We learned just last week that our beloved elder Russell Maroon Shoatz contracted COVID 19. Maroon is a prisoner in Pennsylvania and a former Black Panther who has been imprisoned since 1970. He is 77 years old. He has been living with stage 4 colon cancer since last year.
Just as he was exiting the prison walls last week to get the tumor removed at a hospital, he was stopped at the door and asked to take a COVID test. He tested positive. Immediately they sent him to a small gymnasium where others with COVID are being quarantined in the prison. When he got there, he found 29 senior prisoners who said to him: “welcome. We’ve been waiting for you, we figured it wasn’t long before you got it too.”
This means that there are 30 seniors with COVID in a dank, cold gymnasium in a prison in PA. They are being held under the most inhumane conditions imaginable. 30 men including Maroon had access to only one bathroom. Maroon was put in a space without a light and had go to the bathroom on himself because he couldn’t risk getting up and falling.
Maroon’s family and the community mobilized and we won his transfer to the infirmary. But we need him to come home.
But this human rights catastrophe is repeating itself across the state and across the country because prisons are a death trap in the age of COVID. Prisons are on lock down in PA right now because the virus is spreading like a storm. Country’s around the world like Iran and Turkey but the United States has refused to decarcerate it’s mostly black and latinx prison population.
Russell Maroon Shoatz is no danger to his community. He has stage 4 cancer and he has COVID. The civilized and humane thing to do is to allow him to go home to his family. We are asking for his immediate release and for the immediate release of all other aging prisoners over the age of 50 and those with pre-existing conditions for whom incarceration is a death sentence. We ask for the immediately and unconditional release of Maroon!!
Continue to Call Governor Tom Wolfe Contact: (717) 787-2500
Let them know that Russell Shoatz’s (DOC# AF3855) health is rapidly deteriorating. and demand immediate release. They track the calls from different phones and how many times they same number calls so please keep calling and activate your networks.
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.
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.