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It's time to end life prison sentences

Photo: Jon Krieg / AFSC

To truly end mass incarceration, we must give every person the chance to come home.

In this political climate, it becomes even more critical for all of us to ask the deepest of questions regarding the world we are working to create.

When you imagine a community with justice, who do you envision being part of that community? The community you dream—is it idealistic instead of realistic? 

Do you think of the people serving sentences in prison for the most complicated and heinous circumstances being welcomed into your neighborhood?

Do you believe in second chances? Do you believe in collective responsibility? Does the message of redemption resonate with you for all people or just some people?  

The work of "ending mass incarceration" has, through the last many years, focused on what are seemingly the simpler, easier, and more palatable cases.  Many of us are now recognizing that the disparate treatment of Black and brown people in the criminal justice system and the legacies of slavery, systemic racism, and hatred of poor people have led to over-representation of already marginalized communities in our prisons and jails.  

We have begun to pay attention to the problematic policies that constitute the war on drugs, and there has been movement afoot to depopulate our prisons of people serving for "low-level drug offenses." 

However, there are few jurisdictions that are truly devoted to imagining criminal legal systems that are rooted in giving people another chance once they have made the worst mistake of their lives. Some, if not all, of these people make the worst mistakes of their lives because of intersecting sociopolitical landscapes and personal issues created or exacerbated by these landscapes. This geography of oppression is fueled by systemic poverty, structural racism, lack of equitable and robust educational opportunities for all of our children, and lack of public health infrastructures to deal with social problems like drug use, mental illness, trauma exposure, and familial violence.

Humans have always perpetrated deep harms against one another. In our quest for retribution and vengeance for these harms done against us, our families, our neighbors, our communities, we have participated in the proliferation of policies that create more punishment. 

We have also left the criminal legal system—a system steeped in racist and classist practices—responsible for addressing these harms with no real input from the people most impacted by the actual incidents.

Statistics from The Sentencing Project  illustrate the rise of longer prison sentences in the U.S.: 

  • 159,520 people are serving life sentences in the U.S.
  • One of every nine people in prison is serving a life sentence.
  • Nearly half of lifers are African American. One in six are Latino.
  • There has been a 22.2 percent increase in life without the possibility of parole since 2008, an increase from 40,174 individuals to 49,081.

These statistics do not include people serving long indeterminate sentences also known as "basketball score" sentences, or 60-90 years. There are thousands more people who have been sentenced to long terms of years who will die in prison if policies to reduce their sentences are not implemented.

When we think about suffering and struggle and injustice and the deepest of harms and the road toward redemption, forgiveness, fulfillment, and healing and peace, we must include in that long laundry list of getting toward justice, the long-termers, lifers, and doing all-dayers. 

Finding ways to grow amid harsh obstacles

For over 13 years, I’ve worked for AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program, which advocates for and with people in prison and for major, community driven, systemic change to the justice system.

In August, I sat up in a Michigan Upper Peninsula prison with a group of 21 men; all of them were serving long time for murder or rape. I watched as four of the co-founders of a program called Peer Enrichment and Parole Readiness skillfully facilitated a diverse group of men through the concept of empathy.

In prison, there is an unwritten code to never share what landed you there. Men and women can go 15, 20, 25, 30 years without talking about the traumatic events that led them to being locked behind cages.  

In this group, these men get real with one another. They talk about their lives at the time of the murder or rape. They reveal raw, ugly details. They cry and get deep and then even deeper. They hold one another accountable. They care for one another through the trauma of the past and the trauma of the present—prison realities. I've seen a large, aged hand of a Black man, reach out to steady the trembling, bony shoulder of young white man who was working through the details of the harm he had caused while recognizing that he had been exposed to severe violence and trauma most of his life. 

Year after year, in this work, I see people pit the "nonviolent offender" against the "violent" offender. In Michigan, people serving long-term sentences are systematically shut out from therapeutic programs, educational opportunities, and vocational programs because the prison officials make the prudent decision of spending money on the people who will eventually be released—not on the men and women who are serving until they might die. Though, those same men and women will, in the long run, cost the state thousands of dollars in health care-related costs because they are sentenced to grow old and ill in prison.  

The Upper Peninsula men represent the people who are sentenced to die in prisons across the country. Amidst the harshest of obstacles—vile prison conditions, abuse of power, systems rooted in security and control, massive idleness, and overcrowded living situations—men and women doing long time find ways to grow and even thrive. They develop ways to create and work their own paths toward redemption and healing. 

As we reimagine the criminal legal system in this country and push ourselves to imagine alternatives to punishment and retribution that lead instead to healing and transformation, we must include people like those men doing profound and beautiful work at Upper Peninsula—those serving long-indeterminate and life sentences as their numbers continue to grow within our prisons. The very same racial disparities the movement has identified in 'low-level offenses' exist also within those serving long-indeterminate and life sentences. 

In Michigan, AFSC's criminal justice reform work has always focused on preparing people in prison for parole and advocacy for and with those serving long sentences. Recently, we expanded our work to support long-termers in accessing parole through two new programs. 

The first, the Good Neighbor Project, pairs people in prison with people out of prison in what we call a "co-mentorship." Through letters and other correspondence, they learn a lot from each other, shifting public perceptions of those serving long sentences and helping long-termers prepare for critical events like parole interviews and public hearings. 

The second program, the Personal Enrichment and Parole Readiness curriculum, was developed by long-termers inside with my guidance, support, and resource assistance. The curriculum's goal is to help in the transformation process of those doing long time, using groups that are being led by those doing long time in order to do the important work of introspection, reflection, and education as they also prepare for parole interviews and public hearings. The curriculum is now being actively facilitated by long-termers in two Michigan prisons and will soon be active in more. And, the written curriculum is being used by Good Neighbor Project co-mentors for self-study and reflection.

Beyond improving conditions for those in prison, we need policy changes to give all people the chance to come home. 

Knowing the criminal legal system is beyond broken means understanding its brokenness for all of the people it confines. To truly reimagine a system focused and intent on healing and transformation, we cannot leave aside those whose crimes caused the deepest of harms to community. Rather, those harms and their legacies must be our guides in seeking transformational opportunities universally for those inside, no matter how many years in their sentences.

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About the Author

Natalie Holbrook, Program Director, is an advocate and activist working to disrupt the paradigm of punishment in MI.

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