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
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: email@example.com – 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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 – email@example.com 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.