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
Repair the World Pittsburgh is partnering with The Kelly Strayhorn Theatre for a Zoom social hour. Guest speakers, including folks from Let’s Get Free, who will discuss the ways by which art can be used for activism. Grab a drink, log on, and learn with us!
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!
Register for the zoom room HERE!
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.
4 women and two young ones stand with facemasks behind a banner that says Dignity Act Now PA
The Pittsburgh arm of the Dignity Act Now Collective and community members of Allegheny County held a car action and press conference outside of the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) on May 12, 2020. Our goal was to bring awareness of the conditions at the jail and the harm that it is causing the black women and caregivers who are held there. We have seen the ACJ:
Hold a 20-year-old Black woman, Kimberly Andrews, in solitary confinement for over 70 days;
Continually place Black Trans Women in male facilities;
Leave our community warehoused with no hot water as temperatures dropped to 45 degrees;
Place our community members in solitary confinement as a result of behavior which are common symptoms of their mental health conditions.
This was before COVID19. This was before we recognized racism as a public health crisis in Allegheny County. This was before we know that Pittsburgh is the worst place in the US for a Black Woman to Live. Recognizing the medical apartheid state that Black Women in Pittsburgh already have to survive in, in addition to being locked in the Allegheny County Jail in this current COVID-19 pandemic; we know that their conditions will not improve without us calling truth to power. In light of these harms, we demand the courts:
End cash bail
- Prioritize the release of Black Mammas from the ACJ.
Carmen Alexander of New Voices and Brandi Fisher of Alliance for Police Accountability can be seen speaking below in front of the ACJ. Check out the Pgh City Paper’s coverage here.
The Dignity Act Now Collective was founded by Mary’s Daughter and comprised of Z’akayiah House, Alliance for Police Accountability, Let’s Get Free, New Voices for Reproductive Justice and the Radical Youth Collective.
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:
- Tag Governor Wolf, Lt. Governor Fetterman, and your state reps so they hear our demands!
- 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
Sign our petition demanding @GovernorTomWolf @FettermanLt use their power to expedite the release of aging & vulnerable ppl in PA prisons during COVID-19! https://www.change.org/p/governor-tom-wolf-release-of-aging-and-vulnerable-people-in-pennsylvania-prisons-at-risk-of-covid-19
And here are some graphics to use in your posts:
- Share our birthday card video to Gov Wolf!
- Instagram (click on individual photos to download/save):
- Twitter (click on photo to download/save):
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
CONTACT: Alan Lewandowski, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.”
In the 2018 article, Release programs for sick and elderly prisoners could save millions. But states rarely use them, author Gina Barton provides an overview of programs in different states highlighting Wisconsin. “..hundreds of the state’s elderly prisoners — many of whom prison officials acknowledge pose little or no risk of committing new crimes — aren’t allowed to apply, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found. ”
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.
Tips for applying for Medical Release in PA
- 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.
Details about contest here
Goal: To raise awareness about death by incarceration, particularly uplifting the experiences of women and trans people sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania.
Note: Death by Incarceration [DBI] is another way saying Life Without Parole [LWOP]
Theme: We have surveyed all the women and trans lifers in PA serving DBI that we know of, and over 50 people responded. They have sent slogans, messages to the public and ideas for you to use. When you sign up for the contest you will have access to this information to help you in the creation of your art.
We have identified the following topics that we particularly want to uplift, you are encouraged to create your art with one of these focuses in mind: Aging in Prison, Commutation, Compassionate/Medical Release, Restorative Justice, Redemption & Resilience, Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence as it relates to DBI and Crime & Safety. Resources on these topics are here
Who can enter? Anyone can enter. There will be two categories, one for artists in prison and one for artists in solidarity. You can enter more than one piece. Please fill out this form to enter. To sign up an artist you know in prison, fill out their information on the form and we will send them a contest packet.
What is the medium? 2-D images preferred. Painting, drawing, watercolor, screenprint, digital graphic, cross stitch.
What is the size? No bigger than 25” inches by 21” No smaller than 8.5” by 11” Portrait or Vertical orientation is preferred but not mandatory.
What’s in it for you? All contest submissions will be shown at Boom Concepts for the entire month of August in Pittsburgh, with the show opening on Friday August 7th, 2020 (potentially additional shows) All participants will receive documentation from the show. Potential prize money. With your consent, your image may end up in a newspaper ad, as a poster or on a city bus. You will be generating awareness about an important cause. We are not planning to sell the art at this time.
When: Contest submissions due by June 30th. (Running late? Contact us)
Mail artwork to: Let’s Get Free – 460 Melwood Ave. #300 Pittsburgh, PA 15213
There is no entry fee. Artists incarcerated in Pennsylvania can be reimbursed for postage cost to mail art.
People’s Choice Cash Prize: There will be two categories: Artists in Prison and Artists in Solidarity. 6 prizes in each category.
2nd Place: $250
3rd Place: $100
Honorable Mention: $50 (3 recipients for each category)
Judging: The contest will be judged by the public the entire month of the show. All participants will be notified within a month.
Public Service Announcements: Let’s Get Free will draw from all the entries to pick out designs for the public graphic campaign. This campaign could take the form of posters, bus or newspaper advertisements. In other words, you don’t have to be a Public Choice winner for your art to get turned into an ad.
Questions? Contact: email@example.com
Contest website: Life Cycles Toward Freedom
“We are not what we have done. We are who we have become. “–quote by Sheena’ King
Over 50 people gathered in Pittsburgh and hundreds in Philadelphia on Tuesday the 25th, encouraging Attorney General Josh Shapiro to show mercy for people sentenced to life who have proven themselves to be deserving a second chance.
“We are seeing political opportunism from Shapiro,” said A’Brianna Morgan, an organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia. “He claims to want more rehabilitated and innocent people to have a chance to come home, but he has condemned more people to die in prison than any other Board member.”
The Board of Pardons is chaired by Lt. Governor Fetterman, who has made reforming Pennsylvania’s clemency system a priority. This has given hope to thousands serving life without parole sentences seeking a second chance. Those hopes were dashed when Shapiro moved to deny many exemplary candidates for commutation at the December Board of Pardons hearing. Rally-goers are asking that Shapiro vote with Lt. Governor Fetterman when he votes in favor of recommending a candidate for commutation
“When it comes to commutation, Josh Shapiro has the opportunity to recognize a concept of justice that believes in mercy, and send the message that people are capable of transformation,” said Kempis Songster, communications lead at Amistad Law Project. “That kind of hope is foundational to our humanity. There is no healing for our communities without it.”
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