Eliminating the Life-Without Virus

Eliminating the Life-Without Virus

The corona virus is currently sweeping the world. It has invaded every corner and changed lives in ways that we may not fully understand for many years. While the world and especially the United States is struggling with the weight of this novel virus, there is another virus I want to talk to you about. This is a virus that has extensive side effects, unintended consequences and a huge cost to society. This “virus” is a criminal penalty. It’s the sentence called Life Without Parole. I have first hand knowledge of this illness because I’m 20 years into a life without parole sentence.  I’ve also served time with countless others serving this sentence.

Most democratic countries with similar governments to the United States do not have a life without parole sentence. They do have some variation of a life sentence reserved for the worst offenders, but even those convicts have the opportunity for parole at some point. Life without parole and especially life without parole sentences for first time offenders is fairly unique to the United States and used extensively in certain states, such as Alabama. 

Please know that I am not in any way insensitive to the victims of crime. Victims and their families deserve justice.  We need just laws and humane places to reprove the guilty. Our current system in Alabama is not that place. There is no thought for rehabilitation and so many offenders in spite of reform are serving excessive sentences. The data shows that the offenders most likely to commit additional crimes are actually the ones being released while the least likely to reoffend take up space and money in our prisons. 

Alabama prisons do not reform criminals. They are violent, dangerous places filled with drugs and gangs. The Department of Justice report that was published in April of 2019 gives a terrifying glimpse into the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC.) Here is a tiny snippet from that report, “The combination of ADOC’s overcrowding and understaffing results in prisons that are inadequately supervised, with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons. Prisoner-on-prisoner homicide and sexual abuse are common. Prisoners who are seriously injured or stabbed must find their way to security staff elsewhere in the facility or bang on the door of the dormitory to gain the attention of correctional officers. Prisoners have been tied up for days by other prisoners while unnoticed by security staff.” – U.S. Department of Justice

Any reform that happens in this environment is entirely self-driven. There is a difference between not being able to reform or rehabilitate people, just not bothering to rehabilitate them, and individuals not wanting to reform.  In the case of first time offenders being sentenced to the life without parole virus, Alabama law condemns them to die in prison based on their very first offense. No one has any idea if this person can be rehabilitated and the ADOC has never been given the chance to try. Many of these first time offenders were children. How could anyone believe others are incapable of being rehabilitated, before ever trying to rehabilitate them? 

The vaccine for this systemic virus could begin with a sensible option for parole. The USA could join the other countries that have a fully working system that does not include life without parole sentences. The parole system could keep the truly incorrigible safely away from the rest of society while allowing the reformed a chance to contribute. Warehousing inmates that could contribute to their families and the communities until death is a waste of so many valuable resources and a tragedy to the most impacted which are communities of color and poverty. 

We have a finite number of “cement cages” which should be reserved for the violent and incorrigible. Taxpayers should not be obligated to warehouse, clothe, feed, and medicate reformed able bodied souls for the rest of their lives. The parole board can achieve the same purpose for which the life without parole sentence was created by simply not granting those individuals parole. 

Improved rehabilitation coupled with mandatory requirements to make parole would not only lower recidivism but can be used to decrease prison overcrowding. Converting life without parole sentences to life would provide meaningful opportunity for reform without decreasing community safety. The very name of the department of corrections suggests at its core the idea and philosophy is to provide “corrections.” 

Is there a good reason to continue to confine rehabilitated inmates? Understand this, in prison, no one make you self-improve, this is done voluntarily. Currently education, trades and counseling for behavior such as drug addiction classes are not offered to inmates serving life without parole. For us, self-rehabilitation is done as a personal choice. This in itself says a lot about why eliminating the life without parole virus should be seriously considered. 

The data has shown that people change over time and are less likely to reoffend after serving long sentences. It’s not hard to see the benefits of improving rehabilitation methods, implementing mandatory parole requirements, and eliminating life without parole sentences. Saving money, reducing recidivism, reducing overcrowding and bettering human lives should be motivation enough. However it’s said that the hardest thing to do is change, and to accomplish any of this change is necessary. If nothing else, this particular change would restore rehabilitated men and women back to families and communities that desperately need them. 

I may be biased regarding this topic, but not so much that I can’t recognize how curing the life-without virus will never help anyone averse to the hard work of self-improvement. For those that have fought to change, the parole board should have the power to parole them. My experience is a bit more complicated than sentencing laws or space in this writing.




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