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Dear Dr. Oz: Life in Pennsylvania prisons is not what you picture


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 five 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 Victim’s 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 Gov. Milton Shapp’s term 1971 -1978: The Board of Pardons heard 733 applications. 251 (including seven 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 eight were granted clemency.

From 2015 to present, under Democrat Gov. Wolfe: The Board of Pardons heard 100 applications; Gov.r Wolfe granted 53, and seven 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 rehabilitation while evolving into a person who accepts responsibility for his or 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 seven 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 comes from the will of an inmate who chooses not to waste away in a 6-foot x 8-foot 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 fails in his attempt to scare you with that campaign ad. Don’t believe the noise.


Doreen Stratton is a life long resident of Doylestown.