After attending my second merit review session with the Board of Pardons I wanted to find out what factors in determining a decision to vote for or against a public hearing for lifers besides the application’s contents. Secretary Wetzel interviews each applicant before the merit review and after the staffing. He reads the staffing reports. Many of us feel that if you get Wetzel’s approval that should at least translate to a yes vote by the DOC’s BOP representative. That is not the case. The battery of tests taken also likely influences their decision.
If Lt. Governor Stack embraces second chances and votes no, how does he get to that judgement?
I learned that once a commutation application is officially filed with the BOP, the application is shared with the committing county’s DA, judge or president judge, victims and possibly the magisterial district. This information is found on page 6 in the Pathways to Pardons booklet.
I am starting to believe that it is necessary that family members and supporters of a commutation applicant reach out and have a conversation with the DA and president judge before the merit review. At that time stress the applicant’s humanity and emphasize the support you are willing to give.
Recently an applicant was denied commutation after a public hearing even with the victim’s family support. The committing county’s DA opposed it. Would it have helped if the victim’s family in this case had a conversation with the DA before the merit review and the public hearing? (I don’t know which member of the BOP voted yes to move on to the public hearing. This information would help to analyze the outcome; three members voted yes for the public hearing.) On one hand the DA’s MO is to protect the victims. But what happens when the victim’s don’t want the DA’s protection?! Who does the DA work for? Did the DA influence the AG and corrections expert who voted no at the public hearing? Interestingly, the DA and corrections expert are from the same county-Bucks.
This is a very frustrating process especially since we know so much about the nearly non-existence in reoffending by life sentenced people. The reality of commutation for lifers in PA is dark and complicated but to not apply is not only giving up hope, it keeps the system in place. By putting your life story out there and facing the consequences it is only then that we on the outside can push to dismantle it thereby improving the outcomes-possibly. Always file for a reconsideration.
Let’s Get Free, The Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, teams up with Boom Concepts for the 2nd year in a row displaying a new exhibit called Letters and Liberation.
Over 40 artists from both sides of the prison walls have submitted provocative pieces utilizing ceramics, photography, textiles, silk screen, collage, stained glass, drawing, 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 July 6 from 6 – 10pm with the auction closing at 9pm. The show will stay up through July 29th with gallery hours on Saturdays from 12 – 4pm.
Letters are an everyday part of being in prison or having a loved one incarcerated. Letters are instrumental in organizing for justice with people in prison. Letters are conduits for relationships. Letters can be the only tangible thread connecting people to their loved ones. And if you don’t throw those letters away for 18 years, you can collect quite a few. Inspiration for this show came when etta cetera, co-founder of Let’s Get Free, was searching for a creative way to release the hundreds and hundreds of letters she has amassed over years of maintaining friendships with people in prison and organizing for justice in the prisons. “I didn’t want to just throw them away. I like the idea of transforming them into art and letting that energy go.”
Not all of the art is made from letters. Some of the art is inspired by reading letters. Paula Levin created a ceramic bowl after reading a letter by Khalifa Diggs. The bowl is glazed on the outside weaving Khalifa’s words with prison bars, “I have seen the ancestors and I have got to get to….where?” Khalifa passed away last December after spending close to 40 years in prison. This is why people call life sentences in PA death sentences. People are dying. Let’s Get Free is one of the founding groups of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration West (CADBIWest). Part of the proceeds from last year’s benefit went to pay for traveling expenses for many members to attend CADBI’s statewide rallies, meetings with lawmakers, the juvenile lifer day at Muncy prison, hearings for juvenile lifers, and statewide strategy meetings.
Making Connections Between Border Walls and Prison Walls
The youngest participants to submit art created out of letters are Shayla (age 13) and Luz (age 10), the daughters of MartÍn Esquivel- Hernandez. On May 1st, 2016 MartÍn Esquivel-Hernandez led the annual Mayday March for Workers and Immigrant Rights in Pittsburgh. He held a large banner with his wife that read, “Not One More Deportation.” On May 2nd, 2016, MartÍn was taken by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) at 6am in front of his family. They have not seen or hugged him since. Martin wrote this letter while he was detained for 9 months before being deported, and addressed it to ICE. His daughters Shayla and Luz redacted the letter by blocking out many words to create a new letter addressed to anyone in positions of power to stop separating families.
Shayla is tired of phone calls being the only way to be with her father. Luz barely remembers what he looks like. His wife, Alma, hasn’t seen him in over 2 years. And Alex, MartÍn’s youngest son (age 6), talks about him everyday. There is no hope for his return to the US, and his wife and children cannot visit him in Mexico. Cases like this are happening everyday, in Pittsburgh, nationwide, and worldwide. Families are being destroyed and separated. Parents are being forced to go to sleep, forever apart and without their children and families. Children are growing up in torn-apart families, surrounded by trauma. This isn’t right. Another world is possible.
Have you ever thought about how militarized borders create open air prisons? In addition to Shayla and Luz’s letter, which demonstrates the similarities between the struggles of family members separated by prison walls and border walls, there are quite a few artists represented from México. We are thrilled to exhibit two Puebla City artists, Esmeralda Juarez and Oscar Garcia, who both designed unique linoleum cuts especially for this show. More linoleum cuts from Andrea Narno and Grabiel of the radical print shop Escuela de Cultura Popular Martires del 68 in México City. This community art space was born out of the student uprisings in 68. Lastly, from México we will feature a portrait of Mumia Abu-Jamal by Zamer, who created art in honor of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s birthday, which was celebrated in April across the world and in México City! Free Mumia!
Artists on the Inside
From Muncy prison, Amanda Hein sent a very detailed embroidery of a typewriter reading the words, “I’m writing home to tell you.” From Graterford prison, Bruce Bainbridge sent a small table with four chairs made out of brightly colored popsicle sticks. He has called this piece Let’s Have a Conversation. From Fayette Prison Todd “Hyung-Rae” Tarselli has submitted a captivating portrait of Malcolm X. In different shades of pencil, Malcolm’s face is constructed with words like “sister, community, love, strength, change, movement.”
James “Ya Ya” Hough has only one year left of his juvenile life sentence. He is returning to Pittsburgh in 2019 and hopes to pursue a career as an artist. The piece he submitted is a mixed-media painting which incorporates a peach pit. Let’s Get Free is so excited to showcase his work and we can’t wait to welcome him home.
Members of Let’s Get Free met Donna Martorano and Marsha Scaggs last summer on the first group visit to the Cambridge Springs prison. Marsha and her roomate Rachel submitted two charming tiny cross stitches one reading “Live, Love, Laugh” and the other reading “Let’s Get Free”. Donna submitted 5 pieces including two large landscape paintings and two portraits of Janet Africa, one in pencil and one in charcoal. Janet Africa is a member of the Move organization and has been in prison since the 80s. The MOVE Organizationis a group of mostly black, freedom- and nature- loving activists who were living in Philadelphia from the early 1970s to early 80s. The Philadelphia police department dropped a bomb on their house from a helicopter on May 13, 1985, silencing their central figure, John Africa. Did you know that Pennsylvania incarcerates the country’s most political prisoners?
Local Artists Create for the Cause
Kiln TenderCeramics has created a limited edition of cast ceramic prison abolitionist medallions inspired by 18th century coins made by abolitionists of slavery. Larger than a silver dollar, these ceramic pieces fit in the palm of your hand with one side reading “ Until we all are free” with hands breaking out of chains, while the other side features 3 famous abolitionists of past and present – Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, and Patrisse Kahn-Cullors.
Jenn Gooch has created a weaving that stretches 10 feet wide utilizing over 30 letters from prisoners. While working on the piece that spells out “REDEMPTION,” Jenn posted on instagram, “ Tragic weft. Weaving with strips of letters from prisoners for @womeninprison‘s upcoming show. The heaviest thing I’ve ever woven. The weight of these words, and their sound—it’s crushing and deafening, yet paper-thin.”
Sue Abramson who used the letters from prisoners as negatives. Placing the letter in its entirety directly onto photo paper reveals compelling black and white scribblings that almost look like a new language.
Lataya Johnson, an artist from McKeesport, contributed a hanging lantern made completely with letters.
Juliette Angotti, a french photographer living in Delaware, corresponded with 5 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania and asked them three questions:
If you were a photographer or had access to a camera, what would you photograph?
What images define liberation for you?
What do you miss most from outside of prison?
They responded and Juliette took photos based on those replies. 5 photographs from this series and responses from the people incarcerated will be on display.
Lifelines is a Philadelphia based media/cultural project conducted in extensive, long-term collaboration with eight people serving Life Sentences Without Parole or Death By Incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania. Lifelines created an exhibit called How Are We Free. This visual art exhibit that explores the nature of freedom and confinement through creative collaboration between people who have been sentenced to die in prison and visual artists outside the prison walls. Lifelines is lending the exhibit several pieces to display in Pittsburgh!
Last year’s art fundraiser entitled Contraband was SO SUCCESSFUL! Over 100 pieces of art sold and $5,000 was raised. A new program called Operation Break Bread was launched connecting people in Pittsburgh with women and trans prisoners incarcerated at Cambridge Springs Prison. Cambridge Springs is 2 hours north of Pittsburgh. Since the first visit last June 24 Pittsburghers were linked with different people serving time. You can read some of the visiting chronicles onLet’s Get Free’s instagram page. Scroll down to see the visit pics- most have a reddish background. You will be able to sign up to visit women at Cambridge Springs at the art opening.
Let’s Get Free is hoping to raise another $5,000 to support our work for the next year! Please come out on July 6th from 6 – 10 pm. Auction closes at 9pm. The show will be up the whole month of July with gallery hours on Saturdays from 12 – 4pm.
Overflowing gratitude to Boom Concepts for being such a gracious host and Justseeds the radical artist cooperative headquartered in Pittsburgh, who for the 2nd year in a row has made a generous donation to this cause. Thank you to all the ARTISTS for the time, thought and care you put into submissions!!
Artists from Prison in the so-called US: Marsha Scaggs, Rachel, Amanda Hein, James Yaya Hough, Todd “Hyung-Rae” Tarselli , Cuong Tran, Avis Lee, Duane Montney, Ajamu O. Iyapo, Leonard Jefferson, Bruce Bainbridge, Donna Martorano, Cinque Michael Upchurch, Andre Coltom
The Latin sign for #50 is the letter L. To “take an L” is to suffer defeat: a loss, though, since this is borrowed from sports metaphors, continuing the fight is implied. “Half-a-man” is prison parlance for 50, too. Under the circumstances, this metaphor is woefully inadequate & apt at the same time.
On April 9th, Judge Lawrence J. O’Toole – a man who once battled a DA over lying when representing a man on death row – imposed 50 years-to-life upon me for killing my best friend. I was neither shocked nor in disbelief that the number was so abominably high. Four total days of hearings, 10 postponements, & quite literally EVERYTHING done to weaken my mitigation case, had already winnowed the faint hope I had for Justice down to nothing. The ADA really was seeking LWOP, uniquely & specifically for me, but for once, my attorney’s facility with keeping me out of the informational loop paid off. The second I said I had never received notice, per BATTS II, LWOP was impossible. The ADA & team scrambled to find proof she’d sent me a letter. All she could muster was evidence she’d alerted my lawyer, which wasn’t the law. Yeah. The hearing was like THAT.
Without editorial, here are the broad points. Day 1: 2/2/18 – Emotional testimony by 3 friends & 2 PADOC sergeants. One friend was told she was testifying just 48 hours before. The sergeants were told the Thursday week prior. No one was prepped & testimony spun out after only a few minutes, w/o meaningful questioning by my counsel. Cross-exam was a harbinger of things to come, as the ADA tried to establish that my friends weren’t “real” friends & that everything they knew about me came from me. And I am a liar.
Join us for a free screening of Prison in 12 Landscapes on Wednesday April 18 at 6pm at the Melwood Screening Room – 477 Melwood Ave.
Following the film showing, there will be a Q&A with the film’s director, who will be joined by members of Let’s Get Free and Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration.
Immediately after the film showing and across the street, there will be a dance party where the fundraising for Let’s Get Free will continue. Join us for one or both events! Food and drinks will be available for sale at the dance party benefit.
Save the Date! Criminal Justice Candidate Forum, May 7
We are very excited to be participating in a criminal justice system focused Candidate Forum in advance of the PA state legislature primary on May 15. Please join us, especially if you live in one of the four districts that will be represented, to ensure that the critical issues facing our communities are acknowledged and addressed by our legislative representatives-to-be!
We are seeking collaborators for Let’s Get Free’s next fundraiser. Letters and Liberation will show in July 2018 at Boom Concepts in Pittsburgh. We are seeking artists of any ilk to throw down for our cause. Last year’s Contrabandfundraiser was SO SUCCESSFUL! We sold over 100 pieces of art!!
Last year we raised $5,000. With that money we have:
launched a new program called Operation Break Bread. This program connects people in Pittsburgh with women and trans prisoners incarcerated at Cambridge Springs Prison. Cambridge Springs is 2 hours north of Pittsburgh. Since our first visit last June we linked 24 Pittsburghers with different people serving time. We try to go up at least once a month. You can read some of the visiting chronicles on our instagram page. Scroll down to see the visit pics most have a reddish background. The gas for these trips came from the Contraband Art Show! Thank you art buyers and auction participants!!
been able to attend the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration’s statewide rallies, meetings with lawmakers, the juvenile lifer day at Muncy prison, hearings for ghani and saleem – two of our friends – ghani is home and saleem will be home SOON!! AND some us are heading to the statewide strategy meeting on Feb.3 in Philadelphia. That is a lot of gas, van rentals and tolls!! Thank you artists, especially Todd “Hyung-Rae” Tarselli and Justseeds!!
let’s get free was a primary contributor to CADBI West’s recent panel at the Summit Against Racism. 4 of the participants, Paulette Carrington, Yusef Jones, Troy David and Sharif Boyd all received substantial speakers’ fees and meals throughout the weekend. All because of our last fundraiser! Thanks Boom Concepts for being such a gracious host!! You can see a video of the panel HERE
You can see we use your energy, creative expressions and financial gifts wisely. We have tried in the past for grants and never been successful. We don’t need a lot. Just a little to really boost our work. So the ask:
Deadline for Submissions: April 1, 2018
Mail artwork to: Letters and Liberation c/o Lets Get Free, 460 Melwood Ave. #300 Pittsburgh, PA 15213- Please include title of piece and how you want to be recognized.
Format: Any medium welcome. Painting, Sculpture, Knitting, Cross stitch, paper mache, drawing, poem, collage, origami, your medium of choice. Be encouraged to re- purpose letters that were sent to or from prison. Use an old letter as the base for a painting or drawing. Use letters to make paper mache. Use letters to make a paper cut or stencil. OR DON’T. Make what you make. It can be inspired by the theme or not. Also we would love any old artwork donations even if it doesn’t fit the theme.
Theme or Concept: If you need some inspiration consider this: Can your artwork answer the sentence? Liberation is….
Do you want to collaborate with us? We are up for it!
We have sent the call to over 100 people in PA prisons. If you know any incarcerated artists send their name DOC # and address and we will send them the details. If you are not incarcerated and would like some letters to work with contact etta – 443-603-6964
Artists who want letters: i am going out of town from March 5th to May 18. If you want letters before then please connect with me in February. I have thought about confidentiality of the letter writers. We can talk about that if you are interested in participating.
Thank you so much!!
Lets Get Free (if you are interested in volunteering we always need help)
There are more than 2,000 people in prisons around the country who were convicted of murder as juveniles and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But recent Supreme Court decisions have found these sentences unconstitutional and set in motion a process for re-evaluating these “juvenile lifers.”
To close out the first season of The FRONTLINE Dispatch, we have three stories about juvenile lifers. This first is the story of a violent crime committed by a juvenile lifer whose second chance went horribly wrong. It is an intensely personal documentary, but it carries far-reaching implications that extend into public life and into the heart of our political and correctional systems.
This piece was produced by Samantha Broun and Jay Allison. It was originally made in 2016 for the public radio website, Transom.org. Listen to that version of the story here. We are presenting an update to a version that aired later that year on This American Life.
At 15, after committing a brutal murder, Kempis Songster was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But now he has a chance to be free, thanks to a series of recent Supreme Court rulings that found the sentences of thousands of inmates who, like Songster, committed their crimes as juveniles, to be unconstitutional. Listen Here
We ❤ you Ghani, and hope to celebrate your freedom this September! There are so many behind bars who deserve a second chance at parole and commutation. Even after decades of incarceration, people are dreaming of contributing back to society and helping make things right. Support House Bill 135 in the Judiciary Committee so we can see more folks like Ghani get a second chance at parole! Read more here
Below are pictures from Ghani’s Community Resentencing which happened on Sunday July 23 in Philadelphia organized by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and pictures of us the next day, Monday July 24th outside the JV court house during Ghani’s actual appeal hearing.
Outside JV Courthouse
Sharon Shoatz and Russell Shoatz
outside JV court night before hearing reading the community’s ideas for resentencing ghani
Russell Shoats III and Theresa Shoats
Inside the community resentencing
Outside JV Courthouse
Old comrades pose for a pic – Andy, etta and Theresa.
Mama Patricia Vickers talking about Hope is as Weapon!
On way to JV courthouse
On way to JV courthouse
Wispy on the mic and Theresa in the back
etta and yvonne
Outside JV Courthouse
Hanging outside Juvinile Court during Ghani’s hearing