The time is ripe in Pennsylvania for Parole Reform! We are hoping you will support Let’s Get Free and the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation’s upcoming Lobby day to Harrisburg.

On June 4th, PA Senator Art Hayward tweeted, “Visited SCI Graterford yesterday and wonder…why do we we keep a guy age 65 served 30 years and is rehabilitated in prison?”

Reforming the Commutation Process is a way to offer people serving excessive sentences including Life Without Parole a second chance!

Two weeks ago, Lt. Governor Mike Stack stated in a public discussion in Homewood “This is supposed to be the land of second chances.” And while this may seem very basic for those who believe in alternative justice systems and struggle against mass incarceration, it feels radical coming from the chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons – specifically referring to people who have committed violent offenses.  Listen to his speech, along with the words of local progressive Pittsburgh- based politicians Ed Gainey and Jay Costa.

Feeling hopeful and like the time is now!

3 Ways to Support Our Lobby Day!

  • Come with us in Thursday June 23 for an all day adventure of rallying, networking with prison justice activists across the state and meeting with lawmakers – including Lt. Governors office, members of the black caucus and others who challenge mass incarceration.

  • Endorse our Campaign! We must show our lawmakers that we have wide spread support for these ideas. Will your group either local or national officially sign on as an endorser? Endorsing simply means that you or your organization believe commutation is a viable option for people who are no longer a threat to public safety & support the ideas listed in the 12 point platform and will sign your name to it.

Background on Commutation:

In the 1970s approximately 35 people a year were given a second chance through commutation. That’s 380 commuted lifers from 1967-1990, but for the last 25 years, only 7 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 mass incarceration and has left many innocent and reformed people serving excessive sentences with no mercy.

We believe mercy is a component of a true justice system, even in situations where irreparable harm has occurred, including murder. We advocate that a mandatory punitive response such as Life Without Parole does not prevent further violence in our communities nor create a process for healing.

Think of Avis Lee. 55 years old. Been in prison since she was 18 – over 30 years -for being the lookout in a robbery gone wrong. Think of Charmaine Pfender, also in her 50’s. Also been down since she was a teenager. Also served over 30 years, in her case for defending herself from sexual violence.

The Risk is Low! The Cost is High! Free our Friends!



Commutation Platform Launched! Parole Reform Now!


On March 29, 2016, members of the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation sent the following letter to PA officials, including our 12 point platform:

To the Board of Pardons, The PA General Assembly and Governor Tom Wolfe,

We are the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation, a Pittsburgh based group that is pursuing criminal justice reforms for people serving Life Sentences. We wish to bring to your attention a number of problems with the commutation process that we believe should be addressed by this current legislature. There is a growing understanding about the significant personal, social, and monetary impacts mass incarceration has had on our state. We imagine that you share many of our concerns, and look forward to working with you toward more efficient and just Parole and Pardon systems.

In the 1970s approximately 35 people a year were given a second chance through commutation. That’s 380 commuted lifers from 1967-1990, but for the last 25 years, only 7 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released.(i) The dramatic decrease in the use of commutation as a result of the “tough on crime” political climate has contributed to mass incarceration and has left many innocent and reformed people serving excessive sentences with no mercy.

Restoring our commutation process would allow us to redirect public funding away from imprisoning many aging individuals who are not a threat to public safety, and channel that money into initiatives for violence prevention. While elderly inmates released from prison will require medical care and other public services, Pennsylvania could save an average of $66,000 per year for each of the 1,500 geriatric lifers released.(ii) Studies show that the chances of a person re-offending over the age of 50 dramatically decreases.(iii)The prison system is among the highest expenditures in the budget, costing the state more than $2 billion a year.(iv) SCI- Laurel Highlands (a Prison Hospital and Hospice Unit), cost $75 million to operate in 2014, almost half of the total cost of all prisons in PA.(v)

Working in coalition with a number of groups across Pennsylvania made up of concerned citizens, current and formerly incarcerated people, and interfaith human rights advocates, we have drafted a 12 point platform to restore Pennsylvania’s commutation process. We have prioritized three changes that we think could have a watershed effect on the meaningful restoration of this process.

We ask that you consider all aspects of our 12 point platform and draft legislation including these changes:

  • Return the Board of Pardons vote requirement for a recommendation of commutation for a lifer to 3 out of 5 votes, rather than the unanimous vote requirement.
  • Amend the commutation regulations of the Board of Pardons to grant an automatic approval for a public hearing after an applying lifer has served 15 years.
  • Require that the Board of Pardons provide a written reason for denial of a commutation application for people serving life sentences.

With the recent decision by the Supreme Court that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual punishment, and also President Obama’s actions to commute the sentences of 163 people serving life, we believe the time is right to start addressing these same issues here in Pennsylvania. Please prioritize prison reform, and bring these issues to the legislature.

Restoring commutation does not mean releasing anyone immediately, it only guarantees they’ll have a chance to prove that they’ve changed, are not a threat to public safety and are ready and able to participate in society!

We look forward to hearing your thoughts and collaborating in the future.


The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation


i      Ogletree, C. (2012). Life without parole America’s new death penalty? New York: New York University Press.

ii      Rudolf, John (6/13/2012) Elderly Inmate Population Soared 1,300 Percent Since 1980s: Report

iii    ACLU (2012) At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly Retrieved from

iv    Hughes, Vincent J.,  Chairman Democratic Appropriations Committee. (3/3/2015) Governor’s Budget Request FY 2015-2016. Retrieved from website:

v    Sacco, Francesca. (2014, September 13) Elderly Inmates Cared for at SCI-Laurel Highlands. Retrieved from


Free Charmaine! Chip in for Legal Costs!

Donate Here on the Indigogo! 

Why money is needed

Funds raised will be used to cover legal work, including financing an international investigation to locate Suat Erdogan, the key witness against Charmaine who is likely living outside the U.S. A private investigator has drawn up a plan, and we need to ensure that research, consultation, travel, and labor costs are covered.

Charmaine Pfender deserves to be released from prison. Any amount of time in prison for self-defense is too long, and 31 years is an injustice of massive proportions. Charmaine’s trial attorney and later appellate attorneys never provided her the representation she deserved and was constitutionally entitled to. Every day for more than three decades Charmaine has contributed positively and selflessly to those in her life both inside and outside the prison. She is not, and never has been, a threat to public safety, and we need your help to free her from prison.

We are raising  $5,000 so that our committee can take the next steps to gather evidence and build an effective legal defense. We are committed to doing whatever work is needed, and we humbly ask you to join our quest for justice by donating to our vital funding campaign. If a financial contribution is beyond your means, we gratefully suggest that you can effectively support our campaign by sharing the details with as many individuals you can reach.

Charmaine Pfender was 18 years old in August 1984 . She was on a date with man who pulled out a knife and attempted to rape her. As she struggled to protect herself, she reached for a gun, fired a warning shot and tried to flee to safety. The man chased after her, still wielding his knife. Fearing for her own life, she shot again and killed him.

At age 19, after a highly publicized and problematic trial, Charmaine was sentenced to life without parole. She has served over thirty years of that sentence.

About the Trial

Although Charmaine fought for her life the night of the shooting, her trial attorney failed to fight for her, by committing serious errors that deprived the jury of a fair opportunity to consider all the relevant facts, and deprived Charmaine of her freedom.

Charmaine’s attorney failed to call critical character witnesses who knew Charmaine as a peaceful and law abiding teenager. In fact, Charmaine had no criminal record or record of violence before the night of the shooting, and she has maintained that peaceful record ever since. However, the jury never heard this powerful character evidence that Charmaine’s attorney inexplicably failed to present. Instead, the prejudicial, inflammatory, negative depiction of Charmaine made by the prosecution and in the press was the only narrative the jury heard.

The sole witness for the case against Charmaine was Suat Erdogan of Turkey, a friend of the attempted rapist. He was present in the vehicle during the assault of Charmaine. His account of what happened that night changed in meaningful respects each time he told his version.

  • In police reports, Erdogan stated that Charmaine was struck in the face by his friend.  This claim disappeared from his testimony both at the coroner’s inquest and trial.
  • In Erdogan’s version of events, Charmaine pulled a gun on him and his friend without warning or motive. He also changed details on why and how Charmaine retrieved the gun, demonstrating his willingness to invent details to make his story sound more plausible and move guilt away from his friend to Charmaine.
  • Erdogan  testified that Charmaine attempted to tie his friend’s hands prior to the shooting, but he was shot as he pursued Charmaine, knife in hand.

Charmaine’s  attorney disregarded these and any other  inconsistencies in  Erdogan’s testimony, and even apologized to the jury if he seemed to be “nitpicking” during his cross-examination of Erdogan.  He ended the trial by asking for a “fair verdict,” but not an acquittal based on self-defense.  Charmaine Pfender was then found guilty of murder.

History of Trauma

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Charmaine suffered physical and psychological trauma. On the night of the shooting, she acted in self-defense, and in accordance with the emotional maturity of her age and her specific history. Expert witnesses were not presented to help the jury form vital context regarding the complexities of trauma, sexual assault and mental health. Without such testimony, the jury could not have sufficient understanding that rape survivors are very commonly disbelieved, mocked, stigmatized and criminalized. Nor was there discussion of the resulting neurological traumatic impact from exposure to high adversity in childhood which affects the brain’s and body’s still developing stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response. Charmaine’s attorney failed to assertively argue that her only choices were to be raped or to fight back.

Self Defense is Not a Crime!

Life-without-parole is a human rights violation, as recognized by the European Court of Human Rights as well as governments around the world. Individuals that receive a sentence to die in prison with no possibility of release, are legally and permanently excluded from society, forever defined by a single criminal conviction regardless of culpability or the person they become.

Pennsylvania has the largest percentage of its prison population serving life-without-parole of any state in the country.  In Charmaine’s case, the sentence of life-without-parole carries a particularly sinister message: if a woman defends herself against sexual violence, the state will imprison her until she dies.


Rehabilitation, forgiveness, redemption, transformation, and the ability to reconnect with families and communities in healthy and meaningful ways are not valued in PA. The only hope for Charmaine to spend any part of her life outside of prison is for her case to be retried.

Charmaine’s ability to return to court and challenge her conviction largely rests on our ability to locate Suat Erdogan, the key witness against Charmaine who misled the jury with dishonest testimony.  As the Free Charmaine Campaign launches this indiegogo fundraiser, we launch an international investigation to track down Suat Erdogan, whether he is in Turkey or anywhere else on this planet. For the sake of Charmaine’s freedom, we will scour the ends of the Earth to find him.

Char’s Present Activities

Charmaine leads a model life in prison.While at SCI Cambridge Springs, Charmaine has devoted herself to personal growth and service. She is housed in the honor cottage and has received the highest prisoner rating available to lifers. She is educated as a certified carpenter, already completing over 10,000 hours of training. She works diligently at her prison job transcribing texts into Braille. She gives back to the community by training service canines and knitting sweaters for children in need. She maintains close and loving relationships with her mother, sister, and extended family.  In short, she is a grounded, compassionate person living as meaningful a life as possible despite the constraints of the state. Just imagine who she could be if she were allowed to be free!

Donate Here on the Indigogo!



Happy Birthday Chelsea Manning


Today marks the 28th birthday of inspirational fighter for freedom and U.S. military whistelblower, Chelsea Manning, and her sixth birthday spent incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Celebrations are being held in her honor today, in London, Boston, and beyond as a show of continual support. In a year that has brought so much tragedy to so many, let us stand in solidarity with people like Chelsea, who are leading us on the path towards justice and self-determination. Feel free to leave your own birthday wishes below. One day she’ll be free to read them.

Leave Messages HERE

Posted by Ursula




31st Anniversary of Charmaine Pfender’s Incarceration

This past Saturday, August 8th, was the 31st anniversary of Charmaine Pfender’s unjust incarceration. Organizers with Let’s Get Free visited her at SCI-Cambridge Springs one week ago. It was wonderful to spend some quality time with her!
char visit
 Let’s Get Free will be launching a new campaign to get Charmaine out of prison in the next couple months – stay posted for more details! 
free char


Let’s Get Free Seeks out the Stories of Women Lifers

In the winter of 2014, with the help of  Avis Lee, Let’s Get Free (LGF) created a short survey to learn more about the lives and histories of female lifers in Pennsylvania. Focusing on the women’s prison SCI-Cambridge Springs, where LGF members Charmaine Pfender and Avis Lee are currently incarcerated, we sent surveys to 27 inmates, all of whom have Pennsylvania’s mandatory “life without parole” sentence. Our goal was to learn more about the personal narratives of the women who have these sentences. Pennsylvania is one of only 6 states that have no parole options for lifers, which makes commutation the only possibility of release for these individuals, and which requires an admission of guilt, which is not an option for all inmates. For the last 25 years, only 6 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released.

We quickly received 18 responses to our questionnaire, many from inmates who were anxious to have their voices heard for the first time in decades.

This is the beginning of a series on the Let’s Get Free blog that will feature their voices, stories, and perspectives. Our first post is two poems that were submitted by Tracey “Nadirah” Shaw, #OD4315, who has been incarcerated for over 20 years:

We’re More Than Just A NumberLGF - Tracey Nadirah Shaw #OD4315-page-011
We’re More Than Just A Number
of that I have no doubt
So much aggression and humiliation
This we can do without
We’re More Than Just A Number
Why can’t you see?
We strive to be humble
But that’s only part of me.
We’re More Than Just A Number
We have families and friendships too
So the next time you criticize or judge US

Here I Sit Doing Time
Here I sit doing time
for a crime I didn’t commit.
Here I sit doing time
when will they see there was not
enough evidence to convict me
But here I sit doing life.
Here I sit doing time
When the GUILTY one is running free
Here I sit doing time
for his crime, WHY! could he not just let us be free
We no longer wanted him couldn’t he see.
Now MY Angels are looking down on me.
For I know the God will listen and give me
strength to go on because He knows I’m INNOCENT.
He’ll open my eyes to see a brand new dawn.
One day this time will be over as I sit and wait
One day again I’ll feel FREEDOM as I
proudly walk through that GATE!


Maya Schenwar | Women’s Prisons as Sites of Resistance: An Interview With Victoria Law

Originally published Sunday, 28 June 2015 00:00 By Maya Schenwar, Truthout | Interview – Re-posted with permission2015_0625law

In Resistance Behind Bars, regular Truthout contributor Victoria Law provides much-needed documentation of collective organizing and the daily struggles inside women’s prisons. This second edition inscludes powerful new sections examining the challenges facing trans, intersex and gender-variant people in prison as well as their acts of resistance. Order this award-winning book today by making a contribution to Truthout!

When we think of protest behind bars, what comes to mind? For many people, that list would include the Attica uprising, the work of George Jackson, the struggles of the Angola 3 activists, the 2013 California prison hunger strike and other crucial instances of resistance – mostly organized by incarcerated men.

Too often, organizing work done by incarcerated women goes wholly unrecognized. In her book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Victoria Law focuses on the many forms of activism happening inside of women’s prisons, most of which never reach the dominant media.

In the following interview, Law shares stories of little-known actions, insights into what constitutes “activism,” and ways in which individual acts of resistance are building toward a transformational new reality.

Maya Schenwar: You discuss in the book how, when you first got interested in resistance within prisons and noticed a dearth of information about women’s organizing, you were often told, “Women don’t organize.” I’ve definitely noticed that the actions that we hear most about (particularly in mass media, but even among outside activist communities) are focused on men. What are some of the factors that create and perpetuate this myth that women behind bars aren’t “politicized” or engaged in resistance?

Victoria Law: We don’t hear very much about what’s happening in women’s prisons. If we hear about what’s going on inside, it’s usually framed as “these are the conditions,” not “these are the conditions, and this is what people inside these jails and prisons are doing about it.”

Even in this day and age, prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues.

Even in 2015, prisoner resistance is still largely thought of as male. Part of it is that more attention is paid to men’s jails and prisons – they do, after all, make up approximately 90 percent of those behind bars. Part of it is that support networks for men are different than for women (including trans women) behind bars. For example, during the Pelican Bay hunger strike, we saw women family members stepping to the forefront to speak about the conditions their loved ones have been enduring. Although we know (barely) that people in California’s women’s prisons had also been fasting in solidarity – and we know that there is also a SHU (Security Housing Unit) at the women’s prison – we’re not seeing (or hearing) outside loved ones amplifying their voices and efforts to the same extent that women like Dolores Canales, Marie Levin and Daletha Hayden are doing for their male loved ones.

In addition, even in this day and age, prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues (unless it’s an issue like pregnancy, reproductive health or sexual abuse). So when we talk about solitary confinement, even though solitary confinement is used throughout women’s prisons and jails, coverage is often about what happens to men. The people spotlighted are men. Sometimes, women will speak, like Evie Litwok and Donna Hylton about their experiences in solitary at a NYC hearing. But, unless it’s specifically a story about women in solitary or trans people in solitary, we don’t often see recognition that these conditions affect people of all genders. It’s not just solitary confinement where male becomes the default gender.

Prisons isolate people. … People inside prisons can be punished for simple, humane acts like hugging or sharing.

Finally, some of the ways women are challenging and resisting aren’t seen as fitting what we might think of as “resistance” or “organizing.” For example, currently and formerly incarcerated women have been involved in challenging policies around parenting – or maintaining their right to parent. It’s an issue that disproportionately affects incarcerated mothers because, when a father goes to prison, he often has a female relative willing to take care of his children. When a mother goes to prison, she is less likely to have that same network of support and faces a greater chance that her children will end up in foster care. Children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than children of incarcerated fathers, which makes fighting to maintain custody an issue that many incarcerated women face.

Some women have individually helped challenge these policies – I wrote about Mary Glover, the legendary jailhouse lawyer in Michigan’s women’s prison, who helped women with their custody cases during the 20 or so years she was behind bars. (She also filed Glover v. Johnson, which required the prison to have equal educational and vocational programing for men’s and women’s prisons, a landmark 1970s case.) More recently, Arlinda Johns did the same for moms in the federal system. Moms have also organized to change policies around termination of rights – collecting and compiling testimony on the effects of permanent separation from their children, sharing their stories, etc.

Not all of the forms of resistance you discuss correspond to a normative idea of what “protest” means. For example, you chronicle the prisoner-led establishment of unique literacy programs at a prison in New York – a process that involved collaborating with prison officials (working “with the system”). You even discuss “listening” – in the service of community-building – as a type of action behind bars. Can you discuss why it is important to recognize this wide variety of activities as political acts?

Prisons isolate people. They’re not meant to strengthen bonds between people or build community. People inside prisons can be punished for simple, humane acts like hugging or sharing. Prison rules and staff discourage people from helping each other out. One example: A woman in an education program recently told me that one of her classmates has arthritis and thus cannot type the paper assigned to the class. Prison rules prohibit anyone else from typing her paper for her. “Do I type the paper for her so that she can pass the class or do I go by the rules?” the woman wondered.

While typing a paper doesn’t overturn this particular rule, the act of doing so not only helps the woman with arthritis, but also demonstrates caring and compassion in an environment designed to break it out of people. I’ve heard from women who have lost family members or custody of their children. … A listening ear makes all the difference in how they are able to process their grief.

Sometimes these acts of listening turn into something more widespread – for example, through the act of creating an environment in which women could share their experiences, the support group for women serving long sentences in Ohio realized that abuse and domestic violence were a pathway to long or life sentences and launched the first successful mass clemency campaign for battered women. But this wouldn’t have happened without that first step of listening.

I think it’s so important that your book contains a chapter about grievances and lawsuits, and the importance of the media in amplifying those efforts. How do these legal tools, which often stem from individual harms, contribute to larger goals of resistance? And how can we as the media serve to amplify them in a way that supports the work?

We need to remember that, while a grievance might reflect one person’s experience of individual harm, that experience is frequently reflective of a larger, more systemic reality affecting everyone in that jail or prison. A woman filing a grievance against a particularly abusive officer, for example, is probably not the only person who has experienced abuse from that person. One woman’s complaint about inadequate or negligent health care probably reflects many other women’s experiences. These grievances are important because, under the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act, people in prison are required to exhaust every administrative remedy before filing a lawsuit in civil court. In other words, if the person hasn’t been filing grievances and appeals, the court won’t hear their case.

In jails and prisons, movements are very restricted. So strategies that might work on the outside … don’t work in prison.

Individual – or even collective filings of – grievances don’t make the news. Lawsuits occasionally do. Covering lawsuits allows journalists to highlight some of the conditions that people in prison are litigating to change, conditions that may not be considered newsworthy otherwise because they happen all the time. One of the ways in which media can serve to amplify these efforts is to talk with people most affected – the people inside and their family members and friends on the outside. Those are the people doing the on-the-ground work and who know exactly what’s happening. Of course, trying to communicate with people inside takes time, patience and sometimes money (especially if you’re relying on collect calls, for-profit email servers and snail mail). These may seem to be luxuries for people who are on a deadline or operating on a small budget, but they are crucial to understanding the crux of the problem from the people who are forced to live it every day.

I love the section of your book that talks about how women behind bars do their own media work, finding creative ways to raise consciousness. Can you discuss some of the ways that women in prison get the word out about what’s happening behind bars?

As I said earlier, the networks that women are able to tap into are often different than those that men utilize. But women in prison use the networks and resources available to them to get the word out. Some of them use whatever email service the prison has to let people know about conditions. Their supporters then post their emails online, whether on dedicated sites, blogs or Facebook pages.

Contrary to what … Orange is the New Black may have you believe, most trans women are not placed in women’s prisons.

In the past, these networks have often included feminist publications. During the 1970s, off our backs regularly published writings by women in prison or updates by outside supporters about what was going on inside women’s prisons. Several other feminist publications also had regular imprisoned contributors. They also sent copies of their publication to women inside so that they felt connected to the outside world – and the various political struggles. In the online age, that kind of inside-outside connection is a little harder to maintain, but several groups continue to produce print newsletters that can be mailed into prisons: For instance, Black & Pink has a newspaper that they send to over 7,500 LGBTQ people imprisoned across the country, while the California Coalition for Women Prisoners has, since the 1990s, produced The Fire Inside and sent it to its members imprisoned in California.

They also write letters to anyone and everyone whose snail mail addresses they can get their hands on, letting them know what’s going on inside.

Sexual abuse by correctional officers is rampant in women’s prisons, and you discuss some of the ways in which incarcerated women are confronting the issue. This is a particularly difficult battle to wage, given the real threat of retaliation for women who speak out about sexual violence. What are some of the strategies that women use to protect themselves and each other, and to challenge the larger problem of sexual violence that is ingrained in the system?

Keep in mind that in jails and prisons, movements are very restricted. So strategies that might work on the outside – like staying in groups or avoiding deserted areas – don’t work in prison. Staff not only hold the keys to people’s cells, but also have the ability to give orders to those in custody. If they refuse, they risk being charged with “disobeying a direct order,” which can lead to time in solitary confinement and/or be used against them during a parole hearing.

Despite this, women have figured out ways to try to protect themselves and others. One woman, incarcerated in the mid-1990s, recalled a guard who constantly harassed her cellmate. He threatened her and her friends that, if they tried to report him, he would place cocaine among their possessions. His threat worked – the women kept quiet about his harassment. Then, one night, they heard their friend screaming; they found her with semen on her face. Despite his threats – and their fears – they filed a complaint with prison officials and later testified before a grand jury, which led to the guard’s arrest and conviction. After that, the woman stated, the nastiness and vulgarness that had been part of staff treatment of the women began to decrease. Other women felt less afraid of reporting sexual abuse, and at least two other officers were escorted out of the prison.

Women have also filed lawsuits to try to change policies that allow such abuse to happen. In Michigan, one of the dozen lawsuits Mary Glover filed led to a change in policy banning men from pat-searching women, being in the housing units and limiting other areas they could be in (such as medical examining rooms).

The newest edition of your book has a chapter that’s specifically focused on trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people in prison. What are some specific struggles that trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people face in prison – and some sites of resistance?

Keep in mind that trans people behind bars face all of the same struggles as their cisgender (or people who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth) counterparts. But, being trans also means that they face a whole host of other problems, too.

Let’s start with placement. Contrary to what the Netflix series Orange is the New Black may have you believe, most trans women are not placed in women’s prisons. Sentencing usually goes by the sex on a birth certificate, meaning that trans women are often sent to men’s jails and prisons. There, they face the very real threat of sexual harassment and assault by both staff and the men with whom they are incarcerated. They also face physical (and often brutal) violence.

People who are on hormones before entering prison often have to fight to maintain access to hormone treatment. Some prison systems only allow hormone treatment if the person had a legal prescription before their arrest. But, like their cisgender counterparts, many who end up in prison are low-income or underemployed and may not have had health insurance or access to legally prescribed hormone therapy. Without that prescription, they can be denied treatment altogether.

But even having a prescription is no guarantee that the prison will honor it. As I reported in one of my earliest stories for Truthout, CeCe McDonald entered prison with both a legal prescription and a court order for 20 milligrams of hormones. Despite that, prison staff only gave her 6 milligrams until supporters from around the world flooded the prison with calls, demanding that she receive her full treatment.

Ashley Diamond had to file a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections to get access to hormone therapy. Her lawsuit led to a New York Times profile and several articles about her struggles against medical, physical and sexual violence in a men’s prison, which led to the Department of Justice getting involved on her behalf. In response, the Georgia Department of Corrections changed its policy around hormone therapy and began issuing her a small amount of hormones.

These are the stories that we know and that have been publicized. There are many more names and experiences that we don’t know – I recently received a letter from a trans woman in California who said that she had been sexually assaulted by a guard. She was only believed after she showed prison officials his semen and took a polygraph test. The guard was allowed to retire with full benefits. She remains in prison.

You discuss how activism extends beyond the bars – how the work that women have done while they’re incarcerated “doesn’t stop at the prison gate.” Can you talk about some of the resistance work currently being done by  formerly  incarcerated women?

Yes! Since Season 3 of Orange is the New Black is now out, readers should know about the work of Families for Justice as Healing, an organization that was started at the real-life prison where OITNB takes place. The organization has worked to raise awareness about the impact of the War on Drugs on women. Last year, it held the FreeHer! rally in Washington, DC, bringing together people working against incarceration as well as formerly incarcerated women, like Dorothy Gaines and Susan Rosenberg, both of whom were issued clemency by Clinton before he left office. Families has also worked to free women incarcerated as part of the drug war: Earlier this year, they celebrated the release of “Grandma” Hardy after nearly 23.5 years in prison.

Now, they’re pushing for a bill that would push Massachusetts judges to consider whether a person is a primary caregiver and, if so, to sentence them to a community-based alternative rather than to prison. This summer, they’re also organizing a summer camp for daughters of incarcerated women in which the girls will have the opportunity to learn both computer coding and criminal justice organizing. And, because incarceration not only isolates people inside prisons, but family members on the outside from their communities, it gives the girls the opportunity to connect and build with each other.

Andrea James, the director and one of the cofounders of Families for Justice as Healing, was recently awarded a Soros Justice fellowship to organize a national network of formerly incarcerated women. I’m hoping that the award indicates a lifting of the invisibility surrounding incarcerated women’s organizing and resistance.

Maya Schenwar is Truthout’s editor-in-chief and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Follow her on Twitter @mayaschenwar.


Sentencing Reform, Grandparents Behind Bars and Reform Efforts Worldwide

Incarcerated Grandparents: Unlocking the Secrets of Trauma, Abuse, and Resilience from our Elders in Prison Interview with Dr. Tina Maschi

Graying Prisoners August.18, 2013 By Jamie Fellner New York Times

Life Goes On – The Historic Rise of Life Sentences in America – A slide show with lots of statistics – December 11, 2013 by Ashley Nellis from The Sentencing Project

Prisoners of Age by Ron Levine – “Prisoners of Age” is a series of photographs and interviews with elderly inmates and corrections personnel conducted in prisons both in the United States and Canada since 1996.

Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty edited by Charles Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat — Chapter  6 by Rachel Barkow– Life Without Parole and the Hope for Real Sentencing Reform

What The U.S. Can Learn From Prison Reform Efforts Throughout The World  By April 10, 2015 Huffington Post

photo by Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.41.31 PM
photo by Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age

Support Families for Justice as Healing

Phyllis “Grandma” Hardy

It is with great joy that Families for Justice as Healing celebrates the release of elder member Phyllis “Grandma” Hardy.

News from FJH eblast:

Following our national FREE HER rally, countless phone calls, letters, and more than 10,000 signatures in support of her release, At age 70, Ms Phyllis Hardy was released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons on March 19, 2015, after serving more than 20 years in prison. And our work continues but we cannot SURVIVE without your support. In the past year we have helped end the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women during labor, drafted and received sponsorship for the Primary Caretaker alternative to incarceration bill, contributed to over 100 conferences and criminal justice reform efforts, organized the national FREE HER rally, created Coding for Justice for high school age daughters of incarcerated women, and most importantly, established Real Women, Real Voices, to continue to join together incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to raise our voices and public awareness about the need to reduce the prison population of women and demonstrate what else is possible toward the goal of helping people heal and advance their lives, families and communities.

Please help us continue this important work and reach our goal of 10,000.


Chin to the Sky performs at Women of Color Herstory Month!

Join New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice for a special multi-media presentation of Chin to the Sky: The Life Sentence of Avis Lee. madusawith wings

Hill House Kaufmann Center
1825 Centre Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Sunday, March 15th at 6:00-8:30pm

Tickets are $10-$25 sliding scale. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.
Chin to the Sky is a multi-media creative storytelling of the circumstances surrounding the Life Sentence of Avis Lee. When Avis was 18 she was the look out in a robbery that ended in death. Avis is now 54 years old and has spent 34 years in prison. She has no chance of getting out unless her sentence is commuted. She never pulled the trigger. We believe she deserves a second chance.

Co-written by Avis Lee, etta cetera, Jasmine Hearn, Ben Crouse, Zoe Mizuho, and Amanda Johnson with script advice from Paul Kruse. Julia Steele Allen, Suzanne South, Azania Lane and Joan Mukogosi also gave great input.

Cast includes – Blakk Rapp Madusa starring as Avis Lee, Ciera Young, Ben Crouse, Amanda Johnson, Jason Clearfield, KT Tierney, etta cetera and Suzanne South.

This production is sponsored by New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice and the Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoners Defense Committee as a part of Women of Color HERStory Month®

You can also purchase tickets on eventbrite here: 

Please call 412.363.4500 or email for more information. Visit to learn more about Women of Color HERStory Month and also visit Let’s Get Free at to learn more about the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.