First-ever report centers voices of people sentenced to die in Pa.'s women's prisons | Social Justice | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

First-ever report centers voices of people sentenced to die in Pa.'s women's prisons

Pittsburgher Jennifer Rhodes is a Braille transcriber, a certified optician, and a survivor of violent abuse who is currently incarcerated at SCI Cambridge Springs. She has worked hard to rehabilitate herself and be of service to others throughout her three decades of incarceration, despite the fact that the state of Pennsylvania has sentenced her to die in prison with no possibility of parole.

“I’d like to express how psychologically deafening it is to be rehabilitated, take full responsibility for your crimes, have meaningful goals and assets to offer to society, be called a role model, yet denied a second chance to become a taxpayer, instead of a costly tax burden within society. … I pray for the day I’m afforded at least a chance to see the parole board. Even Charles Manson was afforded this gift,” she says.

Hers is one voice in a harrowing new report that offers the first ever examination of the life experiences of individuals sentenced to die in Pennsylvania's two women’s prisons.

From Victim to Victor: An Inquiry into Death by Incarceration, Gender, and Resistance in Pennsylvania,” compiled by the public interest law firm Abolitionist Law Center and advocacy groups Let’s Get Free Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee and Human Rights Coalition, elaborates on eight main themes: patriarchal violence throughout the lifespan, the cycle of trauma, abuse, and crime, lack of a history of violence, injustice in legal proceedings, strides in rehabilitation, barriers to rehabilitation, disability and aging in prison, and family disruption.

“The survey responses paint a devastating picture of inescapable, targeted violence against women and LGBTQIA+ people, that often starts at a young age and persists through adulthood,” reads a press release from the report authors. “A harrowing 81 percent of the participants experienced physical and/or sexual violence prior to their incarceration. And many of the survivors described their incarceration stemming from entrapment in a situation by an abusive male in their life.”

The report aggregates the experiences of 73 of the more than 200 individuals sentenced to life without parole in the state's women’s prisons — a sentence the report refers to as Death by Incarceration — and features first-person narratives from nine women and one trans man. More than one in ten survey respondents grew up in Allegheny County.

Pennsylvania has the second-highest number of people sentenced to life without parole of any state in the United States. The report calls for the abolition of these sentences along with other structural changes to the state criminal legal system including mass commutations for survivors of abuse and geriatric and medical parole.

In Pennsylvania, more than 7,000 incarcerated individuals are age 55 or older, and more than one-third of them have life sentences, according to the report. Elders are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. prison system, which lacks the resources to adequately care for an aging population, the report notes.

“[Life without parole] means you will die in a dirty diaper, begging for someone to help you,” says Maria Spencer, another incarcerated contributor to the report.

Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest
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Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest

By Pam Smith