April is Second Chances Month, and while the state paints “victims” in opposition to second chances for people in prison, a growing network of people identifying as “dual victims” are exposing the lie behind this narrative. Dual victims are people who have lost loved ones to interpersonal violence and mass incarceration. Their lived experiences demonstrate how both generational harm and carceral violence weave through the families within our communities.
On March 30, members of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, Healing Communities, Abolitionist Law Center, and Straight Ahead led a dual victim cohort to meet with state legislators in Harrisburg and make their voices heard. The message they brought to the state capital was that survivors of violence want healing and restoration, not Death by Incarceration.
Dual victims Christina Reyes, Lisa Rodriguez-Villoch, Carol Speaks, Terri Minor Spencer, Desiree Cunningham, and Rev. Chris Kimmenez delivered passionate stories and pleas to the representatives. Two of the most impactful legislative visits were with Republican State Representatives Sheryl Delozier—the co-chair of the bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Caucus—and Todd Stevens—a former prosecutor and tough-on-crime legislator. Both play a key role in achieving any parole for lifers legislation in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. After the cohort asked Delozier and Stevens to stop assuming that all survivors of violence want retribution and called them to stop sending people to die by incarceration in their name, the legislators were moved by the stories and said that in the future, they would take their words into consideration before speaking on behalf of survivors.
Two weeks later on April 11th, the cohort returned to Harrisburg to hold a press conference in the Capital Media Room to release the results of CADBI’s report, “Second Chances Don’t Diminish Justice, But Fulfill It.” The report interlaced data and stories from the 104 respondents who answered the CADBI survey between March and November of 2021, which asked survivors of violence questions about healing, justice, change, and Death by Incarceration. The report unraveled insights and perspectives that the 2019 Office of Victim Advocate survey whitewashed in its exclusion of dual victims. While 91 percent of the OVA survey respondents did not support parole eligibility of any kind, 94 percent of the CADBI survey respondents supported parole eligibility for the person who was convicted of killing their loved one.
This directly contradictory data demonstrates that the OVA has been suppressing the multiplicity of dual victims’ voices to serve their agenda of mass incarceration. The CADBI report provided a deeper look into survivors’ nuanced experiences and shaped policy recommendations around the needs and desires that survivors expressed. The report recommended that: 1. The PA legislature passes legislation to end Death by Incarceration sentencing (such as SB135) and provide geriatric and medical parole (such as SB835) 2. PA divests resources from incarceration and invests them into restorative justice programs, reentry programs, and trauma healing programs for the communities most impacted by violence 3. The Office of Victim Advocate transforms its services to support individuals and communities most impacted by violence.
Martha Williams, Amy McAndrews, Lisa Rodriguez-Villoch and Rev. Chris Kimmenez, all of whom identify as dual victims, spoke at the press conference. CADBI member Pastor Jay Bergen facilitated it. In addition, Senator Shariff Street, the sponsor of SB135 and SB835, State Representatives Rick Krakewski, and State Representative Donna Bullock, the chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Congressional Black Caucus, all spoke at the press conference supporting restorative justice and parole eligibility for lifers and geriatric prisoners. Representatives from the Office of Victim Advocate, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and the Capital Press attended as well.
Incarcerating people to death does not do my heart justice. It does not make me safer or happier. It does not benefit me in any positive way mentally. And it is a detriment to me financially, using unnecessary tax dollars that could be used for mental health treatment, to fight poverty, or for the Victim’s Advocate Office to truly help survivors.-Amy McAndrews
When Senator Sharif Street took the podium, he shared: “This is the first time it’s dawned on me that I’m speaking as a dual victim.” For Street, it was his wife’s cousin, who he calls his nephew, that was murdered. “If you are a person from one of those communities [most impacted by violent crime], like I am from North Philadelphia,” Street said, “you recognize that the system of mass incarceration has not made us safer.”
In reference to the previous Victim’s Advocate Jennifer Storm, who blocked any reform around Death by Incarceration, Street said, “I was at the forefront of that debate…about dual victims with the previous Office of Victims Advocate, where she said they didn’t exist. Unfortunately, I now have a personal testimony that they do, and I’m one of them.”
Lisa Rodriguez-Villoch, the relative of two murder victims and the wife of a man serving Death by Incarceration, vehemently agreed that dual victims not only exist but have a voice. “To the state,” she said, “Stop weaponizing victims. Stop using us as weapons. You put us on the shelf. You take us off when somebody is up for parole or somebody is going to court. You take us down and you use us. You keep us in a circle of perpetual victimhood. Enough is enough. We exist. They acknowledge me as a dual victim in New Jersey. Pennsylvania needs to do that too. Not all of us feel the same way.”
Amy McAndrews, a woman from Chester County, recalled the murder of three of her close friends—one of whom she considered her baby brother. McAndrews described the evolution of her healing process. Now she is devoted to ending Death by Incarceration in Pennsylvania. “Nearly every other state in the U.S. offers opportunities for redemption,” she said. “We’re not asking for everyone to go free. We’re asking that people who are deserving have an opportunity at parole. Incarcerating people to death does not do my heart justice. It does not make me safer or happier. It does not benefit me in any positive way mentally. And it is a detriment to me financially, using unnecessary tax dollars that could be used for mental health treatment, to fight poverty, or for the Victim’s Advocate Office to truly help survivors.”
At the conclusion of the press conference, members and supporters of the cohort flooded the State Capital with CADBI’s report and distributed it to legislators’ offices, compelling them to read the data and listen to survivors of violence. The cohort also set up a distribution station in the Capitol Rotunda, handing out copies of the report and speaking with passersby about the urgency of ending Death by Incarceration.
Throughout the next several months, Straight Ahead will be expanding the cohort to other regions of the state, alongside partners CADBI and Healing Communities. Survivors of violence who believe in second chances will continue to meet with legislators. These lobbying visits and future press events are a continuation of our Decarceration Movement’s battle to reform the Victim Advocate Office, a battle that started under the former state’s Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm. No longer will survivors of violence stay silent as politicians evoke their name to bolster mass incarceration and Death by Incarceration.
To watch the full video of the press conference, click here.
To see the news coverage of the press conference on WGAL8, click here.