We <3 you Ghani, and hope to celebrate your freedom this September! There are so many behind bars who deserve a second chance at parole and commutation. Even after decades of incarceration, people are dreaming of contributing back to society and helping make things right. Support House Bill 135 in the Judiciary Committee so we can see more folks like Ghani get a second chance at parole! Read more here
Below are pictures from Ghani’s Community Resentencing which happened on Sunday July 23 in Philadelphia organized by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and pictures of us the next day, Monday July 24th outside the JV court house during Ghani’s actual appeal hearing.
The Community guidelines for resentencing
Sharon Shoatz and Russell Shoatz
Mama Patricia Vickers talking about Hope is as Weapon!
Outside JV Courthouse
On way to JV courthouse
etta and yvonne
Old comrades pose for a pic – Andy, etta and Theresa.
Hanging outside Juvinile Court during Ghani’s hearing
Wispy on the mic and Theresa in the back
Russell Shoats III and Theresa Shoats
outside JV court night before hearing reading the community’s ideas for resentencing ghani
The last weekend of January was full of activity across the nation and in Philly. Trump had just announced the travel ban that Friday evening, and people all over the country were flocking to airports to speak up, sit in, and support Muslim travelers from the seven named countries who were being detained. Philadelphia was no different. Several of the 50 attendees of the state-wide strategy meeting of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) cut out at lunch to legal observe and participate in the resilient and spirited uprising. This energy infused our meeting space; several signs were hung declaring solidarity with Muslim people and denouncing deportations.
The bulk of the eight-hour strategy meeting was spent divided into break-out groups developing goals for the year. The Membership group strategized around sustaining, supporting, and recruiting new members. Ideas generated from this session included creating a resource sharing tool kit for family members, developing a formal orientation, and having parties to bring people together. A dinner honoring family members of lifers is already on the calendar for March 25th.
The Media group talked tactics on messaging, writing op-ed’s, developing workshops, and creating one-page talking points that would be supportive of different audiences.
Next we had the Statewide Coalition crew and the Legislative crew. There are many overlapping ideas here centering our goal of passing HB 135—the parole expansion for lifers bill, also called the Dawkin’s bill. We talked about reaching out to the rural communities and outlying counties where our campaign is underrepresented. A power mapping initiative is already underway, and once the priorities are articulated, we can call on our incarcerated comrades to locate people and potential constituents in those regions. In other words, we need lifers from the rural regions to get their families involved so their representatives will listen to us when we say “Liberation In Our Lifetime!”
We plan to host three trips to Harrisburg to build momentum and lobby, as well as a lot of traveling around the state with community dialogues, townhalls, and meetings with lawmakers. This post was reprinted from the Global Network to Free Maroon‘s March Newsletter.
How we gonna bring our people home alive? Gonna Pass HB- 135
Looking back on this year, Let’s Get Free has done a lot of work, made solid connections, grown in community, and has been supported and built by so many amazing folks. In 2016, we officially launched our Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation, hosted a legislator call-in day to begin laying tracks for future commutation reform, lobbied in Harrisburg and held a press conference in support of HB2135 and commutation reform. We sent our first newsletter, organized ongoing support for Juvenile Lifer cases in PA, began fundraising in earnest to be able to realize our goals for mobilizing and organizing across the state, and lobbied again with CADBI on October 18 to end Death By Incarceration.
The last 6 months have felt big, working to ride on the crest of the wave stirred up by our rally and lobbying efforts in June and October, and the introduction of HB2135–legislation for Parole Expansion for Lifers. We have been successfully fostering and growing relationships with PA state representatives who support HB2135, and have begun working with representatives in SW PA to craft a strategic approach to statewide campaigning for this legislation. We had the opportunity to participate in a historic Lifer’s Retreat at SCI Graterford, making incredible connections and community with others in the struggle across the state, and are collaborating to expand a scholarship fund. We hosted a deeply moving listening event with Samantha Broun, who has produced a singularly important radio piece about violence, harm, healing, and commutation. Our statewide collaboration and networking with other justice groups across the state has been growing stronger, and we have successfully started to expand our working group. Building our house up so we can invite more people in to keep on in 2017!
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation has gathered a Commutation Support Kit. It includes tips from Ellen, a copy of an application that ended up winning freedom for a lifer, and sample letters to write to family and friends to help them support you in this process.
October 18, CADBI Lobby Day
Commutation Lobby Day June 23
Devon and Cat hold a banner “Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers” at the Fight for 15 labor march.
Ellen Melchiondo writes: The hearing lasted about half an hour.
Before the hearing began, the assistant to lawyer Susan Ricci of the Philadelphia Defenders Association, took the names of the people who came in support of Paulette: four members of Paulette’s family, two women from The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, Pastor Collins and Richard “Tut” Carter of the Church of The Overcomers, Paul Mack, Ellen Melchiondo,Mike Lyons, Yvonne Newkirk and 3 others from CADBI, FFL, PA Prison Society and The Redemption Project, Susan Beard-Nole, wife of Freddie Nole a juvenile lifer, Cecilia Velasquez, sister of Ben who is a lifer and who spent some time at Muncy. (All of the names were submitted to the court for the record and some names were read by Ricci during her presentation.) A card was signed by everyone to be given to Paulette.
Paulette’s family provided her with new clothes to wear. Paulette looked at everyone as she was seated upon entering. Susan Ricci frequently had her arm on Paulette’s back and arm.
The ADA said little, except to verify the plea deal and supported it. 35 to life. Paulette served 38 years. There was no opposition.
Susan Ricci explained Paulette’s life before the incident and the training, work and programs that Paulette completed while in prison. Paulette spoke as she struggled with tears as she expressed her remorse and wishes to help young people avoid her situation.
The judge, Katheryn Streeter Lewis, read about the crime, the GED and HS Diploma that Paulette achieved. The judge said she was aware that Paulette is the first female juvenile lifer in PA to get this far. The judge expressed her confidence in Paulette’s ability to be successful after prison.She also expressed her desire to see that children like Paulette get the support they need to avoid tragedy and that the system had failed them.
Paulette agreed with all of legal limitations that she pled to. The supporters applauded at the end and Paulette was escorted out by the sheriff, who sat by her the entire time. No hugs allowed.
Paulette will return to SCI Cambridge Springs to work out parole arrangements and within three months she will return to Philadelphia to live in a transitional home for six months before joining family.
From Cecilia Velasquez whose brother Ben is serving LWOP for decades: As Paulette begin to talk about her crime, she choked back tears as she expressed her remorse for the life she had taken. The audience felt her pain as tears rolled down many in the audience. I, Cecilia, met Paulette many years ago, over 36 years ago. At that time, she was a young teen even young for her age, yet, there was already a sense of a heavy laden burden from the sentenced she had been given.
Yesterday I met the woman she had become despite all she had experience in those 38 years, the people she had lost, the oblivious suffering and pain written on her face. Paulette had overcome her situation and circumstances to develop, grow, improve herself and help those around her.
As I sat in the audience I couldn’t help feel Peachies’ presence and the ground work with her life!Paulette is truly a testament to all of us on how to live in spite of our Circumstances. I felt honored to be part of this history making event to change the destiny of juvenile women lifers. Paulette, Thank you.
From Susan Beard-Nole whose husband Freddie has been serving JLWOP for 47 years:
It brought great sorrow to hear that Paulette lost her only child to violence. Just a reminder of the harm done to children who are separated from their mothers/fathers due to prison. Despite that sadness, Paulette continued on to help the young women who crossed her path.
From Susan Ricci, Paulette’s attorney at the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia:
I agree that Paulette’s story is a very powerful one and I too thought the court staff and the judge were moved by it. Of course it is terrible what happened to the deceased in this case, but Paulette was truly a victim in all this as well. A life sentence was so incredibly unjust. Judge Lewis has now handled a number of resentencing hearings in juvenile lifer cases but this was the first time I have heard her question out loud who is responsible for all the trauma inflicted on the children who then went on to act out in a way that ended so tragically. Paulette is such a strong woman. I am grateful to have been assigned her case so that I got the opportunity to know her. And I am very thankful you and the others were there to support her. It meant so much to her.
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation Hits the Capitol
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jason Dawkins at the podium
Johanna McClinton at the podium
photo by Harmony
photo by Harmony
We left in dawn’s early light!
photo by Harmony
Teresa Shoatz statin’ her business
etta cetera at the podium
photo by Harmony
Meeting with Patrick Cawley from Greenleafs office photo by Harmony
Shakir from New Voices Pitsburgh
photo by Harmony
photo by Harmony
Lizzie, Zoe, Mae and Saundra by Harmony
uma and devon with the contestoriaphoto by Harmony
Uma, Loreal, Mae, Jordan, Teresa…
Brandi and Lauren by Traisaun
photo by Harmony
by Traisaunby Tr
uma and devon with the contestoriaphoto by Harmony
Meeting with Governor’s people
photo by Harmony
photo by Harmony
Harmony and Lauren chillin
Joanna McClinton on the mic!
Meeting with Liana of Art Haywood’s office photo by Jeron
Lauren speaking it up!
photo by Harmony
Group with Jason Dawkins and Ed Gainey by Traisaun Leake
For 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.
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 relationships 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.”
Please take 5 minutes to tweek this letter. Sign it Print it out and MAIL the letters to June Maxam –Box 408 Chestertown, NY 12817! Today is THURSDAY THE 7TH.
Tanika Dickson was the victim of racial violence then blamed for the attack and separated from her children. She has already done over 15 years in prison. Tanika who was featured in the Mothers of Bedford will see the parole board on January 12th.
Tanika Dickson pled guilty to the Murder of David Gallup. Accounts from witnesses indicated David Gallup, the brother of a Glenville police officer was in Casey’s Bar in Schenectady, NY, drinking for approximately 12 hours prior to the instant offense. He was severely intoxicated, and made some other patrons in the bar uncomfortable from acting strangely. Several witnesses knew this victim and indicated that on the day the crime was committed, he had been fired from his job at Wal-Mart for making racially offensive remarks. It was verified through police reports, the victim had a history of domestic violence against women and alcohol-related offenses.
The instant offense involved Ms. Dickson stabbing David Gallup in the neck while trying to exit the bar resulting in his death. Several disturbing things took place prior to the stabbing that led up to this event. A verbal altercation took place at the bar where David Gallup referred to Tanika as a “n*#%!r slut bitch.” At this time, the parties were separated by the bar’s security. David Gallup should have been escorted out of the bar due to the fact that he had been in the bar for at least 12 hours and was clearly in an intoxicated state. The bar continued to serve him alcohol.
Tanika tried to leave the bar peacefully. She recalls Mr. Gallup blocking her exit to the street. Out of fear, she reacted and stabbed Mr. Gallup. She was charged with Murder in the second degree. A plea was negotiated within 12 hours of the instant offense. Ms. Dickson was intoxicated at the time of the instant offense.
Because Tanika entered a plea waiving her right to appeal, she has limited legal remedies available to her. All post-conviction remedies pursued have failed.
During preparation of Tanika’s clemency packet, Tanika was evaluated by a psychologist who stated:
“From a record review and direct observation of Tanika Dickson, this examiner opines there is a mitigating factor of extreme emotional disturbance that contributed to the instant matter. Tanika was extremely intoxicated at the time of the crime after drinking that evening. The blood alcohol level probably present in Tanika would have diminished her control as well as diminished her capacity for rational thought. Secondly, Tanika felt threatened by the victim. His face was angry and he was saying threatening things. Tanika stated, “I was scared…I didn’t know what he was capable of doing to me.”
“Tanika had a history of being raped as well as being physically abused. These strong memories also affected her emotional state in that she saw herself as a potential victim with no sense of being helped or anyone else as she approached the victim who suddenly blocked her exit from the bar.”
He further indicated:
“It is this examiner’s opinion that when Tanika refers to being blacked out that she is referring to an emotional black out caused by her extreme emotional disturbance and fear. This was not an alcoholic black out.”
The psychologist concluded:
“Tanika’s behavior was motivated by an understandable fear that she would be physically harmed and killed by the victim. He had threatened her verbally and non-verbally to a significant degree enough that the staff felt compelled to make him go to the other end of the bar.”
Tips : Do not say anything like “it was a mistake”