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Women lifers, locked away as children, taste freedom

"People feel forgotten. People are getting old and getting sick. But they've changed, after a certain period of time. People need to know that. I'm not the same person I was when I went in."

Paulette Carrington, one of the first women juvenile lifers to be released from prison, visits the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center for a hearing for Shavonne Robbins, another woman lifer.
Paulette Carrington, one of the first women juvenile lifers to be released from prison, visits the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center for a hearing for Shavonne Robbins, another woman lifer.Read moreSamantha Melamed/Staff

At age 41, Shavonne Robbins is finding ways to deal with a tenacious cancer and all it has brought: the surgeries, the chemotherapy that leaves her exhausted, her skin dry and cracked.

One thing she hopes to change. "I don't like going to chemo shackled and cuffed," she said in the visiting room of the Muncy state prison, three hours' drive northwest of Philadelphia. "The officers are nice to me when they take me out. But I would rather go for chemo and look over and see my mom sitting there. Here, no one is going to hold your hand."

Her battle with cancer is just one more life event Robbins has marked in prison.

She was 16, a high school dropout and a drug dealer, when an older cousin asked her and several other teens to come to her house. That visit turned into a robbery, which turned into a murder when an older man, Yakoub Smith, used Robbins' gun to shoot and kill 37-year-old Mitchell Thompson Jr.

Robbins was sentenced to life in prison. She's one of 208 women lifers in Pennsylvania, a minute cohort compared with the 5,255 men serving life. But she now has a chance at release, after the Supreme Court banned automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and ordered states to apply the rule retroactively.

Out of Pennsylvania's 500 juvenile lifers, the largest such population in the nation, just 10 are women. Many, housed in Muncy or Cambridge Springs, prisons in far-flung corners of the state, feel they've been locked away and forgotten by the world they're now preparing to rejoin.

Most came from dire circumstances. A national survey of juvenile lifers found 79 percent of women had childhoods tormented by physical abuse; 77 percent had been sexually abused.

Some of their male counterparts had access to extensive programming, even earning degrees from Villanova. Many have fiancees or wives advocating for them. But the women say their opportunities have been more limited — no college courses, fewer programs through nonprofit agencies in nearby cities — and their connections to the outside world more tenuous.

So, recently, advocates have been trying to bridge that divide, through public artworks depicting women lifers and their stories, and through a new website, the Women Lifer's Resume Project, displaying women's photos, writings, and achievements in prison.

"People feel forgotten. There's no help for them," said Paulette Carrington, who served 40 years of a life sentence. "They need to be recognized. People are getting old and getting sick. But they've changed, after a certain period of time. People need to know that. I'm not the same person I was when I went in."

Robbins grew up poor in Point Breeze. She struggled in school, so she dropped out. "I just tried to fit in.  You see the drug dealing, drug use on the street, the violence; you become a part of that. That's all you know."

In prison, she finally learned grit. It took five tries, but she got her GED at age 25.

"It's sad if you have to grow up in prison to change. But we have changed," she said of herself and her fellow lifers. "We're motivated. We're ambitious. We just want a second chance. A lot of us just want our experience to stop someone else from making the same mistake."

She's completed all the classes and programs available at Muncy. "Everything they got here, I already did. So I watch a lot of TV," she said. And she contemplates a future that's growing ever closer. She's set to accept a deal in August that will make her eligible for parole.

Her dreams are simple: to help raise her nieces, ages 3 and 4, and take the burden off her mother. That, and: "Floors. Strip them, wax them, buff them. That's my passion. I just love it. I'm certified to use all the equipment."

Ellen Melchiondo, a New Hope resident and former schoolteacher, has befriended many women lifers as an official visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

"The women lifers, unlike men, they create family in prison," she said. "For all of them, it's going to be a very sad day when they leave Muncy or Cambridge Springs. But they're so ready."

She mentioned Carrington, who was released earlier this year.

Carrington was an out-of-control 16-year-old in 1977, numbing the grief of her mother's recent death with drugs and alcohol. Her father's new girlfriend was abusive, according to Carrington, once slashing her with a carpet razor. Carrington is still not sure how it happened, or why, but she stabbed the woman's 15-year-old son, who had always been decent to her. She was high at the time.

"It took me a couple months to realize I was in jail for someone's death," she said.

Now, she's trying to find her way in the world as an adult for the first time, at age 55.

She's starting a job at a ShopRite, trying to figure out how society works in 2017.

"I was afraid in the grocery store, with so many people, to stand in line the first week. I hadn't shopped in so many years, I was afraid of embarrassing myself," she said. "I got it now. I'm good."

Though she was daunted by taking the trolley to the courthouse, Carrington has been there for Robbins' court dates. She's eager for Robbins to come home.

"I know she has cancer, but whatever she is feeling up to do, we'll do it together," she said.

Carrington is also working with artist Mary DeWitt of Media, who has been painting women lifers since the early 1990s, and is now working on a series of murals.

For the first time in decades, DeWitt is able to paint them from life, rather than photographs, as they're released from prison. She's hoping to install two murals depicting Carrington's image and her story.

DeWitt also intends to continue painting other women lifers who hope to one day be free, despite extraordinarily long odds. They include Charmaine Pfender, who was 18 and struggling to cope with years of sexual abuse when she shot dead a man she said was attempting to rape her at knife-point, and Avis Lee, who was also 18 when her brother shot and killed a man in robbery for which Lee was a lookout. Both have filed claims arguing they should be counted as juveniles under the Supreme Court ruling.

Meanwhile, Melchiondo and another advocate, Darlene Williams, have worked with inmates to develop the Women Lifer's Resume Project.

Williams, 63, of Pittsburgh, said the idea was pitched to her by her daughter Brittany, 33, serving life for her role at age 19 in the kidnapping and murder of a 17-year-old high school student, Dana Pliakas.

While it may be impossible ever to make amends for such a crime, Williams is hoping to refocus the conversation. The women lifers, said Williams, "wanted to show to the world that they do exist, to show their accomplishments during their incarceration and how they've grown. They are people who can be productive in society."

The women wrote out their resumés by hand; Williams and Melchiondo typed them up. Williams taught herself how to build the website.

Williams has pinned her hopes on a bill introduced in April in the state House that would make lifers eligible for parole after 15 years.

Melchiondo, meanwhile, is trying to help some women apply for commutation.

"These women have been in prison so long, they don't know what's important anymore in terms of how to portray themselves," she said.

Even more have never bothered applying, since no woman has received clemency in more than 20 years. And, only about 70 of the 208 women lifers submitted resumés.

Others told Melchiondo there's no point.

"There are a lot of women serving life," she said, "who think they have no hope."