The commutation process is broken. Intended as a means to reduce sentences for incarcerated individuals, increasing politicization has reduced commutation to a shadow process instead of a meaningful pathway to release.
In April, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman announced that the Board of Pardons will indefinitely delay the commutation hearing set to take place on June 4th. At this hearing, dozens of applicants would have had the opportunity to have their cases reviewed to determine their potential for release, thus permitting them to escape the life-threatening conditions of prisons in the era of COVID-19. There is no excuse to delay commutation hearings.
If the concern is about commutation applicants not receiving in-person interviews, that question should be left up to the applicant to decide. Some applicants we have spoken with would rather have a video interview than for the hearing date to be in perpetual postponement.
Because Pennsylvania is one of only five states that excludes lifers from parole consideration, commutation serves as the only option for release for individuals serving death by incarceration. Yet since 1980, commutation has become virtually unattainable: the number of life sentences commuted dropped from ~28 per year before 1980 to ~1 per year after. Beyond lifers, commutation is also a vital system for individuals serving long-term sentences.
In the time of COVID-19, where a prison sentence is a death sentence for the elderly and immunocompromised, commutation should be bolstered as a tool to bring more people home.
We mourn the lives already lost to COVID-19 in state correctional facilities. How many of these deaths could have been prevented if our justice system prioritized community healing over retribution?
On June 4th, please join us for The People’s Response, a space for the community to voice our demands for commutation transformation. First, we will hear from individuals who will speak from personal experience about the failures of the commutation process. Next, we will collectively envision what commutation could like if it were transformed to put our communities first. Speakers include Laura Whitehorn, Jose Hamza Saldana, William L. Goldsby, Mageline Stewart, Doug Hollis, Terri Minor Spencer, and Ricky Olds.
Please join this community conversation by registering here . Together we will urge the Board of Pardons to #FreeTheVulnerable and meet our demands.
Laura Whitehorn: A lifelong anti-war and civil rights activist, Laura Whitehorn spent the 70s and 80s organizing against the Vietnam war, white supremacist violence, and U.S. imperialist terrorism abroad. She eventually served 14 years in federal prison as a political prisoner. During her time in prison and since her release, she has focused her efforts on advocating for the release of political prisoners of the black liberation and anti-imperialist solidarity movements. She is the cofounder of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), an organization that advocates for the release of older and aging people, lifers, and long-termers as a way to undermine a key pillar of the racist prison system: the paradigm of permanent punishment and death by incarceration.
Jose Hamza Saldana is Director of RAPP. Jose was released from NYS prison in January 2018 after 38 years and four Parole Board denials. While in prison, Jose earned an Associate’s Degree and founded several important restorative justice and victim awareness programs. He mentored hundreds of men during his years inside and continues to inspire all of us with his energy, commitment, and leadership.
William L. Goldsby: Born in a cotton field, raise in Selma, Alabama and incarcerated for two violent offenses, both during the Jim Crow era, one in Selma, Alabama and the other one while serving in the US Military. Attended Miles College an HBC in Birmingham, Alabama and graduated from Western Washington University with a B.A in Education. Two terns in Central America with the Peace Corp where responsibilities were with Youth Development and “Women-In-Transition”. Travelled to Southern Africa and interviewed members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Founder and the past Chair of Reconstruction Incorporated, a 30-year old community capacity building grass root organization. Architect of the History and Reconstruction Project funded by Pew Charitable Trust that explored Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome which impacts the behavior of society at large and specifically African Americans. Designed and teaches Situation Management as a method in order to realize a new justice paradigm. Co-authored Reconstructing Rage, Transformative Reentry in the Age of mass Incarceration with Professor Townsand Price-Spratlan. Philosophy is that we must access our organic intelligence, manage our own perceptions and liberate our imagination.
Mageline Stewart: Sentenced to life without parole, Maggie Stewart had her sentence commuted by the Governor last December after receiving a unanimous vote in support of her release by the Board of Pardons. She will speak to her experiences undergoing the commutation process and coming home, as well as tell us about the other lifers who are still behind bars.
Doug Hollis: Doug Hollis knows first-hand how broken the commutation process is. A former juvenile lifer, Mr. Hollis was released in 2017 due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision deeming automatic life terms for minors unconstitutional. But before 2017, Mr. Hollis underwent the commutation process six times, even winning the recommendation of the Board of Pardons in 1992, only to be denied release by the Governor.
Terri Minor Spencer: Ms. Spencer, a visionary community activist based in Pittsburgh, founded a grass-roots nonprofit dedicated to addressing community needs, serves as the Director of Community Engagement at the White Lily Baptist Church, and even holds a seat on the Democratic committee for Pittsburgh Ward 20. Having served 16 years at SCI Muncy, including 17 days in solitary confinement, Ms. Spencer is an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform.
Ricky Olds: Public Speaker.Community Educator. Formerly Incarcerated individual. Wrongfully convicted of murder, Ricky served close to four decades before being released in 2017.
This event is hosted by the Campaign To Restore Meaningful Commutation and #FreeTheVulnerable campaign, a collective of organizers from the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) Lets Get Free: Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI), Abolitionist Law Center, and Amistad Law Project among others. We are advocating for the release of older and immunocompromised folks from PA prisons in the time of COVID-19 and beyond.
Avis Lee received a unanimous 5 yes votes at the May 7th merit review hearing.
This is the farthest she has ever made it in the lengthy commutation process of which she has applied 6 times. Just two more steps to go. The next is the public hearing, including a personal interview with the board, in which she will need the same unanimous 5 yes votes and finally a signature from the governor. 8 out of 13 people sentenced to ‘Death by Incarceration’ were granted public hearings including Mildred Strickland and Phil Rosato.
Commutation Hearings have been postponed due to Covid.
The Board of Pardons is postponing the public hearings scheduled for June 4th. They claim that they have security concerns due to technology and said LT. Governor Fetterman expressed that having a video interviews rather than in-person interviews would be unfair to the applicant. We think the applicant should be given a choice wether they want to proceed with a video interview. Cambridge Springs has said they have all the technology they need to conduct video interviews and in this day and age the technology concerns are unfounded.
The board will be hearing some pardon cases that don’t involve violence or sexual assault. Board secretary, Brandon Flood said that depending on COVID, the board could have the public hearings before the next scheduled hearing date which is in September.
Save the Date: June 4th → 6 – 8 pm→
Transform Commutation! The People’s Response: Envisioning Release in the Time of Covid and Beyond
On the day the commutation hearings were to take place, Let’s Get Free and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration are planning a people’s response! Hear from people who have been commuted, people who have lived along side those seeking commutation, demand reform and dream of a new way of holding justice. What can you envision? Dream with us! One of our beloved movement fathers, Dr. William Goldsby will be present!
Commutation Application Status
Many prisoners are curious about the status of thier submitted applications. For all those who have already submitted their applications, they are in que just as before. (It is always hard to get information about exactly where you are in the que.) While the DOC Board of Pardons website states that the board is not taking new applications at this time – that’s not all the way true. Brandon Flood assures us that the board is not rejecting or denying any applications they receive. The reason the board is asking people not to submit is because there are quite a few clerk of courts that are not open, so people are submitting incomplete applications. Depending where the applicant is coming from they may not be able to complete their applications because they may not have access to all the forms. If your clerk of courts is open and you have all your documents you can submit your applications.
Covid in the PA DOC Update:
SCI-Huntingdon remains the current hot spot within the DOC reporting 143 positive cases among prisoners and 44 positive cases among guards. Just today we learn that 2 people died at Huntington, including the passing of a widely beloved elder, Bumpy Johnson who died from covid at the age of 76. SCI Phoenix is claiming 35 positive cases with 3 deaths reported among the prison population. Camphill, Chester and Fayette are all reporting one positive among prisoners. People on the outside can check for daily covid updates here. It’s hard to tell what’s real because there is limited testing everywhere. Out of the 5 deaths reported 3 of them were people with life sentences.
Additionally, Governor Wolf has still not signed the 3 commutation applications on his desk. This is a simple ask – they have been vetted by the board. This demand was articulated to Governor Wolf in a joint letter from the ACLU, Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project. The letter demands Covid relief to the over 4,000 people in prison over the age of 60 and 12,000 people in prison who are medically vulnerable.
You can hear from PA prisoners directly regarding Covid this Thursday, May 21st 6 – 8pm at the virtual town hall: Voices From the Inside: Pennsylvania Prisoners Speak Out – Register Here
Rest in Peace Eliza Medley
Eliza Medley passed away on Sunday May 10th. She did receive a medical release and went to live with her sister on April 27. Sentenced to life at the age of 21, Eliza served 44 years succumbing to liver cancer at the age of 65. Eliza is remembered as being down to earth, bubbly, always with a smile and treating others equally. It is both a relief and heart wrenching that she had just two weeks home. Love to all of her friends and inner circles on both sides of the walls.
Let’s Get Free was invited to host:
Cocktails with a Conscience: Art and Activism Thursday, May 21st, 7:00-9:00PM
Artists James Yaya Hough, Morgan Overton, Todd “Hyung-Rae” Tarselli and etta cetera will discuss their own creative endeavors with a special video from TR who is currently incarcerated speaking about being an artist in prison. Yaya has collaborated with Let’s Get Free years before his release and is now the resident artist for the Philadelphia District Attorney. Let’s Get Free is just beginning a collaboration with Morgan for our latest endeavor to uplift the stories of women sentenced to death by incarceration. Learn more on Thursday!
Zoomed out? Tune into a few noteable quotes from some national Zoom Room’s we have entered.
“Despair is a tool of our enemies.” — Audre Lorde
“I insist! We have power.” –Mariame Kaba leading abolitionist from Chicago founded Project Nia
“Prisons are a pre-existing condition.” Monica Crosby- recently released New Yorker speaking from her new apartment.
“Individual fingers can be easily broken but together they make a mighty fist.” —Sitting Bull
“Recognizing the brilliance of ourselves, of our people, the diamonds polished by years of oppression, war and struggle and survival among our ancestors and today as we face a pandemic.But also remembering that sometimes it was us who were not only the oppressed, the marginalized but we were the queens, the leaders, the shamans, the witches, the wise ones, the council.
We are not only shaped by our oppression and the hardness of endurance.
We are shaped by our creativity, our love, our legacies, our history, our families of birth and chosen, our beautiful cultures, our music, our food, our poetry, the land that we once belonged to and sometimes still do. The things that we have intact and not only those things broken…
Who we are and what we are come from this alchemy of struggle and life force”
-Mimi Kim on abolitionist feminists
15 minutes to Celebrate 65 years of Cyd!
This! Saturday May 23, 12:00-12:15pm, Zoom party
As Cyd turns 65, she has served 40 years of a life sentence. We want to lift her up on this day, because she has lifted up so many others, and to shine a light on aging prisoners who should be freed during this crisis! We have 75 people signed up – wonder if we can get a 100 people to wish Cyd a happy day?
To participate, please register here. We can text remind you!! Please bring a bell AND something colorful to wave in the zoom, bright fabric, a happy birthday sign, streamers. All of our research has said it’s really hard to sing happy bday together on zoom – so Naomi Blount will lead us in song and we can ring bells. Paulette Carrington will also be present sharing the importance of birthday celebrations on the inside.
The Pittsburgh arm of the Dignity Act Now Collective and community members of Allegheny County held a car action and press conference outside of the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) on May 12, 2020. Our goal was to bring awareness of the conditions at the jail and the harm that it is causing the black women and caregivers who are held there. We have seen the ACJ:
Hold a 20-year-old Black woman, Kimberly Andrews, in solitary confinement for over 70 days;
Continually place Black Trans Women in male facilities;
Leave our community warehoused with no hot water as temperatures dropped to 45 degrees;
Place our community members in solitary confinement as a result of behavior which are common symptoms of their mental health conditions.
This was before COVID19. This was before we recognized racism as a public health crisis in Allegheny County. This was before we know that Pittsburgh is the worst place in the US for a Black Woman to Live. Recognizing the medical apartheid state that Black Women in Pittsburgh already have to survive in, in addition to being locked in the Allegheny County Jail in this current COVID-19 pandemic; we know that their conditions will not improve without us calling truth to power. In light of these harms, we demand the courts:
End cash bail
Prioritize the release of Black Mammas from the ACJ.
Carmen Alexander of New Voices and Brandi Fisher of Alliance for Police Accountability can be seen speaking below in front of the ACJ. Check out the Pgh City Paper’s coverage here.
Join us today, April 8, in honor of Betty Heron’s 80th birthday for a day of digital action imploring Governor Wolf, Lt. Governor Fetterman, and PA legislators to use their power to free Betty and other aging and vulnerable people in PA prisons. For example: the Governor could use his reprieve power to release people, state lawmakers could pass an emergency law, Lt. Gov could expedite commutations.
Here’s how you can take part today:
SIGN OUR PETITION demanding the expedited release of aging and vulnerable people in PA prisons, and share it with your friends and family.
Like and share Let’s Get Free’s posts on social media to spread the word. Below are some sample tweets and graphics to post your own. Our social accounts are:
Call your state rep and let them know you care about aging and vulnurable people in prison. Ask them what they are doing about it! While you have them on the phone, tell them to freeze supervision fees and suspend drug and DNA testing until the pandemic ends. Everyone on parole in PA has to pay for what’s called a “supervision fee” and leaving the house for unnecessary tests puts everyone at risk.
Here are some sample tweets you can use:
Hey, @GovernorTomWolf: Will you use your reprieve powers to free Betty Heron & other aging ppl in PA prisons? There are over 1,200 people sentenced to life without parole in their 60’s and at risk for Covid-19 #LetGrandmaGo #ReleaseAgingPeopleFromPrison #EndDeathbyIncarceration
#ReleaseAgingPeopleInPrison! @FettermanLt, your track record shows your belief in meaningful commutation & that people can change. Will you find a way to free Betty Heron & other aging people in PA prisons who are now at heightened risk of COVID-19? #ExpediteCommutation
Today, Betty Heron turns 80. She’s served 38 yrs of a life sentence. Betty is not a risk to society but she’s at a great risk of COVID. @GovernorTomWolf, @FettermanLt, you have the power to do the right thing. Free Betty & other aging ppl in prison! #ReleaseAgingPeopleFromPrison
For Immediate Release: Betty Heron turns 80 in a PA prison this week; Let’s Get Free joins national demands for immediate release of aging and vulnerable people in Pennsylvania prisons at risk of COVID-19
On Wednesday, April 8, 2020 Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee will join national demands to release aging people in prison in light of the current coronavirus pandemic. Pennsylanian Betty Heron, for whom Wednesday is her 80th birthday, has served 38 years at SCI-Cambridge Springs. Heron was convicted of killing her abusive husband in 1982 and sentenced to life without parole. “He systematically and continuously abused me, mentally, physically, and emotionally. It was going to be one or the other,” she states. According to Survived and Punished, the majority of people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in women’s prisons, are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence and trafficking.
Let’s Get Free is joining the national call from groups like New York-based Release Aging People from Prison demanding that governors address this problem of aging behind bars that has been around long before the novel coronavirus.
This is how the numbers break down in PA:
There are 62 Pennsylvania women over the age of 60 serving life without parole.
Six of those 62 women are in their 80’s, with Alice Green, the oldest woman in a Pennsylvania prison, turning 90 in August.
In total, there are 1,297 people over the age of 60 serving LWOP, also known as death by incarceration.
On average, it costs $60,000 to $100,000 a year to house an aging prisoner while the public safety risk of releasing them is extremely low
“Ms. Betty’s incarceration gives no benefit to society, but instead deprives society and her family of big-hearted leadership. In the United States, in a state with a forward-minded governor, no family or community should be deprived of their grandmas, aunties and other elders. This is a moment of crisis! Betty and so many others are not a threat to society; but now due to close confinement during a pandemic, considering her age, she is very much at risk,” says Alan Lewandowski, board member of Let’s Get Free.
Supporters and friends of Let’s Get Free are encouraged to partake in this day of digital action imploring Governor Wolf, Lt. Governor Fetterman, and PA legislators to use their power to free Betty and other aging and vulnerable people in PA prisons. Additionally, there is an online petition to gather signatures in support.
Sample messaging and graphics for this digital action can be found here on Let’s Get Free’s website soon: https://letsgetfree.info and social channels: @womeninprison on Instagram, @vivamarilynbuck on Twitter, and @LetsGetFreePA on Facebook.
The concept of Compassionate Release is the idea that if a person in prison is so ill that the state would have mercy on them and allow them to live the end of their life outside of prison. Here in PA the phrasing of medical release is more accurate. The PA statute does not say “compassionate” and it is decidedly not compassionate.
In the time of the corona virus Pa needs compassionate release now more than ever.
In a March 16 press release, Families Against Mandatory Minimum announced that the FAMM General Counsel and compassionate release expert, Mary Price, is available to answer questions, and to comment on how state and local governments should use compassionate release and elderly home confinement during this unprecedented COVID-19 national pandemic.
“People who are eligible for compassionate release should be promptly assessed and released to their families, where they can receive better care,” said Price. “Prison and jail medical units will rapidly be overrun by a COVID-19 outbreak and will need as many beds as possible for critical care patients. It makes no sense to keep other people who are terminally ill or medically debilitated occupying those beds.”
Barton reports, “While these programs are presented as money savers, in 2015 a majority of states granted release to fewer than four applicants each. Within states that have a compassionate release program and track the numbers, there were 3,030 people who applied, with only 216 being granted release”
According to this study, in 2015 PA received 8 applications and only granted 3.
Joanne Butler, who was serving a life sentence was released last September on medical release. She lived the last three months of her life on house arrest with an ankle monitor, to which her family protested as cruel and inhumane. Joanne passed away on November 23, 2019. Joanne was featured in the film the Dying Outloud.
35 women sentenced to life without parole have died in custody since 1982, one of the most recent Diane Metzger was also profiled in Dying Outloud.
The eligibility requirements for compassionate release in PA are so strict and has so many different boxes to check that the guide from the PA Institutional Law Project is probably the simplest and shortest way to break it down. It is an overly complex process that is not designed to be “compassionate” at all, but to make it as easy as possible for judges/DA’s/DOC to deny people’s requests for compassionate release. Families Against Mandatory Minimums created this readable guide for medical release Pennsylvania. They also have a state by state guide and a lot of info on supporting people in Federal prisons finding relief.
There are 2 different paths for compassionate release: 1 if you’re seeking to go to a long-term nursing or hospital facility; and 1 if you’re seeking to go to hospice care.
The laymans version of PA’s medical release program is that a person can be released to an outside medical provider if a doctor expects them to die soon and if the person has medical needs that would be provided for better outside of the DOC. The law only allows someone to be released to either a long-term nursing facility, hospital, or hospice provider. (Joanne was released to her home so maybe this isn’t always the case.)
The non-ambulatory requirement is only applicable to those who do not qualify for the first type of medical release, meaning it is only a requirement for those who have detainers for other convictions/sentences or charges. The statute lays out the two possibilities for medical release, each with its own cluster of conditions.
The doctor must be a DOC doctor or a DOC-contracted doctor. Technically, the statutory language says the “treating physician,” and DOC does not permit non-DOC doctors or contractors to treat those in its custody.
It isn’t necessary to have a lawyer, but it would be very difficult to handle without a lawyer.
Every prison in PA – State Correctional Institution has a health care administrator. You can call them for information too.
Someone who wants to request medical release should definitely have people on the outside helping them, since they need to file paperwork from a medical facility acknowledging that the facility will take them if they are released (and in some cases acknowledging that they will keep the DOC informed of updated in case the person’s health improves). This would be tough to navigate from prison.
In terms of time, it depends on the judge. It can be handled pretty quickly (like within a few weeks from filing), but it just depends on when the judge decides to schedule a hearing or make a decision. It is most likely in all cases they need to make sure that the DA has time to reach out to the victim (if there is one) and the victim has the right to offer their thoughts. So that can also take some time.
Thanks to Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, Elaine Selan and Ellen Melchiondo for all of their knowledge and research.
Goal: To raise awareness about death by incarceration, particularly uplifting the experiences of women and trans people sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania.
Note: Death by Incarceration [DBI] is another way saying Life Without Parole [LWOP]
Theme: We have surveyed all the women and trans lifers in PA serving DBI that we know of, and over 50 people responded. They have sent slogans, messages to the public and ideas for you to use. When you sign up for the contest you will have access to this information to help you in the creation of your art.
We have identified the following topics that we particularly want to uplift, you are encouraged to create your art with one of these focuses in mind: Aging in Prison, Commutation, Compassionate/Medical Release, Restorative Justice, Redemption & Resilience, Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence as it relates to DBI and Crime & Safety. Resources on these topics are here
Who can enter? Anyone can enter. There will be two categories, one for artists in prison and one for artists in solidarity. You can enter more than one piece. Please fill out this form to enter. To sign up an artist you know in prison, fill out their information on the form and we will send them a contest packet.
What is the medium? 2-D images preferred. Painting, drawing, watercolor, screenprint, digital graphic, cross stitch.
What is the size? No bigger than 25” inches by 21” No smaller than 8.5” by 11” Portrait or Vertical orientation is preferred but not mandatory.
What’s in it for you? All contest submissions will be shown at Boom Concepts for the entire month of August in Pittsburgh, with the show opening on Friday August 7th, 2020 (potentially additional shows) All participants will receive documentation from the show. Potential prize money. With your consent, your image may end up in a newspaper ad, as a poster or on a city bus. You will be generating awareness about an important cause. We are not planning to sell the art at this time.
When: Contest submissions due by June 30th. (Running late? Contact us)
Mail artwork to: Let’s Get Free – 460 Melwood Ave. #300 Pittsburgh, PA 15213
There is no entry fee. Artists incarcerated in Pennsylvania can be reimbursed for postage cost to mail art.
People’s Choice Cash Prize: There will be two categories: Artists in Prison and Artists in Solidarity. 6 prizes in each category.
2nd Place: $250
3rd Place: $100
Honorable Mention: $50 (3 recipients for each category)
Judging: The contest will be judged by the public the entire month of the show. All participants will be notified within a month.
Public Service Announcements: Let’s Get Free will draw from all the entries to pick out designs for the public graphic campaign. This campaign could take the form of posters, bus or newspaper advertisements. In other words, you don’t have to be a Public Choice winner for your art to get turned into an ad.
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.
Note for Long Termers -People sentenced to 20- 40 years etc. The only difference in the commutation application for longtermers is that you only need 3 out of 5 votes to be recommended to the Governor – whereas lifers need a unanimous 5. In addition you may not have a personal interview with the board of pardons before your public hearing.
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 email@example.com You can also try Brandon Flood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.