STATE COLLEGE NEWS: It's Time to Give Lifers a Chance at Life

By Russell Frank

There’s a faint glimmer of hope for Pennsylvanians who are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in prison.

House Bill 2135, introduced last spring by state Rep. Jason Dawkins (D-Phila.), would make inmates serving a life sentence eligible for parole review after 15 years.

Subramanyam Vedam would certainly qualify. He was a 19-year-old State College kid when his friend Tom Kinser disappeared in 1980. He was 21 when he was accused of killing Kinser and then found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole (LWOP).

He has now been in prison for 33 of his 55 years.

To this day, Vedam professes his innocence. To this day, there are longtime residents of State College who believe that Subu, born in India, did not get a fair trial from an all-white Central Pennsylvania jury.

Having visited Subu at the state pen in Huntingdon and having met his family, including his mother Nalini, who died in April, I want to believe that he has always been the peaceable, bookish soul he appears to be now.

But if I had gotten to know Tom Kinser’s family, I might want to believe that justice had been served.

Regardless of Subu’s guilt or innocence, though, I think he and his fellow lifers should be eligible for parole. The key word in the proposed legislation is “review.” The bill doesn’t call for the automatic release of these inmates after 15 years. It just gives the state’s parole board the power to parole if  “it does not appear that the interests of the Commonwealth will be injured.”

In other words, if the inmate’s conduct has been exemplary while in prison – as Subu’s has -- it might be reasonable to expect his conduct to be exemplary once he is released from prison.

Opponents of this legislation might say that a person who has killed might kill again, but the statistics suggest otherwise.

Among the research cited in a 2012 ACLU report on the incarceration of older prisoners:

  • The arrest rate for 50-year-olds is just over 2 percent; for 65-year-olds it’s just over 0 percent.
  • The number of prisoners over 50 who return to prison after committing new crimes ranges from 1 to 7 percent in various studies. Most of these arrests are for nonviolent offenses.
  • Meanwhile, because of the need for medical care, it costs about twice as much to house over-50 prisoners as it does to house younger ones.

The LWOP sentence is an artifact of a mania for harsh punishment of convicts that took hold in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The mania has subsided but the laws remain on the books – at enormous human and fiscal cost.

Now that politicians across the political spectrum are taking a fresh look, in the name of both justice and frugality, at who we punish (in Pennsylvania, 65 percent of lifers are black) and how we punish, maybe HB 2135 has a chance, which means maybe Subu Vedam has a chance.

Since Rep. Dawkins introduced the bill in June, his legal assistant Matt Miller told me, his office has been receiving 10 letters per day in support of the legislation from inmates, their families and prison reform activists. But the legislative process grinds slowly.

First, the House Judiciary Committee would have to hold hearings before the bill could come up for a vote by the full House. The same process would have to play out in the State Senate – and there is as yet no companion bill in the State Senate.

I speak for Subu Vedam here because he is the only Pennsylvania lifer whose story I know. There are 5,000 others, which makes our lifer population the second highest in the nation. We are one of 13 states that have mandatory LWOP sentences for first-degree murder, according to the website Decarcerate PA. In contemporary Europe, the lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to crime and punishment is almost unheard of.

Keeping Subu and those like him in prison into their 50s, 60s and beyond for crimes they committed when they were young men without allowing them to make a case for their release is needless, wasteful and inhumane.

In Subu’s case, if he had been 18 instead of 19 when Kinser was killed he would already be eligible for a parole hearing thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling that life sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional.

An endless prison term, Subu told me in a recent letter, “is not what most people imagine. It’s watching your parents get older and realizing you will not be there to help them. It’s watching your kids have problems and realizing that you cannot look out for them. It’s not bread and water.”

But it is cruel and unusual.