Free Them to Heal Us Gets People Organized, Builds the Movement
2021 was a big year for Free Them To Heal Us.
First emerging in April of 2020 in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Free Them To Heal Us, was originally a project that mobilized to ‘Free The Vulnerable’ from PA State Prisons while creating a space for collective care as family members of the incarcerated grappled with their loved ones being trapped during a global pandemic.
In response to movements against mass incarceration, including our efforts, the powers that be in Pennsylvania responded to our calls, but it was not enough. During the initial wave of the pandemic, Governor Wolf used his reprieve power, which allows a sitting Governor to suspend sentences, in a novel way by allowing some people currently incarcerated to come home from prison. It is usually only used to suspend death sentences. However, his reprieve program was extremely limited and applied to a very small number of people.. Due to influence by the PA District Attorneys Association and then Commonwealth Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm, it excluded anyone who had more than a year left on their sentence and anyone with a violent offense even if that offense was decades ago. In the end, less than 200 people were released on reprieve during the pandemic due to these overly strict criteria and many elders and people with serious medical conditions were excluded.
It was against this backdrop that we transformed Free Them to Heal Us into a long term organizing project that focused on getting more family members of the incarcerated organized into the movement while deepening their leadership. We knew that to build the power to liberate our communities and bring our friends and family members home from PA prisons we needed to build our power and that meant growing our movement.
In 2021 Free Them to Heal Us held 8 chapter meetings, numerous leadership development sessions over the course of the year built with over 100 family members who had never been plugged into movement spaces. We worked primarily with family members in Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery counties, but also built with some people in other parts of Pennsylvania. We closed out 2021 with a powerful virtual meeting with over 30 attendees, where we were invigorated by learning more about each other and new strategies we can use in our shared fight to bring our loved ones and community members home.
Free Them to Heal Us is working to bring people home in a variety of ways. Members support each other as their loved ones apply for commutation before the Board of Pardons, go before the parole board if they are parole eligible), or try to get their cases back into court. Most importantly, we support bills that would extend parole eligibility to people sentenced to life without parole and would create other pathways home for people serving long term sentences in Pennsylvania.
Building off of our efforts to ‘Free The Vulnerable’ during the pandemic we decided to make geriatric parole a large focus of our work and are working alongside our movement family to pass SB 835, a bill that would allow any person who is 55 years or older who has served 25 years or half their minimum sentence to be parole eligible. The bill would also allow anyone with a chronic medical condition the chance for parole.
In the fall, Free Them to Heal Us members showed up in support of this bill at a press conference, organized by our friends and comrades at Straight Ahead. We also mobilized for an online day of action where we stood tall for second chances. As the year progressed, we recognized that one of the key forces working against this bill is the resistance of many district attorneys across Pennsylvania. In December, Free Them to Heal Us leader Shymita Pitts spoke at a well attended forum by the PA Justice Alliance about the importance of challenging the power of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association (PDAA). This year Free Them to Heal Us members are getting organized to visit with our local district attorneys and to ask them to support second chances and the return of elders to our communities. These visits will give us an exciting opportunity to build power in counties around Pennsylvania, strengthen our advocacy skills, and speak directly with people who can withdraw their support for mass incarceration by supporting elder parole. We are also getting people to sign on to a petition calling on the PDAA to support parole for aging people in PA prisons. Free Them to Heal Us leaders are hard at work getting ready for our next membership meeting on February 15th, where we will welcome families that are new to this fight, share updates about our work and offer opportunities to get involved. In the words of Audre Lorde we believe that ‘without community, there is no liberation.’ We are deep in the work of building that community with each other so we can get free and heal our communities.
Do you have a family member, friend or loved one incarcerated in PA state prison? Fill out the form below to get involved in the movement to bring them home!