Let’s Get Free Seeks out the Stories of Women Lifers

In the winter of 2014, with the help of  Avis Lee, Let’s Get Free (LGF) created a short survey to learn more about the lives and histories of female lifers in Pennsylvania. Focusing on the women’s prison SCI-Cambridge Springs, where LGF members Charmaine Pfender and Avis Lee are currently incarcerated, we sent surveys to 27 inmates, all of whom have Pennsylvania’s mandatory “life without parole” sentence. Our goal was to learn more about the personal narratives of the women who have these sentences. Pennsylvania is one of only 6 states that have no parole options for lifers, which makes commutation the only possibility of release for these individuals, and which requires an admission of guilt, which is not an option for all inmates. For the last 25 years, only 6 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released.

We quickly received 18 responses to our questionnaire, many from inmates who were anxious to have their voices heard for the first time in decades.

This is the beginning of a series on the Let’s Get Free blog that will feature their voices, stories, and perspectives. Our first post is two poems that were submitted by Tracey “Nadirah” Shaw, #OD4315, who has been incarcerated for over 20 years:

We’re More Than Just A NumberLGF - Tracey Nadirah Shaw #OD4315-page-011
We’re More Than Just A Number
of that I have no doubt
So much aggression and humiliation
This we can do without
We’re More Than Just A Number
Why can’t you see?
We strive to be humble
But that’s only part of me.
We’re More Than Just A Number
We have families and friendships too
So the next time you criticize or judge US
THINK of how EASILY WE CAN BE YOU!

Here I Sit Doing Time
Here I sit doing time
for a crime I didn’t commit.
Here I sit doing time
when will they see there was not
enough evidence to convict me
But here I sit doing life.
Here I sit doing time
When the GUILTY one is running free
Here I sit doing time
for his crime, WHY! could he not just let us be free
We no longer wanted him couldn’t he see.
Now MY Angels are looking down on me.
For I know the God will listen and give me
strength to go on because He knows I’m INNOCENT.
He’ll open my eyes to see a brand new dawn.
One day this time will be over as I sit and wait
One day again I’ll feel FREEDOM as I
proudly walk through that GATE!

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

Maya Schenwar | Women’s Prisons as Sites of Resistance: An Interview With Victoria Law

Originally published Sunday, 28 June 2015 00:00 By Maya Schenwar, Truthout | Interview – Re-posted with permission2015_0625law

In Resistance Behind Bars, regular Truthout contributor Victoria Law provides much-needed documentation of collective organizing and the daily struggles inside women’s prisons. This second edition inscludes powerful new sections examining the challenges facing trans, intersex and gender-variant people in prison as well as their acts of resistance. Order this award-winning book today by making a contribution to Truthout!

When we think of protest behind bars, what comes to mind? For many people, that list would include the Attica uprising, the work of George Jackson, the struggles of the Angola 3 activists, the 2013 California prison hunger strike and other crucial instances of resistance – mostly organized by incarcerated men.

Too often, organizing work done by incarcerated women goes wholly unrecognized. In her book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Victoria Law focuses on the many forms of activism happening inside of women’s prisons, most of which never reach the dominant media.

In the following interview, Law shares stories of little-known actions, insights into what constitutes “activism,” and ways in which individual acts of resistance are building toward a transformational new reality.

Maya Schenwar: You discuss in the book how, when you first got interested in resistance within prisons and noticed a dearth of information about women’s organizing, you were often told, “Women don’t organize.” I’ve definitely noticed that the actions that we hear most about (particularly in mass media, but even among outside activist communities) are focused on men. What are some of the factors that create and perpetuate this myth that women behind bars aren’t “politicized” or engaged in resistance?

Victoria Law: We don’t hear very much about what’s happening in women’s prisons. If we hear about what’s going on inside, it’s usually framed as “these are the conditions,” not “these are the conditions, and this is what people inside these jails and prisons are doing about it.”

Even in this day and age, prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues.

Even in 2015, prisoner resistance is still largely thought of as male. Part of it is that more attention is paid to men’s jails and prisons – they do, after all, make up approximately 90 percent of those behind bars. Part of it is that support networks for men are different than for women (including trans women) behind bars. For example, during the Pelican Bay hunger strike, we saw women family members stepping to the forefront to speak about the conditions their loved ones have been enduring. Although we know (barely) that people in California’s women’s prisons had also been fasting in solidarity – and we know that there is also a SHU (Security Housing Unit) at the women’s prison – we’re not seeing (or hearing) outside loved ones amplifying their voices and efforts to the same extent that women like Dolores Canales, Marie Levin and Daletha Hayden are doing for their male loved ones.

In addition, even in this day and age, prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues (unless it’s an issue like pregnancy, reproductive health or sexual abuse). So when we talk about solitary confinement, even though solitary confinement is used throughout women’s prisons and jails, coverage is often about what happens to men. The people spotlighted are men. Sometimes, women will speak, like Evie Litwok and Donna Hylton about their experiences in solitary at a NYC hearing. But, unless it’s specifically a story about women in solitary or trans people in solitary, we don’t often see recognition that these conditions affect people of all genders. It’s not just solitary confinement where male becomes the default gender.

Prisons isolate people. … People inside prisons can be punished for simple, humane acts like hugging or sharing.

Finally, some of the ways women are challenging and resisting aren’t seen as fitting what we might think of as “resistance” or “organizing.” For example, currently and formerly incarcerated women have been involved in challenging policies around parenting – or maintaining their right to parent. It’s an issue that disproportionately affects incarcerated mothers because, when a father goes to prison, he often has a female relative willing to take care of his children. When a mother goes to prison, she is less likely to have that same network of support and faces a greater chance that her children will end up in foster care. Children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than children of incarcerated fathers, which makes fighting to maintain custody an issue that many incarcerated women face.

Some women have individually helped challenge these policies – I wrote about Mary Glover, the legendary jailhouse lawyer in Michigan’s women’s prison, who helped women with their custody cases during the 20 or so years she was behind bars. (She also filed Glover v. Johnson, which required the prison to have equal educational and vocational programing for men’s and women’s prisons, a landmark 1970s case.) More recently, Arlinda Johns did the same for moms in the federal system. Moms have also organized to change policies around termination of rights – collecting and compiling testimony on the effects of permanent separation from their children, sharing their stories, etc.

Not all of the forms of resistance you discuss correspond to a normative idea of what “protest” means. For example, you chronicle the prisoner-led establishment of unique literacy programs at a prison in New York – a process that involved collaborating with prison officials (working “with the system”). You even discuss “listening” – in the service of community-building – as a type of action behind bars. Can you discuss why it is important to recognize this wide variety of activities as political acts?

Prisons isolate people. They’re not meant to strengthen bonds between people or build community. People inside prisons can be punished for simple, humane acts like hugging or sharing. Prison rules and staff discourage people from helping each other out. One example: A woman in an education program recently told me that one of her classmates has arthritis and thus cannot type the paper assigned to the class. Prison rules prohibit anyone else from typing her paper for her. “Do I type the paper for her so that she can pass the class or do I go by the rules?” the woman wondered.

While typing a paper doesn’t overturn this particular rule, the act of doing so not only helps the woman with arthritis, but also demonstrates caring and compassion in an environment designed to break it out of people. I’ve heard from women who have lost family members or custody of their children. … A listening ear makes all the difference in how they are able to process their grief.

Sometimes these acts of listening turn into something more widespread – for example, through the act of creating an environment in which women could share their experiences, the support group for women serving long sentences in Ohio realized that abuse and domestic violence were a pathway to long or life sentences and launched the first successful mass clemency campaign for battered women. But this wouldn’t have happened without that first step of listening.

I think it’s so important that your book contains a chapter about grievances and lawsuits, and the importance of the media in amplifying those efforts. How do these legal tools, which often stem from individual harms, contribute to larger goals of resistance? And how can we as the media serve to amplify them in a way that supports the work?

We need to remember that, while a grievance might reflect one person’s experience of individual harm, that experience is frequently reflective of a larger, more systemic reality affecting everyone in that jail or prison. A woman filing a grievance against a particularly abusive officer, for example, is probably not the only person who has experienced abuse from that person. One woman’s complaint about inadequate or negligent health care probably reflects many other women’s experiences. These grievances are important because, under the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act, people in prison are required to exhaust every administrative remedy before filing a lawsuit in civil court. In other words, if the person hasn’t been filing grievances and appeals, the court won’t hear their case.

In jails and prisons, movements are very restricted. So strategies that might work on the outside … don’t work in prison.

Individual – or even collective filings of – grievances don’t make the news. Lawsuits occasionally do. Covering lawsuits allows journalists to highlight some of the conditions that people in prison are litigating to change, conditions that may not be considered newsworthy otherwise because they happen all the time. One of the ways in which media can serve to amplify these efforts is to talk with people most affected – the people inside and their family members and friends on the outside. Those are the people doing the on-the-ground work and who know exactly what’s happening. Of course, trying to communicate with people inside takes time, patience and sometimes money (especially if you’re relying on collect calls, for-profit email servers and snail mail). These may seem to be luxuries for people who are on a deadline or operating on a small budget, but they are crucial to understanding the crux of the problem from the people who are forced to live it every day.

I love the section of your book that talks about how women behind bars do their own media work, finding creative ways to raise consciousness. Can you discuss some of the ways that women in prison get the word out about what’s happening behind bars?

As I said earlier, the networks that women are able to tap into are often different than those that men utilize. But women in prison use the networks and resources available to them to get the word out. Some of them use whatever email service the prison has to let people know about conditions. Their supporters then post their emails online, whether on dedicated sites, blogs or Facebook pages.

Contrary to what … Orange is the New Black may have you believe, most trans women are not placed in women’s prisons.

In the past, these networks have often included feminist publications. During the 1970s, off our backs regularly published writings by women in prison or updates by outside supporters about what was going on inside women’s prisons. Several other feminist publications also had regular imprisoned contributors. They also sent copies of their publication to women inside so that they felt connected to the outside world – and the various political struggles. In the online age, that kind of inside-outside connection is a little harder to maintain, but several groups continue to produce print newsletters that can be mailed into prisons: For instance, Black & Pink has a newspaper that they send to over 7,500 LGBTQ people imprisoned across the country, while the California Coalition for Women Prisoners has, since the 1990s, produced The Fire Inside and sent it to its members imprisoned in California.

They also write letters to anyone and everyone whose snail mail addresses they can get their hands on, letting them know what’s going on inside.

Sexual abuse by correctional officers is rampant in women’s prisons, and you discuss some of the ways in which incarcerated women are confronting the issue. This is a particularly difficult battle to wage, given the real threat of retaliation for women who speak out about sexual violence. What are some of the strategies that women use to protect themselves and each other, and to challenge the larger problem of sexual violence that is ingrained in the system?

Keep in mind that in jails and prisons, movements are very restricted. So strategies that might work on the outside – like staying in groups or avoiding deserted areas – don’t work in prison. Staff not only hold the keys to people’s cells, but also have the ability to give orders to those in custody. If they refuse, they risk being charged with “disobeying a direct order,” which can lead to time in solitary confinement and/or be used against them during a parole hearing.

Despite this, women have figured out ways to try to protect themselves and others. One woman, incarcerated in the mid-1990s, recalled a guard who constantly harassed her cellmate. He threatened her and her friends that, if they tried to report him, he would place cocaine among their possessions. His threat worked – the women kept quiet about his harassment. Then, one night, they heard their friend screaming; they found her with semen on her face. Despite his threats – and their fears – they filed a complaint with prison officials and later testified before a grand jury, which led to the guard’s arrest and conviction. After that, the woman stated, the nastiness and vulgarness that had been part of staff treatment of the women began to decrease. Other women felt less afraid of reporting sexual abuse, and at least two other officers were escorted out of the prison.

Women have also filed lawsuits to try to change policies that allow such abuse to happen. In Michigan, one of the dozen lawsuits Mary Glover filed led to a change in policy banning men from pat-searching women, being in the housing units and limiting other areas they could be in (such as medical examining rooms).

The newest edition of your book has a chapter that’s specifically focused on trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people in prison. What are some specific struggles that trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people face in prison – and some sites of resistance?

Keep in mind that trans people behind bars face all of the same struggles as their cisgender (or people who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth) counterparts. But, being trans also means that they face a whole host of other problems, too.

Let’s start with placement. Contrary to what the Netflix series Orange is the New Black may have you believe, most trans women are not placed in women’s prisons. Sentencing usually goes by the sex on a birth certificate, meaning that trans women are often sent to men’s jails and prisons. There, they face the very real threat of sexual harassment and assault by both staff and the men with whom they are incarcerated. They also face physical (and often brutal) violence.

People who are on hormones before entering prison often have to fight to maintain access to hormone treatment. Some prison systems only allow hormone treatment if the person had a legal prescription before their arrest. But, like their cisgender counterparts, many who end up in prison are low-income or underemployed and may not have had health insurance or access to legally prescribed hormone therapy. Without that prescription, they can be denied treatment altogether.

But even having a prescription is no guarantee that the prison will honor it. As I reported in one of my earliest stories for Truthout, CeCe McDonald entered prison with both a legal prescription and a court order for 20 milligrams of hormones. Despite that, prison staff only gave her 6 milligrams until supporters from around the world flooded the prison with calls, demanding that she receive her full treatment.

Ashley Diamond had to file a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections to get access to hormone therapy. Her lawsuit led to a New York Times profile and several articles about her struggles against medical, physical and sexual violence in a men’s prison, which led to the Department of Justice getting involved on her behalf. In response, the Georgia Department of Corrections changed its policy around hormone therapy and began issuing her a small amount of hormones.

These are the stories that we know and that have been publicized. There are many more names and experiences that we don’t know – I recently received a letter from a trans woman in California who said that she had been sexually assaulted by a guard. She was only believed after she showed prison officials his semen and took a polygraph test. The guard was allowed to retire with full benefits. She remains in prison.

You discuss how activism extends beyond the bars – how the work that women have done while they’re incarcerated “doesn’t stop at the prison gate.” Can you talk about some of the resistance work currently being done by  formerly  incarcerated women?

Yes! Since Season 3 of Orange is the New Black is now out, readers should know about the work of Families for Justice as Healing, an organization that was started at the real-life prison where OITNB takes place. The organization has worked to raise awareness about the impact of the War on Drugs on women. Last year, it held the FreeHer! rally in Washington, DC, bringing together people working against incarceration as well as formerly incarcerated women, like Dorothy Gaines and Susan Rosenberg, both of whom were issued clemency by Clinton before he left office. Families has also worked to free women incarcerated as part of the drug war: Earlier this year, they celebrated the release of “Grandma” Hardy after nearly 23.5 years in prison.

Now, they’re pushing for a bill that would push Massachusetts judges to consider whether a person is a primary caregiver and, if so, to sentence them to a community-based alternative rather than to prison. This summer, they’re also organizing a summer camp for daughters of incarcerated women in which the girls will have the opportunity to learn both computer coding and criminal justice organizing. And, because incarceration not only isolates people inside prisons, but family members on the outside from their communities, it gives the girls the opportunity to connect and build with each other.

Andrea James, the director and one of the cofounders of Families for Justice as Healing, was recently awarded a Soros Justice fellowship to organize a national network of formerly incarcerated women. I’m hoping that the award indicates a lifting of the invisibility surrounding incarcerated women’s organizing and resistance.

Maya Schenwar is Truthout’s editor-in-chief and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Follow her on Twitter @mayaschenwar.

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

Maschi6
photo by Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
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photo by Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age

Support Families for Justice as Healing

Phyllis “Grandma” Hardy

It is with great joy that Families for Justice as Healing celebrates the release of elder member Phyllis “Grandma” Hardy.

News from FJH eblast:

Following our national FREE HER rally, countless phone calls, letters, and more than 10,000 signatures in support of her release, At age 70, Ms Phyllis Hardy was released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons on March 19, 2015, after serving more than 20 years in prison. And our work continues but we cannot SURVIVE without your support. In the past year we have helped end the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women during labor, drafted and received sponsorship for the Primary Caretaker alternative to incarceration bill, contributed to over 100 conferences and criminal justice reform efforts, organized the national FREE HER rally, created Coding for Justice for high school age daughters of incarcerated women, and most importantly, established Real Women, Real Voices, to continue to join together incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to raise our voices and public awareness about the need to reduce the prison population of women and demonstrate what else is possible toward the goal of helping people heal and advance their lives, families and communities.

Please help us continue this important work and reach our goal of 10,000.

Chin to the Sky performs at Women of Color Herstory Month!

Join New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice for a special multi-media presentation of Chin to the Sky: The Life Sentence of Avis Lee. madusawith wings

1825 Centre Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Sunday, March 15th at 6:00-8:30pm

Tickets are $10-$25 sliding scale. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.
Chin to the Sky is a multi-media creative storytelling of the circumstances surrounding the Life Sentence of Avis Lee. When Avis was 18 she was the look out in a robbery that ended in death. Avis is now 54 years old and has spent 34 years in prison. She has no chance of getting out unless her sentence is commuted. She never pulled the trigger. We believe she deserves a second chance.

Co-written by Avis Lee, etta cetera, Jasmine Hearn, Ben Crouse, Zoe Mizuho, and Amanda Johnson with script advice from Paul Kruse. Julia Steele Allen, Suzanne South, Azania Lane and Joan Mukogosi also gave great input.

Cast includes – Blakk Rapp Madusa starring as Avis Lee, Ciera Young, Ben Crouse, Amanda Johnson, Jason Clearfield, KT Tierney, etta cetera and Suzanne South.

This production is sponsored by New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice and the Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoners Defense Committee as a part of Women of Color HERStory Month®

You can also purchase tickets on eventbrite here:
http://goo.gl/htwqDI 

Please call 412.363.4500 or email herstory@newvoicespittsburgh.org for more information. Visit www.womenofcolorherstory.org to learn more about Women of Color HERStory Month and also visit Let’s Get Free athttp://goo.gl/DfYA7D to learn more about the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.