The Prism Project will be on display at the Braddock Library during the dinner –>The Prism Project was initiated by Richard Guy, South Fayette Correctional Facility and Mary Carey, The Braddock Carnegie Library. The Prism Project is a collection of artwork generated by people currently incarcerated at South Fayette Correctional Facility, that is available for check out along with over 120 other artworks made by local, regional and international artists.
Short Play followed by community discussion afterword.
Chin to the Sky is a multi-media creative story telling 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. For more information about Chin to the Sky —go here!
Below is a 5 minute video by Chris Mason taped at the August 28th Mobilization to Harrisburg in effort to Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers in PA. Narrated by Suzanne South with participation from Devon Cohen and etta cetera. The Contestoria takes you through the many steps one person with a life sentence must take in order to have a life without parole sentence commuted to life with parole. It was created by many members of Let’s Get Free and supporting artists – Andrea Chiotti, Andalusia Knoll, Grabiel Grafica.
On the Road to Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers in PA Words by etta cetera Photos by Tom Jefferson
Despite the disappointment of Avis Lee’s unanimous denial by the Board of Pardons for a public hearing, the August 28 mobilization to PA’s capital with the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers was fruitful and rejuvenating. We received great coverage from the Harrisburg ABC affiliate and Genorocity.org, met with about 20 different legislative offices including a meeting with one of the governor’s aides and DOC policy person, and strengthened our relationship with other justice seekers from around PA. The day was sponsored by Let’s Get Free: The Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, Decarcerate PA, New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice and Fight for Lifers West.
40 Supporters from across the state came to stand in solidarity with Avis Lee, who after 3 years of waiting was finally up for decision at the Merit Review Hearing. Three times a year, the board of pardons announces whether or not they think the applicant deserves to go to the next level of the commutation process – the public hearing. The secretary announces the names of about 133 people in alphabetical order with all types of sentences. When their names are called each member of the board announces how they voted. There is no discussion– 4 board members are by speakerphone – one is in person. Very impersonal, unfeeling, uncomplicated, cold, hard and mechanical like the prison system is known to be. No No. No. No. No. There is no reasons given as to why or how the board makes decisions about lifers.
I wonder. Did they even read her application? Did they notice the hundreds and hundreds of postcards and letters and names on petitions that supported Avis Lee walking out the prison doors? A woman who gardens and transcribes braille in the prison? A woman who hasn’t had a misconduct in 22 years? A woman who was sentenced at 18 for being a lookout? Who, I ask, are they protecting spending potentially 60 thousand a year to keep this woman locked up?
The press conference started with a contestoria. Whatever, pray tell, do you mean young warrior? Well, a contestoria, which I believe is an Italian word – though I’m not placing any bets – is a giant cloth book popularized by the Bread and Puppet Theater and commonly seen on the streets as a creative way to tell a story. Let’s Get Free created an 8 page book that explains the commutation process of Lifers in PA. There were only a couple fights while designing it because the process is so confusing – even with the DOC pardon specialist power point at hand AND the advice from several loved ones on the inside – that it was hard for us to keep our facts straight. 😉
Some Voices from the Day
Suzanne South spoke on Avis Lee’s behalf sharing her story and making connections between the foster care system and the criminal justice system. Describing how family support, both emotional and financial, plays out in sentencing. Author Jeffries, Avis’s co-defendant had a lawyer. He barely did any time for the same situation. Both Avis and her brother, Dale, had public defenders/appointed counsel. They were all charged with second degree. Avis and Dale are both serving life.
Martha Conelly, Official Visitor with the PA Prison Society and long time justice advocate from Pittsburgh, also made the trip. She spoke about the cost of aging prisoners ranging from 40- 120 thousand dollars a year and how people age out of crime.
“It is time we shine a light on the success stories of those that have had a life sentence commuted. They have not simply avoided crime, they have made a difference in their communities as priests, neighborhood center directors, Soros Fellowship recipients, and mentors. The power of mercy has instilled a purpose in these individuals to make amends and to make a difference.” says Dr. Brian O’Neill PHD in Criminal Justice and is currently working on a book about commutation.
That Soros Fellow of which Brian speaks is none other than Tyrone Wertz. Tyrone is one of the six men that have had their life sentences commuted in the past 15 years. He is a powerful example of what the commutation process can do for our communities because he has done nothing but give and give of himself since he has been released. Brenda Emerick, whose son Heath is serving a life sentence, spoke on behalf of Marie Scott. Marie is one of the oldest women serving life, and we heard of all of her accomplishments – they went on and on – from awards received to programs Marie created focusing on parenting and women. Her resume is remarkable. She has done so much important work of building community and creating healing spaces inside the walls. We hope to meet you one day Marie!!
Ellen Melchiondo, Official Visitor of the PA Prison Society and Fight For Lifers East member, spoke about the life of Sharon Peachie Wiggins.
Terrell Johnson and Saundra Cole McKamey spoke about the fight to free Terrell, who was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life. He did 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Terrell delivered a powerful speech noting that if Avis did 22 years without a misconduct that’s saying something – it’s hard to stay out of trouble on the inside. Saundra led the charge on the outside and spoke about how the prison system is a business and it’s all about the money.
Michael H. Fox came all the way from Japan – by way of Oregon, to attend the rally. Mike is the Executive Director of Worldwide Women’s Criminal Justice Network and has an online global database of women serving life sentences. WWCJN supports those overly charged, wrongfully convicted, and unfairly sentenced. http://www.wcjn.org/
Sarah Morris from Decarcerate PA read a few statements from mentors in prison and explained that, “I’ve been involved in organizing around mass incarceration for the last 10 years. For last 8 years I’ve been lucky enough to have mentors on the inside who all happen to all be serving life sentences. They spend all of their time thinking and strategizing about creating a better world and they have been condemned by the state of PA to die in prison. Some of the most brilliant minds I know are sentenced to die by incarceration and I believe all of our communities would be stronger if we gave them a chance to come home and to join us in the struggle on the outside.”
Blakk Rapp Madusa had this to say, “I’m a revolutionary hip hop artist. I’m here to talk about the prison state, mass incarceration and abolishing life without parole sentences. I’m a hip hop artist so to speak. I use my art to create social change and awareness about issues that effect black and oppressed communities. For PA to be truly beautiful we can’t continue to uphold these unjust laws. The education system in PA needs to be examined. Is PA preparing its students for a successful life? Or are they giving students pyschotropic drugs to deal with attention issues and setting them up to go to jail? I’m working on a documentary called Bring the Beat Back. Bringing the original hip hop back to using it as a tool for empowerment. Bring the Beat Back! Lets get this movement started!”
Bekezela Mguni – “Hi. I’m a Reproductive Justice activist with New Voices Pittsburgh, a human rights activist and librarian. I am here in solidarity with Avis Lee and all people fighting for justice and liberation. I think it’s important to examine the impact of the prison industrial complex on the lives of black and brown people. We have been facing so much violence and criminalization. This society it is killing us. It is tearing our communities and our humanity is not respected. I’m here today because I believe that we are all valuable. I believe that we have the right to speak up for the ones we love. There is no better time than now. It is an urgent time in the world. From Pittsburgh to Ferguson, to Gaza to Chicago to Florida. I’m here in solidarity with Marissa Alexander. I am here in solidarity with Mike Brown. I hope that we can make a difference today by speaking truth to power.”
Zoe Mizuho – “I’m here because I’ve been working with The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee for the past couple of years and I correspond with Avis Lee. I believe that the current state of criminal justice system is one of the biggest human rights abuses going on in our country. It’s fundamentally flawed. It’s racist. It’s costing the state millions of dollars. It has lost sight of its purpose. I’m hoping we can talk some sense into the legislators here. “
Bret Grote from the Abolitionist Law Center– “Prison is a place where your rights and humanity are violated and where your health and safety are threatened. A place where you are subjected to arbitrary and brutal violence. PA has the largest percentage of its prison population serving life without parole. It has one of the oldest prison populations in the country. It’s crucial to recognize that life without parole sentences are not being dealt out in PA because overzealous legislators are very concerned about public safety in communities that they have never stepped foot in. LWOP is a pillar of race and class based mass incarceration. It does not serve the value of deterring crime. There is no compelling evidence what so ever that increasing excessive sentences decreases crime.”
A delegation did meet with the Governor’s office, an aide named Jeffery and a DOC policy person named Deborah I believe. Jeffery asked a good question. He asked, “Who would you want on the Parole Board?” Tyrone Wertz suggested more people from effected communities. Brian O’Neill said to get the LT. Governor and Attorney General off of there. Bret Grote looked around and said, “Us. People like us. Lawyers, formerly incarcerated people that had served over 30 years, members from the prison society. people against all forms of violence with justice in their hearts who have time to make decisions.” The board of pardons isn’t even the main job of those who sit on it. How much time do they actually spend on their caseload of 500 a year, which is totally backlogged?
After an amazing lunch, hand made by a team back in Pittsburgh, many participants broke up into groups to meet with legislative aides to talk reform. We left with three main leads. One, of course, was Senator Daylin Leach’s Murder Felony Rule (MFR) Bill. His office is working on it. When we have more information we will be encouraging support of his bill. The DOC policy aide told us these statistics about Lifers sentenced under the Murder Felony Rule – 1,100 are men – maybe 42 are women – and 200 of them were sentenced as Juveniles. That means that almost half of the juveniles sentenced to LWOP were sentenced under MFR. Then there was a transformative meeting with Ed Gainey’s office. He is a local Pittsburgh rep, who is from everything I can tell a great guy. I know. I was totally surprised. A politician? Anyway. He organized at the Education Vs. Incarceration panel in Pittsburgh a couple months ago. His aide was awesome and was totally vibing with the delegation and she was very interested to draft legislation. Let’s Get Free has a meeting set up with them in early October. And finally, the longest shot was Rep Dan Miller’s office. So one of our angles is for Parole Board Reform – we want the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General off of the board. Lou, Dan’s aide, said that his office was excited about “de-politicizing” systems. So that might appeal to him to try to reform the board so that people who stand to lose their jobs by voting a certain way won’t be making decisions about people’s lives.
I wonder if an upsurge of people filing for commutation would send any messages that this process is broke? With salt in our eyes and conviction in our hearts, there is movement for Lifers in PA. Throw your discouragement to the wind and lace up your boots comrades! Let’s move! Let’s get free!
‘Protesters gathered on the steps of the rotunda in the Capital Building
The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons voted on Thursday, August 28, not to grant Avis Lee, who has been imprisoned since she was a teenager, a chance to reduce her sentence of life without parole through the commutation process. Friends and supporters of Lee filed out of the hearing room in the East Wing of the Capital Building in Harrisburg with looks of disbelief.
Etta Cetera, Lee’s friend for the last 10 years and co-founder of Let’s Get Free, had tears in her eyes.
Meanwhile, in the rotunda of the Capital Building, protesters and advocacy groups from across the state gathered to make the case that commutations are an important release valve for getting people out prison — and off the state’s dole — so they can once again contribute to society. Philadelphia-based Decarcerate PA and members of the Philly chapter of the Human Rights Campaign were in attendance.
Commutation is the process of reducing the severity of a legal sentence. It can change a death sentence to life without parole, reduce the length of a prison sentence, or simply lower the amount of a fine. Commutation differs from a pardon in that it does not eliminate a sentence from a person’s record. Pardons are not typically used for serious crimes such as second degree murder.
For the over 5,000 people serving life in Pennsylvania, commutation is often their only hope for walking freely again. Prisoners serving life sentences are not eligible for parole in Pennsylvania.
Yet in the last two decades the number commutations has fallen drastically. There have been only six in the last 19 years, and none of them were women. That’s less than a quarter of the commutations granted during Governor Robert Casey’s administration (1987-1994), and far less than the 251 granted by Governor Milton Shapp through the 1970s.
Governor Corbett has granted zero since taking office in 2011.
“There is a process in place — in place — but it is underutilized,” said Cetera during the rally. “So we want to restore this process, to make it meaningful, useful.”
Politics and commutation
Commutation became a heated issue in the 1995 gubernatorial race between Tom Ridge and then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel after a commuted prisoner, Reginald McFaddin, killed at least three more people in New York just months after his release.
Singel, the chair of the Board of Pardons at the time, is generally thought to have the lost the race due to his involvement in the commutation.
The collective rage that ensued was quickly followed by the state legislature proposing an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution that required the “unanimous recommendation,” of the Board of Pardons for the commutation of a sentence of death or life imprisonment — a majority vote would no longer suffice. The amendment was approved by voters in 1997.
The unanimity requirement had an immediate impact. Just four applicants were recommended to Governor Tom Ridge between 1995 to 2001, and none were granted, according to Board of Pardons statistics. Over 100 applicants were recommended to Governor Casey, the previous governor.
Werts, who grew up at 25th and Allegheny in Philadelphia, watched these changes from behind bars. He recalled that commutation was considered a real possibility when he first entered prison in 1975. This changed after the amendment, at which time Werts had resigned himself to the fact that he would die in prison.
“I never expected to make commutation,” said Werts “It’s not a process that is fair — it’s arbitrary, capricious, political.”
Indeed, Board of Pardons members rarely elaborate on their decisions, leaving prisoners and their advocates in the dark. The office of Attorney General Kathleen Kane declined to comment on her reasons for voting no in the case of Avis Lee. No other members responded by the time this article was published.
Where does the Corbett Administration stand on this issue? A delegation of advocates had a chance to meet with administration officials and ask this question prior to the rally last Thursday.
“I don’t think there was much of a substantive response, other than we will run these by the governor,” said Bret Grote, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm that focuses on prisoners’ rights.
Grote also said that an aide to Corbett made it clear that the unanimity requirement was the will of the people and unlikely to change soon.
Accessing their stories
One of the barriers to meaningful commutation is the lack of access to prisoners, according to Ellen Melchiondo, activist and Bucks County resident.
Melchiondo is an official visitor for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which gives her access to prisoners. She has used this privilege to develop relationships with female prisoners across the state and has learned the ins and outs of the state prison system.
“They don’t make it easy to get [prisoners’] stories out there,” said Melchiondo. “You can’t film an inmate, you can’t legally record an inmate.” There are also obstacles to visitations, she added.
Avis Lee is the exception rather than the rule. Her supporters have used her story to put a human face on the issue of commutation. (Avis was the look-out for a robbery that went awry, and was just 18 at the time of her arrest. She had also lost her mother recently and was living without parental guidance in a poor part of Pittsburgh).
Most of the prison population, however, languishes in obscurity.
“Lock them away, forget about them, that’s the way our society is set up,” Melchiondo said.
Today, I journeyed up to Cambridge Springs to break the news to Avis that she had been unanimously denied by the parole board to have her case heard in a public hearing for possible commutation. While disappointed, she was bracing herself for this news. Avis said she is more determined then ever! She is very grateful for all the work that everyone put in and definitely feels like it was important and totally worth it! She said she is going to request one of the new commutation applications on Tuesday – the first available chance! Tommy the photographer helped us with this pose!
Stay tuned for a more detailed report back from our Amazing Prison Justice Field Trip!
A scroll-like list of women’s names cascaded down the Capitol steps Thursday afternoon.
They’re all serving life without parole in Pennsylvania prisons and that likely means they’ll die behind bars.
Since 1990, no woman’s sentence has been commuted in the commonwealth.
Since 1995, only six men have been released.
Tyrone Werts is one of them.
“I consider myself so blessed and so lucky,” said Werts, who served 36 1/2 years in Graterford before his commutation in 2012. “I’m telling you there are a thousand men that deserve this opportunity more than me.”
Werts was part of an hour-long demonstration by several groups calling for the restoration of meaningful commutation for lifers in Pennsylvania prisons.
Ten percent of the state’s prison population is serving life without parole, that’s tops in the nation. Critics argue that many are elderly and not likely to re-offend.
“The leading factor in predicting whether or not an individual will engage or re-engage in criminal or violent activity is age,” said Bret Grote with the Abolitionist Law Center. “People age out of crime.”
The state does have a Board of Pardons and there is a process by which some prisoners are supposed to achieve commutation. In reality, it’s all but dried up.
There are five members on the Board of Pardons and they include the attorney general and lieutenant governor. Rules were changed requiring that all five must unanimously agree to release a lifer. A 5-0 vote is almost impossible to achieve.
That’s not always been the case. The numbers tell an interesting story.
Under Governor Milton Shapp (1971-78), 733 commutation requests were heard by the Board of Pardons, 267 were recommended to the governor and 251 were granted by Shapp.
Under Dick Thornburgh (1979-86), the numbers were 375-75-7.
Under Robert Casey (1987-94), the numbers were 249-11-27.
But at the end of Casey’s term, a parolee (approved for release by then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel) murdered again. It killed Singel’s chances at becoming governor.
Tom Ridge won the election and the entire concept of commuting lifers seized to a halt.
Under Ridge (1995-2001), the Board of Pardons heard only 15 cases and recommended that just four prisoners be released. Ridge, who had won on the issue, granted zero commutations.
Under Mark Schweiker (2001-2002), just two cases were heard, one was recommended and Schweiker signed off on it.
Under Ed Rendell (2003-2010), the numbers were 11-5-5.
The chilling effect continues under Tom Corbett (2011-present). Only one case has come before the Board of Pardons and it wasn’t recommended for commutation.
Critics say skittish politicians of both parties on the Board of Pardons find it easier to do the safe thing and just say no.
“The consensus is that they (prisoners) have to die in prison because we fear political backlash from our opponents in the next election,” Grote said.
There are many, though, who believe life should be life and if a person did the crime they should be prepared to do the time.
“If they received life without parole as a sentence from a judge, they should do life without parole,” said Representative Mike Regan (R-Cumberland).
Regan, a former federal marshal, says he’s more concerned about the families of the victims and how they’d feel about released prisoners.
He also wonders how one knows those lifers have been rehabilitated.
“There’s always the risk that they’re gonna commit another crime, and who’s gonna be responsible for that?” he said.
But the former lifer who hit the lottery and got released sees it a bit differently.
“People need to be held accountable for the things that they do,” Werts said. “But when is enough enough?”
The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee and Decarcerate PA are sponsoring a press conference on Thursday, August 28th at noon in the Capitol Rotunda. They will be joined by concerned state residents, lawyers and formerly incarcerated people in effort to Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is one of only six states in the country 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. At the same time, the use of the commutation process, which is the only administrative procedure available for lifers to show remorse and suitability for reentry, has drastically decreased. Pennsylvania now has the largest proportion of its prison population serving LWOP sentences in the country (10%).
“It is time we shine a light on the success stories of those that have had a life sentence commuted. They have not simply avoided crime, they have made a difference in their communities as priests, neighborhood center directors, Soros Fellowship recipients, and mentors. The power of mercy has instilled a purpose in these individuals to make amends and to make a difference.” says Dr. Brian O’Neill, professor of criminal justice, who will be speaking at the press conference.
When Avis Lee was 18 she was the look-out for a robbery, which ended in the unfortunate death of the victim. Avis had no intention of killing anyone, she didn’t pull the trigger, she didn’t even see it happen, in fact, she called an ambulance to try to save the victim’s life. However, under the Felony Murder Rule she was convicted to life and is now serving her 34th year. On August 28th, there will be a Merit Review Hearing in which the Board of Pardons announces the names of those seeking commutation whose public hearing has been granted, the next step in the commutation process. If Avis is denied at this time, she will not have the opportunity to come before the board for another 5 years.
“Avis Lee has been incarcerated for 34 years. Avis transcribes braille, donates her time to charity, lives on the Honor Block. Imagine what she could do if she were home,” said Suzanne South of the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee (WTPDC).
Pennsylvania currently spends over $2 billion per year on prisons. The financial cost of housing the life sentenced population in Pennsylvania will exceed $7 billion over 30 years but these numbers don’t show the true cost of sentencing people to die in prison. These numbers don’t show the costs on families of incarcerated people as they trek across the state to visit their loved ones. They don’t show the effect of the leadership of lifers in prisons across the state or how much they could contribute if they came home.
Across the country, the recidivism rate for aging and elderly prisoners who have served long sentences, such as lifers, is very low. A great majority of these prisoners do not present a risk to public safety if they are allowed to return to their communities. Of the nearly 100 lifers in Pennsylvania who were released on parole between 1933 and 2005 aged 50 and above when they were released, only one was sent back to prison for a new crime.
“We need a total overhaul of the commutation process for lifers,” said Zoe Mizuho of WTPDC. “We are advocating for a repeal of the unanimous vote requirement for lifers by the Board of Pardons, and streamlining the lengthy and arduous process of applying for commutation.”
Sponsored by Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, Decarcerate PA, New Voices Pittsburgh, WHAT’S UP?!, Fight for Lifers West