Life in Pennsylvania Prisons

“I now realize how the consequences of my crime affected the victim and her family.”

—Naim Ali Bonner, SCI Graterford Entered 1974, Died in prison 1995

Dear Dr. Oz: You Know Nothing about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system for those serving life sentences.

Now the Truth: In Pennsylvania The Board of Pardons hears an inmate’s plea for clemency. If a majority of the Board of 5 approves the application, it is the Governor who declares a “yes” or “no”. Pennsylvanians should NOT believe the Oz ad.

Hearings are scheduled for Life sentenced inmates who have petitioned the Board of Pardons for Clemency. Other than death in a cell, a Lifer is only granted release from prison by Clemency. In Pennsylvania the Board of Pardons (as required by our State Constitution) consists of the Lt. Governor, the Attorney General, a Corrections Specialist, a Doctor of Medicine, Psychologist or Psychiatrist, and a Victims Representative.

If you visit The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons website, there is a link about Pennsylvania History of the Pardons that reaches back to 1872.

Here is the legend of Pennsylvania’s Governors from 1971 through 2015:

  • Democrat Governor Shapp’s term from1971 through1978: the Board of Pardons heard 733 applications. 251 (including 7 females) were Granted Clemency.
  • During the Republican terms of Governors Thornburgh, Ridge, Schweiker and Corbett from 1979 through 2014: 390 Petitions for Clemency were heard; Only 8 were Granted Clemency.
  • From 2015 to present, under Democrat Governor Wolfe: the Board of Pardons heard 100 applications; Governor Wolfe granted 53, 7 of them were females.

Many apply; few go Free.

In 1991 I became an advocate for people behind bars as a volunteer with Bucks County Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 210. VVA’s National Charter includes support for Vietnam Veterans Incarcerated. As the Editor of Pennsylvania’s VVA State Newspaper (The Keystone Veteran), my tasks included joining my VVA 210 members and other state Chapter Veterans for the yearly visit to a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania. At that time there were approximately 400 Vietnam Veterans in Pennsylvania prisons, for offenses including armed robbery, drugs, arson, assault or 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree murder, crimes inmates often shared during my conversations with them. SCI Graterford in Montgomery County was the first of four different state prisons I visited during my years with VVA 210.

In 2003 I became familiar with the Commutation process while assisting a Vietnam Veteran Lifer with his application to the Board of Pardons. Almost always these men and women apply to the Board after they’ve served 20 years or more. The application is a self-examination of how the inmate pursued his/her rehabilitation while evolving into a person who accepts responsibility for his/her crime and returns to become a contributing member of the community.

During the period from 1979 through 2014, sentencing laws changed, prison populations swelled, and the Prison Industrial Complex became the money maker. When I walked into SCI Graterford in 1991 for the first time there were 7 prisons across Pennsylvania. Today there are 23.

On my July 16, 2015 blog The Bucks Underground Railroad, I posted “It’s about time”. I’ve included the link and hope you will read it.

I’ve always wondered why prisons are called “Departments of Correction”. Prisons are about punishment not rehabilitation. Any rehabilitation usually come from the will of an inmate who chooses not to waste away in a 6’ x 8’ cell. A 20-year Lifer preparing for his commutation told me how five years into his sentence he said, “Sitting in the yard that day it hit me. I was here for Life. That’s when I decided to begin my rehabilitation.”

Citizens, Dr. Oz failed in his attempt to scare you with that campaign ad. Don’t believe the noise.

https://thebucksundergroundrailroad.com/2015/07/16/its-about-time/

Segregated Summers, 1958

I recalled some childhood memories after reading the articles about Fanny Chapman Pool. One piece appeared in the PATCH on July 21 (“Fanny Chapman Pool marks 95th anniversary”) and then again in the Bucks County Herald on July 25 (“At Age 95 Chapman Pool Still One Of The Coolest Places In Doylestown”). Fanny Chapman is where I learned how to swim and gathered the nerve to dive off the high board.

We were “Colored people” living in Doylestown yet had been denied the privilege of swimming at the pool. The reason our father explained, was because the water would become “dirty”. My days of summer in Doylestown had consisted of hanging out at the playground, hitting a tennis ball against our tennis court’s back stop or sitting on the porch with a book, pausing in envy whenever a group of kiddos walked past our house, carrying their bathing suits rolled up in a towel, either on their way to or coming from the pool. 

My cousin Nancy Nelson, was also aware of our denial to swim at the pool. Her father Randall Nelson, the owner of Nelson’s Barber Shop on State Street was active in the Doylestown community. After the pool’s deed of trust dissolved in 1956 and ownership was transferred to Doylestown Borough, Randall Nelson approached the Council and asked the pool open its membership to people of color. In the summer of 1958, I was 12 years old and along with my sister and cousins, for the first time could jump in the shallow end of Fanny Chapman Pool.

Search Segregated Swimming Pools and dozens of articles pop up. The long history of denying people of color the privilege of swimming in a pool still continues in places across America. There was one incident when water from a pool was emptied after Black people were removed from a pool. A book published in 2010 by Jeff Wiltse, an Associate Professor of History at University of Montana-Missoula: Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, examines how attitudes toward race, class, gender and community are factors in segregated swimming pools.

A July 12, 2021 ABC-5 Cleveland television article by DaLaun Dillard noted that drowning statistics are 64% for Blacks as compared to 40% to whites. The ages of 5 to 9 and 10 to 14 are most vulnerable. If a child hasn’t learned how to swim then ponds, streams, lakes or ocean beaches are the waters that bring death on hot summer days.

The Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 by Boston activist Ben Haith. The design’s Red, White and Blue reflects America’s Declaration of Independence. The Arc curving across the middle represents New Horizons for African Americans. The Nova in the center is the astronomical burst of new beginnings for African Americans

Juneteenth—also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day or Emancipation Day, became a National Holiday on June 19, 2021 after President Joe Biden signed it into Law.

The history of Juneteenth began when President Abraham Lincoln, after much thought, crafted The Emancipation Proclamation to free enslaved persons in Confederate states. Dated September 22, 1862 it became effective on January 1, 1863. With the Civil War raging, the freed Blacks could possibly join the Union effort and help bring the collapse of slavery.

Through General Order No. 3, the task of spreading the Proclamation was assigned to Union Army Major General Gordon Granger. He mustered his troops and tread across the southern states and territories announcing the end of slavery. On June 19, 1865 the General arrived in Galveston, Texas where Order No. 3 was posted at Union Army Headquarters, the Customs House and the Negro Church on Broadway. At that time there was an estimated 250,000 enslaved people living and working on plantations of owners who’d fled the Civil War in the east. The date “June 19” quickly spread throughout the enslaved community melding the two words into Juneteenth.

Emancipation ushered in the Reconstruction era where for a few decades beginning in 1869 through 1901, nearly two dozen freed Blacks were elected to Congress. Some Blacks farmed their own land and schools opened for Black children. Celebrations of Juneteenth which began in the south soon spread among other African American communities with parades, picnics and speeches.

On Juneteenth is a book by Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize Winner and Texas Native. This easy to carry book of 141 pages was published in 2021. Gordon-Reed, who grew up in Texas, offers the reader a quick introduction to Juneteenth’s inception and that state’s early life before it became part of the Union in 1845.

“Galveston Texas June 19th 1865.

General Orders    No. 3.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

. . .    

“The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

          “By order of Major General Granger

                    F.W. Emery

                    Major A.A. Genl.

Juneteenth

Reading out of context

Across America School Board meetings have become contentious environments, where extremist groups express their bigotry against marginalized people, be it their race, ethnicity, gender identity or religion. One active and well entrenched group in Bucks County is—

Woke Pennsylvania:

“a grass roots organization working to reclaim our schools”.

This group planned to read sexually explicit passages at the March 8 Central Bucks School Board Meeting. The passages, lifted from LGBTQ published books—can be found on the woke website. Public comments limited to 3 minutes, are scheduled at the top of the meeting’s agenda.

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, Nobel Laurate and recipient of numerous literary honors, is one of the books on the Woke website. I decided to attend and read a selection from this her first novel, published in 1970. Three of her novels and one of her nonfiction books snuggle on my bookshelf. “The Bluest Eye” isn’t among my four; however, a dear friend lent me her copy.

Morrison’s words sing across the page. When reading the sentences, I’m in awe of the story she weaves. I settled on a passage from the first few pages where words always entice a reader to turn the pages until reaching The End.

Thirty-eight people registered to speak. The room was full. I recognized the usual suspects—attendees from the previous four meetings. As each strode to the dais, they announced the title then filled with indignation, read the excerpt. Then they demanded the book “… be removed from the school library”.

While waiting my turn, I scanned the room, wondering how many of this vociferous crowd had ever voted prior to the 2021 school board elections. The crowd is also displeased with some of the sitting board members, calling out their names demanding they resign.  A speaker from an extremist political action committee—Back to School PA—furiously waved a glossy 4-page document, exclaiming that ‘dark money!’ helped elect 3 Democrats to the board.

(If you visit the Central Bucks School District website, there is a link to a recording of the February 8 meeting. The public comments begin at 30.00 minutes.)

There were speakers advocating for the Library Bill of Rights—American Library Association policies for school libraries as well as several others who opposed removing books from school libraries. A retired teacher—Speaker #16 and recorded at 1.17.15–spoke eloquently how books help some children “… make sense of their lives”.

I remember when a handful of people would attend these meetings. The Covid virus along with decisions to open or close schools and policies regarding masked or no masked students, pushed any concerns about education to the back of the room. Now, the book banners are in Bucks County and stealing all the oxygen out of the air.

The next Central Bucks School Board at 70 Weldon Drive, Doylestown, is scheduled Tuesday, April 12, at 7 pm.

We were called “Pinkos”

Using nuclear power to generate electricity is like using a chainsaw to slice a pat of butter.

Hal Marcovitz’s 12/30/21 piece in the Herald about the Point Pleasant Pumping Station stirred memories of my activism with the Central Bucks Clean Energy Collective. Any old heads still in Bucks that had protested the pump, know the “Collective” was an upstart group of environmentalists against withdrawing up to 95 gallons of water a day from the Delaware River. The water, diverted across Bucks and Montgomery County through streams and reservoirs, was destined to the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant near Pottstown, for cooling the fuel rods in the reactor.

After the March 28, 1979 accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Harrisburg, the anti-nuke protests ramped up in Bucks and many places across America. We never were able to verify a rumor that PECO initially had proposed to build their nuclear plant along the bucolic banks of Pt. Pleasant. Once denied, their compensation prize was the pumping station.

People power escalated. Letters flooded local and area newspapers, citizens showed up at the Wednesday Bucks County Commissioners’ meetings–many speaking eloquently and with knowledge, about nuclear power and saving the Delaware. At one special County Commissioners meeting, the anti-nukes outnumbered the other side, composed mostly of construction workers, builders and realtors. Abby Hoffman came out of hiding and settled in Bucks County helping with organizing peaceful protests.

We even marched in a couple local parades carrying our huge banner with a lonely duck in the water saying, No Delaware Water To Limerick. Labeled “Pinkos” by pro-pumpers, in the early 80s, the Clean Energy Collective sponsored a Teach-in at Buckingham Friends School with workshops on conservation, solar panels, solar voltaic cells and wood burning stoves. I presented the path of uranium from its mining on Native lands to its radioactive half-life burial in the ground. Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey was our Keynote Speaker, probably the only member at that time in the early 80’s who could speak about energy policies.

By 1988 when construction of the pumping station began, over a hundred protestors staged a demonstration. Arrests were made. When a lawsuit filed by environmental group Del Aware suing Bucks County, PECO and Montgomery County Water Authority, construction was halted for months. The Court battle ended, the pump was built and interestingly, houses began popping out of the ground all over Montgomery County. Some years ago the Pt. Pleasant Pumping Station shut down, its walls collapsing into one other.

In recent years proponents for alternative energies are speaking with loud voices. Construction costs for nuke plants is astronomical; yet the “suits” are beating the drums to build again. There’s talk about conservation and wind or solar funding but the solar industry in America is pretty much owned by China.

In a November 22, 2021 Pottstown Mercury article by Evan Brandt—

“The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signed off on a plan by Exelon Corp. to divest itself of its fleet of 23 nuclear power reactors, including the two at the Limerick Generating Station.

Exelon Corp. will transfer the NRC licenses to a new company, currently called HoldCo, as part of a corporate restructuring, the NRC announced on Nov. 17.

There is no money changing hands.”

  

Reading in the Time of COVID

During the worst months of the COVID lockdown, I’d read five non-fiction books focused on the African American experience. My first was Historian David W. Blight’s biography–Frederick Douglass Profit of Freedom; then two books written by Isabel Wilkerson–Caste and The Warmth Of Other Suns; then the autobiography Becoming by Michelle Obama; and lastly Annette Gordon-Reed’s Juneteenth.

I finished reading the last of the five books just as the hottest educational topic, Critical Race Theory (CRT) became the lightning rod for attendees screaming at school board meetings. To be clear, this is the meaning of CRITICAL RACE THEORY (CRT):  A curriculum designed for discussion at the university level by law students.

Extremists on the right successfully grabbed CRT and reduced it to a lesson that is taught to students from elementary to high school. Not True.

It didn’t stop there. A school board representing students in York, Pennsylvania announced their banning of nearly 50 books for grades K through Senior High. Numerous books on this list were written by African Americans or other people of color—some from outside America. Students’ protests were successful in forcing the York School Board to revisit their decision.

The five non-fiction books I’d read during COVID will go on the shelves of my bookcase along with works about the Vietnam War, religion, politics, women, government, science, Native Americans, biographies, children’s books, fiction and metaphysics. Among this eclectic assortment of books are seven authors whose writings have been banned: William Styron, John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, W.E.B. DuBois, J.K. Rowling and Vladimir Nabokov.

One other slim but powerful book on my shelf is the image below. Eleven published writers associated with PEN International (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists). As noted on the front cover, “Burn This Book is a collection of essays that explore the meaning of censorship and the power of literature to inform the way we see the world, and ourselves.”

Edited by and with an introduction by Toni Morrison.

My next post will include a review of Historian David W. Blight’s award-winning biography–Frederick Douglass Prophet of Freedom. I hope to counter the ignorance about African American history often expressed by those who say–“Black people need to move on… stop talking about the past.”

Science — 1793

Someone once told me, a book often languishes on our shelves, patiently waiting for the time when we will finally read it. In 1984 I had spotted “The Book of Philadelphia” by Robert Shackleton at a book fair, piled among many others on a table with a poster stuck at the top that announced: FREE BOOKS! My eye had caught the title because some of my ancestors had settled in Philadelphia. I grabbed the book, carried it home and there it rested until about a month ago when I pulled it off the shelf.

Published in 1918, the pages of “The Book of Philadelphia” radiate a musty odor wafting up from heavy fibered paper, indicative of books published a hundred years ago. The edges of each page are lined with a brownish tinge while some pages throughout the book, display sketches, either of streets, buildings or people—each image protected by a leaf of delicate tissue, yellowed with age.

I skimmed through the book and paused when discovering a few sentences about the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia.

What a coincidence! Bucks County is in the midst of a Covid epidemic. In addition to the hospitalized and the dead, people are refusing the vaccination and/or wearing masks. There have been protests against closures and lots of unhinged individuals behaving badly in public spaces. Compared to this 21st Century pandemic chaos, how I wondered, did the People of Philadelphia survive the 1793 pandemic? Mr. Shackleton devoted two pages where he briefly mentioned Dr. Benjamin Rush; the plague and treatment, just enough to whet my curiosity.

That year of 1793 the population in Philadelphia was around 50,000. Shackleton describes a city already established with narrow streets and brick row houses. In August 1793 the first death was reported. Soon thereafter people were dying in the streets. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, became the leader in fighting the plague, soon identified as Yellow Fever. The doctor believed “putrid exhalations” in the air caused the disease; and he ordered cleaning the unsanitary conditions at the docks, rotting food, and the sewage system.

Dr. Rush organized crews to roam the city, pick up the dead and carry them to burial sites. Philadelphia was the Nation’s Capital. Soon nearly 20,000 people fled this hot and humid summer including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and much of the federal government taking refuge in Germantown. Some citizens blamed the plague on blacks arriving in Philadelphia after fleeing the revolution in the French Caribbean colony (now Haiti).

The doctor believed the blacks were immune to the disease and pleaded for help from black community leader Absalom Jones, an abolitionist and clergyman who founded the first African Methodist Episcopal Church. The African Americans became instrumental in all tasks from nursing, cart drivers, coffin makers and grave diggers. When the plague began infecting the black community with sickness, 240 African Americans died. The estimate by modern scholars is that close to 5,000 people died during the plague. It spared no one.

Absalom Jones

There was no cure or vaccine for Yellow Fever. Samuel A. Gum’s article described how Dr. Rush kept meticulous notes and developed a treatment of “…blood leaching and purging …a mercury compound as a method to purge the bowels.” When the doctor fell ill with Yellow Fever, he instructed one of his assistants administer the treatment to him. He survived as well as many other hundreds of others who received his treatment.

I close with this: Considering that 200 years ago, the various ingredients Dr. Rush must have experimented with, it was Science that saved those lives.

NOTE:

(An undated article published in the Pennsylvania Center For The Book, titled “Philadelphia Under Siege: The Yellow Fever of 1793” by Samuel A. Gum Philadelphia was my source for much of this post.)

The portrait of Dr. Benjamin Rush can be viewed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. This is the cover of a biography written by Harlow Giles Unger, September 11, 2018. Dr. Rush was also the Founder of Dickinson College, where a statue has been placed.

CHOCOLATE – VANILLA ICE CREAM and ORANGE POPSICLES

(Photos by Doreen Stratton)

DSC_5406

“This is what Democracy looks like!”

That message was shouted by hundreds of citizens at rallies held on the Doylestown Court House lawn. The former guy is gone but he dropped a trail of destruction after his four years in office when he nearly shredded the U.S. Constitution.

On April 6, 2016 I posted “The Power of Voting” on my blog The Bucks Underground Railroad. In the five years since then, much has changed. That post had referenced the book, “BOUND for CANAAN” by Fergus M. Bordewich—an author of several nonfiction books about 17th 18th and 19th Century America.

Near the end of “BOUND… “, Bordewich wrote about the Elgin Settlement in Buxton, Canada–a community of fugitive slaves. By the 1860s this sanctuary–established by the Presbyterian Synod—had settled mostly Blacks who had fled the oppression of America for a new “home”. No longer chattel, they were Canadian citizens with all the Rights of Freed men. They worked their own land or earned a living in their shops.

White Canadians in Buxton opposed the Blacks in their country. They circulated a petition describing Blacks as “…a distinct species of the Human Family … far inferior to that of the European.”

Edwin Larwill, publisher of the local newspaper and Canadian Parliament member, announced his candidacy for office on a platform to establish a poll tax. But Reverend William King—a co-founder of the Elgin Settlement—reached out to every fugitive slave eligible to vote after he learned of Larwill’s plans, which included sending the fugitive slaves back to America. Rev. King then registered these new Canadian citizens to vote. It resulted in Edwin Larwill losing and the descendants of the freed slaves who had arrived in Buxton in 1849–still there to this day.

NOW:  THIS is what white Privilege looks like!

The threat of Free and Fair Elections in America is here. According to a June 10, 2021 article in “Mother Jones”, 24 new laws in 14 states have been created to suppress the Right to Vote, pushed by the zealous supporters of #45. Unable to accept defeat, they’ve ripped off their superior blinders and discovered America’s New Map.

America has become a bowl of vanilla and chocolate ice cream. When mixed together, America is now a delicious taste to the palate.

I can’t wrap my head around the men and women whose allegiance to the US Constitution  Protect and Preserve has morphed into bowing down to a dangerously unbalanced man. Truth be told, the pale faces sitting silent in the U.S. Congress and state legislative bodies across America, have sucked up too many creamsicles.

ALL of them are suffering from brain freeze.

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That poison plant is gone from the White House

Californians traveling their Freeways whizz past decorated foliage thriving along road dividers. I still remember, when living in that state, how attractive it was to view these lovely green-rich shrubs of brilliant pink or red blossoms. Oleander (nerium oleander) is a native from the Mediterranean, brought to California because they thrive in environments where vehicle exhaust or drought conditions exist. But their leaves are extremely poisonous.

Oleander on Freeway
nerium oleander

While lounging in the White House, the former guy watched television, dismantled government programs or golfed on my tax dollars. He also lied every day, as if the poisonous leaves from oleander bushes destroyed any lingering common sense remaining in the brain cells of the lemmings who followed him. The former guy’s only success after four years was a legacy of destruction.

The January 6 assault on the Capitol threatened the end of Freedom in America. When I published Siege Against Democracy on February 17, I wrongly believed that there would be a Major Investigation as who-why-how the insurrection had happened. We came thisclose to flipping America into a dictatorship.

A faux “investigation” of the insurrection was just released by the Senate. My voice is hoarse from screaming at Senator Mitch McConnell when his announcement amounted to Nothing To See Here. Yeah, Mitch.

Tell that IN PERSON to the Capitol Police, Senate and House staff and essential workers who every day revisit the trauma they had experienced from that violence.

Now’s the time for us to burn up the phone lines to each of our state and federal elected people, a lot of them who believe that this is over, that we “… must move on.”

Nope. Not me.

Counting backwards to Jelly Beans

Doreen Stratton Photo

“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot but there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting…”

–remarks by former President Barack Obama’s eulogy at the late Congressman     John Lewis’ funeral last July 2020

The Jim Crow tactic of guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar was a popular voter suppression tactic even after the 15th Amendment allowed people of color to vote. Instead, jelly beans in a jar and other suppressive methods succeeded in denying people that look like me the Right to Vote.

In an October 30, 2020 article by Paducah KY Journalist Chris Yu of NBC Affiliate WPSD, he referenced an 1895 copy of a poll receipt provided to him from Brent Taylor, an Associate Professor of History at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. The receipt–for $2.50–was the amount many Blacks were required to pay before they could vote at their polling place.

Registering to vote was yet another hurdle often denied Blacks. In the same article Yu interviewed a Washington, DC artist who shared the experience his father had endured in a 1940 Tuskeege, Alabama literacy test. The question the applicant must correctly answer: How many windows are there in the White House?

Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature, as if not terrified enough of losing their seats by carving Legislative Districts that look like Rorschach tests, has proposed 14 separate bills designed to eliminate our Right to Vote.

Published on the Brennan Center for Justice website is a comprehensive report titled, “Voting Laws Roundup: February 2021”. Among the proposed assault on our Right to Vote, Pennsylvania’s list of 14 includes eliminating no excuse mail voting; eliminating permanent early voting lists; prohibiting ballot drop boxes; and the rejection of absentee ballots.

Dear Republicans Legislators in Harrisburg: How many jelly beans are in THIS jar? (HINT: 5″ tall; 3″ in diameter)

Doreen Stratton Photo

Difficult, right?