These Women Face Death by Incarceration, But They’re Organizing for Their Lives

When she was 20 years outdated, Sheená King was sentenced to life with out parole. Two years earlier, King’s boyfriend had coerced her into fatally capturing one other girl, threatening to kill her and her household if she refused. She was convicted of homicide, which, in Pennsylvania, mandates life with out parole.

It’s a sentence that King, now age 50, and different advocates name “dying by incarceration.”

“Freedom is ensured when my ashes are shipped to my daughter in a cardboard field,” she defined in a newly launched report on ladies and trans folks serving comparable sentences.

The time period “dying by incarceration” encompasses these like King who’ve been sentenced to life with out parole. Lately, it has additionally expanded to incorporate people who find themselves serving life sentences that permit for parole in addition to digital life sentences of fifty years or extra. Greater than 203,000 folks, or one in every seven people in U.S. prisons, are serving one in every of all these sentences.

In Pennsylvania, 8,242 folks (or 12 % of the state’s jail inhabitants) are serving one in every of these sentences. The state has the second-highest quantity of life with out parole sentences — 5,375 folks — within the nation. (Florida, which has 10,438 folks serving life with out parole, is first for that doubtful distinction).

As of March 2023, Pennsylvania’s two ladies’s prisons confined 1,871 ladies, trans and gender-nonconforming folks. Of these, 197 — or over 10 % — are serving life with out parole sentences.

Given their comparatively small share, the experiences of individuals sentenced to dying by incarceration are sometimes neglected and under-reported. Now, a brand new report brings their tales — which frequently begin with violence from family members — to the forefront.

From Victim to Victor attracts from surveys and follow-up interviews detailing the life histories, jail experiences and coverage suggestions of 73 ladies and trans folks serving comparable sentences in Pennsylvania’s ladies’s prisons. The report is researched and written by incarcerated folks in partnership with outdoors advocates from the Abolitionist Law Center, the Human Rights Coalition and Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.

Whereas its scope is restricted to these in Pennsylvania’s ladies’s prisons, the report displays the truth of girls and trans folks serving prolonged or lifelong sentences nationwide — and their efforts to problem the system that has doomed them to die behind bars.

“For many years I’ve felt like a discarded factor, locked away from society 1000’s of miles from house and forgotten by all besides a handful of people that care deeply for me,” King, who wrote the report’s introduction, advised Truthout by e-message. “I participated in writing the report for the ladies round me who really feel as I really feel however aren’t capable of articulate or to present voice to their feelings. It’s incumbent upon me to talk for many who can’t.”

A Frequent Story Arc: A Lifetime of Patriarchal Violence

Over 60 % of the ladies and trans folks surveyed for the report had by no means been arrested earlier than the arrest that led to their sentencing. Strikingly, 75 % had been abused as youngsters. As a rule, the violence occurred by the hands of males that they knew — fathers, moms’ boyfriends, uncles, brothers or household associates.

The violence usually continued into maturity. Greater than 80 % mentioned that they later turned concerned in abusive romantic relationships. Their accounts level to a standard story arc in ladies’s prisons: a lifetime of patriarchal violence.

That story arc isn’t restricted to Pennsylvania. Nationally, 86 % of these in ladies’s jails reported experiencing sexual violence earlier than arrest; 77 % additionally reported accomplice violence.

One-third of those that responded to the survey have been convicted for the dying of a romantic accomplice. In 85 % of these circumstances, individuals reported that that accomplice had been abusive. In convictions for the dying of somebody apart from a romantic accomplice, comparable to King’s, male violence incessantly performed a major function.

That’s what occurred to Jamie Silvonek. She was 14 years outdated when her 20-year-old boyfriend, whom she described as controlling and violent, killed her mom, who had opposed their relationship. Silvonek was charged with first-degree homicide as an grownup and sentenced to 35 years to life.

For the subsequent 4 years, she was incarcerated in Muncy’s Youthful Offender Unit, the place youngsters are held in isolation away from incarcerated adults. However Silvonek was nonetheless within the presence of grownup jail workers who repeatedly abused her verbally and emotionally.

“They repeatedly compelled me to face in entrance of their workplace whereas they verbally disparaged and humiliated me. They generally compelled me to face in entrance of their workplace for hours at a time as they degraded and taunted me,” she recounted for the report. When she tried to report their abuse, they retaliated by writing her quite a few misconduct tickets. These tickets elevated her isolation and fraught psychological state, stopping her from speaking along with her household and lessening the few alternatives to work together with different younger folks in that unit.

Others additionally described how the violence they confronted on the skin continued previous the jail gates. I’ve been the subject and receiver of bodily and emotional abuse that traumatized me earlier than jail, simply to be thrown away into one other abuser’s arms referred to as the Division of Corrections,” Kimberly Joynes advised Truthout.

Abuse perpetrated by jail workers is just not unusual. Between 2016 and 2018, the most recent years for which information is on the market, prisons and jails nationwide reported 45,581 allegations of staff sexual harassment and abuse. Fewer than 2,200 allegations have been substantiated. A scarcity of substantiation doesn’t imply that an assault didn’t happen; it merely signifies that investigators report that they didn’t discover sufficient proof to find out whether or not it occurred.

That’s what occurred to Tracey Nadirah Shaw, who had been repeatedly raped by a jail officer for 4 years. The officer had threatened her household if she reported his assaults, inflicting her to stay quiet. The assaults stopped solely after she was moved to a special housing unit. Years later, she discovered he was making use of to grow to be supervisor of her housing unit. She reported his rapes to jail authorities, her household and an out of doors monitoring company. Jail investigators dismissed her claims as not solely unfounded however, as a result of a lot time had elapsed, frivolous.

Injustice within the “Justice” System

By June 1, 2003, Sarita Miller’s use of crack cocaine, which had began as a solution to block out her father’s abuse, had grow to be an “insatiable desperateness.” One night time, she went to her supplier, desiring to get crack from him. They drove to the house of one other individual, Rita Nagel, whom Miller hoped would give them cash.

“I knew that Ms. Nagel was pleasant with a few of the drug addicts,” Miller defined. “She would present compassion and permit a few of us to clean her automobile, run errands, and so forth.” Miller deliberate to manufacture a sob story to get a couple of {dollars}. As an alternative, she mentioned, as soon as Nagel opened her door, “My co-defendant pushed his manner in and commenced brutalizing her. I stood again frozen and watched. I did nothing to assist her. I couldn’t imagine it!”

When her co-defendant threatened to do the identical to her if she didn’t act, she hit Nagel within the head with a hammer. Nagel died from their assault. Miller was charged with first-degree homicide and theft.

At trial, Miller’s supplier took the stand and advised a special story — that Miller alone had killed Nagel, then later took him to the condominium to see the lifeless physique. He was provided immunity in alternate for his testimony. A jailhouse informant, who later obtained probation for theft and assault, advised an identical story — that Miller had boasted concerning the homicide whereas in jail.

As well as, prosecutors referred to as Miller’s feminine lover, who testified that Miller had allegedly confessed the homicide. However they didn’t restrict questioning to the alleged confession. As an alternative, Miller recalled, “My lesbian affair was introduced up in entrance of the jury and my sexual efficiency with my ex-partner [was also discussed.]” Miller was convicted and sentenced to life with out parole.

She wasn’t the one one whose sexuality was used to demonize her in entrance of the jury. Michelle Hetzel, who was convicted after her husband killed her ex-girlfriend, recalled, “My relationship with a lady was the largest speaking level. At trial the rings we exchanged have been handed round to the jury. The rainbow sticker on my automobile was photographed and blown up for the jury.”

Her request for a separate trial was denied. Her legal professional by no means introduced up her husband’s abuse nor the truth that he had been her foster brother, that he was seven years older than her, and that their relationship started when she was a minor.

Hetzel and her husband have been each convicted and sentenced to life with out parole.

Over half of the report’s individuals have been incarcerated for a criminal offense involving a white sufferer. This contains Miller, who’s Black and Muslim, and Hetzel, who’s white. Research have indicated that sentences are often higher in cases involving deaths of white victims, particularly white women.

Pennsylvania is one in every of 9 states that requires life with out parole for felony homicide, or being current when a dying happens throughout one other felony act. Greater than 20 % of the report’s individuals are imprisoned for felony homicide.

Transformation — and Jail Obstacles

Regardless of the prospect of dying in jail, many of those ladies have tried to remodel their lives. Whereas in county jail, Miller accomplished her highschool diploma and took faculty lessons. As soon as in state jail, she enrolled in lessons and self-help teams, together with violence prevention, substance abuse packages, sufferer consciousness, monetary literacy lessons and vocational packages.

She started remedy to handle previous bodily and sexual abuse from grownup kinfolk and to know how that violence formed her life and actions. She additionally determined to make sure that incarcerated ladies had their very own outlet for his or her voices, collaborating with Let’s Get Free, a Pittsburgh-based group supporting imprisoned ladies and trans folks, to publish Daughters, a biannual journal particularly by and for incarcerated ladies.

King accomplished each program provided at SCI Muncy, together with graduating with an affiliate’s diploma in spiritual training, a bachelor’s diploma in Christian counseling and finishing 32 vocational packages. She additionally turned licensed as a peer educator to assist others present process comparable struggles.

Joynes, too, has accomplished each program provided at SCI Cambridge Springs, the state’s different ladies’s jail. She is now taking correspondence programs from Colorado State College towards two bachelors’ levels — one in sociology and one other in psychology.

Silvonek can also be enrolled in faculty. She can also be studying to advocate not just for herself however for others who have been ensnared within the authorized system as juveniles. “At 22, I’m removed from the insecure, impulsive 13-year-old little one I as soon as was. I’m working arduous to grow to be a girl that my household and group is happy with,” she wrote in an e-message to Truthout.

However their pathways to transformation aren’t simple in a jail surroundings. Many, together with King, described fighting psychological well being with little to no assist from jail medical workers. As an alternative, workers incessantly punish them once they most want psychological well being assist. Silvonek tried suicide a number of occasions; every time, she was stripped of her clothes, positioned in solitary confinement and denied studying supplies and entry to her household.

Contributors additionally described being punished for minor guidelines violations, most frequently for contraband, or objects that they weren’t allowed to have. This stuff have been usually not harmful in any respect. King, as an example, was despatched to solitary for 30 days for having fruit salad. Different contraband for which ladies have been punished embrace fragrance, earrings, a lamp, ketchup and a seasoning packet.

Impacts of Incarceration

Nationwide, the vast majority of folks in jail are mother and father. Two-thirds of the report’s individuals have youngsters. Almost 60 % of these mother and father have been arrested earlier than their youngsters have been 5 years outdated. Not surprisingly, their prolonged imprisonment has frayed their relationships. A number of mentioned that they didn’t know a lot about their youngsters’s lives, whereas others had misplaced contact altogether.

King’s youngsters have been 3 years outdated and 4 months outdated when she was arrested. She was lucky that her mom and sisters cared for them, avoiding foster care and everlasting separation. Nonetheless, she mentioned that her incarceration devastated her household. “At ages 30 and 33, [my children] nonetheless have enduring results of my incarceration,” she wrote. Her son is at present serving the identical sentence as her — a life sentence with out the opportunity of parole for first-degree homicide.

Not solely have household ties been frayed, however these sentenced to dying by incarceration concern getting old and dying behind bars.

Joynes and King have been 20 once they entered jail. King just lately turned 50 and Joynes will likely be 62 this summer season. With out clemency or legislative change, they face many years — and dying — in jail.

Almost half of all Pennsylvanians serving life with out parole are over age 50. Greater than 21 % are age 60 or older. Whereas report individuals ranged from ages 20 to 80, the typical age was 55 years outdated. They described witnessing neglect of those that have been getting old and expressed concern that they, too, is likely to be handled horrifically as they misplaced the flexibility to look after themselves.

“[Life without parole] means you’ll die in a grimy diaper, begging for somebody to return provide help to and be abused for shedding your reminiscence,” 57-year-old Maria Spencer said within the report.

Inflicting a Tsunami and Creating Change

For these serving life with out parole, clemency, within the type of a sentence commutation, is at present their solely likelihood for launch.

Whereas some states permit their governors discretion to commute sentences, Pennsylvania requires unanimous approval from all 5 members of the Board of Pardons and Parole. Even when the board grants unanimous approval, the governor can nonetheless deny clemency. Between 1999 and 2022, solely 57 lifers received commutation; 45 have been granted by Tom Wolf between 2015 and 2022. In distinction, between 1970 and 1995, Pennsylvania governors commuted 285 life sentences.

As of 2020, 8,242 folks within the state have been serving a sentence characterised as dying by incarceration. The report highlights three payments that might present different avenues for that elusive second likelihood.

Senate Bill 135 would supply parole eligibility for these serving a life-without-parole sentence aside from these convicted within the deaths of legislation enforcement.

SB 136 would be certain that all incarcerated individuals are capable of see the parole board as soon as they flip 55 years outdated, have served 25 years of their sentence, or have been recognized with a persistent, terminal or debilitating sickness. The legislation is much like one in California, which requires that individuals who attain age 50 and have served 20 years in jail be eligible for a parole listening to.

SB 385, or Different Sentences for Home Violence Survivors, would mandate the courtroom think about a person’s historical past of accomplice abuse as a mitigating issue within the sentencing course of, permitting the courtroom to impose a sentence under the state’s sentencing tips. It additionally offers the decide the discretion to not imprison the individual in any respect. Survivors who’re already incarcerated would obtain consideration for resentencing or launch. New York passed a similar bill in 2019.

Behind bars, Sheená King and Kimberly Joynes have been energetic in advocating for all three. King urges these round her to encourage their households to contact lawmakers, attend rallies and vote for candidates who assist these adjustments. In previous years, she additionally wrote type letters for ladies whose households lived in purple districts.

Though she may have her first parole listening to when she is almost 50, Silvonek can also be actively advocating for SB 135 to present others that likelihood. She can also be planning to advocate for youngsters who, like herself, have been tried and punished as adults.

In the meantime, all three hope that the report will convey each extra understanding to ladies’s imprisonment for crimes involving violence and extra assist for payments that permit them (and everybody else) a second likelihood.

“I hope this report will trigger a tsunami among the many folks,” Joynes advised Truthout. “I need the general public servants and the politicians to cease serving with their eyes closed figuring out the wants of the uneducated and poor.”

​​30 seconds is all it takes to make a distinction

Because the world adjustments at an unprecedented tempo, we’d like moral, impartial information greater than ever earlier than. We want journalists who can examine, report, and analyze advanced points with honesty and integrity. We want journalists who can maintain these in energy accountable, shine a lightweight on injustices, and provides voice to the unvoiced.

Truthout depends on reader donations to keep up this sanctuary for trustworthy, justice-driven journalism. We have now simply 6 days left in our fundraiser and $41,000 nonetheless to boost — we’d like all our associates to assist us attain this objective. It takes lower than 30 seconds to present, so should you worth a free and impartial press, please make a tax-deductible donation right this moment!