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Bringing our elders home

A sentence to spend your life in prison, get sick in prison, and die in prison is not a life sentence: it is a sentence to death by incarceration. Pennsylvania uses this inhumane sentencing more than nearly every state in the country. More than 1 in 10 people serving death by incarceration sentences in the United States are in Pennsylvania prisons.

This means Pennsylvania also has one of the oldest populations in the country. Currently 10,000 elderly incarcerated people are serving either lengthy sentences or death by incarceration with no possibility of parole. The vast majority of people who commit violent crimes are sentenced under the age of 25, while the brain is still developing. Many are now serving those sentences as elders, by which age recidivism rates plummet. 

Inside the violence of the prison system life expectancy is shortened: people 50 or older are considered elders because their lives are so much shorter than that of people who are free. For elderly people, the current Covid crisis only hastens the process of dying while incarcerated. Their loved ones on the outside are not able to support them as their health and awareness deteriorates and are denied the chance to spend end-of-life time together.

Our goal is to pass legislation that allows for the chance for parole eligibility for those 55 and older, to bring our elders home. 

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My change didn’t come from being incarcerated, it came from being under the mindset of certain individuals—elders who had been there 20, 30, 40 years. The only thing they want to do is teach us to be better men, better fathers, better big brothers. They want us to go right where they went wrong.

Tyree Little
Straight Ahead Organizer

My change didn’t come from being incarcerated, it came from being under the mindset of certain individuals—elders who had been there 20, 30, 40 years. The only thing they want to do is teach us to be better men, better fathers, better big brothers. They want us to go right where they went wrong.

- Tyree Little
Straight Ahead Organizer

Second chances for second degree

Pennsylvania law allows no possibility of parole for people sentenced under first or second degree murder charges. 

This means no allowance for the circumstances of the individual’s actions in sentencing. Whether or not a person took a life, intended to take a life, pulled the trigger—or not—does not matter. The individual may not have even been present or known it was happening.  Experience of abuse, poverty or substance problems does not matter. Their age—most are under 25—does not matter. The potential to change, grow, and transform into a person firmly committed to repair harm does not matter. Every jury is forced to sentence to life without parole: to die within prison.

The law assumes that people can never change. It assumes anyone involved is a danger to society and will be for the entire remainder of their lives. Yet our communities are home to people proving the opposite every day: juvenile lifers coming home and leading fights for justice, committed to improving their own lives and the lives of others.

Without a doubt, this is a matter of the inherent racism the prison system is built on. Black Pennsylvanians are serving death by incarceration sentences at a rate more than 18-times higher than that of white Pennsylvanians.

Straight Ahead advocates for a bill to allow the possibility of parole for the 1,100 people currently serving death by incarceration sentences for second-degree charges. This would allow the courts and parole board to do what they are supposed to do: see the individual person, their circumstances, and their change.

Help end death by incarceration sentencing

Join the growing Pennsylvania decarceration movement for healing and redemption.