On August 28th, people concerned about the fate of individuals sentenced to Life Without Parole gathered at the Capitol in Harrisburg and held a Rally to Restore Meaningful Commutation. The event was largely organized by Let’s Get Free: the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, and supported by Decarcerate PA, New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, Human Rights Coalition, and Fight for Lifers West, among other organizations.
Currently, Pennsylvania has the second highest number of people serving LWOP sentences of any state in the country, and is one of only six states that denies parole to lifers.
The date for the rally was chosen because it was the day that the Board of Pardons was holding its Merit Review hearing at which it would be determined if lifer Avis Lee would get a public hearing on her petition for commutation. Avis has spent the last 31 years of her life in prison for being a lookout in a robbery that went wrong and ended a man’s life. Avis has never denied her role in the events, and has attempted to seek help for the victim, but under the felony murder rule she is condemned to die in prison.
A number of people participating in the rally showed up early to sit in on the hearing and show solidarity with Avis and others seeking commutation. In an act of callous injustice, Avis and others were denied their chance at a public hearing by the Board of Pardons.
“Avis Lee has been incarcerated for 34 years. Avis transcribes braille, donates her time to charity, lives on the Honor Block. Imagine what she could do if she were home,” said Suzanne South of Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.
Angered and saddened by the Board of Pardons’ decision, many people spoke passionately at the rally against life without parole sentencing and the broken commutations process.
Tyrone Wertz who served 36 years on a felony murder sentence before his own sentence was commuted in 2010 said, “There are thousands of men and women languishing in Pennsylvania prisons who deserve the opportunity to be with their families, to be on the street, to raise their children and to be role models…life in Pennsylvania is a death sentence”
Decarcerate PA’s Sarah Morris underlined how life without parole and the commutations process is robbing our communities of leaders: “For the last eight years, I’ve been lucky enough to have mentors on the inside who happen to all be serving life sentences. They spend all of their time thinking and strategizing about creating a better world and they have been condemned by the state of Pennsylvania to die in prison. Some of the most brilliant minds I know are sentenced to death by incarceration and I believe all of our communities would be stronger if we gave them a chance to come home and to join us in the struggle on the outside.”
After the rally, people broke up into teams and spent the rest of the day in meetings with legislators to press for reform to the commutation system and an end to life without parole sentencing. Others spoke with reporters, and the rally received excellent coverage on ABC 27’s Evening News, as well as written coverage by the Harrisburg Patriot News and several internet blogs.
Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center made the point that such harsh sentences do nothing to actually solve the problem of violence in our communities, remarking that: “LWOP is a pillar of race and class based mass incarceration. It does not serve the value of deterring crime. There is no compelling evidence whatsoever that increasing excessive sentences decreases crime. There’s plenty of evidence however that life without parole sentences and mass incarceration permanently exclude people from participation in political, economic and social life in the country.”