to answer questions, and to comment on how state and local governments should use compassionate release and elderly home confinement during this unprecedented COVID-19 national pandemic.
“People who are eligible for compassionate release should be promptly assessed and released to their families, where they can receive better care,” said Price. “Prison and jail medical units will rapidly be overrun by a COVID-19 outbreak and will need as many beds as possible for critical care patients. It makes no sense to keep other people who are terminally ill or medically debilitated occupying those beds.”
Barton reports, “While these programs are presented as money savers, in 2015 a majority of states granted release to fewer than four applicants each. Within states that have a compassionate release program and track the numbers, there were 3,030 people who applied, with only 216 being granted release”
According to this study, in 2015 PA received 8 applications and only granted 3.
Joanne Butler, who was serving a life sentence was released last September on medical release. She lived the last three months of her life on house arrest with an ankle monitor, to which her family protested as cruel and inhumane. Joanne passed away on November 23, 2019. Joanne was featured in the film the Dying Outloud.
35 women sentenced to life without parole have died in custody since 1982, one of the most recent Diane Metzger was also profiled in Dying Outloud.
The eligibility requirements for compassionate release in PA are so strict and has so many different boxes to check that the guide from the PA Institutional Law Project is probably the simplest and shortest way to break it down. It is an overly complex process that is not designed to be “compassionate” at all, but to make it as easy as possible for judges/DA’s/DOC to deny people’s requests for compassionate release. Families Against Mandatory Minimums created this readable guide for medical release Pennsylvania. They also have a state by state guide and a lot of info on supporting people in Federal prisons finding relief.
There are 2 different paths for compassionate release: 1 if you’re seeking to go to a long-term nursing or hospital facility; and 1 if you’re seeking to go to hospice care.
The laymans version of PA’s medical release program is that a person can be released to an outside medical provider if a doctor expects them to die soon and if the person has medical needs that would be provided for better outside of the DOC. The law only allows someone to be released to either a long-term nursing facility, hospital, or hospice provider. (Joanne was released to her home so maybe this isn’t always the case.)
The non-ambulatory requirement is only applicable to those who do not qualify for the first type of medical release, meaning it is only a requirement for those who have detainers for other convictions/sentences or charges. The statute lays out the two possibilities for medical release, each with its own cluster of conditions.
The doctor must be a DOC doctor or a DOC-contracted doctor. Technically, the statutory language says the “treating physician,” and DOC does not permit non-DOC doctors or contractors to treat those in its custody.
It isn’t necessary to have a lawyer, but it would be very difficult to handle without a lawyer.
Every prison in PA – State Correctional Institution has a health care administrator. You can call them for information too.
Someone who wants to request medical release should definitely have people on the outside helping them, since they need to file paperwork from a medical facility acknowledging that the facility will take them if they are released (and in some cases acknowledging that they will keep the DOC informed of updated in case the person’s health improves). This would be tough to navigate from prison.
In terms of time, it depends on the judge. It can be handled pretty quickly (like within a few weeks from filing), but it just depends on when the judge decides to schedule a hearing or make a decision. It is most likely in all cases they need to make sure that the DA has time to reach out to the victim (if there is one) and the victim has the right to offer their thoughts. So that can also take some time.
Thanks to Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, Elaine Selan and Ellen Melchiondo for all of their knowledge and research.
Over 50 people gathered in Pittsburgh and hundreds in Philadelphia on Tuesday the 25th, encouraging Attorney General Josh Shapiro to show mercy for people sentenced to life who have proven themselves to be deserving a second chance.
“We are seeing political opportunism from Shapiro,” said A’Brianna Morgan, an organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia. “He claims to want more rehabilitated and innocent people to have a chance to come home, but he has condemned more people to die in prison than any other Board member.”
The Board of Pardons is chaired by Lt. Governor Fetterman, who has made reforming Pennsylvania’s clemency system a priority. This has given hope to thousands serving life without parole sentences seeking a second chance. Those hopes were dashed when Shapiro moved to deny many exemplary candidates for commutation at the December Board of Pardons hearing. Rally-goers are asking that Shapiro vote with Lt. Governor Fetterman when he votes in favor of recommending a candidate for commutation
“When it comes to commutation, Josh Shapiro has the opportunity to recognize a concept of justice that believes in mercy, and send the message that people are capable of transformation,” said Kempis Songster, communications lead at Amistad Law Project. “That kind of hope is foundational to our humanity. There is no healing for our communities without it.”
This was written geared to people in prison in mid December by Ellen Melchiando with input from etta cetera.
There has been a lot of media and excitement surrounding the changes made to the commutation process over the past year by Lt. Governor John Fetterman. November saw a historic number (21) of public hearings of people with life sentences. For the last 30 years it felt promising if there were 6 life sentence cases up for merit review a year, let alone more than 2 for public hearings total! Naomi Blount and George Trudell, both recently commuted from life sentences were hired by the Lt Governor as commutation specialists. Brandon Flood, a returning citizen, was hired as the Secretary of the Board of Pardons and according to friends and family members, he’s doing a great job! There is talk of changing the unanimous vote at the public hearing stage from 5 to 4 votes. People are coming home!
Despite the progress, which is unquestionably important and exciting, the outcomes of merit reviews and public hearings for women seeking commutation has been disappointing.
In 2018, the previous makeup of the board of pardons resulted in the votes for recommending Tina Brosius and she made it successfully with Governor Wolf’s signature. She was the first woman in PA to receive commutation in 30 years.
This year we have had 6 women make it to the public hearing stage. The current members of the BOP have commuted two: Naomi Blount and Magaleen Stewart. As you know both Henrietta Harris and Cynthia Gonzalez’s applications have been resting in the mysterious “reconsideration” pause pile. Naomi was recommended in May and released in July. Magaleen and Naomi are now both in Philly at the same facility. They are allowed to sign out from 7am – 7pm and need permission to leave the city. They are very strict about people spending the night out though they made exceptions for this recent holiday – for Naomi.
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. This doubly places the importance in having the institution’s recommendation. We witnessed these changes to the process at Magaleen Stewart and Terri Harper’s public hearing. SCI Muncy’s Deputy Frantz spoke to the board in support of Terri’s release. SCI Muncy’s Superintendent Wendy Nicholas spoke in support of Magaleen Stewart.
What if a staff person supports the applicant but the institution as a whole doesn’t? Will they break from their superiors and support this person at a public hearing? This scenario is possible. What if the culture within a prison doesn’t support a second chance for lifers and long-termers?
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. The Facility Managers at Muncy and Cambridge Springs are Superintendents Wendy Nicholas and Lonnie Oliver respectively. A person can also request a supportive staff person to be included too.
A note about the video interviews with Wetzel before the Merit Review: 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. Your application will not get to the merit review until this interview happens.
After a person passes the merit review, they are moved to SCI Camp Hill for an in-person interview a few days before the hearings. One last noted change is that the prison staff person who supports the applicant at the public hearing will be attending the in-person interview at Camp Hill.
Take a look at the DOC policy on commutation at your law library: 11.4.1
At the September hearings, there was a surprise break from protocol, the Lieutenant Governor spotted Naomi Blount in the audience and asked her to speak on behalf of Magaleen! She did this by walking up to the members on the dais and spoke lovingly of Maggie. Then at the end of the hearing, the Attorney General rushed down from the dais to give Naomi a hug along with wishes for her continued success! This was indeed surprising and proves that things can change. It also demonstrates how much power people have- it turns out you can just call someone you see in the audience to testify!
One of the most challenging aspects for women lifers (and men, too) who are pursuing commutation is to explain the role they played in the crime. It is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission. The other challenges are knowing how much to share about what led up to the crime. For women in general, this cannot be omitted or separated. That’s my opinion. 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.
Currently we are tracking outcomes of staffing, merit reviews and public hearings based on the generalization of the type of criminal convictions of women: battered women, arson, infanticide, trafficking, mental illness, law enforcement, 2nd degrees, DNA conflicts, the family, as well as time served, institutional support or lack of, and “escapes.”
The application was recently revamped again. All applications in 2020 must use this new one. 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! Get the application at the law library.
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 or check the law library. Don’t forget this: if you have a negative outcome at the merit review, submit the official Reconsideration form within 30 days.
To make sure your application gets reviewed by the current Board of Pardons who will be presiding until 2022, we are ESTIMATING that you try to get your applications in by July of 2020 at the latest. This is us guessing. You should technically be able to be heard if you submit up until December 2020 but you know how things go. Everything is always getting pushed back. Thereis a rumor that they are creating 6 – 9 new dates for public hearings, currently there are 4 dates a year. This would help with the increased number of applications and give you a better chance to go before this board.
What kind of support do your family and close friends need to prepare for the public hearing? Let us know. Encourage them to reach out to us if they have questions or just want some moral support. We want to be there for you. This is a link to the full day of public hearings in May This at least lets you know what to expect. Below is a shorter video highlighting Naomi Blount’s hearing of the same day.
Update: During the December 20th hearings of those sentenced with LWOP – 2 were recommended for commutation, 3 were held under advisement, 12 were not recommended, 1 was continued under advisement and 1 case was not heard and continued. Of the two recommended – Oliver Macklin, 63 years old, served 33 years of a 2nd degree charge. Fred Butler, 72 years old, served 49 years on a 1st degree charge. The longest sentence 49 years and shortest sentence 23 years. We were very disappointed that many deserving applicants were denied including both Sheena King and Henrietta Harris.
A Bill’s Path to Law, An Update on the PA Lifers Bill by Jane Hein
Two bills exist that deal with parole for Lifers: HB135 and SB942. The bills are exactly the same but HB135 is a house bill and SB942 is a senate bill. Advocates are choosing to focus on the senate bill, SB942, because the senate is smaller than the house (50 Senators vs 435 Representatives) and it will be an easier task to convince less elected officials at first.
To become law, a bill must be voted on and passed by a committee. In the case of SB942, that would be the Senate Judiciary Committee. Fourteen senators serve on this committee, (vs 25 representatives on the House Judiciary) nine republicans and five democrats. It is up to the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Lisa Baker, to decide to hold a vote on any bill before her committee. But a vote should not be called for until enough members of the committee favor the bill. When a vote is held and the bill is passed by the committee, the bill would then go before the whole senate for a vote and if passed by the senate, the bill would go to the house for a vote. Only after passing the committee, senate and house does the bill go to the Governor for signature and only then does it become law.
The legislative branches, Senate and House of Representatives, have two year terms. This means that with each election, every two years, bills have to be re-submitted to wherever the bill is in the process (committee, senate, or house) in order to continue on the path to becoming law. SB942 was quietly re-submitted to the senate judiciary committee on November 12, 2019. It has until January of 2021 to make headway before it will need to be re-submitted again.
The bill essentially changes the parole board statues to allow the parole board to consider parole for life sentences. By PA statue, a sentence cannot be changed, but the PA statues do not say that life sentences cannot be paroled. So if a life sentenced is paroled, the parolee would have to be on parole for life.
Changes were made to SB942 when it was re-submitted last month. In a nut shell, Lifers convicted of first degree murder could be paroled after 35 years. Lifers convicted of second degree murder could be paroled after 25 years. Lifers convicted of killing a cop in the first degree would not be eligible for parole.
So here’s the deal. Advocates will continue to fight for the passage of this bill while continuing to advocate for earlier parole eligibility, say 15 years as the bill was previously submitted. The path to becoming law is a long one and there will be plenty of opportunities to advocate for changing the bill. The path to law is long and hard but do not be discouraged. Five years ago we had no bill! Change is happening because we are putting pressure on politicians, supporting pro-reform candidates in elections, and rallying in Harrisburg! WE WILL NOT STOP!
Report Back from Rally to End Death by Incarceration and Heal Our Communities – October 23, 2019 by etta cetera
This now-annual fall gathering in support of legislation changing the laws for lifers has the feeling of reunion for many. Recently released connect with old friends from the inside and people across the state who don’t see each other on the day to day get to hug, commiserate and rejuvenate. This year we brought back singing. After the usual impassioned and insightful speeches by lawmakers, returning citizens, family members, etc. at the podium, surrounded by hundreds of supporters with colorful signs, we lifted our voices harmonizing for redemption throughout the halls. The capitol building’s grand structure creates acoustics that bounce off the high ceilings and reverberate through our bodies. It’s quite moving. This coming together of like-hearted souls singing into the suit-wearing faces at the capitol. We wound back to the steps where an altar had been set up for anyone who had lost someone to violence to place a flower. This rally is a great place for someone who is looking to start participating in our movement to come. You feel the power of the collective. You feel less alone. In addition to all the good it does for the legislation, rallies like this keep us, on the outside, fighting another day. Accolades to the Philly coalition for all their stalwart efforts in pulling this off every year.
“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