Letter from Phill on June 8, 2014
Please tell us something about yourself. Feel free to include whatever you feel comfortable or interested in sharing.
I’ll be 37 in 3 weeks (which I’d rather not think about!!) and have been fighting a death-by-incarceration sentence for going on 19 years.
My story began in 1977, in Newark, NJ. Pop left mom shortly after my birth. Left with no real choice, mom packed up me and our things and headed over to Reading, PA, where her mother and 14 of her 15 siblings had migrated from PR a few years earlier. We lived in a first floor apartment on Elm Street, in the northeast section of the city, notorious for drugs and violence. Most of the family lived nearby, many on the same block. We spent most of our days and nights together in a red-bricked alleyway that we considered ours. It was our safe space amid the danger.
I thrived in school, earning straight As and eventually deemed gifted. Everyone thought I’d be the first in the family to go to college. In the middle of fourth grade we moved to a rowhouse on the other side of town. When I got to middle school, my attention began to shift from the classroom to the streets. What I saw on my walks to and from school fascinated much more than anything that would happen in the 7 hours between.
I quickly went from smoking blunts and drinking 40s and partying to shoplifting to breaking into cars to stealing cars to selling coke then dope and weed to carrying and shooting guns. I sold my first bag of coke at around age 15 and 3 years later I was in jail for murder.
I spent the first decade of my incarceration doing a lot of the same things I did on the street here at Graterford State Prison. I smoked weed, sold dope, gambled, took stuff from people, got into fights, and as a result made various trips to the hole.
In 2005, I woke up. Tired of the same routine that was getting me nowhere, tired of making mom suffer, 27 years old and starting to wonder about the meaning of life and what my legacy would be – I decided to make a change while doing 90 days in the hole. I stopped getting high and when I came out began spending most of my days in the law library, trying to find my way back into court, which I’d been out of for 5 years. Long story short, I did. Hope replaced despair.
Still something was missing. I felt some higher calling. The words of a psych, who works here, given to me years prior suddenly came back loud and clear: “try taking the focus off yourself and put it on helping others.” At age 29 I decided to give it a try.
I wrote a little book titled “The Red Alley.” This I went on to self publish and give out to my community in Reading. It was an attempt to warn the youth of the real consequence of street life. From there I got involved with a program speaking with boys from a nearby juvenile hall. It was in doing so that I experienced true happiness for the first time in my life. I had discovered my purpose: to prevent others from making the mistakes I had.
I enrolled in the Villanova program and took the Temple University Inside Out program. It was in Inside Out that I learned the art of group facilitation. It was there, too, that I was introduced to restorative justice, which is one of my biggest passions today.
Some of my other passions are my Catholic faith, AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project), ending death-by-incarceration specifically and mass incarceration more generally, my family, and my love life with the most amazing woman in all the universe, my Barbie.
Today I’m almost three-quarters to my Bachelor’s of Liberal Arts degree from Villanova, GPA a shade under 4.0. I’m a member of the Inside Out Think Tank. I coordinate, create, and facilitate workshops, and train others to facilitate both RJP (Restorative Justice Project) and AVP. I’m taking a computer literacy class. I’m a member of Right to Redemption, which seeks to end death by incarceration. I work in the chapel, where I’ve been since 2006. My appeal is about to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though all my activities bring me satisfaction and pleasure, the high point of my weeks is no doubt my Sundays in the visiting room with my other half and love of my life. It is during those precious hours that I feel most complete, most happy, most alive. She has taken my journey of transformation to new heights and taught me what love is. The 30-foot high concrete wall between us is no match for the love that we share.
In the most unlikely of places—despite it, not because of it—I found the 2 things most people spend lifetimes searching for: purpose and love. For this I give all praise and glory to God.
What’s one thing that you think people would be surprised to know about you (be it a particular experience, a part of your daily activities, an interest, a skill/talent, a lived reality, a personality trait, etc.)?
People would be surprised to know that I love me a good “chick flick.” The mushier the better!! Also, I’m increasingly becoming a fan of pop music. Taylor Swift rocks! Lastly, I was an extremely shy kid in school and to some degree in general. Now I don’t shut up!
What’s one thing that you think the public needs to know about either life sentences or the individuals who have been sentenced to life sentences?
The public needs to know that life sentences are death sentences. I myself didn’t know this until I arrived at Graterford and saw with my own eyes men who’d been here 20, 30, 40+ years. I think it’s unfathomable to most people in society that a human being could be caged for so long.
People also need to know that people with death-by-incarceration sentences who miraculously get out have a near zero recidivism rate. The cost to confine someone for about 30 years is a million dollars. And death-by-incarceration is contrary to modern theories of punishment: incapacitation, deterrence (specific and general), retribution, and rehabilitation. Incapacitation is supposed to end once a person ceases to be a danger to society. Death-by-incarceration prevents that determination from being made. The explosion in death-by-incarceration sentences over the last decades has done nothing to deter others from crime, especially when most of the public has no idea what LWOP really means. A wide range of activities and levels of participation can get a person death-by-incarceration, making retribution impossible to determine proportionally, not to mention the racial disproportionality of the sentence and assuming that any offence is deserving of caging one’s last breath. Lastly, the purpose of rehabilitation is to send people back to society better than when they went in. Obviously, death-by-incarceration doesn’t include this possibility.
What do you think it will take to end the use of Life Without Parole sentences here in Pennsylvania?
To end death-by-incarceration (DBI) ( should have done this sooner!!!) in PA, people would have to see and talk with men and women serving these sentences in order to dispel all the myths. Awareness will have to be raised about the costs, both monetarily and in human potential. It will take a total upheaval of the mindset in our society that the answer to every problem is banishment—throwing it away where we no longer have to look at it or deal with it.
We need to convince capital punishment abolitionist, who are almost all strong proponents of DBI, that it’s the same thing. People on Death Row are growing old and dying of everything but a needle in the arm just as those with the other death penalty are dying every week.
We also have to combat the powerful lobby groups such as victim advocates, C.O. unions, and the FOP.
What are some of the strategies, tactics or practices that you and people you know use to support one another and to challenge the conditions/realities that you experience?
We support one another through the various organizations and projects here at Graterford. They allow us to have an impact on the world and to keep busy. In individual levels, we share information and engage in dialog about issues concerning our plight.
But sad to say, there isn’t enough challenging of these conditions going on, not in any kind of unified and organized way. We get in our own way with all the petty bickering and infighting.
What do genuine justice and healing look like to you?
To me, justice should be concerned with addressing people’s needs and not just be synonymous with punishment. If anything, it should be synonymous with healing. The goal should always be to heal, to the extent possible, the harm caused by crime or other wrongdoing.
My ideal vision would be a process in which context is always considered, not one-size-fits-all, and the people affected by the harm have a say in what needs to happen. I’d like for banishment—and then only temporarily—to be the last resort after all else has failed. And when people must be removed from communities it should be to places where their humanity can be restored, not further taken away.
How does the vision that you’ve just described differ from the current criminal justice system?
The comparison is made above.
If you could have dinner with any person (living or dead) who would it be and why? What would you most want to discuss, learn from, or tell them?
I’d like to have dinner with Tom Corbett. I’d like to tell him my story and ask that he rethinks mandatory DBI and other decades-long terms. People change. It should never be determined at the time of sentencing that a person 20, 30 years later will still be deserving of a prison cell. No one should be deemed forever irredeemable. I’d also want to hear his story.
I want ______________ to begin with me (or with my generation).
I want respect for all life to begin with my generation. If we saw each other as humans with inherent dignity, most if not all of the world’s problems would go away.
I want ______________ to end with me (or with my generation).
I want all forms of hate to end with my generation. Nuff said.