Commutation Platform Launched! Parole Reform Now!


On March 29, 2016, members of the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation sent the following letter to PA officials, including our 12 point platform:

To the Board of Pardons, The PA General Assembly and Governor Tom Wolfe,

We are the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation, a Pittsburgh based group that is pursuing criminal justice reforms for people serving Life Sentences. We wish to bring to your attention a number of problems with the commutation process that we believe should be addressed by this current legislature. There is a growing understanding about the significant personal, social, and monetary impacts mass incarceration has had on our state. We imagine that you share many of our concerns, and look forward to working with you toward more efficient and just Parole and Pardon systems.

In the 1970s approximately 35 people a year were given a second chance through commutation. That’s 380 commuted lifers from 1967-1990, but for the last 25 years, only 7 men and no women or trans people serving life have been released.(i) The dramatic decrease in the use of commutation as a result of the “tough on crime” political climate has contributed to mass incarceration and has left many innocent and reformed people serving excessive sentences with no mercy.

Restoring our commutation process would allow us to redirect public funding away from imprisoning many aging individuals who are not a threat to public safety, and channel that money into initiatives for violence prevention. While elderly inmates released from prison will require medical care and other public services, Pennsylvania could save an average of $66,000 per year for each of the 1,500 geriatric lifers released.(ii) Studies show that the chances of a person re-offending over the age of 50 dramatically decreases.(iii)The prison system is among the highest expenditures in the budget, costing the state more than $2 billion a year.(iv) SCI- Laurel Highlands (a Prison Hospital and Hospice Unit), cost $75 million to operate in 2014, almost half of the total cost of all prisons in PA.(v)

Working in coalition with a number of groups across Pennsylvania made up of concerned citizens, current and formerly incarcerated people, and interfaith human rights advocates, we have drafted a 12 point platform to restore Pennsylvania’s commutation process. We have prioritized three changes that we think could have a watershed effect on the meaningful restoration of this process.

We ask that you consider all aspects of our 12 point platform and draft legislation including these changes:

  • Return the Board of Pardons vote requirement for a recommendation of commutation for a lifer to 3 out of 5 votes, rather than the unanimous vote requirement.
  • Amend the commutation regulations of the Board of Pardons to grant an automatic approval for a public hearing after an applying lifer has served 15 years.
  • Require that the Board of Pardons provide a written reason for denial of a commutation application for people serving life sentences.

With the recent decision by the Supreme Court that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual punishment, and also President Obama’s actions to commute the sentences of 163 people serving life, we believe the time is right to start addressing these same issues here in Pennsylvania. Please prioritize prison reform, and bring these issues to the legislature.

Restoring commutation does not mean releasing anyone immediately, it only guarantees they’ll have a chance to prove that they’ve changed, are not a threat to public safety and are ready and able to participate in society!

We look forward to hearing your thoughts and collaborating in the future.


The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation


i      Ogletree, C. (2012). Life without parole America’s new death penalty? New York: New York University Press.

ii      Rudolf, John (6/13/2012) Elderly Inmate Population Soared 1,300 Percent Since 1980s: Report

iii    ACLU (2012) At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly Retrieved from

iv    Hughes, Vincent J.,  Chairman Democratic Appropriations Committee. (3/3/2015) Governor’s Budget Request FY 2015-2016. Retrieved from website:

v    Sacco, Francesca. (2014, September 13) Elderly Inmates Cared for at SCI-Laurel Highlands. Retrieved from

Mariposa & the Saint: From Solitary Confinement, a Play Through Letters

Saturday April 2, 2016
7 -9pm in East Liberty at Repair the World 6022 Broad Street 15206
$10-15 Sliding Scale – No one turned away for lack of funds,
formerly incarcerated come for free.
In 2012, Mariposa was sentenced to fifteen months in solitary confinement. Through letters with longtime friend and current collaborator, Julia Steele Allen, Mariposa brings her experience to the stage.


Every performance followed by a dialogue with Prison Justice advocates.

Partner organizations for Pittsburgh show are Decarcerate PA and Let’s Get Free

Darlene Williams from the Women Lifer Resume Project as well as Amber Sloan from MADE IT will be sharing some words with us.
Mariposa‘s story is one I now carry with me in a visceral and alive place. This is a must-see, and a must-share. And it will stir a must-respond from all who encounter it.”
– Rev. Laura Markle Downton, Director of U.S. Prisons Policy & Program
National Religious Campaign Against TortureClick here for Facebook Event

Letter Mailing Party for Commutation Campaign Launch


Help the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation tell our Legislatures that we need Parole Reform in Pa Now!

Join us for a Letter Mailing Party.  Learn about the Campaign.  Get Involved.

March 29, 2016   6 – 8pm Tuesday Pittsburgh Theological Center 616 N Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206

Room 216 in Long Hall 

Childcare Available on Request – Text or Call etta – 443-603-6964 to arrange childcare or email

Let’s Get Free is a part of the statewide Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration

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., many of whom are now senior citizens. Restoring Meaningful Commutation is one way to help deserving lifers get a 2nd Chance.



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 Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.

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

Free Charmaine! Chip in for Legal Costs!

Donate Here on the Indigogo! 

Why money is needed

Funds raised will be used to cover legal work, including financing an international investigation to locate Suat Erdogan, the key witness against Charmaine who is likely living outside the U.S. A private investigator has drawn up a plan, and we need to ensure that research, consultation, travel, and labor costs are covered.

Charmaine Pfender deserves to be released from prison. Any amount of time in prison for self-defense is too long, and 31 years is an injustice of massive proportions. Charmaine’s trial attorney and later appellate attorneys never provided her the representation she deserved and was constitutionally entitled to. Every day for more than three decades Charmaine has contributed positively and selflessly to those in her life both inside and outside the prison. She is not, and never has been, a threat to public safety, and we need your help to free her from prison.

We are raising  $5,000 so that our committee can take the next steps to gather evidence and build an effective legal defense. We are committed to doing whatever work is needed, and we humbly ask you to join our quest for justice by donating to our vital funding campaign. If a financial contribution is beyond your means, we gratefully suggest that you can effectively support our campaign by sharing the details with as many individuals you can reach.

Charmaine Pfender was 18 years old in August 1984 . She was on a date with man who pulled out a knife and attempted to rape her. As she struggled to protect herself, she reached for a gun, fired a warning shot and tried to flee to safety. The man chased after her, still wielding his knife. Fearing for her own life, she shot again and killed him.

At age 19, after a highly publicized and problematic trial, Charmaine was sentenced to life without parole. She has served over thirty years of that sentence.

About the Trial

Although Charmaine fought for her life the night of the shooting, her trial attorney failed to fight for her, by committing serious errors that deprived the jury of a fair opportunity to consider all the relevant facts, and deprived Charmaine of her freedom.

Charmaine’s attorney failed to call critical character witnesses who knew Charmaine as a peaceful and law abiding teenager. In fact, Charmaine had no criminal record or record of violence before the night of the shooting, and she has maintained that peaceful record ever since. However, the jury never heard this powerful character evidence that Charmaine’s attorney inexplicably failed to present. Instead, the prejudicial, inflammatory, negative depiction of Charmaine made by the prosecution and in the press was the only narrative the jury heard.

The sole witness for the case against Charmaine was Suat Erdogan of Turkey, a friend of the attempted rapist. He was present in the vehicle during the assault of Charmaine. His account of what happened that night changed in meaningful respects each time he told his version.

  • In police reports, Erdogan stated that Charmaine was struck in the face by his friend.  This claim disappeared from his testimony both at the coroner’s inquest and trial.
  • In Erdogan’s version of events, Charmaine pulled a gun on him and his friend without warning or motive. He also changed details on why and how Charmaine retrieved the gun, demonstrating his willingness to invent details to make his story sound more plausible and move guilt away from his friend to Charmaine.
  • Erdogan  testified that Charmaine attempted to tie his friend’s hands prior to the shooting, but he was shot as he pursued Charmaine, knife in hand.

Charmaine’s  attorney disregarded these and any other  inconsistencies in  Erdogan’s testimony, and even apologized to the jury if he seemed to be “nitpicking” during his cross-examination of Erdogan.  He ended the trial by asking for a “fair verdict,” but not an acquittal based on self-defense.  Charmaine Pfender was then found guilty of murder.

History of Trauma

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Charmaine suffered physical and psychological trauma. On the night of the shooting, she acted in self-defense, and in accordance with the emotional maturity of her age and her specific history. Expert witnesses were not presented to help the jury form vital context regarding the complexities of trauma, sexual assault and mental health. Without such testimony, the jury could not have sufficient understanding that rape survivors are very commonly disbelieved, mocked, stigmatized and criminalized. Nor was there discussion of the resulting neurological traumatic impact from exposure to high adversity in childhood which affects the brain’s and body’s still developing stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response. Charmaine’s attorney failed to assertively argue that her only choices were to be raped or to fight back.

Self Defense is Not a Crime!

Life-without-parole is a human rights violation, as recognized by the European Court of Human Rights as well as governments around the world. Individuals that receive a sentence to die in prison with no possibility of release, are legally and permanently excluded from society, forever defined by a single criminal conviction regardless of culpability or the person they become.

Pennsylvania has the largest percentage of its prison population serving life-without-parole of any state in the country.  In Charmaine’s case, the sentence of life-without-parole carries a particularly sinister message: if a woman defends herself against sexual violence, the state will imprison her until she dies.


Rehabilitation, forgiveness, redemption, transformation, and the ability to reconnect with families and communities in healthy and meaningful ways are not valued in PA. The only hope for Charmaine to spend any part of her life outside of prison is for her case to be retried.

Charmaine’s ability to return to court and challenge her conviction largely rests on our ability to locate Suat Erdogan, the key witness against Charmaine who misled the jury with dishonest testimony.  As the Free Charmaine Campaign launches this indiegogo fundraiser, we launch an international investigation to track down Suat Erdogan, whether he is in Turkey or anywhere else on this planet. For the sake of Charmaine’s freedom, we will scour the ends of the Earth to find him.

Char’s Present Activities

Charmaine leads a model life in prison.While at SCI Cambridge Springs, Charmaine has devoted herself to personal growth and service. She is housed in the honor cottage and has received the highest prisoner rating available to lifers. She is educated as a certified carpenter, already completing over 10,000 hours of training. She works diligently at her prison job transcribing texts into Braille. She gives back to the community by training service canines and knitting sweaters for children in need. She maintains close and loving relationships with her mother, sister, and extended family.  In short, she is a grounded, compassionate person living as meaningful a life as possible despite the constraints of the state. Just imagine who she could be if she were allowed to be free!

Donate Here on the Indigogo!


5 Minute Action Today for a Mother in Prison!

characters-bgPlease take 5 minutes to tweek this letter. Sign it  Print it out and MAIL  the letters to June Maxam –Box 408 Chestertown, NY 12817! Today is THURSDAY THE 7TH.

Tanika Dickson was the victim of racial violence then blamed for the attack and separated from her children. She has already done over 15 years in prison. Tanika who was featured in the Mothers of Bedford will see the parole board on January 12th.


Address the letter to: New York State Department of Corrections Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDCCS) Board of Parole
1220 Washington Ave Building 2 Albany, NY 12226


To Hear Tanika Dickson tell the story in her own words see the movie The Mothers of Bedford.

Background on Tanika’s Case –

Tanika Dickson pled guilty to the Murder of David Gallup. Accounts from witnesses indicated David Gallup, the brother of a Glenville police officer was in Casey’s Bar in Schenectady, NY, drinking for approximately 12 hours prior to the instant offense. He was severely intoxicated, and made some other patrons in the bar uncomfortable from acting strangely. Several witnesses knew this victim and indicated that on the day the crime was committed, he had been fired from his job at Wal-Mart for making racially offensive remarks. It was verified through police reports, the victim had a history of domestic violence against women and alcohol-related offenses.

The instant offense involved Ms. Dickson stabbing David Gallup in the neck while trying to exit the bar resulting in his death. Several disturbing things took place prior to the stabbing that led up to this event. A verbal altercation took place at the bar where David Gallup referred to Tanika as a “n*#%!r slut bitch.” At this time, the parties were separated by the bar’s security. David Gallup should have been escorted out of the bar due to the fact that he had been in the bar for at least 12 hours and was clearly in an intoxicated state. The bar continued to serve him alcohol.

Tanika tried to leave the bar peacefully. She recalls Mr. Gallup blocking her exit to the street. Out of fear, she reacted and stabbed Mr. Gallup. She was charged with Murder in the second degree. A plea was negotiated within 12 hours of the instant offense. Ms. Dickson was intoxicated at the time of the instant offense.

Because Tanika entered a plea waiving her right to appeal, she has limited legal remedies available to her. All post-conviction remedies pursued have failed.

During preparation of Tanika’s clemency packet, Tanika was evaluated by a psychologist who stated:

“From a record review and direct observation of Tanika Dickson, this examiner opines there is a mitigating factor of extreme emotional disturbance that contributed to the instant matter. Tanika was extremely intoxicated at the time of the crime after drinking that evening. The blood alcohol level probably present in Tanika would have diminished her control as well as diminished her capacity for rational thought. Secondly, Tanika felt threatened by the victim. His face was angry and he was saying threatening things. Tanika stated, “I was scared…I didn’t know what he was capable of doing to me.”

He continued:

“Tanika had a history of being raped as well as being physically abused. These strong memories also affected her emotional state in that she saw herself as a potential victim with no sense of being helped or anyone else as she approached the victim who suddenly blocked her exit from the bar.”

He further indicated:

“It is this examiner’s opinion that when Tanika refers to being blacked out that she is referring to an emotional black out caused by her extreme emotional disturbance and fear. This was not an alcoholic black out.”

The psychologist concluded:

“Tanika’s behavior was motivated by an understandable fear that she would be physically harmed and killed by the victim. He had threatened her verbally and non-verbally to a significant degree enough that the staff felt compelled to make him go to the other end of the bar.”

Tips : Do not say anything like “it was a mistake”

Do highlight remorse .

Happy Birthday Chelsea Manning


Today marks the 28th birthday of inspirational fighter for freedom and U.S. military whistelblower, Chelsea Manning, and her sixth birthday spent incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Celebrations are being held in her honor today, in London, Boston, and beyond as a show of continual support. In a year that has brought so much tragedy to so many, let us stand in solidarity with people like Chelsea, who are leading us on the path towards justice and self-determination. Feel free to leave your own birthday wishes below. One day she’ll be free to read them.

Leave Messages HERE

Posted by Ursula