Opinions: Commutation and Update on Lifer’s Bill

Commutation Update with focus on women

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! 

Naomi Blount speaking in Pittsburgh on October 19, 2019

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. There is 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.

The 2020 dates for merit reviews and public hearings have yet to be posted.

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.

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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.

Shandre Delany, Saundra Cole, etta cetera, Ngani Ndimbie, Donna Hill at CADBI rally

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!

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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.

October 23, 2019 Photo by NateArt

 

Living with Murder

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 11.16.40 PMThere are more than 2,000 people in prisons around the country who were convicted of murder as juveniles and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But recent Supreme Court decisions have found these sentences unconstitutional and set in motion a process for re-evaluating these “juvenile lifers.”

To close out the first season of The FRONTLINE Dispatch, we have three stories about juvenile lifers. This first is the story of a violent crime committed by a juvenile lifer whose second chance went horribly wrong. It is an intensely personal documentary, but it carries far-reaching implications that extend into public life and into the heart of our political and correctional systems.

This piece was produced by Samantha Broun and Jay Allison. It was originally made in 2016 for the public radio website, Transom.org. Listen to that version of the story here. We are presenting an update to a version that aired later that year on This American Life.

At 15, after committing a brutal murder, Kempis Songster was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But now he has a chance to be free, thanks to a series of recent Supreme Court rulings that found the sentences of thousands of inmates who, like Songster, committed their crimes as juveniles, to be unconstitutional. Listen Here

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If the Risk Is Low, Let Them Go

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Farid Mujahid, co-founder of Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP) Photo by Dave Sanders

How a man who served 33 years on a 15-to-life sentence is pushing New York’s intransigent parole board to release violent offenders who have aged out of crime, the fastest growing segment of the prison population.

Published in NYC Indypendent By Renee Feltz June 29, 2016  Issue # 215

Back in 1978, Mujahid Farid had already decided to turn his life around when he entered the New York prison system to begin a 15-year-to-life sentence for attempted murder of an NYPD officer.

Held in Rikers Island while his trial was pending, Farid studied for — and passed — a high school equivalency exam. Over the next decade and a half “behind the walls” he earned four college degrees, including a master’s in sociology from SUNY New Paltz and another in ministry from New York Theological Seminary.

In the late 1980s he helped establish an HIV/AIDS peer education project that grew into the acclaimed program known as PACE, Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education, and began teaching sociology courses to people seeking their alcohol and substance Abuse counseling certification.

By 1993, Farid had served his minimum sentence and was eligible for a hearing before the New York Parole Board. Given how hard he had worked to redeem himself, no one could blame him for being optimistic that they would agree to his release.

Instead, they spent five minutes asking him curt questions focused entirely on his original offense. Then the hearing ended.

“Not one bit of my progress and rehabilitative efforts mattered,” Farid recalls. “I was denied parole because of something that was immutable, that could never change.”

He was denied parole “again and again,” until his 10th attempt in 2011, when he was 61 years old.

“Over the years, the process breaks a lot of people down,” he says. “Many take it personally. I realized it was common parole board practice.”

•   •   •

Now aged 66, Farid recently met me at 8:30 am on a Monday morning at his office in Harlem, where he had been at work since the building opened hours earlier. In a firm and encouraging tone, tinged with polite impatience, he explained how upon his release from prison, he couldn’t forget “the broken parole system I had dealt with” and the men he left behind.

New York’s prison population has greyed rapidly in the last 15 years. Even as the number of people locked up fell by 23 percent, those aged 50 or older ballooned nearly 85 percent, reaching 9,200 people. This echoes a national trend of the elderly being the fastest growing part of the prison population. By 2030, they will number 400,000, or nearly one-third of the U.S. prison population.

While 50 may not seem that old, most medical experts agree that incarcerated people age much faster than those on the outside. They suffer higher rates of chronic illness and conditions related to drug and alcohol abuse, such as liver disease and hepatitis. Data from the New York Department of Corrections show prisoners aged 51 to 60 have the highest rate of mortality due to illness of any age group behind bars.

Most of these older prisoners are serving long sentences for committing violent crimes. Their first hurdle to release is a parole board that refuses to provide them with fair and objective hearings because of their original offense, even though they have not posed a threat to society in years.

“The parole board is co-opted by the punishment paradigm,” Farid says. “Even though the elderly have the lowest of risk of committing a crime upon release, they are being denied similarly to everyone else.”

Meanwhile, this public health and humanitarian crisis has gone unaddressed despite a renewed interest in criminal justice reform that has focused narrowly on nonviolent offenders.

So in 2013, Farid founded a group called Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP.

“We realized we had to change the narrative from talking about long termers and lifers — which people in the community couldn’t really connect with — to talking about the elderly,” he says.

RAPP’s slogan—- “If the Risk is Low, Let Them Go” — draws on the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s own data.

According to the state’s most recently available report on recidivism by age, those released after the age of 65 return for new commitment at a rate of just 1 percent, compared to a 40-60 percent return rate for the general prison population

Farid Mujahid at a meeting of Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP). Photo: Dave Sanders

•   •   •

In 2011, the same year Farid was released, New York actually passed a law that requires the parole board to adopt a more forward-looking approach when deciding whether to release someone. Tacked onto the budget bill as an amendment, it instructed the board to “establish written guidelines” that include rational standards that measure a potential parolee’s current risk to society, in addition to noting their initial crime.

New York is one of at least 23 other states that measures those standards with a risk and assessment tool called COMPAS, which has proven to be more accurate than human intuition in predicting the likelihood that a prisoner will break the law again if freed.

“Even though COMPAS isn’t perfect, it gives us an advantage,” Farid notes, “because the aging population we are focused on scores low risk.”

It seemed like a victory. But even after COMPAS was adopted, the parole board waited until December of 2014 to issue formal rules on how to use the tool in its decisions. Afterwards, most of its denials remained focused on the criminal history of potential parolees.

This was the case for Dempsey Hawkins, who had been denied parole since he became eligible in 2000. Hawkins murdered his teenage girlfriend in 1976 when he was 16 years old. He had spent his entire adult life in prison and made extensive efforts to rehabilitate in the other areas the parole board would consider: he completed counseling programs and educational courses and had an excellent behavior record.

But in 2002, the board said Hawkins had “demonstrated no remorse nor compassion for her family,” even though he had written a long letter of apology to the family taking full responsibility for his crime with an extended discussion of shame, remorse and consideration of the family’s pain and suffering.

Then in 2004, all but two words of the board’s written decision were about the teenager who committed the crime, not the man before them: “We note your positive programming but find more compelling your total disregard for human life.”

During the hearing, Hawkins asked if there was anything he could do to “increase my chances for my next hearing.” A commissioner responded, “You’ve done many of the right things. You’ve continued to program well, and stayed out of trouble. Clearly, there’s no, you know, 14-year-old girls here to kill in prison, so we have to consider the crime.”

After the 2011 reform, Hawkins continued to be denied parole. In 2012, the board refused his release but noted that “[c]onsideration has been given to the assessment of your risks and needs for success on parole, any program completion, and any satisfactory behavior.”

In 2014, board members spent most of his brief hearing asking about the crime he had committed more than 35 years earlier and denied him again.

•   •   •

At this point, Farid’s legal instincts kicked in from his days as a jailhouse lawyer.

“I always knew the parole board was contemptuous,” he recalls.

He suspected board members were now violating state law by failing to consider all factors in a person’s record when deciding whether or not to release them. So he began advising prisoners to file what is called an “Article 78” with the state Supreme Court, which is basically a request for a judge to review a decision made by a New York State agency.

Some judges responded positively and ordered the board to hold a new hearing — called a de novo hearing. Farid realized the parole board would likely issue similar denials. But this would allow a prisoner to then file a contempt of court motion.

“It is not common, especially for someone behind the walls, to get a contempt order in their favor against government authorities,” Farid says. “But the dynamics at play now are that the courts feel they are being disrespected by the parole board.”

“One of the real positive things about a contempt petition is it allows the person to escape an onerous process called exhaustion,” he adds, pausing. “I don’t want to lose you on this.”

Before a prisoner can even ask a court to review the parole board’s decision, they have to complete every other means of appeal. While this process can take as long as a year, he notes, “a judge can review a contempt petition within a month.”

In May of 2015, Judge Sandra Sciortino issued the first contempt of court decision for the parole board’s “failure to have complied” with her order to give a prisoner named Michael Cassidy a de novo hearing “consistent with the law.”

Cassidy was convicted in 1984 of killing his girlfriend and had covered up the murder until her body was discovered. Over the past three decades in prison he had worked hard to redeem himself, and his favorable COMPAS ratings predicted a low risk for violence, re-arrest, absconding or criminal involvement. But after his new hearing, the board again said his release “would be incompatible with the welfare of society and would so deprecate the serious nature of the crime as to undermine respect for the law.”

Judge Sciortino responded that while “the Parole Board retains substantial discretion, and need not enunciate every factor considered, a denial that focused almost exclusively on the inmate’s crime while failing to take into account other relevant statutory factors, or merely giving them a ‘passing mention’ [is] inadequate, arbitrary and capricious.”

The state appealed. Then about a year later, a second judge held the board in contempt. This time the case involved John Mackenzie, an older prisoner who sought Farid’s advice after reading instructions in a packet distributed by RAPP that includes boilerplate samples of how to file a contempt motion.

“It’s not a lot of paperwork,” he says. “I explain some of the complications a person may encounter so they don’t get summarily dismissed.”

Mackenzie’s motion succeeded.

“It is undisputed that it is unlawful for the parole board to deny parole solely on the basis of the underlying conviction,” an exasperated New York Supreme Court Judge Maria Rosa wrote in her May 24 response to the board’s denial of parole to Mackenzie. “Yet the court can reach no other conclusion but that this is exactly what the parole board did in this case.”

MacKenzie was convicted of murdering a Long Island police officer in 1975, and went on to turn his life around, earning degrees and even establishing a victims impact program. The board has denied him parole eight times since he became eligible in 2000. He is now 69 years old.

“This petitioner has a perfect institutional record for the past 35 years,” Judge Rosa wrote in her order, as she demanded to know: “If parole isn’t granted to this petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted?”

She ordered the state to pay a $500-per-day fine for each day it delayed giving him another de novo hearing. Again, the state appealed.

In June a higher court dealt reformers a setback when it reversed the Cassidy decision. It said the board had recognized factors other than his original crime when it noted he “had serious alcohol problems since he was a teenager,” and concluding he had “a high probability of a return to substance abuse upon his reentry into society” even though he had been sober since 1997.

Cassidy’s lawyer Alan Lewis plans to ask the Court of Appeals to reinstate the lower court’s contempt finding.

“Every litigant has an obligation to abide by a court’s order, government agencies included,” Lewis told The Indypendent.

He praised RAPPs work on similar cases, saying, “It raises awareness of the plight of aging inmates and the injustices sometimes suffered by them.”

“Judges are starting to realize there is this huge problem,” agrees MacKenzie’s lawyer, Kathy Manley. She says other attorneys have sought her advice and are filing additional contempt motions.

•   •   •

As these contempt cases wind through the legal system, no judge has taken the next step to override the parole board and release a prisoner who has been denied a fair hearing, out of deference to separation of powers. But Manley notes this concept can be applied in another way.

“If the original judge sentences a person to 30-years-to-life, then once they reach the minimum point there is an expectation they should be released if they’ve done well,” Manley explains. “But in my client’s case the judge said the board is applying its own penal philosophy.”

The former chair of the state’s parole board, Edward Hammock, made a similar point in an essay titled, “A Perspective on Some Procedures That Unfairly Delay Prisoner Release.”

“Some of these determinations fly in the face of judicial sentencing and sentences that flow from plea agreements between the court, counsel for the defendant, and the prosecutor,” Hammock observed.

Ultimately, the parole board falls under the authority of the executive branch. Its members are appointed by the governor for 6-year terms. But beyond backing the reform in 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo has done little to address the problem, and cut the board down from 19 to 14 members during his first year in office and appointed as its chair Tina Stanford, former Director of the state’s Office of Victim Services. She has been Chairwoman of the Crime Victims Board since 2007 and before that was an Assistant District Attorney and prosecutor.

Advocates note New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office could also decline to file appeals as it represents the board in the contempt of court cases. RAPP is currently approaching state lawmakers to ask them to request that Schneiderman issue an advisory to the board in response to the contempt rulings.

Meanwhile these lawmakers continue to consider additional legislative reform, such as the SAFE Parole Act, which would require parole hearings to take place in person instead of via video stream. It would also record the hearings, which are currently closed to the public. But this is the second year it failed to reach a vote.

•   •   •

As the legislature’s 2016 session ends and advocates wait to hear from the attorney general whether he plans to reign in the state’s parole board, RAPP continues its community outreach. When the group’s older members meet with policy makers and the public, their very presence helps give a face to elders who are still behind bars and could be included in the push to end mass incarceration.

At a recent RAPP meeting, 71-year-old Abdul Rahman, who served 45 years in prison, apologized for being late, noting he was suffering from a cold that had “slowed me down.” At the same time, he pulled out a stack of business cards he collected after speaking to advocates for the elderly in Brooklyn.

“Many of them approached me afterwards with great interest,” he said.

The meeting was a mix of people over age 60 who had been released from prison in recent years or had loved ones still inside, and interns in their twenties. One asked for advice on discussing the needs of elders during an upcoming exchange with the city’s Department for the Aging or DFTA.

“They should be ready for more people getting out than before,” Farid responded.

“Emphasize their post-prison potential and the contributions they can make to society,” added Laura Whitehorn. “People should be judged on who they are now.”

Whitehorn spent 14 years behind bars for a conspiracy to blow up symbols of domestic racism and U.S. foreign policy, and has helped ensure aging political prisoners and their analysis are included in RAPP’s efforts.

This comes across in the lineup of a July 9 event RAPP is hosting with the Senior Citizen & Health Committee of Community Board 12 in Queens, an area that is home to 10 senior centers and where many former inmates are being released. The event includes a workshop titled “Breaking the Cycle of Permanent Punishment,” and one of the speakers is Sekou Odinga, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who spent 33 years in federal and state custody.

“We incorporate the political prisoner issue in our work because we are dealing with the punishment paradigm as the root of what we have to get at,” Farid notes.

In early June, a former Black Panther locked up on charges related to his activities more than three decades ago was denied parole, and another lost his Article 78 challenge: Robert Seth Hayes and Maliki Shakur Latine, who both have at exemplary records, and COMPAS scores that show them to be at low risk of reoffending. Hayes suffers from Hepatitis C and Type II diabetes.

“These are the people who I consider to have been the the canaries in the coal mine,” Farid says. “I don’t think we’re going to really see anything substantive take place unless we see it happen with them.”

It is another example of how RAPP is making sure that no one is left behind.

“It’s not about getting handrails in the prisons,” Farid says of RAPP’s strategy. “It’s about getting people out.”

Then he turns to answer the phone call of a prisoner who says he’s been denied parole, again.


RAPP EVENT on JULY 9

Release Aging People from Prison presents speakers and workshops on Saturday, July 9 from 9-3pm at the Queens Educational Opportunity Center, located at 158-29 Archer Avenue. The theme will be “Elders in Prison: Bringing Them Home & Rebuilding Our Communities.” Details: RAPPcampaign.com


Paroled in a Wheelchair

Expenses from medical and geriatric care for elderly prisoners mean they cost two to four times as much as others. But there is a human cost to delaying their release as well. 

In May, RAPP member Mohaman Koti died just two months after he was released to a nursing home in Staten Island. His birth certificate says he was born in 1928, though his mother insisted the year was 1926. 

“We’ve got too many old people in wheelchairs like I am locked up,” Koti said just weeks before he died.

He was convicted in 1978 of attempted murder of an NYPD officer who he said “tried to shake me down for money and I wouldn’t give it to him, so we got to fighting.” The officer recovered, and Koti was offered a plea deal of seven and a half years. He insisted on a trial, and got 25 years to life. 

In the decades that followed, Koti gained respect from both inmates and guards for counseling young men who found themselves sent upstate to some of the most violent prisons in the country. He became eligible for parole in 2003, but like so many others, he got the usual denials. 

When he appeared before the board for a sixth time in 2013, he was so hard of hearing that commissioners had to keep repeating their questions to him. By then he was also suffering from several long-term illnesses. But the board decided he was still at risk of committing another crime, citing the nature of his offense.

After a judge ruled the denials were irrational, he was given a new hearing, and commissioners granted Koti parole in September 2014. But he was then ordered to serve an additional year in prison at a federal medical center in North Carolina because of a pending charge from the time of his arrest nearly four decades ago.

On March 16 of this year Koti was finally released. It was a pyrrhic victory. 

“The kind of life Koti lived when he got out — confined to a nursing home because he was not able to care for himself — shows that it was ludicrous to think he would have posed a threat to society all these years,” said his longtime lawyer, Susan Tipograph.

— Renée Feltz


The Indypendent is a monthly New York City-based newspaper and website. Subscribe to our print edition here. You can make a donation or become a monthly sustainer here.

Life Means Death for Thousands of PA Prisoners

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Death in prison is not rare.

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 relatPublicSource-logo-square-REDionships 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.”

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.

Reposted with permission from Public Source. Link to original article here.

Let’s Get Free’s Vision for Restoring Meaningful Commutation in Pennsylvania

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

  1. 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).

  1. Diversify the Board of 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

Sentencing Reform, Grandparents Behind Bars and Reform Efforts Worldwide

Incarcerated Grandparents: Unlocking the Secrets of Trauma, Abuse, and Resilience from our Elders in Prison Interview with Dr. Tina Maschi

Graying Prisoners August.18, 2013 By Jamie Fellner New York Times

Life Goes On – The Historic Rise of Life Sentences in America – A slide show with lots of statistics – December 11, 2013 by Ashley Nellis from The Sentencing Project

Prisoners of Age by Ron Levine – “Prisoners of Age” is a series of photographs and interviews with elderly inmates and corrections personnel conducted in prisons both in the United States and Canada since 1996.

Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty edited by Charles Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat — Chapter  6 by Rachel Barkow– Life Without Parole and the Hope for Real Sentencing Reform

What The U.S. Can Learn From Prison Reform Efforts Throughout The World  By April 10, 2015 Huffington Post

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photo by Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
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photo by Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age