Sixty-nine-year-old Naomi Blount has been in prison for 35 years, and was set to spend the rest of her life in a Pennsylvania correctional facility. Then a program called From Cell to Home got involved. Soon, Blount will be released, marking just the second commutation in nearly three decades for a woman in the state serving a life sentence.
That’s precisely how From Cell to Home was intended to work.
The two-year-old initiative, spearheaded by Penn’s Kathleen M. Brown, a faculty fellow in the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse, partners with the state Board of Pardons to find “meritorious” candidates like Blount, women serving life sentences who have reformed and whose original sentencing might be viewed differently today. Pairs of Penn students conduct video interviews, then, with guidance from Brown, write a letter on an individual’s behalf. Blount is the first From Cell to Home success story; at least two other women could be released by year’s end.
Each forward step is a victory in Brown’s eyes, especially because until recently the outlook for such inmates was bleak. “In Pennsylvania, if you’re sentenced to life, it means life. There is no parole,” she explains. “You have no opportunity for release, and we have a stunning homicide law that says you don’t have to be the one who committed the homicide, you just have to have been there” to get charged with the crime.
About five years ago, Brown, who recently retired from the faculty of Penn’s School of Nursing and Penn Law, saw an opening when newly elected governor Tom Wolf expressed a willingness to hear commutation cases. Initially, Brown had only targeted men sentenced to life, but after she helped get one female released and after conversations with Ortner Center director Susan B. Sorenson, she began From Cell to Home and broadened her focus to include female inmates. Penn Law’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice has supported the effort as well.
“Their violence and abuse histories are horrible,” says Sorenson, a public health expert in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice. “Through the project, we can help these women secure some measure of justice when all other systems have failed them. If they were incarcerated today for these exact same crimes, they wouldn’t be serving such harsh sentences.”
That idea spoke to Nia Kaudo, a 2018 Penn graduate who volunteered with From Cell to Home during her senior year. In addition to her role as capacity-building coordinator for an organization called Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, Kaudo has spent the past year as the From Cell to Home program coordinator.
During her tenure, she shortened the volunteering commitment from a year to a semester, interviewed all students to garner their understanding of the program and ensure a mix of upper- and lower-class members, and created onboarding packets. She arranged one trip per semester to the SCI Muncy correctional facility for students to see and understand the living conditions of the women for whom they’d be writing, and she helped train the next coordinator, Penn rising junior Madison Pettaway.
But more important than the logistics was the experience Kaudo had with the inmates. “It’s been really powerful, giving a little bit of hope and paying attention to someone who otherwise might have been forgotten,” she says. “It can give someone a second chance at life.” Someone like Naomi Blount, the inmate Kaudo and another 2018 Penn graduate, Makayla Reynolds, advocated for in their letter of support nearly two years ago.
Blount’s commutation has been signed by Wolf, and once Muncy and the Department of Corrections approve her home plan, she’ll be able to go home, a notion Brown doesn’t take lightly. “She’s completely reformed,” Brown says. “She’ll be an inspiration for a lot of other women, and she’s ready to take on that burden. She’s knows there’s pressure to come out and do well for the sake of all the women she’s left behind.”
There more than 1,400 more at Muncy alone. But if Brown has her say, From Cell to Home will help many, many others. It’s good for the Penn students who participate, she adds, and it’s good for the incarcerated women, too. “It makes a difference when people get out. It gives everyone hope.”
Kathleen M. Brown, formerly a practice associate professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, is a fellow at the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse and is affiliated faculty at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law. She is director of From Cell to Home.
Nia Kaudo graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. She is capacity-building coordinator for the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition and the From Cell to Home program coordinator. She will attend law school in the fall.