Info about Death by Incarceration

Quotes featured on this fact page were from a survey conducted in 2019 of women and trans people serving life sentences. You can read more of their responses here.

Death by Incarceration

Life sentences are death sentences in PA . There is no parole for people with life sentences.

  • The Abolitionist Law Center created an informative report called A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania [Full Report] [Abridged Report].
  • As of December 31, 2018, there are 5,458 lifers in the PA criminal justice system. Of the 5,458 lifers, As of September 2019, there are 192 Women, 4 Transgender people serving LWOP. (There is not enough information about the transgender community)
  • Between 2008 and 2016, the United States has seen a 20% increase of women serving life sentences, compared to the 15% increase for their male counterparts.
  • Across the nation, one in 15 women in prison, almost 7,000 women, are serving a life or virtual life sentence.

Quote from Survey: “People are getting sick and dying in here. We deserve a second chance.”--Mildred Strickland, 75 years old, 32 years in

[Update: Mildred’s life sentence was commuted and she was released in 2021. She is the 7th woman to receive commutation in over 30 years. ]


Commutation is a reduction of sentence and the only opportunity for people sentenced to life without parole to be released unless the laws are changed. There has been an upsurge in commutations applications with the appointment of LT.Governor John Fetterman and Governor Wolfe’s support.

  • Since 1971, fifteen women have been commuted with Tina Brosius, Naomi Blount, and Magaleen Stewart receiving commutation after 2018
  • Tina Brosius, commuted in 2018, was the first woman to receive commutation in Pennsylvania since 1990
  • Not one woman who has received commutation of their life sentence in PA has reoffended or returned to prison
  • Let’s Get Free has a 12 point platform for commutation reform.
  • The PA board of pardons has a lot of info on their website.

Quote from Survey: “Time frame, and if denied letting us know why we were denied. At the level you were denied—that is, where you should start the next time you file. Also, feel like no elected official should sit on the commutation board. Our life should not depend on an election year.” –Tricia Muff, on what could change about the commutation process

Compassionate Release

The concept of Compassionate Release is the idea that if a person in prison is so ill that the state would have mercy on them and allow them to live the end of their life outside of prison.  Here in PA the phrasing of medical release is more accurate. The PA statute does not say “compassionate” and it is decidedly not compassionate.

  • In 2015, 8 people applied and 3 were released. 
  • Of all states, only thirteen track and report statistics on compassionate release and even then, only a few publicize the information. Pennsylvania does not publish statistics on how many have been released under the Deferment of Sentence law due to serious or terminal illnesses.
  • According to one reporter, nine individuals were released between 2010 and June 2015 under the deferment of sentence/compassionate release law.
    • More info on Medical Release coming soon.

Aging People in Prison

The risk of re-offending for aging prisoners is low and the costs are very high. “Lots of people, as they age, they are no longer a risk. We are keeping people in prison who are physically unable to represent a threat to anybody.” Blumstein

The Risk is Low

  • 62 Women serving life in PA are over the age of 60 years old. 15 women are in their 80’s with Alice Green, the oldest woman in PA,  will turn 90 in August of 2020
  • “Since the inception of parole, 285 commuted lifers have been released on parole in Pennsylvania. Of the total, 186 were under the age of 50 when released and 99 were 50 years of age or older. Of the commuted lifers paroled at 50 or older, one was recommitted to prison for a crime and none are unconvicted criminal violators, resulting in an aggregate criminal conviction recidivism rate of 1.01%.” [This report is from 2005]
  • This extremely low recidivism rate parallels the findings from the 235 people released since 2012 from Maryland prisons. They were incarcerated for an average of 39 years and to date have a recidivism rate of under three percent.
  • Medical Issues increase for older people in prison. This recent article with Terri Harper has some good quotes.

Quotes from Survey: “My experience obtaining medical treatment as a 69 year old with disabilities has been a constant legal battle. “ — Janet Martin

“Medical is horrible. They are more quick to give you psychotropic medicine for a mere headache but won’t even offer you a decent vitamin regiment. The problem with a lot of women in prison is menopausal symptoms and they are way more serious than just mere hot flashes. Women lose a lot of vital nutrients within their bodies and that causes all kinds of physical ailments. Hormone changes also have mental effects, it’s serious.“ — Sarita Miller

The Cost is High

  • Estimated cost for incarcerating a person over 55 is a PA prison is $50,000 – 55,000 per year.
  • “The median per-inmate health care spending was higher in states where older inmates represented a greater share of prison populations”. Pennsylvania was in the top 10 states of highest percentage of inmates age 55 and over. The average health care spending per inmate in Pennsylvania was $4,870. It’s about 45,000$ a year in PA without medical costs.
  • Justice Policy Institute estimated the cost breakdown for health care between age groups. With a total health care budget of $231,123,000, Pennsylvania’s total health care cost per individual over 55 was $10,309.33. The estimated total health care cost per an individual 55 and younger was almost 3 times less at $3,531.57.
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reported 10,442 individuals over the age of 50 who were incarcerated as of January 1, 2017. The Department reports “85% of those inmates are on medication that costs the DOC $3.25 million per month”

Quote from Survey: “In the 1990s, I thought NOTHING of our system or the people in prison! They committed a crime, not my concern. 22 years later, I’ve learned the cost of this ignorance! $40,000-120,000+ a year; innocent people executed or in prison; people can AND DO change as they mature; prison is a business! Wake up, research, it is your money! If your taxes separated how much went to your state & county prisons, would you care more?”–Patricia Rorrer

Domestic Violence & Death By Incarceration

Many women and trans prisoners were in abusive relationships and the situations related to those relationships directly related to their sentence of life without parole.

  • The majority of people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in the women’s prisons are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence and trafficking. – Survived and Punished
  • Fact Sheet on Domestic Violence and criminalized survivors
  • How Far Can Abused Women Go to Protect Themselves (recent article)
  • Experiencing domestic violence puts women and girls at risk for incarceration, not as victims but as offenders. That nation has seen an increase in women arrested for domestic violence since mandatory and pro- arrest laws and policies have been implemented.
  • PA Senator Sharif Street has statistics on his site including a letter from Dorothy Farbo, quoted below. Statistics listed include: 77% of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic violence. Abused women convicted of killing their attackers prior to the 70’s & 80’s are still serving life without parole.
  • 1 in 4 women in the United States experience violence from an intimate partner.
  • 15% of all violent crimes in the United States involves an intimate partner.
  • According to research from 2011, about 5% of male murder victims were killed by an intimate partner. There is reason to believe that the motivation for female perpetrated crimes may be self-defense or retaliation, as the majority of women who use violence against their male partners are battered themselves.

Quote from Survey: “I am 69 years old and have 42 years here. I’m proud of myself and thank GOD every day for freeing me from the abuse and torture and prison in my own home. I needed the help then from the police and society. The police would visit me in the hospital and say we didn’t see anything & your husband says your clumsy and always falling. He was believed but not me. If by some miracle I was released today I would fight and be an advocate and do my best to help & protect all those suffering from abuse. Who better to help the abused than one who has suffered it?” — Diane Weaver, SCI- Muncy

Sexual Violence & Death by Incarceration

People who defend themselves from sexual violence are often punished for defending themselves.

  • The majority of people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in the women’s prisons are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence and trafficking. – Survived and Punished
  • In a national survey conducted by The Sentencing Project of people serving life without parole for offenses committed as youth, we found that prior to incarceration, 80% of female respondents had experienced physical abuse, 77% sexual abuse, and 84% witnessed violence at home.
  • Ninety percent of people serving LWOP in California women’s prisons were sentenced as “aiders and abettors.” They were not the main actor in the crime and/or were forced to be present when their abuser committed a murder.
  • Great Fact sheets on sexual violence and criminalization of survivors at Survived and Punished
    •  Every year 200,000 inmates are sexually abused in correctional facilities across the nation. 
    • The Center for Disease Control estimates that approximately 1 in 5 (21.3% or an estimated 25.5 million) women in the U.S. reported completed or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.

Quote from Survey – “The psychological and emotional effects of abuse and human sex trafficking need to be understood. Most women commit their crimes out of fear or passion and many are influenced by a man in their lives. Women are nurturers they will protect their young at all costs. We do many things out of the need to survive.” —Cyd Berger

Public Safety

  • “If prisons reduced crime the US would be the safest country in the world.” – Danielle Sered from the book she wrote Until We Reckon, Violence, Mass Incarceration and the Road to Repair. 
  • Not one woman who has received commutation in PA has reoffended 0% Recidivism
    • More information under Aging Prisoners

Quote from Survey: “We’re not the same people we were 25- 30- 40- years ago. We’re capable of helping and doing positive things. We want to be part of the community. We want to break the chains of violence and move on with our lives to live a productive life and be an asset to our community.” — Dorothy Farbo

Redemption, Transformation, Resilience

Everyone deserves a 2nd chance.

  • “We are not have we have done. We are who we have become” — Sheena King
  • ““What a difference a day can make. We are more than our worst day.”–Avis Lee
  • You can read about many women sentenced to life on the Women’s Lifer Resume Projects website. The film Dying Outloud is a 20 minute documentary that features 5 women sentenced to life. Diane Metzger who was featured has since died in custody. Joanne Butler died 3 months after receiving a medical release. 
  •  Right to Redemption touts the unsung wonders of the many people sentenced to life without parole, who have committed themselves to a life of sacrifice and service and have become agents of restoration in the communities they have wounded. R2R calls on the forces of goodwill everywhere to come together, consolidate, and champion the human right to redemption and dignity in any case or circumstance: to advance the idea of forgiveness for those deemed worthy: and to help the criminal justice system and the public see the rightness of embracing the prospect of redemption over unceasing retribution. R2R is based at SCI-Phoenix
  •  Lifelines: Voices Against the Other Death Penalty has audio recordings of several people sentenced to life and other great resources.

Quote from Survey: “Please allow me to show you that I can be a leader in my community mentoring to the youth. Second chances should be determined by an offenders actions and rehabilitation only. How can one move forward if they are always looking back.” — Brittany Williams

Restorative & Transformative Justice

There are other ways to prevent and heal from violence than prisons and policing.

  • The current system is not facilitating healing
  • The victim/offender binary is hurting us.
  • Victim/Survivor – Offender/Responsible Party reconciliation is a dream many people with life sentences have. There is a need for more of these programs.
  • These organizations have vision and practice of thinking and working for new ways heal from violence Common Justice, Insight Prison Project , UBUNTU Philadelphia, Right to Redemption
  • Studies have shown that restorative justice interventions can both reduce violence and facilitate  victim healing from violent trauma. Additionally, people who  are convicted of violent crimes  have often been a victim of violence.

Quote from Survey:  “There is no excuse for violence. The pain that it causes can last a lifetime. I can say I’m remorseful a thousand times over but it could never make up for the suffering.”–Sarita Miller

Let’s Get Free’s Creative Resistance Committee started as “Life Cycles Toward Freedom”, a collaboration between Let’s Get Free and the Women’s Lifer Resume Project.