Avis Lee on Resistance and Public Engagement with Politicians

Letter from Avis Lee on January 18, 2015

Interview #3

What questions would you ask the other people serving life sentences who are participating in this project? Are there specific things you would most like to hear them respond to?

What do you do to keep hope alive concerning regaining your freedom? How do you handle aging, specifically how do you try to counteract its effects on your mind and body? 


What role do you think inside/outside arts and cultural collaborations can play in the struggle to end Death by Incarceration? What elements or processes were most surprising or rewarding or difficult for you about your recent experiences in working on “Chin to the Sky”?

I believe it can be helpful by getting people’s stories out to the public, and hopefully destroying stereotypes.

One element that was surprising for me when working on “Soul Ties” (“Chin to the Sky” is an adaptation of that), is realizing that I too have a story to tell. (Oftentimes I’ve felt like I really didn’t have anything to say or offer to “the” conversation because I’ve been in prison so long.)

What was difficult for me was reliving the past in order to write about it.

You write in your last letter about the various changes in sentencing and parole codes in Pennsylvania that have made the landscape here so simultaneously confusing and draconian/retributive in nature. Layne and I are grateful for the deeper window into this history. If you know it, could you say a bit more about the context in which 2nd degree murder got added as a LWOP sentence? Were there particular events which preceded it and/or a broader political/social atmosphere that led to this legislation?

See enclosure: “Life Means Life, Maybe?: An Analysis of Pennsylvania’s Policy Toward Lifers” (pgs 661-679)

In your previous letter you also make note of the strict “no physical contact” rule at Cambridge Springs and note that it is rigidly enforced. Why do you think the prison feels the need to create and impose such prohibitions? What kind(s) of control are they trying to put into effect by doing so?

I believe they are just trying to deter couples from holding hands, hugging, and/or kissing. But sometimes I wonder even about that because even when someone has experienced a death in their family most officers really don’t want you to hug or comfort them either.

What’s one quality that you admire in other people and why?

I admire people who are organized, able to make a goal and divide it into definable steps to achieve it.

What effect or impact do you hope that making your story known will have?

My answer is twofold. 1) I hope that youths hear my story and don’t make the same or similar mistake like I have and find themselves in this situation. 2) I hope that those in the legislature can hear it and change a law.

What other issues do you see Life Without Parole sentencing connected to and how?

I see this connected to politics and politicians running for election using a “tough on crime” platform. I see this connected to defendants going to trial and choosing to go with a jury instead of a judge, yet not realizing that their sentence will be mandatory if found guilty of 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd degree (if they’ve had a previous 3rd degree conviction before).

Reflecting upon your answer to the question immediately preceding this one, what unexpected victories or momentum might we gain elsewhere by winning an end to LWOP?

For starters, we can contact Senator Daylin Leach to let him know that we are in support of his upcoming bill to abolish LWOP for 2nd degree felony murder. Secondly, we can contact the members of the PA General Assembly and let them know that we are in support of the bill also. An unexpected victory or momentum that we might gain is restoration, family units being restored. Men returning to their families and neighborhoods. Men who were respected by young males while they were incarcerated may very well still be respected by these young males on the outside. Perhaps because of this they can steer them away from drugs, guns, and crime. This would greatly improve morale and lay the framework for creating safer neighborhoods.

What is the shape of your resistance? What does it look like? Sound like? Taste like? Smell like? How does it feel?

The shape of my resistance is like threads on a loom. The vertical and horizontal threads represent people. The vertical threads in and of themselves are weak, they can only become strong when interwoven with the horizontal threads. Not only does this strengthen them, but miraculously they can create patterns, images, words, meanings. The threads vary in color and texture – some are coarse/rough, some are smooth/refined and when they touch one another and interweave they become one awesome grouping.

What does (or should) meaningful support for female prisoners look like? What are (or should be) the features or qualities that mark its success or effectiveness?

We just need to know that there are people out there fighting for us/with us and that we are not forgotten. That helps motivate us to keep pushing forward.

Finally, thank you for sending the song choices. Layne and I have listened to each of them many times over!! Would you be willing to say a little bit about why you chose each of those pieces?

I chose “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross because it speaks of my hopes to share with the world my hopes, my dreams, and what I have to offer humankind.

I chose “Beautiful” by India.arie because this song speaks to the essence of my being… this is how I think, feel, and love. My love for an individual is deep and selfless, however, on the flipside in the abstract that same level of love applies to society/mankind as a whole. My love and care and concern is universal, which oftentimes leaves lovers feeling unloved when nothing could be further from the truth.

I loved Mr. Walker (even though I did not know him) lying on the ground wounded by my brother’s bullet like I loved myself. That is why I got the ambulance for him, because I would have wanted an ambulance for myself. That is why I could not leave him to die alone in the streets, because I would never leave myself to die alone in the streets.