A Foot Out the Door | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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A Foot Out the Door 

Fight For Lifers wants to make parole a possibility for the state's permanent inmates

 

 

There are 4,371 people serving life in prison in Pennsylvania currently ... at least 345 of whom began serving their sentence as juveniles, according to the state's Department of Corrections.

 

"That's a city," says Ned Pfundt ... especially compared to the 240 prisoners on death row whose cases often draw more attention. It's a burgh that's only likely to get bigger, since the Commonwealth is one of a dozen states not to allow parole for lifers.

 

Pfundt, of Penn Hills, is outreach coordinator for Fight For Lifers-West, the local branch of a Philadelphia group pushing to change state law. The group wants to give judges or juries the option of sentencing convicts to life with the possibility of parole, after a lifer has reached age 50 and spent at least 25 years in prison.

 

The group's chairperson, Donna Pfender, of Washington, Pa., hopes the rule change will arrive in time to benefit her daughter, Charmaine, who has spent the last 22 years as a lifer, after being convicted of an August 1984 murder committed when she was 18. Currently, she is in the state's Muncie lockup, a five-hour drive from here, one of two women's prisons in the Commonwealth.

Pfender says her daughter was sexually abused as a child and felt she was defending herself from a similar fate in 1984. Today, "[s]he has totally changed her life," Pfender contends. "When she went into prison she was very bitter. She thought she should be exonerated. She has totally over-turned that. She has taken every course offered." Through Muncie's inmate organization, Charmaine is helping mothers in prison to see their kids, for instance, and even donating money to FFL-West, Pfender reports. "She taught a course on forgiveness" for women who have been sexually abused. "Her main concern is to help other young girls, let them know what can happen to them if they go down the wrong path."

 

Convincing legislators that life in jail can eventually be the wrong path for some inmates may be harder to accomplish.

 

"We're surely not advocating that every lifer should get out," Pfender says. But there is no other chance for a rehabilitated inmate to re-enter society. The state's five-member Board of Pardons has commuted only one life sentence since 1995.

 

"We believe it's archaic," she says, "it's inhumane ..."

 

"... and it's expensive" for taxpayers, Pfundt adds.

 

But the group is unsure how many people understand their point of view.

 

"I was in criminal justice for 24 years ... I didn't know about lifers," Pfundt says, having worked previously with veteran prisoners through the Red Cross and then founding Families Outside to help visitors with transportation.

 

"Friends of mine, some family members, don't even know that [a] life [sentence] is life," says Pfender.

 

"To put a person in a cage for the rest of their life," says FFL-West member Joe Heckel of Bloomfield, "the person who is there now is not the same person who was convicted of the crime." Heckel has followed up the complaints of many prisoners during his 18 years visiting jails as a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. "We all know hundreds of prisoners who admit their guilt, but the circumstances of that crime were the circumstances of that day, reflecting their maturity" ... or immaturity. "After 25 years, you have created a new person in prison, for good or ill. We have hundreds of people who are upright citizens in the [prison] community. Why keep them there until they die?

 

"Also, have you ever gotten a second chance, done something foolish or wrong? At what point does a person get a chance to amend, say I'm sorry, to re-enter society? Life without parole denies the humanity of a person."

 

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the death penalty unconstitutional for those convicted as juveniles. Heckel believes the same argument can be applied to lifers sentenced as juveniles, and says such Pennsylvania cases are already under appeal. FFL-West is trying to change legislators' perspectives by starting a letter-writing campaign among such convicts' families.

Pfender also believes permanent life sentences are neither applied fairly across racial or economic lines nor serve as a deterrent to crime. But so far, FFL-West cannot find a single state senator willing to sponsor a bill to allow for even the possibility of parole for lifers ... certainly not before November's election, at least.

 

"I had to work through my own process of forgiveness," Pfender concludes. "You may hear some parents say I, we. It's our case as well. It's our bereavement."

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