Prison Justice Field Trip – August 28th

Join Let’s Get Free and Decarcerate PA in Harrisburg to:

restore logo copy
​Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers
Currently there are over 5,000 people in PA sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP)- aka The Other Death Penalty. Commutation is one way that lifers can prove they are worthy of a second chance in society.
We are hoping at least 20 people from Pittsburgh will attend!
Are you in?!
Thursday August 28th -
Early in the morning til later in the evening
We will be carpooling from Pittsburgh.
There will be resources for gas and tolls!
Please fill out this online form or contact etta if you wish to go or support the rally.
We will meet with the Governor’s Office!
We will have a press conference at Noon!
We will lobby/educate the judiciary committee about the broken commutation process!
We will build relationships with each other and meet others seeking prison justice from other parts of the state!

What is commutation?
A commuted sentence is a legal sentence which has been adjusted by an official to make the sentence less severe. Classically, commuted sentences come in the form of reduced imprisonment, although commutation can also involve a reduction of fees and other penalties ordered by a judge.

What is Meaningful Commutation?
Meaningful Commutation means revitalizing this legal process of sentence reduction that already exists.  At one time, as many as 12 lifers a year had their sentence commuted. At one time, a life sentence meant 7 years.  It hasn’t always been like this. Excessive sentencing with no redemption in sight.

In order to have your life sentence commuted the applicant must be approved unanimously by the 5 member board of pardons and the governor.

Only 6 people have had their life sentences commuted in the last 15 years. Most recently, Tyrone Werts  of Philadelphia was commuted in June of 2011 after 36 years in prison.
Why August 28th?

Thursday August 28  is the Merit Review Hearing. This is one part of a 17 step process for people sentenced to LWOP to be commuted. Avis Lee’s name may or may not be called at this hearing. The hearing  will go through a list of names of people seeking commutation and the 5 members of the board of pardons will vote yes or no wether they think this person should have a public hearing. So it’s not a dialogue or discussion more like imageannouncing the ways the board voted. AND 4 of the Board are on speaker phone. Avis Lee applied for commutation 3 years ago and may be approved or denied the public hearing on this day. Avis Lee was the look out for a robbery that went terribly wrong in 1980. She was 18.  She has spent over 34 years in prison and we believe she deserves a second chance. Learn more about the case for Avis Lee Here.  This is her 5th attempt at commutation.

There are 192 women serving Life Without Parole in PA.

Since 1990  –  50 women have applied for commutation.
Only 6 were granted a hearing.
Not one received commutation.

Free Her! Rally –Pittsburghers Report By Julia Johnson

Locked Up – Who, For What and Why? Three Questions We Fail to Ask

photo credit Julia Johnson

Jul 22, 2014

Locked Up – Who, For What and Why? Three Questions We Fail to Ask

On June 21st, I stood below the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. alongside hundreds of participants in the first annual Free Her Rally. Many of us had shared experiences of wrongdoing at the hands of the criminal justice system and it was no coincidence that many of us were black women. The reason for the event can be summed up in one chilling statistic; in the past 30 years, the incarceration rate of women has increased by 800% with women of color being disproportionately represented. This is a prime example of what is wrong with our criminal justice system and it is why we stood together and rallied. We not only wanted to share our stories of how this unthinkable statistic has affected us – we were there to take action.


photo by Amanda Johnson

A large part of why I was there that day stemmed directly from a major event in my childhood. Child Protective Services took my four siblings and I from our Mother when I was five years old. I loved my mother dearly, and like most children at that age, I was attached to her at the hip. To put it lightly, being taken from her devastated me. It was explained to me that she was labeled a drug addict and deemed unfit to take care of us.I could not reconcile that statement with what I had experienced; she was a loving, single mother who did an excellent job of providing for us. She was heavily involved in our school life, was always the first to volunteer for the PTA and even stepped in as lunch lady at times. This abrupt removal from my home left me asking questions and seeking answers. I was rightfully angry from my experience with CPS, but more importantly, I now spend my days advocating for policies that do not unjustly inflict trauma and ruin the lives of others. I know there is another way to shape our criminal justice system. It can be principled, compassionate and backed by evidence of success.

My politics, and by extension my passions, are shaped by statistics and common sense. For example, nearly twenty-four million people in the United States abuse and are addicted to illegal narcotics. Medical professionals tell us they are suffering from a disease. How can we help the people struggling with this detrimental and debilitating illness? Unfortunately, many people (specifically law enforcement officials) will tell you they should be thrown in jail.

Handcuffs do not cure addictions, so why would you send someone to jail for having an illness? If our tax dollars were used to wean people off of drugs rather than the failed approach of throwing them in a cage, we can significantly reduce the supply and demand of drugs in our country. This has been the successful policy of Portugal where all drugs have been decriminalized since 2001. As a result, “the proportion of drug offenders in the Portuguese prison system fell from 44 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2008” and the country has drastically decreased its rates of addiction and disease transmission. There are many success stories from around the globe of alternative policies that have proven to reduce the use of narcotics. We can do the same for our country.

mothers in charge

photo of Mothers in Charge by Amanda Johnson

Another defect of our broken criminal justice system: our prisons are filled with people of color. When you look at the incarceration rates for drug possession, blacks make up “12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.

Why are blacks disproportionately represented in the rate of drug arrests? Simple: racial profiling. While the Jim Crow Era came to an end after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prejudice and racism in our society did not go away. Stereotypes of blacks as dangerous criminals and good for nothing have seeped into the mindsets of our law enforcement and judiciary officials. This has allowed for them to target people of color and give them harsher punishments. Blacks are not only arrested at higher rates, they are locked up for longer periods of time.

Understanding what racial profiling is and how prevalent it has become is key to changing our failing criminal justice system. By criminalizing drugs and targeting people of color as suspect, there are more black people in chains today than at any point of the African Slave Trade. Our country must come to terms with how racism is destroying entire communities and gutting our economic potential as we unwittingly continue the cycle of poverty.

While these two issues are harmful enough, their negative impact has been compounded and inflated by the Prison Industrial Complex and mass incarceration. The prison industry lobbies for harsher penalties for drug use and other non-violent crimes, resulting in strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and possession. This is the leading cause of our prison population quadrupling since 1980. Currently, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.4 million of our citizens behind bars, the majority of which are for drug offenses, costing us between $21,000 – $33,000 per inmate. This is inhuman and simply put, not sustainable. We must implement smarter, alternative policies for the sake of our families and our communities.

pittsburgh delegation

part of the Pittsburgh Delegation

As I stood below the Washington Monument and listened to the passionate demand to end the drug war, racist policies and mass incarceration, I knew I was not alone in my anger and outrage. I made a promise to myself to convert my passion into action: to advocate for the Smarter Sentencing Act, Ban the Box initiatives, anti-racial profiling proposals, harm reduction policies, regulation of illicit drugs by health clinics and funding for rehabilitation centers. Will you do the same? As speaker Ronnel Guy, Executive Director of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing said – “It’s movement building time!

A Living Chance : Storytelling to End Life Without Parole in California

A Living Chance is a multimedia storytelling project created in collaboration with people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California’s women’s prisons. People serving LWOP describe themselves as the “lost population” of the prisoner rights movement. Their sentences are so severe, they seem impossible to reverse. The majority of people serving LWOP are survivors of childhood abuse and intimate partner violence. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trials. Through visual storytelling, A Living Chance will humanize the LWOP population and make visible the struggles and resiliency of these people who are, essentially, sentenced to die in prison.

Through audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs we will document and archive the stories of people sentenced to LWOP. These stories will be compiled into a website and publication to be used for public education, broader campaign work against LWOP, and to support individual cases. This project emerges from the current organizing inside prison—specifically the work of incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison.

By carrying the voices of this lost population beyond the prison walls, A Living Chance has the potential to affect cultural and legislative change, thus giving those sentenced to LWOP in California a living chance at freedom.

Go to the donation page here: A Living Chance donation page

March with us at Pittsburgh Pride

Members of Let’s Get Free will march with New Voices Pittsburgh – This Sunday! Meetings at 11am at Boulevard of the Allies and Grant. New Voices says – Are you ready to show your #BlackPride?!

Boulevard of the Allies and Cherry Street – click here for a map and directions.
Let any of the Pride Staff know you are with New Voices Pittsburgh when you arrive and they will direct you to our specific position for the March.
If you have any issue, call or text 412.450.0290.

Calling all Black #LGBTQ & allies to walk with @NewVoicesPgh in the Pride March, 6/15,  Text 412.450.0290 to walk. #NVP #ReproJustice After the march we will engage and tell the story of our two proud sisters behind bars! Free Avis! Free Charmaine!



New ACLU Report Examines Devastating Impact of Solitary Confinement on Women


Date of Alert:  Thursday, April 24, 2014

Today, the ACLU released Worse than Second Class: Solitary Confinement of Women in the United States. Recognizing that women in solitary are often ignored, the report examines the gendered impact of solitary and issues a series of recommendations. These recommendations assume that vulnerable populations will continue to be incarcerated and focus on ameliorating the harmful effects of solitary.

Further Harming Those with Mental Illness

Nearly seventy-five percent of incarcerated womenhave been diagnosed with mental illness, a rate much higher than that of their male counterparts. The report notes that a disturbing number of women with mental illness are held in solitary, sometimes for behavior that is beyond their control. Mental health experts recognize that long-term isolation is harmful for anyone, but particularly for those with pre-existing mental illness.

Recommendation: People (of all genders) with mental illness should never be held in isolation. Furthermore, women should be evaluated by competent and qualified practitioners to assess their medical and mental health conditions before being placed in solitary.

Re-Traumatizing Survivors of Past Abuse and Increasing Likelihood of Future Abuse

The majority of incarcerated women have reported past physical or sexual abuse. The lack of contact, human interaction and mental stimulation contribute to psychological deterioration for people who have experienced abuse. In addition, across the country, women in solitary areregularly supervised by male guards even when showering, changing clothes and using the toilet.

Solitary confinement also places a woman at greater risk for physical and/or sexual abuse by prison staff. Isolated from the general population, these abuses are easier for staff to hide.

Recommendation: Women’s histories of mental illness, trauma, abuse and sexual assault should be taken into account before placing them in solitary.

Punishing Women Who Report Abuse or Neglect

Prison staff utilize solitary to punish women for reporting abuse or neglect. Women who have complained about sexual abuse by prison staff are frequently placed in solitary confinement while their complaints are investigated. The threat of solitary often discourages other women from reporting abuse or neglect.

Women who report neglect have also been placed in isolation. The report highlights the case of Carol Lester, a 73-year-old grandmother who was placed in solitary confinement in a CCA-run prison for almost five weeks after complaining about inadequate medical care. She filed suit against the prison, arguing that placing her in solitary was retaliation for her complaints. She was released on probation/parole shortly after her story hit the media.

Recommendation: Solitary should never be used as a retaliatory measure. Qualified auditors should be specifically tasked with ensuring that people who report abuse are not placed in solitary confinement.

Punishing Children

Noting that the majority of incarcerated women are mothers, the report found that placing women in solitary negatively affects their children. Many women’s prisons are far from the areas in which mothers and children lived before incarceration. The distance, travel time and expense make visitation difficult and sometimes infrequent.

Placement in solitary makes these visits even more difficult. Visitation for people in solitary is often limited. Visits are often conducted through a glass partition or, as some states move towards video conferencing for visits, through a video monitor. Neither option allows a child the opportunity to hug her mother or hold hands. At other times, people in solitary are not allowed visits at all. Both undermine a mother’s efforts to remain connected to her children.

Recommendation: Contact visits with children should be allowed for all people. Family visitation should be encouraged.

Harming Pregnant Women

In addition to being inhumane, placing pregnant women in solitary confinement often jeopardizes their access to prenatal care.

Although the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (known as the Bangkok Rules) prohibit the placement of pregnant or nursing women in solitary confinement, jails and prisons across the U.S. continue to place pregnant and postpartum women in solitary.

Recommendation: Pregnant and nursing women should never be held in solitary confinement.

Isolating Trans Women

Solitary confinement is also utilized for trans women sent to male prisons. Justifying this placement as “protective custody” rather than punitive segregation, prisons place trans women in solitary units where they have little to no access to human contact, educational programs, exercise or recreation. Trans women in protective custody are subject to the same rules as people in punitive segregation—they are allowed out of their cell only one hour each day and allowed to shower only a few times a week. In addition, placing trans women in solitary increases their vulnerability to harassment and assault by prison staff.

Recommendation: Prison officials should not utilize isolation to protect vulnerable people. Those who may require extra protection should have access to the same programs, privileges and services as people in the general population.

The report also recommends:

  • That solitary be used only as a last resort and for as short a duration as possible;
  • That all jails and prisons have uniform written policies about solitary confinement practices and procedures. Policies should include written notification informing people about the reason for and duration of their placement; processes by which a person can earn privileges, such as access to commissary and visitation; and ways in which a person can earn release from solitary;
  • That all jails and prisons be required to regularly and publicly report details on people held in solitary, including the number, gender, duration, available alternatives and the reason why these alternatives were not utilized. There are currently no uniform state or federal data available about solitary confinement.

Although the ACLU recognizes that a high percentage of women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, none of the recommendations focus on reducing the potential impact of solitary confinement by reducing the number of people sent to jails and prisons. All of the above recommendations assume that people with mental illnesses, histories of trauma and abuse, pregnancies or primary caregiving responsibilities will continue to be incarcerated. Their recommendations are important steps for ensuring the safety of people currently behind bars.

But more ambitious goals would call for building alternatives not just to solitary confinement but to the default policy of locking people up in the first place.

Get on the Bus! Free Her Rally in DC!!

freeherimage copyFamilies For Justice As Healing presents:

Free Her Rally

6/21/14 10am-2pm, National Mall, D.C.

Contact New Voices if you want to go from Pittsburgh:

Support incarcerated women like @FreeMarissaNow at the Free HER Rally, 6/21 in Washington, DC. Ride with the #Pgh delegation – #NVP is providing scholarships! Text 412.450.0290 if interested. #ReproJustice #WOC

Calling all women and supporters to
(1) raise awareness of the increase in the rate of incarceration of women in the United States and the impact on our children and communities,
(2) Demand an end to voter disenfranchisement for people with felony convictions and
(3)  Insure President Obama commutes the sentences of women and men in the federal system who have applied for commutation.

The number of women in prison, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. This must change.

Operation Public Hearing Support for Avis Lee!

All Hands on Deck!!
Let’s Get Free The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee
is preparing for the hopeful and potential good news that Avis Lee will be granted a public hearing.
avis crossstichAvis was sentenced to life without parole under the Murder Felony Conviction Rule and has served 34 years in prison for her role as lookout for a robbery which ended in the unfortunate death of Mr. Robert Walker.
We believe she deserves a second chance. More information on Avis’s case here
Avis applied for commutation in 2011 and could be assigned a public hearing any day now and we want to pack the courtroom. Will you come to Harrisburg with us to show your support? If you can’t attend can you help in other ways? In addition to attending the public hearing you can support by helping with logistics, blasting your social media and email contacts, or lending a car for others to use in carpool.  All help is greatly appreciated! Fill out the form below or contact etta at 443-603-6964 – writealetta(at)gmail

 And..If  You Haven’t Already, Please Take 5 Minutes To Sign the Petition This small act DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE. We want to walk into that hearing with 1,000 online signatures in addition to all the physical ones we have received.


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