Lorraine Haw has received three Mother’s Day cards in the last three days, all from the same place: the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield.
It’s at the state prison four hours away in the Allegheny Mountains where her son, Phillip Ocampo, is serving a life sentence without the chance of parole on second degree murder charges stemming from a 1995 burglary gone wrong. Ocampo was 19 when he was arrested. He’s now 41.
“All the holidays are hard,” Haw said about what life’s like without her only child, “but Mother’s Day is the hardest.”
While mothers across the country Sunday are celebrating a special day meant for them, thousands see it differently. Haw, most likely, will be in her North Philadelphia home weeping and wondering when the day might come that her son’s sentence is revisited.
That’s because in many prisons, Mother’s Day isn’t celebrated. A spokeswoman from the Philadelphia prison system said there’s no visitation hours or programming on Mother’s Day, whether it’s for incarcerated mothers or the thousands in prison whose moms are still on the outside.
Haw is one of dozens of Philadelphians who showed up to a Mother’s Day rally at the Arch Street United Methodist Church on Friday afternoon in protest of what they call “juvenile death by incarceration,” or the practice of sentencing young people to life behind bars without the chance of parole.
The event — organized by nonprofits Decarcerate PA, the Human Rights Coalition, Fight for Lifers and Right to Redemption — culminated with the delivery of a giant Mother’s Day card to the office of District Attorney Seth Williams. It urged him to relieve people incarcerated under what’s now considered an unconstitutional sentence.
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional and violate a defendant’s right against cruel and unusual punishment. States enacted new sentencing guidelines for new cases, but it wasn’t until January of this year when the Supreme Court ruled the 2012 decision applies retroactively.
Still, some 500 people sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile remain in the system in Pennsylvania and have not been granted new sentencing hearings.
Mothers, sisters, friends and even those who are incarcerated — through letters and phone calls — spoke Friday about the need for criminal justice reform and increased discretion for judges to take other factors into consideration before laying down a mandatory life sentence without the chance for parole.
Patricia Vickers, a member of the Human Rights Coalition, will also spend Sunday without her son. At age 17, her son Kerry Marshall robbed and murdered a fish vendor in Philadelphia and was later sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. That was in 1990. Marshall is now 45 and serving out his sentence at SCI Rockview outside State College.
Sure, Mother’s Day will be impossible for Vickers, like it is every year. But the pain, she says, is constant.
“Every single day, 365 days a year for 28 years,” she said, “I’ve been serving this time with my son.”
Kempis Songster, a 44-year-old serving out a life sentence at SCI Graterford, spoke via phone to the room and wished the mothers a happy Mother’s Day. After leaving his family in Brooklyn and getting tied up with a drug ring when he was young, Songster was whisked away to prison in 1988 at the age of 16 after he was convicted of first degree murder for stabbing Anjo Pryce, another teenage runaway.
“Some of us never stop looking for ways to express how deeply ashamed and sorry we are,” Songster said. “What we bring to the table will never measure up to what we took from the table.”
Few of the mothers present Friday claimed their children were completely innocent. Many of them admitted their child had gotten wrapped up with the wrong crowd and made a decision that impacted the rest of their life. Haw, to some degree, blamed herself. She was a single mom struggling with drug addiction while her son was growing up. She’s clean now, and still has hope her son will one day be released.
And she’s made it her mission of sorts to comfort others along the way. She jumped out of her seat during the program when one mother emotionally told her story of a son locked away for decades. The woman sobbed, telling of how she tried to kill herself, and of how she doesn’t know how she’ll get through Sunday.
Haw met her in the back of the room and the two embraced.
“If I have to tie myself to the gate at City Hall for someone to listen to us,” Haw said, “I’m going to do it.”