Episode 5, Season 2: Let’s get free — A Pittsburgh-based prison abolitionist’s point of view

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Etta Cetera (left) and Avis Lee (right) at SCI Cambridge Springs Prison in Crawford County, PA. Etta and Avis co-founded Let's Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee in 2013, to end death by incarceration and to challenge the "outdated and dysfunctional" commutation process in Pennsylvania. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Etta Cetera (left) and Avis Lee (right) photographed at SCI Cambridge Springs Prison in Crawford County, PA. Etta and Avis co-founded Let's Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee in 2013, to end death by incarceration and to challenge the "outdated and dysfunctional" commutation process in Pennsylvania. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

It’s not every day you meet someone who can say they’ve helped someone get their freedom back. I mean, not anytime after the 1860s, and not from someone who isn’t a lawyer or police officer. And not in 2021, because who still needs to be given their Constitutionally recognized freedom these days?

For this episode, you’ll meet Etta Cetera, a colorful Pittsburgh artist, community organizer and prison abolitionist envisioning a world where punishment for violence and crime doesn’t involve prisons.

We discuss what she sees as the day-to-day injustices that come with imprisonment and how she went from virtually having no political consciousness to adopting the mission of a prison abolitionist.

TRANSCRIPT

Jourdan: Hello, how are you this episode five, Season two from the source and we're back, and it is your grateful host Jourdan coming to you with yet another interesting Pittsburgher. I feel you should meet. I introduce to you Etta Cetara.

Etta: I've devoted a lot of my life to abolishing the sentence of life without parole in Pennsylvania. There's almost six thousand people serving this sentence in Pennsylvania. So that's six thousand people. You know, whatever they did was punishable by the slow death of dying in prison.

Etta: And we are imagining a world that's different.

Jourdan: Ya'll, we've been hanging out for about forty five, forty six weeks now, and I want to be honest with you, this is a dense episode and at some points it may require more mental and emotional energy than you've had to use in some of our other or previous episodes.

Jourdan: At any point, if you feel like you need to take a break, do that, take care of yourself.

Jourdan: We'll be here whenever you're ready to return to the conversation.

Jourdan: Next up, you'll be hearing a thoughtfully condensed episode of a conversation I had with, Etta Cetera, about her work as a prison abolitionist.

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Etta: At the horizon, there are no more prisons.

Etta: And I do think at the horizon we shift from the culture of punishment into that of healing.

Jourdan: Abolition.

Jourdan: Is this word a part of your lexicon? Maybe not.

Jourdan: Maybe it's a word that you associate with the past or something having to do with history.

Jourdan: Maybe you associate it with a political commentator that you agree or disagree with either way, after listening to Etta, I'm sure you'll have a clearer understanding of what abolition is, what the abolitionist does, and this specific abolitionist mission in our region.

Jourdan: At the time that Adenhart spoke, she and her Let's Get Free Women, Trans and Prisoners Defense Committee, which she's one of four co-founders, was working to convince the Board of Pardons and Governor Tom Wolf to decarcerate  Avis Lee.

Avis: A crime happened on November 1st, 1979.

Avis: Around midnight.

Jourdan: At the age of 20 years old, Avis was convicted of second degree murder for her participation as a lookout and a robbery gone wrong.

Avis: And i said well what I had to do?

Avis: And they said to just whistle if i saw someone coming and I said, OK.

Jourdan: The conviction of second degree murder carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole at the time of her crime. Avis was 18 years old, and she was one of 5,467 people in Pennsylvania serving sentences that advocates are calling death by incarceration. 

Jourdan: For 40 years, district attorneys, deputy district attorneys and the Board of Pardons fell, Avis' judgment should stand that she should remain in prison for the rest of her life. The facts of Avis' case are this Avis acted as a lookout while her brother attempted to carry out a robbery that would eventually go wrong.

Jourdan: After a brief struggle, her brother shot the person he was attempting to rob. Avis says she could hear him moaning on the ground.

Avis: I heard Pop and I could hear moaning. I knew he was still alive.

Jourdan: Seeking to intervene, Avis boarded a bus and told the bus driver that a man had been injured.

Avis: I asked them to call an ambulance when he got off the street and flagged down the campus police and they stopped the campus police and told them what I told him. And while he was doing that, I could hear the sirens in the background.

Jourdan: Because she was an accessory to a crime that resulted in the loss of life, she received the sentence of life without parole. 

Jourdan: When someone receives a sentence to life in prison without parole, they receive a sentence for doing something that is irredeemable that they can atone for or make up for. In the state of Pennsylvania, 65 percent of those sentenced to life without parole are black and about half are under the age of 25 at the times their crimes occurred.

Jourdan: I'm happy to share with you that today, Avis Lee is free,.

Etta: Avis is safe and she's in Pittsburgh.

Etta: She's in a room of her own for the first time since the 80s. 

She's a fancy Trader Joe's frozen food and expensive chocolate and tiny daffodils that the center allowed her to have.

Jourdan: And living on the other side of 41 years in prison. 

Jourdan: Multiple denials of commutation and a sentence to die in prison.

Etta: She went in at the age of 18. Right. And she's coming home at the age of 60. We can just pause for a second and try to imagine, you know, that's your whole adult life.

Jourdan: So why is this an episode? Because it's not every day that you meet someone who says, I'm passionate about setting people free. Free from a system of punishment that's inhumane.

Jourdan: And the condition that strips away their rights its twenty, twenty one, so what does that even look like? 

Jourdan: Like what? How is she doing that? Is he a superhero? Is this a Marvel film or is it a function of our society that needs to be addressed and reckon with?

Etta: I came to Pittsburgh in about nineteen ninety eight. It's here in Pittsburgh where I really came alive.

Etta: I moved here for love, but then I say I tripped and fell in love in the city, stole my heart. But I'm digressing.

Jourdan: I first moved to Pittsburgh, she had love and then she lost the love and realized she didn't have any friends at the time, something called mailart it was really, really popular. You could go in the back of a magazine and find advertisements or kind of want ads for people who were looking to be matched with pen pals. 

Jourdan: A first pen pal was a guy from Texas who happened to be incarcerated. quick bias check.

Jourdan: I don't want you to judge Etta because she was in contact with someone who was incarcerated. We don't know why this person was incarcerated or if they were innocent. So anyways, she saw an advertisement from a prisoner and responded.

Etta: So I actually sent him a like an art postcard that really didn't say much of anything. It was like a little collage. And we just became friends and he was a political prisoner. I basically started learning about the day to day injustice of prison through this pen pal that I had. You know, I didn't understand that there was a social justice movement.

Etta: You know, I really grew up in this like suburban, whitewashed, you know, racism's over. People stopped protesting in the 60s and kind of isolated.

Jourdan: Etta will go on to attend a political anarchist conference in Canada to quote her directly. Her mind was blown. She knew that things weren't right in society, but she couldn't articulate her responses to what she was seeing and how wrong those wrongs were and the varying degrees and levels of injustice that were woven through these acts of wrongdoing.

Etta: I saw hundreds of people that were self organizing. I was twenty three at this time. And then we went to my first protest. It was like end violence against street youth. That was a part of this conference. And in Toronto there was there is a culture of squeegee kids, which are kids that hang out on the street corners and like, you know, work for washing windows.

Etta: And the police have been really cracking down on.

Newscaster: The story now from the fringes of Canadian society. It's about some people who are making what might be considered easy money. All they have to do is dodge the cops and the cars. Here's Mark Kelly. 

Etta: And so is huge protests to support the street kids and to stop criminalizing the squeegee kids.

Newscaster: As the squeegee people hunt for money, constables Serge L... hunts for them. You can find them for solicitation, for being a safety hazard or for working without a permit. The kids call them Robocop.

News: I'm going to break this.

Etta: And there was a thousand people there or something. And I was like, whoa, people give a shit, people care. You know, I was like, how do I tap into this?

Jourdan: OK, so the conference is over. The summer is shorter. She's passionate. Her baby political consciousness has been sparked, is starting to grow. She returns to Pittsburgh in the very first thing that comes across that new consciousness, the wrongful imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Protest leader: We're gonna free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Jourdan: Mumia was being imprisoned at SCI, Greene and Waynesburg. That's about an hour south of Pittsburgh. He was there for killing a police officer while standing in defense of his brother. 

Jourdan: He was sentenced to death and then life in prison in 1981.

Reporter to Mumia: Can you tell us what it means to no longer be on death row?

Mumia: Well, I could, but I'd be lying because I call this slow death row. life in Pennsylvania means, it's like Pennsylvania has one of the largest life populations of any state in the United States. It had the distinction of having the absolute highest number of juvenile lifers of any state in the United States, indeed of any jurisdiction in the world. So that should give you some sense.

Jourdan: Today.

Jourdan: He's a journalist.

Jourdan: Etta is meeting him as the state is very much trying to end his life and there's an international movement to protect him and intervene in that decision because it's not normal for the state to be ending your life right?

Jourdan: Like we don't know when you're going to die, but we do know when you die it's going to be in prison. We want it to be here. We think it should be here. I mean, that's some information that most people don't have any access to where they're going to be when they die.

Jourdan: But when your sentence is life without parole, you know exactly where you're going to be. And based on the injustices that prisoners face day to day, that people in prison face, you may have an idea of how you're going to go too.

Etta: So with a friend of mine, we founded Book'em the books to he prisoner program, and in Pittsburgh, which is still active today. And when you do a book, The Prisoner program, you read hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters from people in prison. Like you just get you just get a lot of mail.

Etta: So I was really educated by people in prison through the books, the prisoner program, through the Critical Resistance Conference, which critical resistance is like a lighthouse organization for abolition. And I think it was nineteen ninety nine right around the time when I had political consciousness raising. They started having these regional conferences to bring together organizations that were working to abolish the prison system.

Etta: And I remember traveling with a group of friends to New York. Angela Dvis spoke there. Angela Dvis was one of the co-founders of Critical Resistance.

Angela Davis: At the very beginning, when it was introduced, it was always necessary to engage in a rather long conversation explaining the meaning of the prison industrial complex.

Etta: Just like hundreds of workshops, Robert King, who was one of the Angola Three, had just gotten out of prison after his like three decades in solitary confinement.

Robert King: When I was in prison, I asked me what kept me going. I would probably tell you the fact that I was innocent and I needed to get out of prison. And my main focus was to stay as sane as I could in order to accomplish this.

Etta: And not just like just was so impactful for me to see this man who had spent 30 years in solitary, speaking to a thousand of us gathered there, it was powerful.

Etta: So I feel like I was raised by critical resistance by these conferences.

Robert King: I think while we focused on the condition of confinement, I think the bigger focus is on prison. I think we have to begin to see prison as being tantamount or equal to slavery. I think people in the United States need to know that the 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery. Instead, the 13th Amendment, you know, if you read the word and you say slavery nor involuntary servitude still exist on these shows, except one who has been duly convicted of a crime, how many people who have been convicted of crime but who were actually innocent as as long as we have prison slavery reings.

Etta: An artist friend and I, Kevin Rashid Johnson, started this organization called Fed Up, and basically he was in a supermax prison and he's an amazing artist. Rashid was witnessing all these human rights violations at Red Onion State Prison Supermax in the very, very western part of Virginia. And Rashid was just documenting what he saw. And so we just started doing that bearing witness, which is a strategy throughout the ages of human rights violation bearing witness. So we just started keeping these abuse logs.

Jourdan: Wsit, you said that was a human rights tactic? You said bearing witness.

Etta: I think it's a social justice tactic throughout the ages. Even if you read Marcus Rediker, his book Slave Ship. So he's a local historian and he was part of the uncompromising Western Pa Committee to free Mumia Abu-Jamal to Marcus Rediker, breaks down the industry surrounding the Mid Atlantic slave trade, kind of revolving around the slave ship.

Etta: So all of the different industries that go into building the slave ship, it was much more than the people who were the captains of the ship and the kidnapers. It was people who were building the ships, all of the infrastructure that went into it. And he cites the different ways that the abolitionist organized in that book. And they bear witness to slavery, because even at that time, according to this book, it's like white people had to be convinced that it was a human rights violation.

Etta: So the abolitionists really would go on speaking tours, bearing witness like they are kidnaping people. They are ripping them from their families. The whole schematic that might be familiar to you of like the inside of a slave ship that was like an abolitionist effort to raise awareness about the human rights violations that were happening. I feel very disempowered not being able to really support people who are being abused at the hands of the state in, for example, a supermax prison.

Etta: But understanding the legacy of bearing witness as part of the strategies and lifting the veil of the secrecy, letting people know what's happening is important. I mean, how are people going to do anything about it if they don't know what's happening? 

Jourdan: OK, so Etta just informed us that bearing witness was a tactic used by abolitionists to convince people that slavery was inhumane, unjust and wrong.

Jourdan: I want to take a second to widen the frame for how we understand bearing witness as it's also a belief in tradition in Black and Indigenous cultures that says a person can stand as a testament or testimony to something being true or having happened.

Jourdan: I want to create a juxtaposition between those two understandings to raise a question. It's a dense question for a dense episode. 

Jourdan: If you know something is wrong without having seen it being done.

Jourdan: Why would you need someone to come and convince you or show you evidence of that wrongdoing, to convince you that it's wrong? or to spur you into action if you already knew it was wrong? 

Jourdan: Why does who tells you about it even matter if someone's body bears witness to something being done wrong to them? Shouldn't that be enough?

Jourdan: I got another question.

Etta: Okay.

Jourdan: So the abolitionist movement, the efforts to convince people that this was a human rights issue drying up of like the blueprint of a slave ship and who was where and how many people were where and how close they were to get people to have some type of visceral, emotional reaction. General consciousness, right?

Etta: Right.

Jourdan: To the general consciousness that people have around incarceration and injustice. What is not connecting? Like what are we not getting like what is the switch that people were like? Maybe there are many switches. I want to make it like this one small thing. 

Jourdan: like, what...

Etta: I think the one of the switches is that prisons don't actually keep us safe. They don't prevent crime and they don't really support the healing and true transformation of anyone who is in need of that, who has who has been harmed or who has perpetrated harm. 

Etta: You know, the farce of rehabilitation makes, quote unquote, us feel good about the way that our society is choosing to handle the social problem of violence.

Etta: Think about the sentence of life without parole, who gets sentenced to life without parole, people who have been involved in a murder somehow.

So and this is Pennsylvania. So you don't have to be the person who actually pulled the trigger. You could just be there.

Etta: So if my beloved White people actually acknowledged and attempted to repair the harm that their, our ancestors have caused, how would they be able to relate to that harm?

Jourdan: The movement to abolish prisons and imprisonment is it is that one movement?

Jourdan: Is that with the movement? Is or is it we want to end prisons or we want to end the punishment of people going to prison or that type of punishment? 

Etta: I can't speak for the whole movement.

Jourdan: Right, right, right, right.

Etta: You know, there's a phrase that I've seen on people's little bio. Sub lines and things like that is about like something to the effect of like abolitionists are looking to the horizon. 

Etta: We are imagining a world that's different and I think that world has less violence. I think that world has more care. I think that world has a larger shared understanding of what justice is at the horizon. 

Etta: There are no more prisons. And I do think at the horizon we shift from the culture of punishment into that of healing. I mean, I really think about the nuts and bolts of this on a daily basis.

Etta: You know, it's kind of easier to support people who are wrongly convicted. It's easy to support people who don't deserve to be there. It's like they don't deserve to be there. They're like victims of a state. But when you actually get into harm, it's way more complicated. It's more nuanced. And I've often said if we actually tried to tackle that social problem, I just wonder what what would we come up with?

Jourdan: It's ironic that I was having this conversation with Hetta about imprisonment and confinement, punishment, being out of sight, being away when I did. At the time, I was tucked into central Pennsylvania in a cabin in the middle of the mountains reading , Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, as it was suggested reading for that month from the Black Unicorn Library and Archives project in Pittsburgh, probably not the best material to read when you're trying to relax and release and relate, but that's what I was doing. 

Jourdan: So here I was away not because I had done something wrong, but because I was trying to do something right for myself and practice a reformative restorative version of self care, because reporting and sharing the news and information with you all definitely has emotional and mental ups and downs, peaks and valleys.

Jourdan:  Recognizing that what I had was an advantage to be able to get away was in complete contrast to the conversation that Etta and I were having.

Jourdan: I started to think about our shared reality as people. Although we were not incarcerated, we were still experiencing this confining experience of living through a global health pandemic and how it was being suggested that if we could, that we should get out into nature to release some steam and to reset. And to get some of that stagnant, heavy energy moving that may put us in a position where we could do something that would land us in jail ourselves. 

Jourdan: On the next episode of From the Source, I'll be reviewing a conversation that I had with Pittsburgher and urban ecologist Marijke Hecht, we'll discuss how social issues show up in nature and in the non-human world. How human interactions affect the environmental ecosystem and how treating each other poorly literally makes the block high. Thanks for listening. For more information on Avis Lee and how she's doing post release and for more information on Let's Get Free the Women and Trans Prisoners Defense Committee in which she's one of the co-founders, you can visit women in prison's, Instagram page or their website. Lets get free dot info. 

This podcast was produced by Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you have a story you'd like to share, get in touch with us. You can text a voice memo to 412-432-9669. Or email it to jourdan@publicsource.org.

Also, we'd like to ask for your support. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. Please support local journalism and storytelling by going to a publicsource.org/donate.

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