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Ending perpetual punishment

The author, Natalie Holbrook (far left), meets with AFSC staff and formerly incarcerated individuals as part of the “Changing the Narrative” project.  Photo: / AFSC

The movement to end mass incarceration must focus on giving all people the chance to come home.

By: Natalie Holbrook

Prisons in America are expressions of state violence and control; they’re antithetical to the healing and peace we seek in our work at AFSC. And still, many people who are locked behind bars for decades—even for most of their lives—find ways to work toward healing and redemption. Imagine what could happen if we created more paths to personal transformation for people trapped in the criminal justice system.

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country. More than two million individuals are now behind bars. More than 50,000 are serving life without parole—an all-time high, according to the Sentencing Project. An additional 150,000 are serving life sentences, and many more are serving “virtual life,” a sentence they are unlikely to survive. Here in Michigan, more than 5,100 people are serving life sentences, and another 6,000 are serving 20 years or more.

In recent years, more and more people across the political spectrum have joined the call to end mass incarceration. Many are recognizing the role systemic racism plays in disproportionately criminalizing and imprisoning Black, brown, and poor people. Some states are moving away from the “tough on crime” policies that have led to draconian sentences, particularly for those convicted of nonviolent drug-related offenses. These are important steps in the right direction.

But the reality is that to end mass incarceration in the U.S., we need to push ourselves much further. We need to stop sentencing people to life or virtual life sentences. Instead, we must give all people in prison the chance to transform and come home, including people convicted of the most serious of harms.

Many consider this a radical idea. It can be challenging to show compassion for someone who has committed violence against another person, let alone taken a life. But as someone who has spent 15 years working with people who have spent decades in prison after making the worst decision of their lives, I can attest that perpetual punishment is not the answer—and that transformation and healing are possible.

Pursuing change inside and out

In Michigan, AFSC works with people in and out of prison to share stories of personal transformation. Recently, we produced “Changing the Narrative: The Case for Commutations in Michigan,” a video project about people who have served long sentences who are now free, working, and contributing to their community.

The project includes the stories of people like Ron Webb, who grew up with an abusive father and, at the age of 19, killed his father and his father’s girlfriend. Ron spent 26 years in prison. While incarcerated, he took responsibility for his actions, came to understand and address the roots of his behavior, took college classes, and participated in and facilitated programs on resolving conflicts peacefully. Today, he works for an organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals find housing and jobs, and he’s also developing skills to work as a tradesperson.

When my colleagues and I meet with elected officials and parole board members or give public presentations, we share stories like Ron’s. Slowly, people begin to see that our communities are better off when people like him have a second chance.

Studies show that people serving life sentences who are given second chances are unlikely to recidivate with a new offense. And despite perceptions, a recent report from the Alliance for Safety and Justice shows that survivors of crime widely support shorter prison sentences and more resources for prevention and rehabilitation.

Amid the harshest of obstacles in prison—vile living conditions, violence, abuse of power, systems rooted in control, massive idleness—many people like Ron find ways to grow and even thrive. But many more people—with so much to offer society—will waste away behind bars if we don’t create alternatives.

There are some signs that people are beginning to understand the real costs of perpetual punishment—and are taking steps to end it.

In recent years, Michigan’s parole board has granted more and more paroles, helping to reduce the prison population from an all-time high of 51,000 in 2007 to 39,000 in 2018—the result of years of advocacy by people in and out of prisons, their families, and community groups, including AFSC. And there are glimmers of hope in other states, too. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has taken the courageous step of granting parole to thousands of people serving life sentences. In Pennsylvania, legislation was introduced to end mandatory life without parole sentences, allowing people in prison to seek parole after 15 years. On the federal level, there’s bipartisan support in Congress for legislation to enact sentencing reform, including revising outdated mandatory minimum sentences. And, throughout the country, individuals and organizations pursuing social change are mounting campaigns to elect prosecutors and judges more focused on redemption and restorative justice.

But there is still work to be done.

As Michigan approaches a competitive gubernatorial election this November, we will be urging candidates to support more humane policies in our criminal justice system. At the same time, we will continue to help people serving long sentences improve their chances for parole.

Two years ago, AFSC supported the development of a curriculum created by and for people serving long sentences in Michigan. The curriculum is used in two prisons and encourages introspection, reflection, and education. We also facilitate the Good Neighbor Project, which pairs people in prison with people out of prison to exchange letters and other correspondence in what we call a “co-mentorship.” Both programs help long-termers prepare for parole interviews and public hearings. The Good Neighbor Project also uses the curriculum as a tool for co-mentors to use in their transformative work.

Someday, I hope the billions of dollars the U.S. spends locking people up will be invested in schools, health care, and other programs that would genuinely make our communities safer. That would mean that we found our way to ending mass incarceration. Let’s begin by reimagining the criminal justice system to focus on healing and transformation—for everyone it confines. ■

Natalie Holbrook is the director of AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program.


How can you support efforts to end life prison sentences?  

  • Get involved in AFSC’s Good Neighbor Project to participate in a “co-mentoring” relationship with people in prison in Michigan. Visit prisoneradvocacy.org.
  • Watch the video stories of people who have served long sentences, and share them on social media. Visit afsc.org/no-perpetual-punishment.
  • Find organizations in your state that are working to ensure that policymakers, prosecutors, and judges are willing to adopt sentencing policies and practices rooted in transformation and second chances. 
  • If you are working for racial and social justice in your state, make sure to include the problem of prison and perpetual punishment in your studies, organizing, and actions. 
  • Learn more by visiting AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program’s website: prisoneradvocacy.org.  

Danny Jones, the story of one "juvenile lifer"

I came to know Danny Jones while working with people serving long sentences at Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan. Danny had become involved with violence and drugs at an early age. When he was 16, he murdered a young man during a robbery and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  

Through the past 20-plus years of his incarceration, Danny has worked to become his better self. “Accepting responsibility for my wrongdoings helped me develop a sense of how I impacted [the victim’s] family and their sense of loss and grief,” he says. “I imagine how my family might look at me for doing what I have done. I do not want to cause that type of pain to other people. Now, I am able to see myself in others and want for others what I want for myself.”  

While in prison, Danny earned his GED, completed vocational training, and advocated for more programs for people in prison. He joined the National Lifers Association, a group supported by AFSC, serving as a mentor and facilitating a program for people serving life or long sentences. I’ve sat in on several of the sessions he has facilitated, and I’ve seen how he helps guide men to demonstrate empathy, introspection, and reflection. He shares of himself and does so with a kind of generosity of spirit not often experienced in this life.    

Due to a 2012 Supreme Court decision that ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles, Danny was recently resentenced to a 25-year minimum. That means that in less than a year, he will be eligible for parole.  

Working with Danny for the past four years, I can say that he is ready for his return to the free world as a nearly 40-year-old man. When he comes home, we will be fortunate to have him among us—to help us all learn how to be more kind and compassionate.

—Natalie Holbrook


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