Activists Call for End to ‘Death by Incarceration’

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By Betsey Piette | October 4, 2021


A movement of Pennsylvania activists are working to end the state’s policy of sentencing incarcerated people to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). They have coined the term ‘death by incarceration’ to describe this cruel punishment.


The activists held a press conference and rally in Philadelphia Sept. 30 to promote SB835, introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators. If passed, the state bill would offer geriatric and medical parole for anyone, aged 55 years or older, who has served 25 years or half their sentence, whichever comes first.


The bill would offer incarcerated people with a chronic medical condition — either a physical or mental illness — a chance at parole. Currently, an incarcerated person in Pennsylvania needs to petition their sentencing judge to qualify for compassionate release. And they need a doctor to confirm they have less than a year to live, and in most cases be unable to walk.


In Pennsylvania, the more than 10,000 incarcerated people over 55 are considered geriatric, because their life spans are shortened by oppressive prison conditions, including poor nutrition and health care, severe stress and the risk of violence. The total state prison population is around 38,000. (tinyurl.com/em8s8746)


Each year, 133 people enter the Pennsylvania prison system with LWOP sentences. On average, 28 of these lifers will die behind bars each year. The geriatric population in the state exploded from 6% in 1996 to 25% by 2020. The pandemic worsened the situation, impacting 11,000 incarcerated people in the state’s prisons, with 141 dead because the Department of Corrections failed to act to contain the virus.


Pennsylvania has some of the harshest sentencing policies in the U.S. A person can be convicted of felony murder, also known as second-degree murder, if they participated in a robbery or kidnapping that resulted in a death. This applies to everyone involved, even if unarmed.


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