A specter haunts Pennsylvania

Sharon Wiggins died in March. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then, a few years later, to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. That’s no mean feat. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. Effectively, this means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world.

Reports suggest that Wiggins set out, early on, to improve her life, to atone for her crimes, sins, and mistakes. She finished a degree at Penn State and when on to tutor and to manage tutoring programs. She completed thousands of educational certificate programs. She mentored others; she took care of women and helped women grow, and not only women prisoners. Nancy Sponeybarger, a former counselor at Muncy, has said, “As I got to know her a little bit, she was the one person who always made me feel my humanity.”

On another occasion, Sponeybarger elaborated, “She’s grown into a really insightful, compassionate, capable older woman – despite all the odds, because it’s not like you have a ton of role models when you’re in prison, especially when you’re tossed in there as a little girl.”

Especially when you’re tossed in there as a little girl.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life sentences without parole. Wiggins applied for release, and she and her lawyers and supporters hoped that she would be released, at last: “I want to know what it feels like to wake up by myself. Here, you live on public view. There’s always a big piece of glass on your door. I want to wake up by myself. I want to know how it feels to walk down the street. I want to know how it feels to sit in the car and hear the rain just beat down. I want to know how it feels to sit with my sister and have a cup of coffee.”

The State dragged its feet, and Sharon Wiggins died. She never got to know.

Pennsylvania leads the nation and the world in the incarceration of children for life without parole. Last year, nationally, close to 1600 people were serving out juvenile life sentences without parole. Of the girls, almost 80% reported physical abuse, and over 77% reported sexual abuse.

And it gets worse. Historically and immediately, juvenile justice institutions are designed for boys. They don’t work for boys, mind you, but for girls, they’re particularly and specifically toxic, lethal even. The research on this systematic `oversight’ is abundant and easily available.

Custody for girls virtually guarantees that that their unique needs are not met and they react differently to their treatment than boys. Sentencing young girls to LWOP (life without parole) in adult court exacerbates girls’ unique issues in several ways. First, with the small number of women in the prison population, girls are often sent to women’s prisons with adult offenders rather than to separate units for youth offenders.  Girls are all too often subjected to sexual abuse and rape while in prison. Male corrections staff at women’s prisons may use coercive methods to initiate sexual relationships with inmates, or may abuse their position to obtain sexual favors. Sentencing girls to serve a life sentence in adult prison creates circumstances that are very traumatic and that should raise the specter of a punishment that is cruel and unusual.”

A specter haunts Pennsylvania, the specter of a punishment that is cruel and unusual, the specter of compassion and decency, the specter of justice for Sharon Peachie Wiggins. It is the specter of those children tossed in there as little girls.


(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.