Avis Lee on the Endless Frustrations/Pain of Life Without Parole

Letter from Avis Lee on July 20, 2014

Interview #1

I could have certainly answered the questions with a lot more uplifting tone, however, it would have been BS. The reality of a life sentence is ugly; it’s brutal, barbaric, and unending torture of the psyche for sure. Add to that the fact that you’re not the killer and it’s just pure HELL.

Believe me when I tell you that I’m a fighter. I have more support on the outside than I’ve ever had before… but, I’m getting tired fighting. I’ve been locked-up teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. I’m just weary. I feel like I’m a burden on everyone. I feel like I’m a project sometimes – “the girl with the life sentence” – instead of just Avis.

Tomorrow is my arrest date 34 years ago. I’m up for commutation. I’ve asked to have my life sentence commuted from life in prison to life on parole. It’s my 5th application. I’ve been waiting 3 years and 38 days. I’m not getting any younger… the wait matters. It’s too much stress. I’ve lost weight. My skin is breaking out in rashes.

The next Merit Board hearings are on August 28th. Etta and them are going to be in Harrisburg that day to give a press conference.

Please tell us something about yourself. Feel free to include whatever you feel comfortable or interested in sharing.

My name is Avis Lauren Lee. I am 53 years old. I have been incarcerated since I was 19 years old for a crime that happened when I was 18. I was convicted of a murder even though I’ve never killed a human being in my life.

Tomorrow (7/20) is my arrest date 34 years ago. Do you think anyone remembers that I’m still in prison? Do you think they care?

I was in love with a woman on the outside. We lived together. One day, I left her. Moved to New York for a while. Returned to Pennsylvania. Saw her from time to time. Had hopes of getting back together one day… soon. Last day I spent with her, we argued. I was arrested soon after. I never saw her again. I don’t have closure – my life was interrupted…

What’s one thing that you think people would be surprised to know about you.

I’m sick and tired of feeling like I am being defined by a life sentence. I am called “lifer.” A term that I detest. It’s embarrassing/degrading.

I am not some expert on life sentences. I am just a woman- flesh and bones – who sometimes feels like a little girl inside, who is suffering under the yoke of a mandatory life sentence, which oftentimes is crippling to my mind, body and soul.

I’m tired of telling my story. I’m tired of getting my hopes up. I’m tired of being let down.

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?

Many of us have not killed even though we were convicted of killing. Many of us were teens, under 21 years of age – not legally old enough to drink in PA, but considered old enough to serve life sentences without parole.

What do you think it will take to end the use of Life Without Parole sentences here in Pennsylvania?

For all of us to die. For the “old guard” to all retire. And perhaps then with new blood, new logic, maybe a law will change.

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?

  • Some turn to religion/theology.
  • Some spend as much time as possible at the Law Library.
  • Some give up all hope.
  • Some FIGHT (courts, Pardons Board).
  • Some take psyche meds/sleep 18 hours a day.
  • Some live in a fantasy world and mail out all of their belongings and say they’re going home.
  • Some laugh at those of us who educate ourselves and apply for commutations.

What do genuine justice and healing look like in your ideal vision of each?

Justice would certainly be served by releasing those who have served decades in prison, especially if they are not the killer.

Healing will only occur with forgiveness, because what is done can never be redone. All parties involved will just have to move forward… probably the pain that they carry will rear its ugly head from time to time and then they’re going to have to forgive again… and again… and again.

How does the vision that you’ve just described differ from the current justice system?

It differs in that we (especially women) are not being released. We, both men and women, are not being forgiven. We need mercy and it’s not being extended to us by the powers that be.

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?

Jesus Christ. I would discuss justice and the lack of it on this Earth.

The General Assembly. I would discuss life without parole and if they would still think it was a good idea and/or a deterrent to crime if it was their child serving such a sentence.

These final two questions are fill-in-the-blanks, but we hope that you will also take some time in your response to expand upon your answer and speak to why it is important to you. Feel free to treat these two questions either on a personal/small scale or to respond to them at the larger generational scale (i.e. as in something that you hope either begins or ends within our collective lifetimes). 

I want ______________ to begin with me (or with my generation).

I want life with parole to begin with me (or with my generation). As a woman sentenced to life without parole for 2nd Degree Murder, I want “actual” parole to begin with me and all the men and women serving life in Pennsylvania. We need more than just eligibility for parole. WE NEED ACTUAL PAROLE. Nothing else will do.

I want ______________ to end with me (or with my generation).

I want life sentences to end with me (or with my generation).