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.