Avis Lee on Challenging DBI and Imagining the Future

Letter from Avis Lee in October of 2014

Interview #2

If you had the PA General Assembly’s ear or the Governor’s ear for ten minutes, what would you say to them/him?

In 1973, when the legislature revamped the Sentencing Code a seed of confusion and inconsistency was planted regarding parole for lifers. Their (the legislature’s) reworking of the Sentencing Code includes a provision which appeared to extend parole eligibility for some lifers. 

Sentencing Code 9756 (c)(1)(2)(3) reads: (c)Prohibition of Parole – Except in the case of murder of the first degree, the court may impose a sentence to imprisonment without the right to parole only when:

  1. a summary offense is charged,
  2. sentence is imposed for nonpayment of fines or costs, or both, in which case the sentence shall specify the number of days to be served, and
  3. the maximum term or terms of imprisonment imposed on one or more indictments to run consecutively or concurrently total less than 30 days.

This provision appeared to be in direct conflict with Section 331.21 of the Parole Act, which denied the Board jurisdiction over lifers:

The Board is hereby authorized to release on parole any convict confined in any penal institution of this Commonwealth as to whom power to parole is herein granted to said Board, except convicts condemned to death or serving life imprisonment …

Section 9756(c) of the Sentencing Code can be read as requiring parole for lifers convicted of crimes other than murder of the first degree. Section 331.21 of the Parole Act prohibits the Board from considering for parole any person sentenced to life imprisonment regardless of the underlying crime. While there appears to be an obvious conflict between the two sections, the legislature provided that the Sentencing Code would repeal any prior statutes which were inconsistent with the new law.

Note: At the time the Parole Act was passed only first degree murder was susceptible to a sentence of life imprisonment. Section 9756(c) of the Sentencing Code was, therefore, consistent with the intent of the Parole Act because it also denied parole only to those persons convicted of first degree murder. Second degree murder convictions, therefore, would not be barred from parole! The result is that second degree lifers are left with a right to parole but no way of exercising that right. This leads to a possible due process claim by life prisoners.

Much of what is available out there about people serving life sentences focuses on men and their experiences. What is specific to the experience of being a woman serving a life sentence?

Isolation (our prisons are located in rural PA towns)

Lack of human contact/nurturing (there’s a “no physical contact” rule that is strictly enforced)

Menopause (for those of us who entered prison childless and go through menopause while incarcerated we won’t ever be able to have biological children)

In your first set of responses, you draw attention to the differences between parole eligibility and actual meaningful parole and/or opportunities for parole. Can you say more about this distinction? What does the public need to know in order to understand that these are not all one and the same thing?

Basically, they’re the same thing. What I want to say is that the stigma connected with the terms “lifer” and “life sentence” needs to be removed, so that once we are given parole eligibility we will be assessed by the same measure as anyone else who is up for parole for a violent crime.

We know that you also work as a Braille transcriber and have done so for many years now. Can you tell us a little bit about that work, how you got introduced to it, and if or how it has informed your thinking and work more broadly?

Prior to coming to prison, I knew two blind people – one male and one female. Unfortunately, it’s been so long ago I don’t remember their names. The male (he was an adult) from my childhood used to feel our faces to see what we looked like and he could tell from the temperature of our skin who was dark and/or fair. Lastly, he would do a sculpture out of clay for us that always looked exactly like our faces!

The female I met in Manhattan when I was a teen. She was well-spoken and well-educated. I never forgot that. She functioned as if she had no disabilities.

These two people who touched my life (and hopefully I theirs) are my inspiration for learning and transcribing Braille. Watching them live their daily lives with warmth, courage, and grace taught me that you don’t need eyes to see everything; you can also use hope, dreams, inspiration, and embracing others by opening up to share your life with them to “see” so much more. This work helps me to see beyond the physical and to not judge people by outward experiences.

Something I’ve never done before, but would like to try is ______________.

I would like to have a dog for a pet. Specifically, a Labrador Retriever. Let me explain:

I love cats and I have been afraid of dogs for the majority of my life because in my youth I’d seen dogs used as weapons to subdue humans and for crowd control.

However, the unit that I live on has an ongoing program (which I am not a part of) called Canine Partner For Life. There are five Labs that live on my unit. They arrive as puppies as soon as they are weaned. Their temperament is even and they’re very loving, attentive, loyal to their trainees and strong.

I believe having one of these dogs (a Lab) as a pet once I am released would help me transition from long-term incarceration to free society. There are many reasons for this and I will name a few:

  1. Unconditional love (it won’t matter what I look like, how much I earn, criminal record, etc. They’ll just be glad to see me, period.
  2. Socialization/exercise (walking, running, playing, dog parks/other dog lovers)
  3. No need to rush into a relationship due to the isolation of living alone (pet will provide some companionship and a constant reason to get outdoors)
  4. May help me judge others’ intentions good or bad (animals function on a primal level and can sense danger, that’s how they survive in the world)

O.K., that’s enough. You get the picture.:)

How would you respond to those individuals who argue that highlighting the voices of those who have been convicted of crimes harms victims?

We have the right to free speech. Criminal matters are a matter of “public record”.

How has your own incarceration impacted your family and community Or, if this feels too personal to go into, how have high incarceration rates (more generally) impacted your community?

For each person that goes to prison a family unit is changed in many ways, such as: navigating the legal process (bail, lawyers, bondsman, trials, appeals, etc.); financial (legal fees, canteen, commissary, loss of primary or second income to the home); location (travelling expense to and from lawyers, offices, courtrooms, county prisons, state and/or federal prisons); divorce; homosexuality/bisexuality; AIDS; Hep C; adoption, etc.

What song would you want to be the soundtrack to your story?

I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross and Beautiful by India.arie

If your voice could be heard anywhere, where would you want it to be heard? (Note: Use your imagination, be creative, but please keep this within 200 miles of Philadelphia if possible).

Temple University, Cheney University, and Senator Greenleaf’s office.

In addition to a specific location, can you tell us anything more about how you would like it to be shared?

Senators, DAs, law students, concerned citizens, teens (so they don’t make the same mistake). NO PUBLIC BROADCAST.

If I could have one superpower, it would be ___________

To transcend time and space – you know, like quantum physics/quantum leap. To change the past. To foresee roadblocks in the future and step around them.