An Inquiry into Death by Incarceration, Gender, and Resistance in Pennsylvania

“I am no longer a victim but a victor. I am no longer broken, rather, I am mended. No longer do I have low self-esteem; I have strength, courage, and like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes, I have risen above circumstances.”

1The title of this report is adapted from a quotation from Cyd Berger

Family Disruption

67% of participants have children, and several participants described losing contact with their children or not knowing much about their…

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Participant Speeches


Abolish Death by Incarceration

Death By Incarceration sentences are absolute and unforgiving. By incarcerating a person for life, without the possibility of parole, the state refuses to acknowledge the reality that humans are capable of growth and transformation.

In 2021, PA Senator Sharif Street introduced Senate Bill 135, which would begin the process of dismantling the structures that uphold Death by Incarceration sentencing in the state. The bill would provide parole eligibility for every individual serving a Life Without Parole sentence, including first and second degree murder convictions.

Restructure Felony Murder Sentencing

Currently, in Pennsylvania, the felony murder statute mandates that any individual convicted of involvement in a felony in which a life was lost, even if they did not kill or intend to kill anyone, must be sentenced to death by incarceration. It is one of only 9 states that imposes a mandatory minimum DBI sentence for felony murder. One of these  states, California, recently introduced  Senate Bill 300 that would provide parole eligibility to individuals serving felony murder convictions after they have served 25 years in prison. We call on the Pennsylvania legislature to follow suit and  introduce legislation that will abolish mandatory DBI sentences for felony murder.

Establish Geriatric and Medical Parole

Prisons are not equipped to adequately provide health care for an aging population. Geriatric and medical parole would provide all aging or ill people an opportunity to return to their communities after they have, in most cases, already served decades in prison. Senate Bill 835, introduced by Senator Sharif Street in 2023, would ensure that all incarcerated people are able to see the parole board once they turn 55 years old, have served 25 years of their sentence, or have been diagnosed with a chronic, terminal, or debilitating illness.

Expand Clemency and Grant Mass Commutations, Especially for Survivors

In Pennsylvania, the only mechanism besides compassionate release that exists for people sentenced to DBI to come home is clemency, which includes pardons—a dissolving of the convictions completely—and commutation—a lessening of the sentence. For decades, clemency has been nearly inaccessible to most everyone serving Death by Incarceration in Pennsylvania. Due to bureaucratic and political barriers, between 1995 and August 2, 2021, only 44 people serving DBI received commutation.

In rare cases, governors have granted mass commutations, such as in 2015 when Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear granted clemency to 10 women, all of whom had been convicted for violent crimes after enduring years of abuse. We call for the  mass commutations of survivors and overhaul the clemency process.

Weigh Abuse and Trauma Heavily as Mitigating Factors in Sentencing and Resentencing

Countless survey respondents reported that their trauma and abuse histories were not acknowledged during their trial, even though these details are incredibly relevant in determining an individual’s culpability. In 2023, PA Senator Amanda Cappelletti introduced SB385 Alternative Sentences for Domestic Violence Survivors, which would mandate the court consider an individual’s history of partner abuse as a mitigating factor in the sentencing process, allowing the court to impose a sentence below the state sentencing guidelines or choose not to incarcerate the person at all. Currently incarcerated survivors would also receive consideration for resentencing or release.

Ensure humane living conditions and meaningful rehabilitation for incarcerated people

As much as abolition is needed for the system as a whole, we must not lose sight of the fact that millions of people are experiencing unlivable prison conditions everyday. They are subjected to further trauma instead of being given access to resources that could help them grow, heal, and thrive.

In order to provide humane living conditions and true opportunities for growth and transformation to those inside, we recommend that Pennsylvania:

  1. Abolish solitary confinement
  2. Overhaul prison oversight
  3. Release all survivors of sexual assault by correctional staff
  4. Provide opportunities for meaningful prison programming
  5. Expand access to and quality of healthcare

While the above recommendations present viable next steps for the Pennsylvania Governor, Legislature and Department of Corrections, these changes still leave considerable leeway for the whims and discretion of individual state agents who are often influenced by the same biases, racism, and rigidity that shaped the carceral system in the first place. This is why, above all, we call for abolition.We envision a complete reshaping of the social systems that allow for the patriarchal violence and trauma that enmesh so many people in the suffocating web of the prison industrial complex. In the words of Jamie Silvonek,

Prisons are not designed to make the people they cage whole. Any reforms made to prisons only legitimize their inherently racist, classist, sexist, and ableist existence as a weapon of oppression and social control. I would not change the programming and counseling offered by Muncy, though it is woefully inadequate; I would imagine and build community-based systems of accountability and mutual aid that could truly serve those caged by the punishment industry. – Jamie Silvonek

Report Authors
  • Juliette Rando, MPH
  • Emma Fenstermaker
  • Valerie Kiebala
  • Sheená King
  • Lolo Serrano
Report Contributors

Jonas Caballero, MPhil

Cynthia Alvarado

Inside Collaborators
  • Rose Dinkins
  • Jamie Silvonek
  • Cyd Berger
  • Elizabeth Collazo
  • Sarita Miller
  • Kal-El Carey
  • Kristin Edmundson
  • Denise Crump
  • Michelle Hetzel
  • Jennifer Rhodes
  • Autumn Redcross, Ph.D
  • Bret Grote
  • Dmitra Gideon, MFA
  • etta cetera
  • Roxanne Horrell, Esq
  • Saleem Holbrook
  • Phyllis “Grandma” Hardy