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Report back from Harrisburg Mobilization

The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation Hits the Capitol

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Group with Jason Dawkins and Ed Gainey by Traisaun Leake

On Thursday, June 23, the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation hit the Capitol pushing a 12 point platform that would change regulations and practices of the barely functional commutation process.  About 25 people traveled to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh and 10 more from Philly.  Upon arrival from Pittsburgh a devoted crew raced up to the office of Jason Dawkins, co-author of HB 2135, where he met them with open arms. House Bill 2135 was introduced on June 9, and has the ambition to Expand Parole Eligibility for Life Sentences. This bill would make people eligible for parole after 15 years served, and as Jason said in our press conference, “This bill would abolish life without parole.” Can you believe a State Rep said those words?!

Rep Ed Gainey from Pittsburgh gave a rousing speech at our rally in support of the bill. This is extra powerful because, tragically, his sister was murdered just a month ago. Additional surprise speakers included: Rep Joanna E. McClinton from Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, who was extremely encouraging and really applauded our efforts, and Rep Patty Kim of Dauphin County, who also stepped to the mic, talking about an impactful meeting she had with women at Muncy.

Some of our speakers included Mae Hadley and Donna Pfender, who spoke on behalf of their daughters who are serving life. Lauren Stuparitz spoke from the perspective of a victim – being the survivor of a brutal attack in Pittsburgh – she believes people deserve a second chance.

Reforms to the Commutation process we were pushing included: Rescinding the Unanimous Vote by the Board of Pardons in case of Life Sentences, Video interviews with lifer applicants before merit review hearing, and Written Reason for Denial of lifer commutation applications. And last but not least, HB 2135 Parole Eligibility for Lifers.

We scheduled meetings with legislators we thought could be potential allies, but were impressed with how many of them had visited prisons and met people serving Life. This included Republican Rep Tom Murt from Philadelphia, who deeply cares about veterans, and spoke of a friend of his who is a Vietnam war vet incarcerated since the 70’s. Tom wants to organize a public hearing in the Human services committee about LWOP, relating how LWOP affects the elderly, veterans, and its connections to mental health and addiction.

On the Senate side of things, Art Haywood, Shirley Kitchen and Greenleaf’s offices were encouraging, informative and uplifting.  Liana, the amazing legislative assistant of Mr. Haywood’s staff, said they were interested in aging prisoners, and the idea of having a public hearing was talked about in several meetings from several perspectives. Rep.Vanessa Brown, another ally, had just visited Muncy and saw a lot of elderly women who she thought should be at home with their families. One of our lobby groups randomly met up with Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York, who committed to co-sponsoring bill HB 2135 and gave group a tour of the House. What support!

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photo by Traisaun

Anne Gingrich Cornick, the legal advisor for the Board of Pardons, was present in the Governor’s meeting. Ann read our whole platform in front of us and said that most of our points on our platform would require constitutional amendments. Constitutional Amendments require a 2/3’s majority vote – they need to pass through the House and Senate twice before being put to referendum – a public vote. All regulatory changes for the Board of Pardons must go through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. (IRCC)

We learned the Victim’s Advocate position of the Board of Pardons was filled by a Pittsburgh resident named Marsha Grayson. For those of you in Pittsburgh, it is her family that started the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center in the Hill district. Senator Greenleaf’s aid told us she is appropriate for the position not only because she has the victim’s perspective, having lost her son, but that also, coming from the Black community, she understands the impact of incarceration on families and neighborhoods and seems to embrace many perspectives.

One official advised that our biggest obstacle was the District Attorney’s Lobby. It was said they have great authority and do not stand with us.

And so, where does this leave us? There is a to do list a mile long including writing op eds, meeting with lawmakers locally, coordinating statewide efforts to push HB 2135 and commutation reform, following up about public hearings, and building alliances with victims rights organizations. Leaving the Capitol we felt very excited and hopeful.  We also felt the realness of the difficulty that lay before us. There is a long hard road ahead.

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If the Risk Is Low, Let Them Go

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Farid Mujahid, co-founder of Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP) Photo by Dave Sanders

How a man who served 33 years on a 15-to-life sentence is pushing New York’s intransigent parole board to release violent offenders who have aged out of crime, the fastest growing segment of the prison population.

Published in NYC Indypendent By Renee Feltz June 29, 2016  Issue # 215

Back in 1978, Mujahid Farid had already decided to turn his life around when he entered the New York prison system to begin a 15-year-to-life sentence for attempted murder of an NYPD officer.

Held in Rikers Island while his trial was pending, Farid studied for — and passed — a high school equivalency exam. Over the next decade and a half “behind the walls” he earned four college degrees, including a master’s in sociology from SUNY New Paltz and another in ministry from New York Theological Seminary.

In the late 1980s he helped establish an HIV/AIDS peer education project that grew into the acclaimed program known as PACE, Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education, and began teaching sociology courses to people seeking their alcohol and substance Abuse counseling certification.

By 1993, Farid had served his minimum sentence and was eligible for a hearing before the New York Parole Board. Given how hard he had worked to redeem himself, no one could blame him for being optimistic that they would agree to his release.

Instead, they spent five minutes asking him curt questions focused entirely on his original offense. Then the hearing ended.

“Not one bit of my progress and rehabilitative efforts mattered,” Farid recalls. “I was denied parole because of something that was immutable, that could never change.”

He was denied parole “again and again,” until his 10th attempt in 2011, when he was 61 years old.

“Over the years, the process breaks a lot of people down,” he says. “Many take it personally. I realized it was common parole board practice.”

•   •   •

Now aged 66, Farid recently met me at 8:30 am on a Monday morning at his office in Harlem, where he had been at work since the building opened hours earlier. In a firm and encouraging tone, tinged with polite impatience, he explained how upon his release from prison, he couldn’t forget “the broken parole system I had dealt with” and the men he left behind.

New York’s prison population has greyed rapidly in the last 15 years. Even as the number of people locked up fell by 23 percent, those aged 50 or older ballooned nearly 85 percent, reaching 9,200 people. This echoes a national trend of the elderly being the fastest growing part of the prison population. By 2030, they will number 400,000, or nearly one-third of the U.S. prison population.

While 50 may not seem that old, most medical experts agree that incarcerated people age much faster than those on the outside. They suffer higher rates of chronic illness and conditions related to drug and alcohol abuse, such as liver disease and hepatitis. Data from the New York Department of Corrections show prisoners aged 51 to 60 have the highest rate of mortality due to illness of any age group behind bars.

Most of these older prisoners are serving long sentences for committing violent crimes. Their first hurdle to release is a parole board that refuses to provide them with fair and objective hearings because of their original offense, even though they have not posed a threat to society in years.

“The parole board is co-opted by the punishment paradigm,” Farid says. “Even though the elderly have the lowest of risk of committing a crime upon release, they are being denied similarly to everyone else.”

Meanwhile, this public health and humanitarian crisis has gone unaddressed despite a renewed interest in criminal justice reform that has focused narrowly on nonviolent offenders.

So in 2013, Farid founded a group called Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP.

“We realized we had to change the narrative from talking about long termers and lifers — which people in the community couldn’t really connect with — to talking about the elderly,” he says.

RAPP’s slogan—- “If the Risk is Low, Let Them Go” — draws on the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s own data.

According to the state’s most recently available report on recidivism by age, those released after the age of 65 return for new commitment at a rate of just 1 percent, compared to a 40-60 percent return rate for the general prison population

Farid Mujahid at a meeting of Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP). Photo: Dave Sanders

•   •   •

In 2011, the same year Farid was released, New York actually passed a law that requires the parole board to adopt a more forward-looking approach when deciding whether to release someone. Tacked onto the budget bill as an amendment, it instructed the board to “establish written guidelines” that include rational standards that measure a potential parolee’s current risk to society, in addition to noting their initial crime.

New York is one of at least 23 other states that measures those standards with a risk and assessment tool called COMPAS, which has proven to be more accurate than human intuition in predicting the likelihood that a prisoner will break the law again if freed.

“Even though COMPAS isn’t perfect, it gives us an advantage,” Farid notes, “because the aging population we are focused on scores low risk.”

It seemed like a victory. But even after COMPAS was adopted, the parole board waited until December of 2014 to issue formal rules on how to use the tool in its decisions. Afterwards, most of its denials remained focused on the criminal history of potential parolees.

This was the case for Dempsey Hawkins, who had been denied parole since he became eligible in 2000. Hawkins murdered his teenage girlfriend in 1976 when he was 16 years old. He had spent his entire adult life in prison and made extensive efforts to rehabilitate in the other areas the parole board would consider: he completed counseling programs and educational courses and had an excellent behavior record.

But in 2002, the board said Hawkins had “demonstrated no remorse nor compassion for her family,” even though he had written a long letter of apology to the family taking full responsibility for his crime with an extended discussion of shame, remorse and consideration of the family’s pain and suffering.

Then in 2004, all but two words of the board’s written decision were about the teenager who committed the crime, not the man before them: “We note your positive programming but find more compelling your total disregard for human life.”

During the hearing, Hawkins asked if there was anything he could do to “increase my chances for my next hearing.” A commissioner responded, “You’ve done many of the right things. You’ve continued to program well, and stayed out of trouble. Clearly, there’s no, you know, 14-year-old girls here to kill in prison, so we have to consider the crime.”

After the 2011 reform, Hawkins continued to be denied parole. In 2012, the board refused his release but noted that “[c]onsideration has been given to the assessment of your risks and needs for success on parole, any program completion, and any satisfactory behavior.”

In 2014, board members spent most of his brief hearing asking about the crime he had committed more than 35 years earlier and denied him again.

•   •   •

At this point, Farid’s legal instincts kicked in from his days as a jailhouse lawyer.

“I always knew the parole board was contemptuous,” he recalls.

He suspected board members were now violating state law by failing to consider all factors in a person’s record when deciding whether or not to release them. So he began advising prisoners to file what is called an “Article 78” with the state Supreme Court, which is basically a request for a judge to review a decision made by a New York State agency.

Some judges responded positively and ordered the board to hold a new hearing — called a de novo hearing. Farid realized the parole board would likely issue similar denials. But this would allow a prisoner to then file a contempt of court motion.

“It is not common, especially for someone behind the walls, to get a contempt order in their favor against government authorities,” Farid says. “But the dynamics at play now are that the courts feel they are being disrespected by the parole board.”

“One of the real positive things about a contempt petition is it allows the person to escape an onerous process called exhaustion,” he adds, pausing. “I don’t want to lose you on this.”

Before a prisoner can even ask a court to review the parole board’s decision, they have to complete every other means of appeal. While this process can take as long as a year, he notes, “a judge can review a contempt petition within a month.”

In May of 2015, Judge Sandra Sciortino issued the first contempt of court decision for the parole board’s “failure to have complied” with her order to give a prisoner named Michael Cassidy a de novo hearing “consistent with the law.”

Cassidy was convicted in 1984 of killing his girlfriend and had covered up the murder until her body was discovered. Over the past three decades in prison he had worked hard to redeem himself, and his favorable COMPAS ratings predicted a low risk for violence, re-arrest, absconding or criminal involvement. But after his new hearing, the board again said his release “would be incompatible with the welfare of society and would so deprecate the serious nature of the crime as to undermine respect for the law.”

Judge Sciortino responded that while “the Parole Board retains substantial discretion, and need not enunciate every factor considered, a denial that focused almost exclusively on the inmate’s crime while failing to take into account other relevant statutory factors, or merely giving them a ‘passing mention’ [is] inadequate, arbitrary and capricious.”

The state appealed. Then about a year later, a second judge held the board in contempt. This time the case involved John Mackenzie, an older prisoner who sought Farid’s advice after reading instructions in a packet distributed by RAPP that includes boilerplate samples of how to file a contempt motion.

“It’s not a lot of paperwork,” he says. “I explain some of the complications a person may encounter so they don’t get summarily dismissed.”

Mackenzie’s motion succeeded.

“It is undisputed that it is unlawful for the parole board to deny parole solely on the basis of the underlying conviction,” an exasperated New York Supreme Court Judge Maria Rosa wrote in her May 24 response to the board’s denial of parole to Mackenzie. “Yet the court can reach no other conclusion but that this is exactly what the parole board did in this case.”

MacKenzie was convicted of murdering a Long Island police officer in 1975, and went on to turn his life around, earning degrees and even establishing a victims impact program. The board has denied him parole eight times since he became eligible in 2000. He is now 69 years old.

“This petitioner has a perfect institutional record for the past 35 years,” Judge Rosa wrote in her order, as she demanded to know: “If parole isn’t granted to this petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted?”

She ordered the state to pay a $500-per-day fine for each day it delayed giving him another de novo hearing. Again, the state appealed.

In June a higher court dealt reformers a setback when it reversed the Cassidy decision. It said the board had recognized factors other than his original crime when it noted he “had serious alcohol problems since he was a teenager,” and concluding he had “a high probability of a return to substance abuse upon his reentry into society” even though he had been sober since 1997.

Cassidy’s lawyer Alan Lewis plans to ask the Court of Appeals to reinstate the lower court’s contempt finding.

“Every litigant has an obligation to abide by a court’s order, government agencies included,” Lewis told The Indypendent.

He praised RAPPs work on similar cases, saying, “It raises awareness of the plight of aging inmates and the injustices sometimes suffered by them.”

“Judges are starting to realize there is this huge problem,” agrees MacKenzie’s lawyer, Kathy Manley. She says other attorneys have sought her advice and are filing additional contempt motions.

•   •   •

As these contempt cases wind through the legal system, no judge has taken the next step to override the parole board and release a prisoner who has been denied a fair hearing, out of deference to separation of powers. But Manley notes this concept can be applied in another way.

“If the original judge sentences a person to 30-years-to-life, then once they reach the minimum point there is an expectation they should be released if they’ve done well,” Manley explains. “But in my client’s case the judge said the board is applying its own penal philosophy.”

The former chair of the state’s parole board, Edward Hammock, made a similar point in an essay titled, “A Perspective on Some Procedures That Unfairly Delay Prisoner Release.”

“Some of these determinations fly in the face of judicial sentencing and sentences that flow from plea agreements between the court, counsel for the defendant, and the prosecutor,” Hammock observed.

Ultimately, the parole board falls under the authority of the executive branch. Its members are appointed by the governor for 6-year terms. But beyond backing the reform in 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo has done little to address the problem, and cut the board down from 19 to 14 members during his first year in office and appointed as its chair Tina Stanford, former Director of the state’s Office of Victim Services. She has been Chairwoman of the Crime Victims Board since 2007 and before that was an Assistant District Attorney and prosecutor.

Advocates note New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office could also decline to file appeals as it represents the board in the contempt of court cases. RAPP is currently approaching state lawmakers to ask them to request that Schneiderman issue an advisory to the board in response to the contempt rulings.

Meanwhile these lawmakers continue to consider additional legislative reform, such as the SAFE Parole Act, which would require parole hearings to take place in person instead of via video stream. It would also record the hearings, which are currently closed to the public. But this is the second year it failed to reach a vote.

•   •   •

As the legislature’s 2016 session ends and advocates wait to hear from the attorney general whether he plans to reign in the state’s parole board, RAPP continues its community outreach. When the group’s older members meet with policy makers and the public, their very presence helps give a face to elders who are still behind bars and could be included in the push to end mass incarceration.

At a recent RAPP meeting, 71-year-old Abdul Rahman, who served 45 years in prison, apologized for being late, noting he was suffering from a cold that had “slowed me down.” At the same time, he pulled out a stack of business cards he collected after speaking to advocates for the elderly in Brooklyn.

“Many of them approached me afterwards with great interest,” he said.

The meeting was a mix of people over age 60 who had been released from prison in recent years or had loved ones still inside, and interns in their twenties. One asked for advice on discussing the needs of elders during an upcoming exchange with the city’s Department for the Aging or DFTA.

“They should be ready for more people getting out than before,” Farid responded.

“Emphasize their post-prison potential and the contributions they can make to society,” added Laura Whitehorn. “People should be judged on who they are now.”

Whitehorn spent 14 years behind bars for a conspiracy to blow up symbols of domestic racism and U.S. foreign policy, and has helped ensure aging political prisoners and their analysis are included in RAPP’s efforts.

This comes across in the lineup of a July 9 event RAPP is hosting with the Senior Citizen & Health Committee of Community Board 12 in Queens, an area that is home to 10 senior centers and where many former inmates are being released. The event includes a workshop titled “Breaking the Cycle of Permanent Punishment,” and one of the speakers is Sekou Odinga, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who spent 33 years in federal and state custody.

“We incorporate the political prisoner issue in our work because we are dealing with the punishment paradigm as the root of what we have to get at,” Farid notes.

In early June, a former Black Panther locked up on charges related to his activities more than three decades ago was denied parole, and another lost his Article 78 challenge: Robert Seth Hayes and Maliki Shakur Latine, who both have at exemplary records, and COMPAS scores that show them to be at low risk of reoffending. Hayes suffers from Hepatitis C and Type II diabetes.

“These are the people who I consider to have been the the canaries in the coal mine,” Farid says. “I don’t think we’re going to really see anything substantive take place unless we see it happen with them.”

It is another example of how RAPP is making sure that no one is left behind.

“It’s not about getting handrails in the prisons,” Farid says of RAPP’s strategy. “It’s about getting people out.”

Then he turns to answer the phone call of a prisoner who says he’s been denied parole, again.


RAPP EVENT on JULY 9

Release Aging People from Prison presents speakers and workshops on Saturday, July 9 from 9-3pm at the Queens Educational Opportunity Center, located at 158-29 Archer Avenue. The theme will be “Elders in Prison: Bringing Them Home & Rebuilding Our Communities.” Details: RAPPcampaign.com


Paroled in a Wheelchair

Expenses from medical and geriatric care for elderly prisoners mean they cost two to four times as much as others. But there is a human cost to delaying their release as well. 

In May, RAPP member Mohaman Koti died just two months after he was released to a nursing home in Staten Island. His birth certificate says he was born in 1928, though his mother insisted the year was 1926. 

“We’ve got too many old people in wheelchairs like I am locked up,” Koti said just weeks before he died.

He was convicted in 1978 of attempted murder of an NYPD officer who he said “tried to shake me down for money and I wouldn’t give it to him, so we got to fighting.” The officer recovered, and Koti was offered a plea deal of seven and a half years. He insisted on a trial, and got 25 years to life. 

In the decades that followed, Koti gained respect from both inmates and guards for counseling young men who found themselves sent upstate to some of the most violent prisons in the country. He became eligible for parole in 2003, but like so many others, he got the usual denials. 

When he appeared before the board for a sixth time in 2013, he was so hard of hearing that commissioners had to keep repeating their questions to him. By then he was also suffering from several long-term illnesses. But the board decided he was still at risk of committing another crime, citing the nature of his offense.

After a judge ruled the denials were irrational, he was given a new hearing, and commissioners granted Koti parole in September 2014. But he was then ordered to serve an additional year in prison at a federal medical center in North Carolina because of a pending charge from the time of his arrest nearly four decades ago.

On March 16 of this year Koti was finally released. It was a pyrrhic victory. 

“The kind of life Koti lived when he got out — confined to a nursing home because he was not able to care for himself — shows that it was ludicrous to think he would have posed a threat to society all these years,” said his longtime lawyer, Susan Tipograph.

— Renée Feltz


The Indypendent is a monthly New York City-based newspaper and website. Subscribe to our print edition here. You can make a donation or become a monthly sustainer here.

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Photos and Video from June 23 Lobby Day

Thank you to all who made our Lobby day for Commutation Reform so successful! All the lawmakers who jumped into our press conference!  Harmony, Traisaun and Jeron of the Hazelwood Youth Media Justice Program for taking photos. Amazing participants from Action United, New Voices Pittsburgh, The Alliance for Police Accountability, Fight for Lifers West and East, The Women Lifer’s Resume Project, The Human Rights Coalition, and POORLAW. Thank you so much for spending your whole day with us. Your participation uplifts spirits, breathes encouragement into our issue and not to mention taking a whole day to throw down for justice and healing for people with life sentences. Big Ups to everyone who chipped into our go-fund me! Also, Nichole Faina and Michelle Soto for making us lunch and ice tea. More detailed information coming soon. If you click the photo below the video you will enter a slide show.

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Pennsylvanians Come Together to Push for Parole Reforms

restore logoFor Immediate Release: Contact: Devon Cohen 412-999-9086

Harrisburg, PA – June 23, 2016 – Members of the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation are sponsoring a press conference on June 23, 2016 at 12:15 pm in the Harrisburg Capitol Rotunda. They will be joined by concerned state residents, formerly incarcerated people, and family members of Lifers to speak to legislators about the campaign.

The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation (CRMC) came together to advocate for changes that address Pennsylvania’s astonishing number of people serving Life Without Parole sentences. Pennsylvania is one of only 6 states where people serving life sentences have no possibility of achieving parole. The use of Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing in the state has increased steadily over the last several decades, jumping from less than 1,000 people serving LWOP in 1980 to over 5,000 in 2012.

Commutation is the only option for Lifers who are no longer a threat to public safety to have a second chance. Over 5,400 people are serving Life Without Parole sentences in Pennsylvania. Only 7 men serving LWOP sentences have successfully achieved commutation in the last 25 years, with the result that Pennsylvania’s prisons are increasingly filled with aging lifers with no parole options. Statistics show that as prisoners age, their risk of re-offending drops precipitously, while the costs of their ongoing incarceration steadily increase.

Women are consistently overlooked when it comes to their commutation applications. When Avis Lee was 18 she was the look out in a robbery that ended in death. Avis is now 55 years old and has spent 35 years in prison. Avis has changed; she is an upstanding member of her community and has institutional support from her prison. She has been denied commutation 5 times.  If Avis is imprisoned for 30 more years, until the age of 85, she will cost the state of Pennsylvania approximately two million dollars. $66,000 is the average annual cost of a geriatric person incarcerated. Over 50 is considered geriatric in prison.

“As the monetary and social costs of mass incarceration continue to destabilize our communities, it is time for Pennsylvania to start being a leader in criminal justice reforms. Extreme sentencing practices are not keeping our communities safer and have extraordinary costs, while commutation, the system that exists to determine if ongoing incarceration can be justified, has become broken and dysfunctional. A functional and fair commutation system could have deeply significant impacts on many people in our state,” says Cat Besterman of CRMC.

To that end, the CRMC publicly launched its campaign in April 2016.  About the campaign, Devon Cohen of CRMC says, “The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation is advocating for reforms in the commutation system that could enable it to justly, effectively, and efficiently create parole possibilities for Lifers who are not a threat to public safety. We are not advocating that all Lifers be released in our current system, but that everyone have a fair chance to prove that they have changed and can contribute positively to society.” On June 23rd, they will bring the issue of commutation reform to the Capitol’s doorstep, and meet with legislators to discuss commutation reform after an informational press release in the Capitol rotunda at 12:15 pm.

CRMC endorsed by: Action United; Alliance for Police Accountability; Fight for Lifers West; Hazelwood Youth Media Project; Healthcare for the Homeless; Human Rights Coalition: Fed Up; New Voices Pittsburgh; Release Aging People from Prison; and the Thomas Merton Center

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Life Means Death for Thousands of PA Prisoners

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Death in prison is not rare.

In Pennsylvania, one in 10 inmates is sentenced to life in prison. Because state law gives them no possibility of parole, nearly all of more than 5,300 inmates serving life terms will eventually die inside prison walls.

“They have no choice but to age and die in place,” said Julia Hall, a criminal justice professor and gerontologist at Drexel University.

In the Laurel Highlands prison, seven rooms are the final stop for some of the state’s sickest and oldest inmates. With breathing tubes and IVs, the mostly gray-haired inmates wait for their bodies to fail.

When their vital signs slip and they struggle for breath, other inmates hold vigil so they won’t die alone.

Sometimes death is sudden. Other times, volunteers like Christian, a 32-year-old inmate from Philadelphia, watch as life slowly slips away.

“They get to the point that they can’t talk no more,” he said. “That last breath of air they’re taking — and you’re really there holding their hands.”

Christian, along with four other inmate volunteers, was describing his work at the hospice unit at State Correctional Institution – Laurel Highlands, a former state mental hospital that was converted in 1996 to a prison hospital for male inmates.

The facility has had a full-time hospice service for two years with room for seven inmates at a time. Previously, the hospital had a less formal system where the nursing staff tried to make inmates comfortable as they neared death.

PublicSource was granted access in August under an agreement that the last names of inmates would not be used.

Life means life

Only Florida has more inmates serving life without parole than Pennsylvania, according to a nationwide ranking of 2012 numbers by the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.

State law mandates life in prison for defendants convicted of first and second-degree murder.

Accomplices to murder are treated the same as a killer, even if they themselves did not cause the death. First-degree murderers can also be sentenced to death.

Repeat violent offenders can also be sentenced to life under Pennsylvania’s three-strikes law, and other inmates serve de-facto life sentences with minimums so lengthy that they will almost certainly die before release.

From 2009 through 2013, 144 lifers died in Pennsylvania, according to state statistics. Over the same period, only four inmates had life sentences commuted by the governor after unanimous recommendation by the Board of Pardons.

Since 2010, just six inmates have been granted compassionate release, which is available to inmates nearing death who meet strict criteria, according to the Department of Corrections.

‘Nobody dies alone’

At SCI – Laurel Highlands, volunteers like Christian visit patients several hours each week, playing games, helping them write letters and sometimes just keeping them company.

“Those guys need help. They don’t have no family coming to visit,” said Elvis, an inmate volunteer from Venango County.

In the seven rooms for dedicated hospice care referred to as cubes, the focus is on reducing pain, providing comfort and helping them reach out to family members.

The program is based in part on a hospice unit in California where Laurel Highlands’ former superintendent sent Annette Kowalewski, a corrections healthcare administrator, and Paula Sroka, a quality improvement nurse.

In August, the hospice rooms were full until a 68-year-old inmate died after declining treatment for liver disease and lung cancer.

Medical staff are responsible for all the patients’ health care, while inmates provide companionship and physical help such as lifting patients out of bed.

Terminal illness strikes young inmates too, and a life term is not a prerequisite to dying in prison.

Special arrangements are made so family members can visit — sometimes for hours at a time — and the prison ensures that they’ll have access when the patient is dying.

If family doesn’t come, the inmates are there.

“Nobody dies alone,” Kowalewski said. “That’s our primary concern.”

Care across the state?

Christopher Oppman, director of the Bureau of Health Care Services for the Department of Corrections, said the state has adequate resources to ensure prisoners can get hospice care in infirmaries across the prison system.

But dedicated rooms for hospice care are less common outside of Laurel Highlands, so inmates at many facilities die in open wards.

“We would not be able to operate hospice on the scale that Laurel Highlands would,” Oppman said.

Staff at some facilities lack expertise in pain and symptom management, said Phyllis Taylor, a nurse and hospice expert who has previously worked as a consultant for the department.

In other words, not every prison gives the same quality of care.

“Some of the places maybe,” she said, “but not across the board.”

Taylor assisted researchers from Penn State University in a pilot program with the department to improve end-of-life care at six prisons that have high populations of aging inmates or lifers.

Staff at those prisons received specialized training to improve and standardize end-of-life care.

Currently, the corrections department is establishing best practices for prison hospice care statewide, Oppman said.

Paying until death

In Pennsylvania, inmates are classified as geriatric at 55. Common health problems are diabetes, cancer, liver disease and heart problems. Kowalewski said that an inmate who is 40 might look several decades older.

Of the roughly 5,300 geriatric inmates in Pennsylvania prisons, about 1,500 are serving life terms.

Because parole is not possible for lifers, Hall argues that the state is committed to a geriatric prison system.

“You’re going to keep paying until they die,” she said.

The state spent more than $35,000 for each inmate in the 2012-’13 fiscal year. The state does not keep numbers on the specific cost for inmates over 55, but costs increase as more medical care is needed.

The prison system is among the most expensive institutions in Pennsylvania, costing the state more than $2 billion this fiscal year.

At the end of September, 19 of the state’s 26 correctional institutions were at or above capacity, according to the most recent population numbers available.

Laurel Highlands, which was at 99.4 percent of capacity, costs $75 million to operate for the year.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, compared parts of the facility to a nursing home.

“When you see someone who’s on oxygen or in very poor health, we’re spending a lot of money to have that person in a prison,” Bergstrom said.

The state acknowledges that the risk of reoffending drops off with age.

The department’s 2013 recidivism report said released inmates under 21 are more than twice as likely to reoffend within three years as inmates over 50. Age has a “strong negative correlation” on recidivism, the report said.

Few ways out

Rather than paying costs indefinitely, Hall advocates for more compassionate release, criticizing a system with requirements so strict that it’s almost never used.

Politicians, she said, consider compassionate release “going easy” on offenders guilty of heinous crimes.

“It’s such a joke,” Hall said.

The state’s compassionate release rules were updated as part of a broader prison reform in 2008.

Under the law, a sentencing judge has the power to release inmates only if they are near death, have a nursing or hospice facility that will take them and have shown that their needs aren’t met in prison.

Rarely do inmates qualify.

Taylor, who has assisted prisoners seeking compassionate release, said an inmate needs to be immobile and essentially “on death’s doorstep” before a discharge is considered.

Victims and prosecutors get to weigh in, and the risk to public safety is considered.

“If they’re lifers, it doesn’t happen,” Taylor said. “That’s been my experience.”

For others, paperwork may take so long that an inmate dies before a decision is made.

Taylor said the state needs a method to evaluate whether inmates should be released if they are many years into a life term and have demonstrated that they’re not a threat.

Movement to change sentencing laws for lifers has been slow, Bergstrom said, though interest in Harrisburg is greater now than 10 years ago.

But lawmakers knew about the issue then.

In 2002, a Senate resolution directed the Joint State Government Commission to form a bipartisan task force and advisory committee to study the state’s handling of geriatric and seriously-ill prisoners. The group delivered a report in 2005 about the high-cost of an aging prison population and offered potential fixes, including the possibility of parole for lifers.

Hall, who was a member of the committee, said lawmakers ignored their suggestions and made compassionate release more difficult, not less.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that ruling does not apply to inmates already serving time, and the federal Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

However, Bergstrom said the Supreme Court ruling might give inmates already sentenced to life as juveniles traction with the state Board of Pardons.

Decades ago, commutations were common, meaning inmates serving life without parole would be given a lesser sentence by the governor. In the 1970s, for instance, Gov. Milton Shapp commuted 251 life sentences.

But commutations have become rare since, and under a 1997 amendment to the state constitution, the state’s Board of Pardons must unanimously recommend commutation before the governor can act.

Since the rule change, Gov. Mark Schweiker commuted one sentence and Gov. Ed Rendell commuted five.

Gov. Tom Corbett has commuted none.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Don’t want him to go’

With few ways out, sick inmates live their last days in facilities like Laurel Highlands.

The prison looks like a hospital, but with razor wire out front and vertical bars in the hallways. Patients sit in wheelchairs, breathing bottled oxygen and numbly stare into the distance.

Watching prisoners die has given the inmate volunteers perspective on their own lives and made them think about what it would mean to live the rest of their days — and die — in prison.

“I don’t think that people on the outside really understand what it’s like for a person to die in prison,” said Travis, a volunteer who was at Laurel Highlands and is now out on parole.

Among the men in hospice care at Laurel Highlands is a 96-year-old inmate named Simon — the oldest inmate in the Pennsylvania prison system.

He’s built relatPublicSource-logo-square-REDionships with the volunteers, and they’ve watched his health slip as he moved into hospice care.

“I don’t want him to go,” Elvis said. “He’s like a grandpa to me.”

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

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

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New Report Highlights Growing Number of Aging People in Prison

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

Reposted with permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RAPP Director Mujahid Farid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FreeHer: Formerly Incarcerated Women Build a National Network

Originally published on Tuesday, 11 August 2015 By Jean Trounstine, Truthout/Report Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission

This picture shows the participants of the Real Women Real Voices panel. Top Left: Susan Rosenberg, Andrea James, Justine Moore, Star Patterson, Kemba Smith, Topeka Sam, Lana from Black & Pink. Bottom Left: Beatrice Codianni, Meghann Perry, Lashonia Etheridge, Dorothy Gaines. Grandma Phyllis Hardy is pictured from a skype call on the screen behind the women. photo by etta cetera
This picture shows the participants of the Real Women Real Voices panel. Top Left: Susan Rosenberg, Andrea James, Justine Moore, Star Patterson, Kemba Smith, Topeka Sam, Lana from Black & Pink. Bottom Left: Beatrice Codianni, Meghann Perry, Lashonia Etheridge, Dorothy Gaines. Grandma Phyllis Hardy is pictured from a skype call on the screen behind the women. photo by etta cetera

Women have always been the change agents of our society,” said Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, an organization committed to educational advancement for women with criminal record histories and their families.

Nixon was keynoting the landmark conference, FreeHer, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 4 and 5, where more than 43 formerly incarcerated women and their allies convened to rally an audience of 300 at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Leaders from across the country highlighted why this is the time for the United States to fund and support strategies to decrease the number of women behind bars and to end the mass criminalization of Black and poor women.

Women’s incarceration has not been fully addressed, however. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison system.”

Nixon had barely landed from a whirlwind week, the culmination of her years of fighting to return federal Pell Grants to prisoners. Her activism had landed her a seat at the table with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She was at the Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup on July 31 as the Obama administration unveiled a pilot program that will allow a group of prisoners to use federal Pell Grants to fund their education behind bars. Nixon also urged the FreeHer audience to fight for the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, far-reaching legislation sponsored by Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards and others that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for federal and state prisoners. She said her path from incarceration to national leader taught her that “education is a path to escape the cycle of poverty and criminal recidivism.”

Nixon was passionate about the problem: “When we include probation, 7 million people are experiencing mass criminalization and racial discrimination. … Women’s incarceration has not been fully addressed, however. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison system.” According to the Sentencing Project, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for women is 1 in 56. But the likelihood increases to 1 in 19 for Black women; 1 in 45 and 1 in 118 for Hispanic and white women, respectively. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics special report, “The number of children under age 18 with a mother in prison [has] more than doubled since 1991,” and, “Sixty-four percent of mothers in state prisons lived with their children before they were sent to prison, compared to 47 percent of fathers.”

Nixon declared that “Locking up women means paying the tab for the care and shelter of kids.” Her call for activism echoed Alice Walker from In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Those who fight for women’s justice are “womanish,” she said. “Freedom and justice for all means every woman,” she added. “We care about all oppressed peoples, and we must turn the current moment into a movement.”

Building a Network

FreeHer is an attempt to turn this moment into a movement – at a time when criminal injustice is undeniable nationwide, and the leadership of Black women is crucial to justice. The term is the brainchild of Andrea James. James, a founding member and executive director for Families for Justice as Healing (FJH), is a formerly incarcerated woman, former attorney and current Soros Justice Fellow. Her intention is to build a network of formerly incarcerated women and their allies to create change through action.

James met many compatriots when she was sentenced to 24 months behind bars and served time at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, the women’s prison “camp” made famous by Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black. James described that experience, collaborating with other incarcerated women, and the development of FJH in her book, Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts On The Politics of Mass Incarceration, published in 2013. Since her release in 2011, she has worked relentlessly, traveling throughout the country to connect with other leaders.

Her Soros fellowship is “an incredible opportunity” to build this network, James told Truthout. She now becomes one of Open Society’s core change-makers: “challenging the overreliance on incarceration and extreme punishment, and ensuring a fair and accountable system of justice.”

Last year, James and members of FJH, held a rally in Washington, DC, to bring attention to the needs of female prisoners, unjust sentencing, and the inequities of justice, and to demand an end to the mass incarceration of women.

The FreeHer Conference, this year, was the kickoff for James’ Soros Justice project. The Open Society Foundation is funding James, one of only 15 to be so honored by the foundation this year, to create a national network.

In an interview, James said she aims to expand awareness of how prison and jail impact women, their children and their communities: “My purpose is to connect those I have met throughout the country, who are doing work to restructure the criminal justice system, and to bring on board other formerly incarcerated women – with the goal of giving everybody a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on.” To that end, James organized the conference with panels according to theme, and panel by panel, the conference speakers articulated both current activism and ideas to inspire leaders to future action.

Ending the Criminalization of Women

Kemba Smith never touched a drug but was the girlfriend of a man who sold drugs, and still, in 1994, she received a 24 and a half-year sentence, making her a poster child for overly-harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing policies. Her book Poster Child tells the story of her path from being a college student to experiencing domestic violence to giving birth to her son behind bars at 23 – and finally to receiving executive clemency after six and one-half years.

Smith acknowledged that she was one of the lucky ones. She has been able to turn her unjust criminalization into a book, a movie, and a series of speaking engagements around the country, fighting for those left behind. “There are still thousands of women in prison,” said James, adding to Smith’s story. “And young women are still going to prison for things they should not be going to prison for.” The National Institute of Corrections estimates, as of 2013, 1 million women were under some kind of correctional control.”

Throughout the day, advocates said the United States must end the criminalization of women because of addiction, poverty, race and sexual violence.

Smith left behind a son when she went to prison. She said that years later, after her release, he told her,”As much as you tried to make my life normal, it wasn’t.”

Jasmine Barclay was one of those youngsters left behind. “One in nine African Americans have a parent in prison,” said Ellen Barry, a social justice activist who has worked on behalf of prisoners, their children and their families for her entire career.

Barclay’s short film, When Life Hands You Lemons, tells the story of how her father was incarcerated when she was 14, and her family, including her mother, turned their backs on her. But Barclay didn’t cave. In a summer youth program, she worked at a local TV station and got involved in creating and producing films to deal with her pain. Barclay is now connecting with others, teaching film at that same station, attending college, and acting as a support for other young men and women who have family members behind bars. She said, “When someone dies, people send a casserole, but when your parent goes to prison, no one is sending anything.”

Powerhouse Deborah Peterson Small brought down the house when she shared her vision of “Why We’re Here.” Small, who has been at the forefront of changing drug policy and sentencing is the executive director of Break the Chains, an advocacy group fighting the failed “war on drugs.” She said, “The United Racist States of America” has allowed people to be destroyed. She said we must “bury that conversation” and understand that the real conversation is about “freeing our minds,” not just getting us out of prison. She challenged everyone to decide how to fight mass criminalization by deciding what purpose they had in this movement and what each could bring to the table. She received thunderous applause with her words, “What are you built for?”

Building a Movement

Barbara Fair, a community organizer in New Haven, Connecticut, who founded the original “My Brother’s Keeper,” an advocacy group, said she is the mother of seven sons. “Every one spent time in prison,” she added. “If not for our drug policy, I never would have been in this position. … Prison destroys and tears you down.”

In 2012, Fair testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights about the horrors of solitary confinement. At 17, one of her sons was sent to Connecticut’s Northern institution, a supermax facility, and the conditions there caused him to suffer a severe mental breakdown and lead to multiple hospitalizations. “Solitary confinement stole my son from me,” she told the FreeHer audience. “After 30 years of doing reform work, I have learned that we need to tear the whole system down.”

Now she is one of a number of women answering Deborah Small’s question by sharing stories of their lives and their family’s incarceration, creating organizations, filing legislation, testifying before Congress and working for change. Advocates shared bills they were working on, trending legislation and the value of education to create change in people’s lives.

Many spoke of how they have faced the incarceration of their children, partners or parents. Gina Clayton, founder and executive director of the Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit in California named for her great-grandmother, said that “One in 4 women have a family member in prison, but for Black women it is 1 in 2.” Her work, also as a Soros fellow, has enabled her to create a safety net for women with incarcerated loved ones.

Dorothy Johnson-Speight channeled her anger when her son, Khaaliq was shot to death, at age 24, over a parking space in Philadelphia. She created Mothers in Charge, a grassroots organization dedicated to violence prevention, education and intervention. Johnson-Speight knew that going inside prison and meeting those who had murdered boys like her own would be difficult, but she did, believing “they are all our sons.”

“My journey is different from your journey but it brings me to the same place,” she said. “Collectively we’re all just a sister away, and we’ve got to work together to make a difference.”

Christina Voight, a formerly incarcerated woman who gave birth to her son in shackles, was denied access to the prison nursery program for her son at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

“When I was incarcerated, I did everything I could to teach women what to do. Women need love. If you can’t get it from the world, you can get it from each other.”

After her son was taken away, she sued and eventually regained custody, becoming one of the first women prisoners in a New York state prison to win a suit against the Administration of Child Services. In spite of the fact that she is a program coordinator with Soros Justice Fellowships, Voight said, the government doesn’t see her that way: “I am a violent offender for the rest of my life.” She summed up why the FreeHer movement was important to her: “Legislation begins with the true stories of people.”

At the end of the conference, Andrea James honored “Grandma” Phyllis Hardy, by giving her time to speak to the gathering on Skype. Hardy, who was released from Danbury in March, 2015, after 23 years and five months, had been ill and unable to attend. James said she had been the matriarch for many of the women on the stage at Harvard.

“When I was incarcerated I did everything I could to teach women what to do,” Hardy said. “Women need love. If you can’t get it from the world, you can get it from each other. We as women who are free have to help the ones who are left behind. We can teach them from the outside in.”

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

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

Currently, more than 5,000 people in Pennsylvania are serving life without parole, a full 10% of the imprisoned population, a higher percentage than any other state. As people in prison age the cost of incarcerating them goes up while simultaneously their likelihood of recidivism decreases. Many of these people are deeply remorseful about the situations that brought them to prison and want to be able to give back to their communities by sharing their wisdom with today’s youth to keep them from making similar mistakes. PA is one of only 6 states that have no parole options for lifers which makes commutation the only possibility of release for these individuals, many of whom are now senior citizens.

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

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

Reform the Board of Pardons

  1. Depoliticize the Board of Pardons

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

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

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

  1. Diversify the Board of Pardons

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

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

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

  1. Institute Regional Full-Time Pardon Boards

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

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

Reform Public Hearings

  1. Give Equal Time to Both Sides

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

  1. Mandate Public Hearings at Certain Benchmarks

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

Reform the Commutation Process

  1. Require a Written Reason for Denial

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

  1. Provide Clear Requirements for Reapplying

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

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

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

  1. Acknowledge that All People are Capable of Change

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

  1. Allow the Wrongfully-Convicted Access to Commutation

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

  1. Rescind Unanimous Vote Requirement for Lifers

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

  1. Eliminate Lifelong Consequences

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

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