Over 50 people gathered in Pittsburgh and hundreds in Philadelphia on Tuesday the 25th, encouraging Attorney General Josh Shapiro to show mercy for people sentenced to life who have proven themselves to be deserving a second chance.
“We are seeing political opportunism from Shapiro,” said A’Brianna Morgan, an organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia. “He claims to want more rehabilitated and innocent people to have a chance to come home, but he has condemned more people to die in prison than any other Board member.”
The Board of Pardons is chaired by Lt. Governor Fetterman, who has made reforming Pennsylvania’s clemency system a priority. This has given hope to thousands serving life without parole sentences seeking a second chance. Those hopes were dashed when Shapiro moved to deny many exemplary candidates for commutation at the December Board of Pardons hearing. Rally-goers are asking that Shapiro vote with Lt. Governor Fetterman when he votes in favor of recommending a candidate for commutation
“When it comes to commutation, Josh Shapiro has the opportunity to recognize a concept of justice that believes in mercy, and send the message that people are capable of transformation,” said Kempis Songster, communications lead at Amistad Law Project. “That kind of hope is foundational to our humanity. There is no healing for our communities without it.”
We were recently informed by J. Johnson that the PA Board of Pardons (PABOP) no longer wants support letters before the applicant passes Merit Review and that then, they will only take letters that offer tangible reentry support. (housing, jobs etc)
Several of us agree, that letters of support are still important and there was a time in the not so distant past that you had to have them. It was reported that Brandon Flood and Naomi Blount told women at Muncy last month that nobody don’t read the letters. Again we think it’s a good idea to gather the letters and have them ready for when you pass the merit review.
These tips are tailored for people serving death by incarceration sentences and updated January 30, 2020 including 2020 Board of Pardon Dates
More easily printable resources at bottom of post.
It is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission.
As of January 2020 you need to use the newly revised application. People in prison can get a copy of the application by going through a counselor or at the Law Library. People on the outside can also send an application by downloading it through the Board of Pardons website. As of 2019 there are on longer fees associated with this application There aren’t any major changes for lifers, so no new information is required but you are required to submit the latest version of the application. Nothing to sweat here! You can request an application by writing to Board of Pardons 333 Market Street. 15th Floor. Harrisburg, PA 17126. It takes 3 weeks. Include your name and DOC number.
For questions about the application contact John Johnson, Pardons Case Specialist Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050. Phone: 717-728-0386 firstname.lastname@example.org You can also try Brandon Flood at email@example.com.
Application Status Update (717) 787-2596 (From BOP website) All phone calls are taken between 11:00 am and 4:30 pm (Eastern Time).
Supporters can now email letters of recommendation to the board of pardons. Contact Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov He will distribute the letter to the board and put it in the applicants packet. It’s always important to send a paper copy to your person filing the application.
Take a look at the DOC policy on commutation at your law library: 11.4.1
Tips for writing a commutation application
Updated January 2020 Ellen Melchiondo, The Women’s Lifer Resume Project
The new commutation application is free and there is no filing fee. The application is available on the BOP website and in the prison library. The application includes supplemental pages and you must use them. Do not write “see attachment” in spaces where information continues. There is a box at the end of each section where you indicate if you will be including supplemental information. Information that you want to provide such as resume or published work should just be sent along with the application.
If you are not in prison and assisting an applicant what I do is download the application pdf. I save it to my desktop and a text box automatically appears. I also get rid of the text lines, and select white to make the background solid. This makes it easier to read.
Here’s a rundown on each section for people with life sentences:
Section 1 Type of Clemency: Check “Commute Life Sentence to Life on Parole” and do your best to remember each time you previously applied.
Section 2 Applicant Information: Just the facts. If using the DOC-Parole for representation click the box, the address is below. If using someone else, give that information.
Section 3 Convictions for Which Clemency is Requested: Less information is asked here: “place, role and caught.” Use a supplemental page if needed. Do not minimize role. Don’t add dialogue. Don’t make excuses. Minimize details, you’re not writing a memoir or screenplay.
Section 4 Additional Criminal Information: Fill out Section 4 to the best of your ability because parole provides the rap sheet to the DOC commutation office. No one is expected to pay for their criminal history report.
Section 5 Optional Personal Statement: is totally optional. No more checking boxes to address reasons for applying. One page is usually enough.
I think now, less is more in Section 5. An explanation about your life circumstances before and during serving time is good. Accomplishments in list form. Home plan if you have one. You can list your supporters and how they will help you. Be sincere, humble and realistic about your goals.
Section 6: Sign and date.Mail your application to: Pardons Case Specialist/Parole Manager Bureau of Standards and Accreditation Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole 1920 Technology Parkway Mechanicsburg, PA 17050 Keep a copy for yourself!
Tips for writing about your crime
One of the most challenging aspects for those who are pursuing commutation is to explain the role they played in the crime. Again,it is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission. When writing about the details of your crime, it is important to be both detailed and concise. Do not leave any information out, but also try to be straight to the point. One challenge is knowing how much to share about what led up to the crime. For women in general, this cannot be omitted or separated. Since the Board of Pardons doesn’t tell us what swayed them to vote for or against an applicant, a 360 degree perspective is owed to the process. It really is up to women lifers to educate the board of the unique crimes that they find themselves convicted of. It’s a balancing act. You want to provide context for your situation without excusing or diminishing your role.
You no longer have to admit to things you didn’t do as was the thought under the old commutation process. Before, your story had to match that of the State. Now you can tell your truth but it is important to take responsibility for your role. If you are wrongfully convicted – you are still convicted in the eyes of the state. So it is basically a plea for mercy. Because this isn’t re-litigation it’s not a retrial – the most you might do is point out some evidence that they could see. This process isn’t set up for the wrongfully convicted – write Lt. Gov John Fetterman about this.
After you submit your application each applicant gets “staffed” by their prison. This “staffing” is also called The Special Review Committee and is generally one or two deputy superintendents, a Major of Unit Management, or a Corrections Classification Program Manager or whoever is designated by the superintendent. A person can also request a supportive staff person to be included too.
Current staff may not write letters of support. They may submit an email to the respective Unit Manager to be included in the staffing packet.
Merit Review Stage
For updates on merit review contact Brandon Flood Bflood@pa.gov 717-480-0793 – Let it be known that there is most often incorrect information about who is going up for Merit Review – even if one of the BOP people tell us who is going up. Several times they have listed peoples names and several times they were not on the list. Try to call the week before the scheduled merit review to obtain the most accurate info. You can also try John Johnson.
Before your merit review you will be interviewed by Wetzel: Secretary Wetzel instituted the policy of interviewing applicants before the merit review. There is nothing in policy mandating the Secretary to conduct video interviews with people in prison. This is his policy and this could be discontinued by the next secretary one day. The secretary makes the ultimate decision by the Department of Corrections to recommend or not recommend an applicant for commutation. Your application will not get to the merit review until this interview happens.
You can now appeal a negative outcome during the Merit Review phase. You have 30 days to submit a Letter of Reconsideration along with a form you can find on DOC website, this letter of reconsideration is attached below. George Trudell, Naomi Blount and Farouq Wideman were denied at merit review stage, filed the reconsideration letter and are now released!
After a person passes the merit review, they are moved to SCI Camp Hill for an in-person interview a few days before the hearings. One last noted change is that the prison staff person who supports the applicant at the public hearing will be attending the in-person interview at Camp Hill.
A recent change in the process is that the DOC Office of Pardons Specialists will not be representing lifers at public hearings. This job falls to a staff person at the prison and was Wetzel’s idea. The idea is that Staff here at Central Office will never know the people as well as the institutional staff. Applicants are not permitted to select the designated facility staff person. This is the decision of the superintendent. They are still free to appoint someone else to represent you such as an attorney, friend or family member however, Mr. Johnson would not recommend since the representatives don’t have to speak as much and prepare long presentations as was the case in the past. But the representative must know the case inside and out and now how to prep the supporters in presentation.
Encourage your supporters to reach out to us if they have questions or just want some moral support. If they want to know what to expect, they can find a video on youtube of the full day of public hearings in May by searching: PA Board of Pardons, May 30, 2019. There is a shorter video highlighting Naomi and Cynthia’s hearing of the same day. Search youtube: PA Board of Pardons Hearing for Cynthia Gonzalez and Naomi Blount. Perhaps your counselors can pull it up for you as it is public and pertains directly to your situation.
2020 Board of Pardons Schedule
Merit Review Session:
Senate Hearing Room 8A East Wing at 3:00 p.m. (Telephone Conference Call)
Thursday February 6, 2020. Thursday, May 7, 2020 Thursday, August 6, 2020 Thursday, November 5, 2020
Public Hearing Sessions:
Wednesday March 4, 2020. Thursday March 5, 2020, (If Needed) Friday March 6, 2020(If Needed) *March Public Hearing Sessions will be held in the Supreme Court Courtroom, Main Capitol Building, Capitol Rotunda, Room 437
Wednesday, June 3, 2020 Thursday, June 4, 2020,Friday, June 5, 2020 (If Needed) * June Public Hearing Sessions will be held in the Supreme Court Courtroom, Main Capitol Building, Capitol Rotunda, Room 437
Wednesday, September 2, 2020, Thursday, September 3, 2020, Friday, September 4, 2020 (If Needed) *September Public Hearing Sessions will be held in the Supreme Court Courtroom, Main Capitol Building, Capitol Rotunda, Room 437
Wednesday, December 9, 2020 Thursday, December 10, 2020 Friday, December 11, 2020 (If Needed) *December Public Hearing Sessions will be held in Senate Hearing Room 1
Letters of Support and Letters of Recommendation are Important!
A Support Letter shows real support while on parole: housing, money, job, transportation, clothes, etc…
A letter of Recommendation explains why a person believes you are no longer a threat to public safety and have been rehabilitated. They can express other things like looking forward to spending time with you, showing you how to navigate the free world, etc..
Reminder: Supporters can now email letters to the board of pardons. Brandon Flood – Bflood@pa.gov He will distribute the letter to the board and place in the applicant’s packet.
Keep in mind if you are writing to organizations for support letters and they don’t know you personally it is hard for them to write you a letter of support. Try building a relationship first.
Asking Friends and Family for Letters
Support your friends in supporting you!
Here is a sample letter people in prison can use to mobilize family and friends to write letters:
Re: (Your name) Commutation Support Letter
I am working on my commutation application. I would like to know if you would be interested in writing a letter of support, a character witness letter to the board of pardons on my behalf. If you are open to this the letter should be addressed to The Board of Pardons 333 Market St, Harrisburg, PA 17126 and include the following – RE: (commutation applicant’s name) Commutation of Life Sentence, letter writer’s return address and phone number.
The letter should state the following:
Briefly touch on who you are, your background, employment, degrees, etc.
Include Commutation Applicant’s Name, DOC Number and Prison
How we came in contact with each other.
Your thoughts on my maturity and rehabilitation.
Your thoughts on my remorse for the offense I am convicted of.
Your thoughts on my chances for successful reentry into society, employment and participation in society upon my release.
Any willingness you would have in assisting in my reentry to society i.e. references, referrals, etc. when I am released.
When you are finished with the letter please send the original back to me. Please also keep a copy for yourself. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.
This was written geared to people in prison in mid December by Ellen Melchiando with input from etta cetera.
There has been a lot of media and excitement surrounding the changes made to the commutation process over the past year by Lt. Governor John Fetterman. November saw a historic number (21) of public hearings of people with life sentences. For the last 30 years it felt promising if there were 6 life sentence cases up for merit review a year, let alone more than 2 for public hearings total! Naomi Blount and George Trudell, both recently commuted from life sentences were hired by the Lt Governor as commutation specialists. Brandon Flood, a returning citizen, was hired as the Secretary of the Board of Pardons and according to friends and family members, he’s doing a great job! There is talk of changing the unanimous vote at the public hearing stage from 5 to 4 votes. People are coming home!
Despite the progress, which is unquestionably important and exciting, the outcomes of merit reviews and public hearings for women seeking commutation has been disappointing.
In 2018, the previous makeup of the board of pardons resulted in the votes for recommending Tina Brosius and she made it successfully with Governor Wolf’s signature. She was the first woman in PA to receive commutation in 30 years.
This year we have had 6 women make it to the public hearing stage. The current members of the BOP have commuted two: Naomi Blount and Magaleen Stewart. As you know both Henrietta Harris and Cynthia Gonzalez’s applications have been resting in the mysterious “reconsideration” pause pile. Naomi was recommended in May and released in July. Magaleen and Naomi are now both in Philly at the same facility. They are allowed to sign out from 7am – 7pm and need permission to leave the city. They are very strict about people spending the night out though they made exceptions for this recent holiday – for Naomi.
A recent change in the process is that the DOC Office of Pardons Specialists will not be representing lifers at public hearings. This job falls to a staff person at the prison. This doubly places the importance in having the institution’s recommendation. We witnessed these changes to the process at Magaleen Stewart and Terri Harper’s public hearing. SCI Muncy’s Deputy Frantz spoke to the board in support of Terri’s release. SCI Muncy’s Superintendent Wendy Nicholas spoke in support of Magaleen Stewart.
What if a staff person supports the applicant but the institution as a whole doesn’t? Will they break from their superiors and support this person at a public hearing? This scenario is possible. What if the culture within a prison doesn’t support a second chance for lifers and long-termers?
Each applicant gets “staffed” by their prison. This “staffing” is also called The Special Review Committee and is generally one or two deputy superintendents, a Major of Unit Management, or a Corrections Classification Program Manager or whoever is designated by the superintendent. The Facility Managers at Muncy and Cambridge Springs are Superintendents Wendy Nicholas and Lonnie Oliver respectively. A person can also request a supportive staff person to be included too.
A note about the video interviews with Wetzel before the Merit Review: Secretary Wetzel instituted the policy of interviewing applicants before the merit review. There is nothing in policy mandating the Secretary to conduct video interviews with people in prison. This is his policy and this could be discontinued by the next secretary one day. The secretary makes the ultimate decision by the Department of Corrections to recommend or not recommend an applicant for commutation. Your application will not get to the merit review until this interview happens.
After a person passes the merit review, they are moved to SCI Camp Hill for an in-person interview a few days before the hearings. One last noted change is that the prison staff person who supports the applicant at the public hearing will be attending the in-person interview at Camp Hill.
Take a look at the DOC policy on commutation at your law library: 11.4.1
At the September hearings, there was a surprise break from protocol, the Lieutenant Governor spotted Naomi Blount in the audience and asked her to speak on behalf of Magaleen! She did this by walking up to the members on the dais and spoke lovingly of Maggie. Then at the end of the hearing, the Attorney General rushed down from the dais to give Naomi a hug along with wishes for her continued success! This was indeed surprising and proves that things can change. It also demonstrates how much power people have- it turns out you can just call someone you see in the audience to testify!
One of the most challenging aspects for women lifers (and men, too) who are pursuing commutation is to explain the role they played in the crime. It is very important to have someone proofread your application before submission. The other challenges are knowing how much to share about what led up to the crime. For women in general, this cannot be omitted or separated. That’s my opinion. Since the Board of Pardons doesn’t tell us what swayed them to vote for or against an applicant, a 360 degree perspective is owed to the process. It really is up to women lifers to educate the board of the unique crimes that they find themselves convicted of. It’s a balancing act. You want to provide context for your situation without excusing or diminishing your role.
Currently we are tracking outcomes of staffing, merit reviews and public hearings based on the generalization of the type of criminal convictions of women: battered women, arson, infanticide, trafficking, mental illness, law enforcement, 2nd degrees, DNA conflicts, the family, as well as time served, institutional support or lack of, and “escapes.”
The application was recently revamped again. All applications in 2020 must use this new one. There aren’t any major changes for lifers, so no new information is required but you are required to submit the latest version of the application. Nothing to sweat here! Get the application at the law library.
You can request an application by writing to Board of Pardons 333 Market Street. 15th Floor.
Harrisburg, PA 17126. It takes 3 weeks. Include your name and DOC number or check the law library. Don’t forget this: if you have a negative outcome at the merit review, submit the official Reconsideration form within 30 days.
To make sure your application gets reviewed by the current Board of Pardons who will be presiding until 2022, we are ESTIMATING that you try to get your applications in by July of 2020 at the latest. This is us guessing. You should technically be able to be heard if you submit up until December 2020 but you know how things go. Everything is always getting pushed back. Thereis a rumor that they are creating 6 – 9 new dates for public hearings, currently there are 4 dates a year. This would help with the increased number of applications and give you a better chance to go before this board.
What kind of support do your family and close friends need to prepare for the public hearing? Let us know. Encourage them to reach out to us if they have questions or just want some moral support. We want to be there for you. This is a link to the full day of public hearings in May This at least lets you know what to expect. Below is a shorter video highlighting Naomi Blount’s hearing of the same day.
Update: During the December 20th hearings of those sentenced with LWOP – 2 were recommended for commutation, 3 were held under advisement, 12 were not recommended, 1 was continued under advisement and 1 case was not heard and continued. Of the two recommended – Oliver Macklin, 63 years old, served 33 years of a 2nd degree charge. Fred Butler, 72 years old, served 49 years on a 1st degree charge. The longest sentence 49 years and shortest sentence 23 years. We were very disappointed that many deserving applicants were denied including both Sheena King and Henrietta Harris.
A Bill’s Path to Law, An Update on the PA Lifers Bill by Jane Hein
Two bills exist that deal with parole for Lifers: HB135 and SB942. The bills are exactly the same but HB135 is a house bill and SB942 is a senate bill. Advocates are choosing to focus on the senate bill, SB942, because the senate is smaller than the house (50 Senators vs 435 Representatives) and it will be an easier task to convince less elected officials at first.
To become law, a bill must be voted on and passed by a committee. In the case of SB942, that would be the Senate Judiciary Committee. Fourteen senators serve on this committee, (vs 25 representatives on the House Judiciary) nine republicans and five democrats. It is up to the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Lisa Baker, to decide to hold a vote on any bill before her committee. But a vote should not be called for until enough members of the committee favor the bill. When a vote is held and the bill is passed by the committee, the bill would then go before the whole senate for a vote and if passed by the senate, the bill would go to the house for a vote. Only after passing the committee, senate and house does the bill go to the Governor for signature and only then does it become law.
The legislative branches, Senate and House of Representatives, have two year terms. This means that with each election, every two years, bills have to be re-submitted to wherever the bill is in the process (committee, senate, or house) in order to continue on the path to becoming law. SB942 was quietly re-submitted to the senate judiciary committee on November 12, 2019. It has until January of 2021 to make headway before it will need to be re-submitted again.
The bill essentially changes the parole board statues to allow the parole board to consider parole for life sentences. By PA statue, a sentence cannot be changed, but the PA statues do not say that life sentences cannot be paroled. So if a life sentenced is paroled, the parolee would have to be on parole for life.
Changes were made to SB942 when it was re-submitted last month. In a nut shell, Lifers convicted of first degree murder could be paroled after 35 years. Lifers convicted of second degree murder could be paroled after 25 years. Lifers convicted of killing a cop in the first degree would not be eligible for parole.
So here’s the deal. Advocates will continue to fight for the passage of this bill while continuing to advocate for earlier parole eligibility, say 15 years as the bill was previously submitted. The path to becoming law is a long one and there will be plenty of opportunities to advocate for changing the bill. The path to law is long and hard but do not be discouraged. Five years ago we had no bill! Change is happening because we are putting pressure on politicians, supporting pro-reform candidates in elections, and rallying in Harrisburg! WE WILL NOT STOP!
Report Back from Rally to End Death by Incarceration and Heal Our Communities – October 23, 2019 by etta cetera
This now-annual fall gathering in support of legislation changing the laws for lifers has the feeling of reunion for many. Recently released connect with old friends from the inside and people across the state who don’t see each other on the day to day get to hug, commiserate and rejuvenate. This year we brought back singing. After the usual impassioned and insightful speeches by lawmakers, returning citizens, family members, etc. at the podium, surrounded by hundreds of supporters with colorful signs, we lifted our voices harmonizing for redemption throughout the halls. The capitol building’s grand structure creates acoustics that bounce off the high ceilings and reverberate through our bodies. It’s quite moving. This coming together of like-hearted souls singing into the suit-wearing faces at the capitol. We wound back to the steps where an altar had been set up for anyone who had lost someone to violence to place a flower. This rally is a great place for someone who is looking to start participating in our movement to come. You feel the power of the collective. You feel less alone. In addition to all the good it does for the legislation, rallies like this keep us, on the outside, fighting another day. Accolades to the Philly coalition for all their stalwart efforts in pulling this off every year.
“Everybody in Pittsburgh is in a hurry to go nowhere fast.” — Tamie Gates
On October 16, Tamie Gates moved to Pittsburgh after serving 27 years in PA prisons, mostly at Cambridge Springs.
Tamie Gates spoke with Alan Lewandowski about coming home.
LGF: What would you want to tell someone planning to come home?
Tamie: If possible, make sure you get some computer classes before you get your release.
Even so, what you really need is internet classes. At the moment, those are not offered, and it is a disservice that it is not provided. I have a fair amount of computer literacy and it’s still a big adjustment for me coming out here where everything is on a computer. Get as much computer experience as you can.
Also, if you’re relocating to a new area, get as much information about the area as you can before your release. It would be great if you are able to get street maps.
The prison really doesn’t prepare you to be successful out in the world, and it is not the concern of the institution.
LGF: So you can’t get maps on the inside?
Tamie: You can look at the atlas in the library or look at a globe. But there is no way to get street maps and bus maps that will actually show where you will be living and need to go, which would be very valuable tools for preparation.
Another thing is be prepared to be thrifty.
I took a money smart class at Cambridge Springs before I left, but they should do a re-entry class demonstrating to people the prices of objects in the outside world. So you can understand ahead of time how much you’ll need to budget for the things you might need.
Or you can just shop at the dollar store.
LGF: What prices shocked you the most?
Tamie: A gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, and the cost of lunch meat- even baloney. Who knew it could be so high for baloney- $5 a package?- that’s crazy. At the same time prepare yourself to be very patient, because things don’t move as fast as you think they will, and it could take you quite a while to acquire a job.
LGF: What are the biggest challenges in the job search?
Tamie: The internet. There is a lack of hand-written applications, and everywhere you go someone says “Apply online. Apply online!!!” Apply online means expect to spend an hour and a half on the computer, and you’ll hear back in a month. Be prepared to be patient.
In general, prepare as much as possible before you come home. Prepare for what you don’t think is going to happen. Get all your various resumes as ready as you can.
LGF: You have been volunteering regularly at two local shelters. What drew you to this kind of service.
Tamie: Because Felicia Chapman was part of the women’s shelter, and she used to come to see me at Cambridge Springs; and my friend Sharon Webb is part of the Shepherd’s Heart church.
Knowing those two people connected me directly to that aspect of community work.
I’ve always been a caretaker by nature, and while incarcerated I always participated in the various community projects we did up there. So it was natural for me to want to get involved with giving back to the community here; and I have two opportunities to do this; for the veterans and the homeless.
LGF: You told friends at Cambridge Springs that you wanted to buy a lottery ticket when you came out. Have you bought one yet?
Tamie: Yes. One. Just because I could. It was a wasted dollar. But if I had won $500, it wouldn’t have been.
Post Script: Tamie brought to our attention that the alloted time for meds after you are released is not enough. The prison will give you 30 days of your prescription. What they didn’t factor in is that it takes more than 30 days to sign up for health care, make a doctors appointment and get your prescription filled. Only if you hotfoot it to get signed up can you manage it just under the wire. 2 months would be sufficient. This is something to ask prison officials about and try to get this policy changed.
Free Her is a yearly conference sponsored by the National Council for Formerly Incarcerated and Incarcerated Women and Girls. Each year it brings people from across the country and even the world in one place to learn from each other, share stories & strategies and heal. Last October, the conference was held in Montgomery, Alabama and kicked off with a tour of the Legacy Museum.
48 workshops were presented and several plenaries!! Some of the topics included were: reproductive justice, how to apply for clemency, healing with family after incarceration, climate change and prisons, sister circles and the power of research. Susan Burton Brown was there leading a conversation about housing! Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP) in the house! The opening panel was international featuring participants from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and conference founder Andrea James was there reppin’ the U.S – all talking about how to connect with Sisters Overseas.
Our very own Ronna Davis attended this year’s conference. She reflects, “We got in that room and there was so much power. We could feel it. People like me, who knew where I was coming from. It’s so important to see women with their heads held high, formerly incarcerated people who are lawyers, who are running business, who are RNs, who got their lives back. Sometimes you don’t know why you do what your doing you just do it. And then you go to a conference like Free Her and it all makes sense.”
Ronna was really moved by the powerful performance of “The Graduates.” This ensemble is comprised of former members of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) Drama Club. Ronna reported, “All of the women had white on. One of the older women told her story – she was dancing to her own story. You could see the excitement in her dance. They all sang their stories. It showed the unity of the women that were incarcerated.”
Another local Free Her attendee, Terri Minor Spencer has been home for 12 years and Pittsburgh hasn’t been the same since. She is 100% devoted to educating her community on the political process and taking action to solve problems she sees in her neighborhood.
Terri writes, “I hosted a workshop on Community Educational Civics. The whole weekend was nothing less than Amazing, the unity under one roof, my heart swelled with joy! I learned from some awesome women about the importance of staying in the fight! I’m looking forward to the next one!”
Sometime after the conference one of the participants of Terri’s workshop reached out to her and is considering running for office!! Build that civic power Terri!!
The following reflections are from people on the National Council’s email list:
“I have been home for 11 1/2 years after serving 20, what struck me profoundly was sitting in space with women that experienced what I had experienced, and hearing my emotions come from another’s mouth. Being at the conference was the next step of my freedom being real.” — Dana Jenkins, Director of Operations for Second Chance Center in Colorado
“I met Andrea James when the Council was in its infancy. I was serving a 55 year sentence in an Indiana women’s prison. I began speaking at the Council’s event while still on the inside via Skype. This past Feb. the federal court overturned my conviction, not only granting my equitable tolling (the statue that bars filing in the fed court due to missing the 365 day deadline) they also granted my habeas corpus. I am the first woman in modern times to do this (look up my case and PLEASE share it with ANY woman who can legally benefit from the precedents set within or argument grounds). I was released on 27 Aug 2019 after serving 18 1/2 years of that sentence. On 3 Oct 2019 (my birthday) I headed to AL to attend the conference, for the first time in person, meeting all my Council sisters in the flesh for the first time. There are no words to describe that joy and emotional flood! I was HOME! THIS IS MY FAMILY!!!! Blessings to ALL my sisters, especially those on the inside. NEVER give up hope and NEVER stop fighting for your freedom. I have literally done what everyone said was impossible, so can you. Believe in yourself. I am out here continuing the fight for all the rest of you. For years I have told people to call me Moses, I swear I’m coming to set the captives free. Blessed Be! Infinite love and gratitude always.” — Anastazia “Moses” Schmid, Indiana
“I was sentenced to state prison for a substance disorder for a short time. I then fought for years to get my 3 daughters back from the system. Compared to many of the women I have had the honor of meeting at the two conventions I attended, I was humbled and inspired beyond words. These women became my shero’s, real-life superwomen. It was like a family reunion, education, and healing retreat. Taz, Mother Phyllis, I love all of you. Thank you for everything. The convention simply gave me a sense of pride I did not know was inside of me. Incarceration cannot stop true leaders! So grateful for all of you! #Freedom #FreeThemAll” —Cassandra Bensahih, coordinator for the MA Against Solitary Confinement Coalition/UU Mass Action.
“The conference for me was more than I could ever dream or expected it to be. Each day was a different experience. After about the 4th day I was overwhelmed with the resources and all the info that was available to us. After walking into a room with my head hung low with a lot of shame and guilt of the struggles I had gone thru of my incarceration, the guilt of leaving my children to live with family members, the guilt of substance abuse for 15 years. All of the missing – birthdays, graduations, holidays. All of the sessions were informative but the one that struck me the most was the YOUTH. After this session I begin to find a sense of FREEDOM. To hear the youth share their experience of abandonment. Their experience of parents missing birthdays, graduation and other holidays that we all look forward to. I was able to feel the pain I caused my children. The strength of the youth to stand before hundreds of people to share their deepest pain was awe inspiring. After being out of prison for 6 years, the week of the conference I was finally able to hold my head up, forgive myself, to embrace the forgiveness from my children and to start a new beginning. I was able to take off the mask that I carried for so many years… and begin to live again.” –Royal Johnson, Board Member of Reforming Arts Reentry Project in Atlanta Ga.
“I KNOW the FREEHER conference is important because women from all over convene to share experience, strength, hope and resources. It’s always a humbling and amazing experience. I thank Andrea James for being such a humble yet fierce leader.
It didn’t take me decades of incarceration to see that the criminal justice system is broken. I did not have proper representation and was offered 2 flat, by the time it was all over I did 3 1/2 years and 8 years on Parole.” – Starr Blue, founded NYC based non profit, STARZ CLOSET in 2009, three years after her release. Starz closet provides gender specific hygiene kits and immediate needs clothing.
Thanks to all the participants for sharing their reflections!
You can become a member of the Council for just $5 dollars a year. Outside supporters can also sign up people in prison on their website. https://www.nationalcouncil.us
Back by popular demand, Ghani Songster returns from Philly to lead an interactive space in effort to free ourselves from the mental chains that inhibit our progress. Ghani believes that our salvation hinges on our ability to liberate our imagination.
Back by popular demand, Ghani Songster returns from Philly to lead an interactive space in effort to free ourselves from the mental chains that inhibit our progress. Ghani believes that our salvation is in the liberation of our imaginations. etta says, “It’s gonna be like going to the gym for your mind.”
Naomi Blount, 69, is the second Pennsylvania woman to receive commutation in nearly three decades after serving 35 years of a life sentence. Released this past July, Naomi will share reflections of her experiences from prison to the commutation process as well as lift up the women she left behind.
Community Dialogue Impact of DA’s Office on Women (1:30pm)
Following lunch, we will convene for a panel discussion to speak on the impact that the DA’s office has on people impacted by the criminal injustice system. This dialogue will be facilitated by Ronna Davis founder of Za’kiyah house and LGF Board member.
State Rep Summer Lee who recently visited Cambridge Springs Prison and sponsored legislation as a part of the Dignity Act, Gabrielle Monroe, a Sex Workers Rights Advocate & Activist, Members of the Bukit Bail Fund and Jane Hein, LGF Board and member of CADBI-West.
Lisa Middleman, candidate for DA will have time to respond to comments made and there will be time for community participation.
The event will conclude with a musical performance by Naomi Blount.
Artists were asked to create work around the ideas of home and relationships to create a show that encapsulates the feeling of home: What does home look like? Feel like? A space? A state of mind?
The call was to create things that literally glowed. People were encouraged to create work with ships and pun off concepts like relationSHIP, friendSHIP, leaderSHIP, etc.
Glow Home is an homage to friends old and new recently released from prison and a prayer that our loved ones still behind bars will be home soon. There will be an altar where you can leave something for a loved one who you wish to come home.
Over 60 artists from both sides of the prison walls have submitted provocative pieces utilizing ceramics, photography, textiles, beadwork, silk screen, collage, stained glass, digital drawing, water colors etc. There are close to 100 pieces of art up for auction benefiting the work of this local prison advocacy group. The opening and auction will take place on October 4th from 6 – 10pm with the auction closing at 9pm. The show will stay up through October 26th.
Click on photos below a for a quick preview slide show. Click here for more information on Glow Home
Overview of October Events
Gallery Hours for Glow Home October 4th – 26th Gallery Hours are every Thursday thru Saturday 1- 7pm and Sundays 1-4pm Gallery Hours are suspended during events. Check Boom’s Calendar
Liberate our Imaginations: A Vital Step Towards a World Without Prisons October 12th – 12 – 3pm – Saturday
A 3 hour participatory workshop With Kempis Ghani Songster & etta cetera
Back by popular demand, Ghani Songster returns from Philly to lead an interactive space in effort to free ourselves from the mental chains that inhibit our progress. Ghani believes that our salvation hinges on our ability to liberate our imagination. etta says, “It’s gonna be like going to the gym for your mind.” How do we stay connected to the bigger movement of abolition?
Words and Songs by Naomi Blount,(Pending Travel Permission but we are speaking it into existence!) Followed by a Panel Discussion:Impact of DA’s Office on Incarcerated Women with Lisa Middleman and local community leaders.
October 19th – 12pm – 3pm Saturday @ Boom Concepts – 5139 Penn Ave
Free Lunch served at 1 pm
Naomi Blount, 69, is the second Pennsylvania woman to receive commutation in nearly three decades after serving 35 years of a life sentence. Released this past July, Naomi will share reflections of her experiences from prison to the commutation process as well as lift up the women she left behind. Community leaders and Lisa Middleman, candidate for District Attorney, will then convene for a panel to speak on the impact that the DA’s office has on people impacted by the criminal injustice system. The event will conclude with a musical performance by Naomi.
Collective Donations towards Collective Liberation!
Sign Up to be a sustaining donor during the month of October to help us reach our goal of 50 new monthly sustainers! You will receive a special Thank You Gift of your choosing including limited edition artwork or a bouncing baby house plant (Pittsburgh only:)
Monthly sustainers are a critical part of community organizing and help us gather unrestricted funds. This money is used for: direct assistance to people in prison and returning citizens (hard to write a grant for that) stamps, printing newsletters and commutation kits, speaker stypens as well as transportation costs to visit prisons, the state capitol and faraway meetings and conferences.
Our goal is to sign up:
20 Sustainers @ $5 a month
15 Sustainers @ $10 a month
10 Sustainers @ $15 a month
5 Sustainers @ $20 a month
5 Sustainers @ $25 a month
If achieved would raise collectively $575 a Month. Simply click the donate button and check the “recurring donation box”
Come to Harrisburg with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration