Former ‘lifers’ call on lawmakers to end ‘death by incarceration’

‘Second chances doesn’t mean everybody comes home, it means everybody has a chance to come home if they do the right thing,’ state Sen. Sharif Street said

By: - September 20, 2022 5:00 pm

Advocates for ending life sentences rallied on the state Capitol steps Tuesday as the Coalition Against Death By Incarceration called on lawmakers that would make those sentenced to life in prison eligible for parole.

Avis Lee served 40 years, six months, and 12 days in prison before she was granted parole last year for a murder in which she wasn’t the shooter.

Lee, who spoke Tuesday at a Capitol rally to end life sentences without parole, is one of just eight women serving such sentences to be released from prison in the last 42 years, she said.

“During my over 40-and-a-half years of incarceration, I saw this day. I always said when I get out I’m going to Harrisburg and I want to speak to the General Assembly and I want to let them know the plight of women as well as men,” Lee said. 

Lee was one of about 150 people who gathered on the Capitol steps to call on lawmakers to pass two bills that would give people serving life sentences second chances, and avenues for release for people in prison who are elderly or chronically ill.

“Women are dying in prison and [in] record numbers. Many of them have not killed anyone themselves – like I didn’t,” Lee said. “At a certain point, punishment becomes retribution. And it becomes vengeance. And that is where we step in and say enough, no more. This has to change.”

The Coalition Against Death By Incarceration, the group that organized the event, said that more than 5,300 people are serving life sentences without parole eligibility in Pennsylvania. 

The coalition asserts that no one should be judged by their worst act, and that death by incarceration sentences cost taxpayers millions of dollars, while imprisoning people who are highly unlikely to reoffend, and could contribute to their communities. 

The rally happened on the same day that the Pennsylvania Superior Court was set to hear oral arguments in the case of Derek Lee, who was sentenced to mandatory life in prison for second- degree murder. 

Lawyers for the Abolitionist Law Center argued on Lee’s behalf that Pennsylvania’s ban on parole for those serving life sentences despite not taking a life, or intending to take a life, is unconstitutional.

“There are too many people with too many talents that are wasting inside of a prison cell that should be home, said Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, who introduced the legislation creating the possibility of release for those sentenced  to life in prison. “Sending people away with no possibility of returning home isn’t what redemption looks like.”

Street’s bill (SB135) would make anyone serving a second-degree sentence eligible for parole after 25 years in prison. Anyone serving a first-degree sentence would become eligible for parole after 35 years. 

Juveniles sentenced for crimes committed before they turned 15 would be eligible for parole after 20 years for a second-degree sentence and 25 years for a first-degree sentence. 

Anyone serving a first-degree sentence for killing a police officer would not be eligible for parole. People with second-degree convictions for killing an officer cannot be sentenced to life without parole. 

Another Street-backed bill, (SB835)  would allow the parole board to grant parole to people in prison with a terminal illness, chronic physical or mental condition or disease, serious cognitive or functional impairment or deteriorating health due to age.

It would also allow parole for people in prison who are older than 55 and have served 25 years or half their sentence.

Among the speakers at the rally was Eddie McCreary, who was sentenced to life in prison when he was 17. 

He was released after serving 36 years, but during his time in prison, untreated high blood pressure led to chronic kidney failure. Despite his condition, McCreary started a cleaning business and advocates for fellow lifers.

“There’s a group of men and women 30, 40, 50, 60 years in and their health is failing. And they’re getting poor treatment. I was one of them,” McCreary said.

Street said when a person has spent twice as much time behind bars than they did on the outside, they change. 

“All folks are asking is that the government take a chance and look at each and every person,” Street said..

“Second chances doesn’t mean everybody comes home, it means everybody has a chance to come home if they do the right thing,” Street said. “We’re asking for parole eligibility. We’re asking that the parole board look at folks so when there are people who have lived extraordinary lives behind the wall, that that can be recognized.”

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.