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These Women Face Death by Incarceration, But They’re Organizing for Their Lives

A new report highlights the experiences those sentenced to death by incarceration in Pennsylvania’s women’s prisons.

A woman holds a sign that reads "Life Sentences Are Death Sentences" on the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on September 20, 2022, at the Second Chances Make Our Communities Safer rally organized by the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration.

When she was 20 years old, Sheená King was sentenced to life without parole. Two years earlier, King’s boyfriend had coerced her into fatally shooting another woman, threatening to kill her and her family if she refused. She was convicted of murder, which, in Pennsylvania, mandates life without parole.

It’s a sentence that King, now age 50, and other advocates call “death by incarceration.”

“Freedom is ensured when my ashes are shipped to my daughter in a cardboard box,” she explained in a newly released report on women and trans people serving similar sentences.

The term “death by incarceration” encompasses those like King who have been sentenced to life without parole. In recent years, it has also expanded to include people who are serving life sentences that allow for parole as well as virtual life sentences of 50 years or more. More than 203,000 people, or one in every seven people in U.S. prisons, are serving one of these types of sentences.

In Pennsylvania, 8,242 people (or 12 percent of the state’s prison population) are serving one of these sentences. The state has the second-highest amount of life without parole sentences — 5,375 people — in the nation. (Florida, which has 10,438 people serving life without parole, is first for that dubious distinction).

As of March 2023, Pennsylvania’s two women’s prisons confined 1,871 women, trans and gender-nonconforming people. Of those, 197 — or over 10 percent — are serving life without parole sentences.

Given their relatively small percentage, the experiences of people sentenced to death by incarceration are often overlooked and under-reported. Now, a new report brings their stories — which often start with violence from loved ones — to the forefront.

From Victim to Victor draws from surveys and follow-up interviews detailing the life histories, prison experiences and policy recommendations of 73 women and trans people serving similar sentences in Pennsylvania’s women’s prisons. The report is researched and written by incarcerated people in partnership with outside advocates from the Abolitionist Law Center, the Human Rights Coalition and Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.

While its scope is limited to those in Pennsylvania’s women’s prisons, the report reflects the reality of women and trans people serving lengthy or lifelong sentences nationwide — and their efforts to challenge the system that has doomed them to die behind bars.

“For decades I have felt like a discarded thing, locked away from society thousands of miles from home and forgotten by all except a handful of people who care deeply for me,” King, who wrote the report’s introduction, told Truthout by e-message. “I participated in writing the report for the women around me who feel as I feel but aren’t able to articulate or to give voice to their emotions. It is incumbent upon me to speak for those who cannot.”

A Common Story Arc: A Lifetime of Patriarchal Violence

Over 60 percent of the women and trans people surveyed for the report had never been arrested before the arrest that led to their sentencing. Strikingly, 75 percent had been abused as children. More often than not, the violence happened at the hands of men that they knew — fathers, mothers’ boyfriends, uncles, brothers or family friends.

The violence often continued into adulthood. More than 80 percent said that they later became involved in abusive romantic relationships. Their accounts point to a common story arc in women’s prisons: a lifetime of patriarchal violence.

That story arc isn’t limited to Pennsylvania. Nationally, 86 percent of those in women’s jails reported experiencing sexual violence before arrest; 77 percent also reported partner violence.

One-third of those who responded to the survey were convicted for the death of a romantic partner. In 85 percent of those cases, participants reported that that partner had been abusive. In convictions for the death of someone other than a romantic partner, such as King’s, male violence frequently played a significant role.

That’s what happened to Jamie Silvonek. She was 14 years old when her 20-year-old boyfriend, whom she described as controlling and violent, killed her mother, who had opposed their relationship. Silvonek was charged with first-degree murder as an adult and sentenced to 35 years to life.

For the next four years, she was incarcerated in Muncy’s Youthful Offender Unit, where children are held in isolation away from incarcerated adults. But Silvonek was still in the presence of adult prison staff who regularly abused her verbally and emotionally.

“They regularly forced me to stand in front of their office while they verbally disparaged and humiliated me. They sometimes forced me to stand in front of their office for hours at a time as they degraded and taunted me,” she recounted for the report. When she attempted to report their abuse, they retaliated by writing her numerous misconduct tickets. Those tickets increased her isolation and fraught mental state, preventing her from talking with her family and lessening the few opportunities to interact with other young people in that unit.

Others also described how the violence they faced on the outside continued past the prison gates. I’ve been the topic and receiver of physical and emotional abuse that traumatized me before prison, just to be thrown away into another abuser’s arms called the Department of Corrections,” Kimberly Joynes told Truthout.

Abuse perpetrated by prison staff is not uncommon. Between 2016 and 2018, the latest years for which data is available, prisons and jails nationwide reported 45,581 allegations of staff sexual harassment and abuse. Fewer than 2,200 allegations were substantiated. A lack of substantiation does not mean that an assault did not occur; it simply indicates that investigators report that they did not find enough evidence to determine whether it occurred.

That’s what happened to Tracey Nadirah Shaw, who had been repeatedly raped by a prison officer for four years. The officer had threatened her family if she reported his assaults, causing her to remain quiet. The attacks stopped only after she was moved to a different housing unit. Years later, she learned he was applying to become manager of her housing unit. She reported his rapes to prison authorities, her family and an outside monitoring agency. Prison investigators dismissed her claims as not only unfounded but, because so much time had elapsed, frivolous.

Injustice in the “Justice” System

By June 1, 2003, Sarita Miller’s use of crack cocaine, which had started as a way to block out her father’s abuse, had become an “insatiable desperateness.” One night, she went to her dealer, intending to get crack from him. They drove to the home of another person, Rita Nagel, whom Miller hoped would give them money.

“I knew that Ms. Nagel was friendly with some of the drug addicts,” Miller explained. “She would show compassion and allow some of us to wash her car, run errands, etc.” Miller planned to fabricate a sob story to get a few dollars. Instead, she said, once Nagel opened her door, “My co-defendant pushed his way in and began brutalizing her. I stood back frozen and watched. I did nothing to help her. I couldn’t believe it!”

When her co-defendant threatened to do the same to her if she did not act, she hit Nagel in the head with a hammer. Nagel died from their attack. Miller was charged with first-degree murder and robbery.

At trial, Miller’s dealer took the stand and told a different story — that Miller alone had killed Nagel, then later took him to the apartment to see the dead body. He was offered immunity in exchange for his testimony. A jailhouse informant, who later received probation for robbery and assault, also testified against her.

In addition, prosecutors called Miller’s female lover, who testified that Miller had allegedly confessed the murder. But they didn’t limit questioning to the alleged confession. Instead, Miller recalled, “My lesbian affair was brought up in front of the jury and my sexual performance with my ex-partner [was also discussed.]” Miller was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

She wasn’t the only one whose sexuality was used to demonize her in front of the jury. Michelle Hetzel, who was convicted after her husband killed her ex-girlfriend, recalled, “My relationship with a girl was the biggest talking point. At trial the rings we exchanged were passed around to the jury. The rainbow sticker on my car was photographed and blown up for the jury.”

Her request for a separate trial was denied. Her attorney never brought up her husband’s abuse nor the fact that he had been her foster brother, that he was seven years older than her, and that their relationship began when she was a minor.

Hetzel and her husband were both convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Over half of the report’s participants were incarcerated for a crime involving a white victim. This includes Miller, who is Black and Muslim, and Hetzel, who is white. Studies have indicated that sentences are often higher in cases involving deaths of white victims, particularly white women.

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that requires life without parole for felony murder, or being present when a death occurs during another criminal act. More than 20 percent of the report’s participants are imprisoned for felony murder.

Transformation — and Prison Obstacles

Despite the prospect of dying in prison, many of these women have attempted to transform their lives. While in county jail, Miller completed her high school diploma and took college classes. Once in state prison, she enrolled in classes and self-help groups, including violence prevention, substance abuse programs, victim awareness, financial literacy classes and vocational programs.

She began therapy to address past physical and sexual abuse from adult relatives and to understand how that violence shaped her life and actions. She also decided to ensure that incarcerated women had their own outlet for their voices, collaborating with Let’s Get Free, a Pittsburgh-based group supporting imprisoned women and trans people, to publish Daughters, a biannual magazine specifically by and for incarcerated women.

King completed every program offered at SCI Muncy, including graduating with an associate’s degree in religious education, a bachelor’s degree in Christian counseling and completing 32 vocational programs. She also became certified as a peer educator to help others undergoing similar struggles.

Joynes, too, has completed every program offered at SCI Cambridge Springs, the state’s other women’s prison. She is now taking correspondence courses from Colorado State University toward two bachelors’ degrees — one in sociology and another in psychology.

Silvonek is also enrolled in college. She is also learning to advocate not only for herself but for others who were ensnared in the legal system as juveniles. “At 22, I am far from the insecure, impulsive 13-year-old child I once was. I am working hard to become a woman that my family and community is proud of,” she wrote in an e-message to Truthout.

But their pathways to transformation aren’t easy in a prison environment. Many, including King, described struggling with mental health with little to no support from prison medical staff. Instead, staff frequently punish them when they most need mental health support. Silvonek attempted suicide several times; each time, she was stripped of her clothing, placed in solitary confinement and denied reading materials and access to her family.

Participants also described being punished for minor rules violations, most often for contraband, or items that they were not allowed to have. These items were often not dangerous at all. King, for instance, was sent to solitary for 30 days for having fruit salad. Other contraband for which women have been punished include perfume, earrings, a lamp, ketchup and a seasoning packet.

Impacts of Incarceration

Nationwide, the majority of people in prison are parents. Two-thirds of the report’s participants have children. Nearly 60 percent of those parents were arrested before their children were 5 years old. Not surprisingly, their lengthy imprisonment has frayed their relationships. Several said that they did not know much about their children’s lives, while others had lost touch altogether.

King’s children were 3 years old and 4 months old when she was arrested. She was fortunate that her mother and sisters cared for them, avoiding foster care and permanent separation. Still, she said that her incarceration devastated her family. “At ages 30 and 33, [my children] still have enduring effects of my incarceration,” she wrote. Her son is currently serving the same sentence as her — a life sentence without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder.

Not only have family ties been frayed, but those sentenced to death by incarceration fear aging and dying behind bars.

Joynes and King were 20 when they entered prison. King recently turned 50 and Joynes will be 62 this summer. Without clemency or legislative change, they face decades — and death — in prison.

Nearly half of all Pennsylvanians serving life without parole are over age 50. More than 21 percent are age 60 or older. While report participants ranged from ages 20 to 80, the average age was 55 years old. They described witnessing neglect of those who were aging and expressed fear that they, too, might be treated horrifically as they lost the ability to care for themselves.

“[Life without parole] means you will die in a dirty diaper, begging for someone to come help you and be abused for losing your memory,” 57-year-old Maria Spencer stated in the report.

Causing a Tsunami and Creating Change

For those serving life without parole, clemency, in the form of a sentence commutation, is currently their only chance for release.

While some states allow their governors discretion to commute sentences, Pennsylvania requires unanimous approval from all five members of the Board of Pardons and Parole. Even if the board grants unanimous approval, the governor can still deny clemency. Between 1999 and 2022, only 57 lifers received commutation; 45 were granted by Tom Wolf between 2015 and 2022. In contrast, between 1970 and 1995, Pennsylvania governors commuted 285 life sentences.

As of 2020, 8,242 people in the state were serving a sentence characterized as death by incarceration. The report highlights three bills that could provide other avenues for that elusive second chance.

Senate Bill 135 would provide parole eligibility for those serving a life-without-parole sentence except for those convicted in the deaths of law enforcement.

SB 136 would ensure that all incarcerated people are able to see the parole board once they turn 55 years old, have served 25 years of their sentence, or have been diagnosed with a chronic, terminal or debilitating illness. The law is similar to one in California, which requires that people who reach age 50 and have served 20 years in prison be eligible for a parole hearing.

SB 385, or Alternative Sentences for Domestic Violence Survivors, would mandate the court consider an individual’s history of partner abuse as a mitigating factor in the sentencing process, allowing the court to impose a sentence below the state’s sentencing guidelines. It also gives the judge the discretion to not imprison the person at all. Survivors who are already incarcerated would receive consideration for resentencing or release. New York passed a similar bill in 2019.

Behind bars, Sheená King and Kimberly Joynes have been active in advocating for all three. King urges those around her to encourage their families to contact lawmakers, attend rallies and vote for candidates who support these changes. In past years, she also wrote form letters for women whose families lived in red districts.

Although she will have her first parole hearing when she is nearly 50, Silvonek is also actively advocating for SB 135 to give others that chance. She is also planning to advocate for children who, like herself, were tried and punished as adults.

Meanwhile, all three hope that the report will bring both more understanding to women’s imprisonment for crimes involving violence and more support for bills that allow them (and everyone else) a second chance.

“I hope this report will cause a tsunami among the people,” Joynes told Truthout. “I want the public servants and the politicians to stop serving with their eyes closed knowing the needs of the uneducated and poor.”

Note: A sentence about the jailhouse informant who testified against Sarita Miller was changed post-publication to reduce the risk of possible misreading.

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