On October 18th, over 200 people traveled to the State Capitol to demand an end to Death By Incarceration and support House Bill 2135, which would make people serving life sentences parole-eligible after 15 years. Thank you so much to all who participated in this powerful action! #AbolishDBI
Photo Credit: Joe Piette, Emily McGrew, Patricia Vickers
There are over 5000 people serving Life Without Parole sentences in Pennsylvania. In PA, ‘life’ means your entire life, which is why many instead call it Death By Incarceration (DBI). This harsh sentencing does not improve public safety and disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color.
We believe that denying people the right to transformation and redemption is an affront to everyone’s humanity. Join the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) and our allies from across the state as we converge at the state capitol to ask our legislators to end Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania.
There is now a bill in the PA House that would make people serving DBI eligible for parole after 15 years. The bill is HB2135 and was introduced by Rep. Dawkins. But we need mass public pressure in order to move the bill forward.
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation Hits the Capitol
On Thursday, June 23, the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation hit the Capitol pushing a 12 point platform that would change regulations and practices of the barely functional commutation process. About 25 people traveled to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh and 10 more from Philly. Upon arrival from Pittsburgh a devoted crew raced up to the office of Jason Dawkins, co-author of HB 2135, where he met them with open arms. House Bill 2135 was introduced on June 9, and has the ambition to Expand Parole Eligibility for Life Sentences. This bill would make people eligible for parole after 15 years served, and as Jason said in our press conference, “This bill would abolish life without parole.” Can you believe a State Rep said those words?!
Rep Ed Gainey from Pittsburgh gave a rousing speech at our rally in support of the bill. This is extra powerful because, tragically, his sister was murdered just a month ago. Additional surprise speakers included: Rep Joanna E. McClinton from Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, who was extremely encouraging and really applauded our efforts, and Rep Patty Kim of Dauphin County, who also stepped to the mic, talking about an impactful meeting she had with women at Muncy.
Some of our speakers included Mae Hadley and Donna Pfender, who spoke on behalf of their daughters who are serving life. Lauren Stuparitz spoke from the perspective of a victim – being the survivor of a brutal attack in Pittsburgh – she believes people deserve a second chance.
Reforms to the Commutation process we were pushing included: Rescinding the Unanimous Vote by the Board of Pardons in case of Life Sentences, Video interviews with lifer applicants before merit review hearing, and Written Reason for Denial of lifer commutation applications. And last but not least, HB 2135 Parole Eligibility for Lifers.
We scheduled meetings with legislators we thought could be potential allies, but were impressed with how many of them had visited prisons and met people serving Life. This included Republican Rep Tom Murt from Philadelphia, who deeply cares about veterans, and spoke of a friend of his who is a Vietnam war vet incarcerated since the 70’s. Tom wants to organize a public hearing in the Human services committee about LWOP, relating how LWOP affects the elderly, veterans, and its connections to mental health and addiction.
On the Senate side of things, Art Haywood, Shirley Kitchen and Greenleaf’s offices were encouraging, informative and uplifting. Liana, the amazing legislative assistant of Mr. Haywood’s staff, said they were interested in aging prisoners, and the idea of having a public hearing was talked about in several meetings from several perspectives. Rep.Vanessa Brown, another ally, had just visited Muncy and saw a lot of elderly women who she thought should be at home with their families. One of our lobby groups randomly met up with Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York, who committed to co-sponsoring bill HB 2135 and gave group a tour of the House. What support!
Anne Gingrich Cornick, the legal advisor for the Board of Pardons, was present in the Governor’s meeting. Ann read our whole platform in front of us and said that most of our points on our platform would require constitutional amendments. Constitutional Amendments require a 2/3’s majority vote – they need to pass through the House and Senate twice before being put to referendum – a public vote. All regulatory changes for the Board of Pardons must go through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. (IRCC)
We learned the Victim’s Advocate position of the Board of Pardons was filled by a Pittsburgh resident named Marsha Grayson. For those of you in Pittsburgh, it is her family that started the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center in the Hill district. Senator Greenleaf’s aid told us she is appropriate for the position not only because she has the victim’s perspective, having lost her son, but that also, coming from the Black community, she understands the impact of incarceration on families and neighborhoods and seems to embrace many perspectives.
One official advised that our biggest obstacle was the District Attorney’s Lobby. It was said they have great authority and do not stand with us.
And so, where does this leave us? There is a to do list a mile long including writing op eds, meeting with lawmakers locally, coordinating statewide efforts to push HB 2135 and commutation reform, following up about public hearings, and building alliances with victims rights organizations. Leaving the Capitol we felt very excited and hopeful. We also felt the realness of the difficulty that lay before us. There is a long hard road ahead.
Currently, more than 5,000 people in Pennsylvania are serving life without parole, a full 10% of the imprisoned population, a higher percentage than any other state. As people in prison age the cost of incarcerating them goes up while simultaneously their likelihood of recidivism decreases. Many of these people are deeply remorseful about the situations that brought them to prison and want to be able to give back to their communities by sharing their wisdom with today’s youth to keep them from making similar mistakes., many of whom are now senior citizens. Restoring Meaningful Commutation is one way to help deserving lifers get a 2nd Chance.
In Pennsylvania, one in 10 inmates is sentenced to life in prison. Because state law gives them no possibility of parole, nearly all of more than 5,300 inmates serving life terms will eventually die inside prison walls.
“They have no choice but to age and die in place,” said Julia Hall, a criminal justice professor and gerontologist at Drexel University.
In the Laurel Highlands prison, seven rooms are the final stop for some of the state’s sickest and oldest inmates. With breathing tubes and IVs, the mostly gray-haired inmates wait for their bodies to fail.
When their vital signs slip and they struggle for breath, other inmates hold vigil so they won’t die alone.
Sometimes death is sudden. Other times, volunteers like Christian, a 32-year-old inmate from Philadelphia, watch as life slowly slips away.
“They get to the point that they can’t talk no more,” he said. “That last breath of air they’re taking — and you’re really there holding their hands.”
Christian, along with four other inmate volunteers, was describing his work at the hospice unit at State Correctional Institution – Laurel Highlands, a former state mental hospital that was converted in 1996 to a prison hospital for male inmates.
The facility has had a full-time hospice service for two years with room for seven inmates at a time. Previously, the hospital had a less formal system where the nursing staff tried to make inmates comfortable as they neared death.
PublicSource was granted access in August under an agreement that the last names of inmates would not be used.
Life means life
Only Florida has more inmates serving life without parole than Pennsylvania, according to a nationwide ranking of 2012 numbers by the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.
State law mandates life in prison for defendants convicted of first and second-degree murder.
Accomplices to murder are treated the same as a killer, even if they themselves did not cause the death. First-degree murderers can also be sentenced to death.
Repeat violent offenders can also be sentenced to life under Pennsylvania’s three-strikes law, and other inmates serve de-facto life sentences with minimums so lengthy that they will almost certainly die before release.
From 2009 through 2013, 144 lifers died in Pennsylvania, according to state statistics. Over the same period, only four inmates had life sentences commuted by the governor after unanimous recommendation by the Board of Pardons.
Since 2010, just six inmates have been granted compassionate release, which is available to inmates nearing death who meet strict criteria, according to the Department of Corrections.
‘Nobody dies alone’
At SCI – Laurel Highlands, volunteers like Christian visit patients several hours each week, playing games, helping them write letters and sometimes just keeping them company.
“Those guys need help. They don’t have no family coming to visit,” said Elvis, an inmate volunteer from Venango County.
In the seven rooms for dedicated hospice care referred to as cubes, the focus is on reducing pain, providing comfort and helping them reach out to family members.
The program is based in part on a hospice unit in California where Laurel Highlands’ former superintendent sent Annette Kowalewski, a corrections healthcare administrator, and Paula Sroka, a quality improvement nurse.
In August, the hospice rooms were full until a 68-year-old inmate died after declining treatment for liver disease and lung cancer.
Medical staff are responsible for all the patients’ health care, while inmates provide companionship and physical help such as lifting patients out of bed.
Terminal illness strikes young inmates too, and a life term is not a prerequisite to dying in prison.
Special arrangements are made so family members can visit — sometimes for hours at a time — and the prison ensures that they’ll have access when the patient is dying.
If family doesn’t come, the inmates are there.
“Nobody dies alone,” Kowalewski said. “That’s our primary concern.”
Care across the state?
Christopher Oppman, director of the Bureau of Health Care Services for the Department of Corrections, said the state has adequate resources to ensure prisoners can get hospice care in infirmaries across the prison system.
But dedicated rooms for hospice care are less common outside of Laurel Highlands, so inmates at many facilities die in open wards.
“We would not be able to operate hospice on the scale that Laurel Highlands would,” Oppman said.
Staff at some facilities lack expertise in pain and symptom management, said Phyllis Taylor, a nurse and hospice expert who has previously worked as a consultant for the department.
In other words, not every prison gives the same quality of care.
“Some of the places maybe,” she said, “but not across the board.”
Taylor assisted researchers from Penn State University in a pilot program with the department to improve end-of-life care at six prisons that have high populations of aging inmates or lifers.
Staff at those prisons received specialized training to improve and standardize end-of-life care.
Currently, the corrections department is establishing best practices for prison hospice care statewide, Oppman said.
Paying until death
In Pennsylvania, inmates are classified as geriatric at 55. Common health problems are diabetes, cancer, liver disease and heart problems. Kowalewski said that an inmate who is 40 might look several decades older.
Of the roughly 5,300 geriatric inmates in Pennsylvania prisons, about 1,500 are serving life terms.
Because parole is not possible for lifers, Hall argues that the state is committed to a geriatric prison system.
“You’re going to keep paying until they die,” she said.
The state spent more than $35,000 for each inmate in the 2012-’13 fiscal year. The state does not keep numbers on the specific cost for inmates over 55, but costs increase as more medical care is needed.
The prison system is among the most expensive institutions in Pennsylvania, costing the state more than $2 billion this fiscal year.
At the end of September, 19 of the state’s 26 correctional institutions were at or above capacity, according to the most recent population numbers available.
Laurel Highlands, which was at 99.4 percent of capacity, costs $75 million to operate for the year.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, compared parts of the facility to a nursing home.
“When you see someone who’s on oxygen or in very poor health, we’re spending a lot of money to have that person in a prison,” Bergstrom said.
The state acknowledges that the risk of reoffending drops off with age.
The department’s 2013 recidivism report said released inmates under 21 are more than twice as likely to reoffend within three years as inmates over 50. Age has a “strong negative correlation” on recidivism, the report said.
Few ways out
Rather than paying costs indefinitely, Hall advocates for more compassionate release, criticizing a system with requirements so strict that it’s almost never used.
Politicians, she said, consider compassionate release “going easy” on offenders guilty of heinous crimes.
“It’s such a joke,” Hall said.
The state’s compassionate release rules were updated as part of a broader prison reform in 2008.
Under the law, a sentencing judge has the power to release inmates only if they are near death, have a nursing or hospice facility that will take them and have shown that their needs aren’t met in prison.
Rarely do inmates qualify.
Taylor, who has assisted prisoners seeking compassionate release, said an inmate needs to be immobile and essentially “on death’s doorstep” before a discharge is considered.
Victims and prosecutors get to weigh in, and the risk to public safety is considered.
“If they’re lifers, it doesn’t happen,” Taylor said. “That’s been my experience.”
For others, paperwork may take so long that an inmate dies before a decision is made.
Taylor said the state needs a method to evaluate whether inmates should be released if they are many years into a life term and have demonstrated that they’re not a threat.
Movement to change sentencing laws for lifers has been slow, Bergstrom said, though interest in Harrisburg is greater now than 10 years ago.
But lawmakers knew about the issue then.
In 2002, a Senate resolution directed the Joint State Government Commission to form a bipartisan task force and advisory committee to study the state’s handling of geriatric and seriously-ill prisoners. The group delivered a report in 2005 about the high-cost of an aging prison population and offered potential fixes, including the possibility of parole for lifers.
Hall, who was a member of the committee, said lawmakers ignored their suggestions and made compassionate release more difficult, not less.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that ruling does not apply to inmates already serving time, and the federal Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
However, Bergstrom said the Supreme Court ruling might give inmates already sentenced to life as juveniles traction with the state Board of Pardons.
Decades ago, commutations were common, meaning inmates serving life without parole would be given a lesser sentence by the governor. In the 1970s, for instance, Gov. Milton Shapp commuted 251 life sentences.
But commutations have become rare since, and under a 1997 amendment to the state constitution, the state’s Board of Pardons must unanimously recommend commutation before the governor can act.
Since the rule change, Gov. Mark Schweiker commuted one sentence and Gov. Ed Rendell commuted five.
Gov. Tom Corbett has commuted none.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Don’t want him to go’
With few ways out, sick inmates live their last days in facilities like Laurel Highlands.
The prison looks like a hospital, but with razor wire out front and vertical bars in the hallways. Patients sit in wheelchairs, breathing bottled oxygen and numbly stare into the distance.
Watching prisoners die has given the inmate volunteers perspective on their own lives and made them think about what it would mean to live the rest of their days — and die — in prison.
“I don’t think that people on the outside really understand what it’s like for a person to die in prison,” said Travis, a volunteer who was at Laurel Highlands and is now out on parole.
Among the men in hospice care at Laurel Highlands is a 96-year-old inmate named Simon — the oldest inmate in the Pennsylvania prison system.
He’s built relationships with the volunteers, and they’ve watched his health slip as he moved into hospice care.
“I don’t want him to go,” Elvis said. “He’s like a grandpa to me.”
Currently, more than 5,000 people in Pennsylvania are serving life without parole, a full 10% of the imprisoned population, a higher percentage than any other state. As people in prison age the cost of incarcerating them goes up while simultaneously their likelihood of recidivism decreases. Many of these people are deeply remorseful about the situations that brought them to prison and want to be able to give back to their communities by sharing their wisdom with today’s youth to keep them from making similar mistakes. PA is one of only 6 states that have no parole options for lifers which makes commutation the only possibility of release for these individuals, many of whom are now senior citizens.
From 1967-1990 about 380 people in PA had their life sentences commuted. In the 1970s approximately 35 people a year were given a second chance. But for the last 25 years, only 6 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released. The dramatic decrease in the use of commutation as a result of the “tough on crime” political climate has contributed to the explosion of the prison population and has left many innocent and reformed people serving excessive sentences with no mercy.
We believe the commutation system must be brought back into use and we have several proposals to revitalize this process:
Reform the Board of Pardons
Depoliticize the Board of Pardons
Currently both the Lieutenant Governor and the Attorney General serve on the board and the Governor has the final say on any releases.
Elected officials are overly-cautious because of concerns that any recidivism will reflect negatively on them and cost them their jobs. This is at the expense of the lives of many people.
We propose that no elected officials serve on the board and that the governor no longer has a vote (though they still would appoint the board). Six states already have this system (Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, South Carolina, Utah).
Diversify the Boardof Pardons
In addition to the current positions for a psychiatrist, a criminal justice expert, and a victims advocate, the board could include:
a formerly incarcerated person
a reentry support professional
a human rights advocate
a member of a police oversight board
a trauma specialist
a restorative justice professional
It is also important for the board to reflect the communities most impacted by violence. It is irresponsible for there to be no Black people on the board when 66% of all lifers and 77% of all juvenile lifers are people of color in Pennsylvania.
Institute Regional Full-Time Pardon Boards
Currently, 5 people with other full-time jobs are tasked with deciding the fate of hundreds of lifers who apply for commutation as well as all other currently incarcerated and released people with felony convictions seeking commutation. There is no possible way that they can take the time to consider each individual’s situation and make an informed decision.
We propose that there be at least 3 regional boards (Eastern, Central, Western) staffed by full-time members to enable them to give the lives in their hands the attention they deserve.
Reform Public Hearings
Give Equal Time to Both Sides
As it stands, the applicant is given 15 minutes to present their case and the District Attorney and Victim’s Advocate are each given 15 minutes, which leads to the opposition getting twice as much time. This imbalance needs to be righted.
Mandate Public Hearings at Certain Benchmarks
Currently, there is no transparency on when a hearing is granted. We believe that granting a hearing should be discretionary in general, but that if someone has served 20 years, is housed in an honors unit, and has been recommended for release by prison officials, they should automatically be eligible for a public hearing.
Reform the Commutation Process
Require a Written Reason for Denial
Three other states require that the board provide a reason for denial to any applicant. This measure ensures that each case has in fact been considered. It also provides the applicant with an understanding of the judgement that has been handed down.
Provide Clear Requirements for Reapplying
In the current system inmates can reapply 2 years after their denial (which itself often takes as much as 3 years) and many continue to do so without any changes in their application, contributing to the backlog of cases. If the board provides both a reason for denial and clear steps to undertake before reapplying it will give prisoners something to work towards, increase the likelihood of commutation being granted, and eliminate unnecessary paperwork.
Require 15 Years of Time Served Before First Lifer Application or 10 Years if Under 27 When Convicted
This is already an unwritten rule. We propose that it be made explicit to discourage wasting resources on early applications. Once it is established, it will no longer be reasonable to merely cite time or the crime itself as a reason for denial.
Acknowledge that All People are Capable of Change
Anyone, no matter what their crime, can change dramatically in 15 years and all cases must be considered on their own merit. Gut reactions to certain crimes keep us from recognizing the complex histories and individual stories of their perpetrators. We must not reduce people to their convicted crime, and have faith in their potential to transform and contribute to society. The question should not be why should someone get a second chance, but why shouldn’t they.
Allow the Wrongfully-Convicted Access to Commutation
Many innocent & wrongly convicted people are sentenced to life, but under current rules, admission of guilt is required for commutation. Emotional maturity, good character, and meaningful participation in prison life should be sufficient when a person asserts their innocence.
Rescind Unanimous Vote Requirement for Lifers
Since 1997 the PA constitution has required a unanimous vote for the commutation of life or death sentences. We recommend a return to a majority vote since this level of agreement has brought the system to a halt.
Eliminate Lifelong Consequences
If a person is granted commutation, after a clearly defined period of parole, they should be completely free from the criminal justice system and have their civil rights restored (voting, running for public office, etc.)
This is platform is a work in progress. For thoughts, concerns, advice and counsel please email LetsGetFreePA@gmail.com