Friday, April 5, 2013

Rest in Peace, My Sister! A letter from Avis about the Death of Peachie Wiggins

Sharon "Peachie" Wiggins, a juvenile lifer, died on Sunday, March 24th of a massive heart attack at SCI-Muncy. She had been locked up since she was 16 and had served 45 years.

She was being reviewed to get out based on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last year that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment and is unconstitutional. Her supporters had already gotten her a job, apartment - everything- and were patiently waiting for her to be resentenced and released...

Her funeral was in Detroit where her family lives. Needless to say we are all reeling.

Peachie, although older than a lot of us was everybody's baby. She had been in since she was young and she had a very young upbeat spirit. She let us all know we could do this. The fact that she was still standing, let us know that we too, could stand.

She always encouraged us to go to school, get G.E.D's, learn trades, go to college, tutor, mentor, file appeals, apply for commutation, stop getting misconducts, stay sober, reach out to the community through give-back efforts and programs, and to strive for excellence in all that we do, and in all that we speak.

She was into robotics. She showed me sketches of her prototypes about 25 years ago.
Ironically, I watched a documentary on PBS about two weeks ago. Her designs were on par with the experts! That wa the kind of mind that was locked behind these walls, a scientific genious in the making.

Sharon "Peachie" Wiggins is a woman that I am honored to have met and humbled to have had the privilege of serving 17 years of my life sentence with.

When I read the story "Parable of the Talents" in the Holy Bible I think of Peachie and how our heavenly Father would be so happy that she did not waste hers, no matter what her obstacles, adversities and personal struggles. She steadfastly rose above them and when she saw a need, she stepped in and stepped up to help. I could go on and on and on... I'll just end by saying:

Rest in peace my sister. God Bless You. Job well done. Excellent use of the "talents."
Rest in Peace. See you in Eternity.
Avis Lee

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Tinkering with Life: A Look at the Inappropriateness of Life Without Parole as an Alternative to the Death Penalty

Lois Ahren's from The Real Cost of Prisons Projects writes:
Illustration by Augusto Gallardo from the Prison Poster Project
Tinkering with Life: A Look at the Inappropriateness of Life Without Parole as an Alternative to the Death Penalty,” by  Ashley Nellis,  appears in the University of Miami Law Review.  Dr. Nellis explores the use of life without parole, now standing at more than 41,000 sentences nationwide and representing a 300% increase over the past two decades. She argues that the abolition of the death penalty in several states in recent years allows deliberations about punishment to expand and to consider the appropriateness of other sanctions. The article describes commonalities between death sentences and parole-ineligible life sentences, including:

--The terminal nature of both sentences that necessitates death in prison.
--The extreme racial disparities among those who receive either of these sentences.
--The article also discusses critical problems posed by life without parole sentences, including:
--The mandatory nature with which they can be imposed;
--The lack of heightened legal review required for life without parole cases in comparison to death sentences.

Finally, Dr. Nellis encourages careful consideration in promoting life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, arguing that neither of these sentences allows for the possibility of reform or redemption."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Video Interview with Tyrone Werts

Penn State Public Broadcasting recently produced an interview with Tyrone Werts; in 1975 Tyrone Werts was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Then, in 2010, after thirty-six years as a model prisoner, his sentence was commuted by former-Governor Ed Rendell. Werts now works as a consultant to the Philadelphia Public Defenders Association and with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Temple University. 

In the interview, Werts discusses his long road out of prison, his thoughts on Pennsylvania's "life means life" policy, and his reflections on justice five-year period in juvenile detention facilities around the country. The interview along with information about Werts can be found at:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Letter to Senator Greenleaf For Sharon Wiggins

Senator Stewart Greenleaf, Chairman
Senate Judiciary Committee
Sharon Wiggins
19 East Wing
Senate Box 203012
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3012

Dear Senator Greenleaf,
I believe that is appropriate that I am writing to you on Independence Day! On behalf of Sharon Wiggins, the longest serving female serving the unconstitutional sentence of mandatory juvenile life without the possibility of parole in Pennsylvania and who is someone I profoundly respect and am honored to call my friend, I hope that you and your fellow legislatures act courageously and swiftly and give her the freedom she has earned and deserves.
As you can imagine, the stress of not knowing how the Commonwealth will proceed with the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, is palpable. It is my sincere hope that the Commonwealth has the courage to demonstrate to the world that we do not throw kids away for life in prison! In fact, many young adults who committed their crimes just past the age 18, should be given a second chance as well. I have secured Sharon employment and she has many supporters who will assist her in making the most of her life as a free woman. Sharon has a wealth of knowledge, wisdom and respect that deserves to be shared and which ultimately, I strongly believe will enrich the people of the Commonwealth and beyond.
On the July 12th Senate Judiciary hearing, please realize that the Commonwealth has the perfect opportunity to show the world that Pennsylvania is a state that is merciful, compassionate and ready to be a leader in reforming an outdated, barbaric and inhumane criminal justice system.
ellen melchiondo
Sincerely yours,
ellen melchiondo
cc: Sharon Wiggins

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lifers On Tile

 Mary DeWitt has been shining light on women serving life sentences for many years. Her latest project Lifers On Tile aims to highlight 7 woman currently incarcerated. IT IS SO BEAUTIFUL AND INSPIRING CHECK IT OUT! The portraits line the walls of a community garden.

Follow the link to Lifers on Tile 

Mary also has a page on Juvenile Lifers which highlights our beloved AVIS!

The following is from the Eastern Penitentiary Website with link to an audio interview with Mary:

Artist Mary DeWitt began working with a group of life-sentenced women in Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institution at Muncy in 1990. The women were all sentenced between 1969 and 1974. Ms. DeWitt has returned to this portrait series again and again, in formats including tile murals, large canvases, and reverse glass paintings, as seen in this installation. Each painting is accompanied by a recording of the woman's voice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

This American Life has Story on Lifers in California

It originally aired in 2010 but i just heard it. And - the case involves someone who was sentenced to Life WITH the opportunity for Parole - unlike Pennsylvania. 

In California, Maryland and Oklahoma, the governors can over-rule parole boards' decisions to free prisoners serving life sentences. In all three states this has evolved to the point where very few prisoners get released. For years Nancy Mullane followed the case of Don Cronk in San Quentin Prison, to see what would happen as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reviewed his case. Though Cronk knew the odds were against him, he found it hard to stop himself from believing he'd get out. Nancy Mullane is the author of a book called Life After Murder and putting together a two hour documentary on other lifers in Don's situation. (27 minutes)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Rights Wrong On Juvenile Lifers

Several thousand children have been growing up behind bars in America

Anita Colon was crying when she received the telephone call, but the caller knew hers were tears of joy. The caller was her brother dialing her from a prison in Pennsylvania, where he is one of 480 persons serving a life-without-parole sentence for a crime ending in homicide, committed while they were teens.

Pennsylvania prisons hold America’s largest number of teen lifers.

Colon’s brother, Robert Holbrook, called his sister less than one hour after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week announced its ruling outlawing mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide.

“I was choking back tears when he called, and he knew by my voice it had to be good,” Colon said.
Colon is the Pennsylvania Coordinator of the National Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, an organization opposed to juvenile life without parole sentences, which were voided by America’s highest court this week. The Supreme Court ruled that such sentencing violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

America has an ugly distinction regarding its practice of placing teens in prison until they die.
America – a nation that prides itself on freedom – stands “alone in the world” in its laws permitting the imposition of juvenile life sentences with no option for parole, according to a report released by the D.C.-based Sentencing Project.

Twenty-eight states and the federal system sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for homicides. There are over 2,500 such juvenile lifers languishing in prisons around the nation.
While the Supreme Court’s ruling still permits life-without-parole sentences for teens sentenced without mandatory provisions, Colon and other activists still consider the ruling a significant step in the right direction for persons who were sentenced to prison for decades for crimes committed when they were basically children.

The oldest juvenile-sentenced-lifer in Pennsylvania’s prison system is currently in his mid-70s. He received his sentence for murder in 1953 when he was just 15-years-old.

That man received his life-without-parole sentence for a crime committed before he could legally drive, drink, vote, marry, enlist in the military or even reason rationally, according to scientific evidence about juvenile brain development now recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Justices utilized that evidence when they outlawed juvenile mandatory life without parole, juvenile life for non-homicides and the death penalty for juveniles.

Anita Colon became an activist on the issue of teen lifers following the conviction of her brother.
Holbrook received a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for serving as a look-out on his 16th birthday for a drug-related 1990 robbery in Philadelphia that ended in a homicide. Holbrook didn’t commit that murder.

“He was happy but cautiously optimistic about the Court’s ruling,” Colon said.
“He knows the fight for release is not over but the ruling is an important victory. Now we have to fight for justice when courts and parole boards start conducting the reviews resulting from the ruling.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling outlawing mandatory life without parole sentences is
the third in a series of rulings that have reversed hard-line legal and court stances on teens that have meted out severe adult punishment to juvenile offenders. In 2005 the High Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. In 2009 it struck down juvenile life without parole for offenses other than murder.

Conservative politicians and prosecutors champion life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, contending teens who commit heinous crimes must be held strictly accountable.
However, data indicates that many of the teens slammed with these walking-death-sentence terms are not cold-blooded killers –- the type of criminal projected as most deserving to die in prison.
In Pennsylvania approximately 26 percent of juvenile lifers did not commit a homicide themselves –- receiving convictions under legal measures mandating mandatory sentencing for anyone involved in a felony murder irrespective of their level of participation in that crime.

Further, almost 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers where first-time offenders – not the habitual violent offenders normally considered legitimate candidates for the medieval-style until-they-die imprisonment.

Anita Colon said that many of the politicians and prosecutors she’s talked with hold grave misconceptions about juvenile lifer laws. “Many of the legislators in Pennsylvania that I’ve talked to don’t even understand that life in prison means spending the rest of your life in prison. They’ve told me these sentences don’t exist,” Colon said. “Even many prosecutors say these sentences are only for the worst of the worst. But my brother was a first time offender.”

In Michigan, for example, which holds the nation’s second largest teen lifer population at 350+, about half of those convictions were for aiding and abetting murder, not committing the murder itself.
Given the pervasive race bias in America’s criminal justice system it’s not surprising that most teen lifers are African-American.

“Two-thirds of Michigan’s juvenile lifers are African American,” Detroit Free Press columnist Jeff Gerritt wrote, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. Gerritt criticized Michigan legislators for lacking the “courage and compassion to strike down the state’s draconian juvenile lifer law.”
In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of the juvenile lifers are African American and nine percent are Hispanic.
That percentage of black juvenile lifers in ennsylvania’s prison system exceeds the percentage of black adult lifers (62%), according to statistics compiled by Bradley Bridge, a lawyer for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, who has litigated juvenile lifer cases since 2005.
Over half of the state’s 480 juvenile lifers come from a single jurisdiction: Philadelphia, the city/county that also sends the highest percentage of people, again most of them Black, to Pennsuylvania’s death row.

Philadelphia lawyer/writer David Love said too few people look at the “reality” of incarceration costs of juvenile life sentences.  Pennsylvania spends in excess of $15-million annually to incarcerate its juvenile lifers. That dollar figure increases annually as young inmates grow older, as a result of soaring costs for medical, security and other services required for elderly inmates.
At one Pennsylvania state prison just the long-term care for infirm elderly inmates costs $63,000 annually per inmate, over $30,000 more than the annual cost for younger inmates.
Love, executive director of the Witness to Innocence Project, said, “People were sold a bill of goods by politicians and prosecutors that we have to be tough on crime. Now we have a confluence of hard economic times and the failures of criminal justice system policies. States are realizing they can’t afford to lock people up because that is taking money from education and social welfare needs.”
The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers supports life without parole laws stating there are “bad seeds” unfit to live outside prison walls.

Activists like Anita Colon agree that some teen criminals deserve harsh sentences, but say that others sentenced as teens deserve a second chance denied to them by mandatory sentencing…at least an opportunity to convince a judge or parole board that they’ve earned the opportunity for a second chance. “I hope the end result [of the Supreme Court’s ruling] is a sentencing scheme that is more flexible and equitable,” Colon said.

“However people think about our justice system, it should operate to allow judges to use their experience in sentencing taking into account factors like culpability. Mandatory laws strip judges of their discretion in sentencing.”

Colon’s brother, Robert Holbrook, wrote in a 2008 essay that “a child offender” who makes a terrible decision as a youth receives less “justice and leniency” than in countries like China and Libya.
“When the law preys on its child offenders…it is no better than the criminal predators that prey on children in society,” Holbrook wrote.