Pennsylvania Prisons: A Fight for Humane Release Policies


Workers World: Joe Piette | April 28, 2022


Philadelphia


Bradford Gamble is out of prison after serving 46 years and is now living with his nephew, Shaquan J. Jordan, in West Philadelphia. He is terminally ill with metastatic colon cancer that has spread to his liver. Gamble is one of only 33 people in the last 13 years who have successfully petitioned the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to release him because of illness.


Gamble was arrested in 1976, when he was 19 years old, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, with no chance of parole. He says he deeply regrets his past actions, which caused the death of another person, and thinks about this every day. He is far from the rash teenager he was 46 years ago.


A terrible choice


The 66-year-old Gamble won his release because of the help of Bryant Arroyo, another incarcerated person, who informed him of a little-known state law that allows terminally ill people to be let out of prison — but only if they have less than a year to live. For those sentenced to a life term, it’s one of the only ways they can get out of prison.


Rather than get treatment to prolong his life and stay in prison, Gamble decided to refuse medical treatment so he could die at home instead of behind bars. He has six months to a year left to live. If his health improves, the DOC or a state prosecutor could send him back to prison.


“The statute is drafted so narrowly that it forces you to make decisions like forgoing lifesaving treatment in order to get even the possibility of medical transfer,” said Rupalee Rashatwar, an attorney with the Abolitionist Law Project, a public interest law firm that represented Gamble in his transfer petition. Rashatwar is working to help more seriously ill people get out of prison before they die.


End life terms without parole


Abolitionist activists are trying to get laws passed that would put an end to life sentences without the possibility of parole. In Pennsylvania, 13.4% of people in prison are sentenced to life terms without parole, compared to a 3.6% average in other states.


This and other sobering statistics compiled in a Families for Justice Reform report are driven by two state laws: the mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment required for first- and second-degree murder charges; and the denial of parole eligibility to anyone with a life sentence. (tinyurl.com/yckrwxym)


By 2019, because of these and other severe sentencing policies, Pennsylvania courts had imprisoned more than seven times the number of people they incarcerated in 1970.


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