Patricia Vickers son was only 17 when he was sentenced to life in prison for a crime she couldn’t bring herself to describe.
“When I got the courage to talk about how I felt and what was going on with my son, to family members and uncles and aunts, I heard things like, ‘well, he musta done somethin’,’ or ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ or ‘you know how they do black folks,’ as if, all of that was good reason to sentence a child to life in prison – like it was all OK.”
Vickers was one of several mothers who spokes during a Friday rally at the Arch Street United Methodist Church organized by the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, a group committed to demanding an end to sentencing youth to life without the possibility of parole.
It was an emotional rally, with the tiny Methodist chapel packed to standing-room-only with 50 people, many seemingly undeterred by the rain on Friday.
Vickers’ son was convicted of murder, and she and many others spent the gray afternoon sharing their stories of loss and regret that their family members hadn’t gotten a second chance.
“There wasn’t anybody who could understand the pain that I was feeling. They all thought that I should forget about my son,” said Vickers.
“Even those who were kind to me when I talked about it, kind of shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘there’s nothing you can do about it.’”
After the rally the organizers and community members walked from the Center City church to District Attorney Seth Williams office to deliver a giant Mother’s Day card containing messages from the mothers, fathers, family members and friends of people who had been sentenced to juvenile life in prison without parole. Williams could not be reached for comment.
Anita Colon’s brother, Robert Holbrook, is serving a life sentence for a drug-related murder he was involved in at the age of 16 just outside of Philadelphia. Colon said her brother didn’t pull the trigger in 1990, but he’s being punished as though he did. He was sentenced to life without parole.
“He’s now 41 years old and has basically grown up and spent much more of his life in prison that he’s spent outside,” she said.
“My mother lost her son in many ways…At that time we knew what had happened to my brother was very unfair and that the punishment did not fit the crime. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without any possibility of parole.”
Russell Maroon Shoatz III, son of the founding member of the Black Panther Party, called Friday’s event a “revolutionary rally,” and one in which “changes the paradigm in which people view incarceration.”
“We all know now that our prison system does very little in terms of rehabilitation,” he said.
“We’re here to show that our loved ones on the inside are also asking for that. This is part of their directive.”
The group’s ultimate goal is for Pennsylvania courts to recognize the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, in which the court found that mandatory life sentences for people under the age of 18 violated the 8th amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and should be abolished.