Living in Hell for Life

I’ve been locked up in Illinois prisons since I was 16. I was tortured into confessing to a crime I didn’t commit. I’ve been here for over 25 years. To look out and think this is where I will stay for the rest of my life–now that is a living, unbearable hell.

— Mark Clements, Chicago police torture victim, serving a juvenile life without parole sentence in Illinois

Mark Clements was arrested when he was 16 years old and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Like most juveniles sentenced to life without parole, he was tried as an adult and sent to an adult prison to serve his sentence.

Today, Mark is 43 years old. He has spent almost twice as much of his life locked up in prison as he lived free.

America outstrips every other nation in the world in the number of people it puts in its prisons. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but accounts for 25 percent of prisoners.

According to a study by the Pew Center on the States, one out of every 100 adults in the U.S. is in prison or jail. And because of the racism of the American “justice” system, the numbers are much higher for people of color–if you are an African American man between the ages of 20 and 34, your likelihood of being behind bars today is one in nine.

But the U.S. stands even further apart from the rest of the world in one nightmarish aspect of its prison system–the men and women sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

There are over 132,000 people serving life sentences in the U.S. One in 10 are forbidden from ever receiving parolee, but overall, only one in four of the larger group will ever come before a parole board. Despite FBI crime statistics showing a drop in violent crime over the past decade, the number of people sentenced to life in prison has nearly doubled.

Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News and author of two books on the prison system–who himself served 17 years of a life sentence–said life without parole sentences are “a death sentence by incarceration. You’re trading a slow form of death for a faster one.”

This kind of sentencing is virtually unheard of elsewhere in the world. “Western Europeans regard 10 to 12 years as extremely long term, even for offenders sentenced to life,” says James Whitman, author of the book Harsh Justice.

And among the prisoners with life sentences in the U.S. are 2,380 people who were sentenced to life without parole as “juvenile offenders”–in other words, they were under the age of 18 when the crimes they were accused of were committed–according to Human Rights Watch.

Of these juvenile offenders, 73 were sentenced to life in prison without parole at the age of 13 or 14 years old, according to research done by the Equal Justice Initiative.

To put this in perspective, no other country in the world sentences 13 year olds to life without parole. In fact, outside of the U.S., only 12 juvenile offenders anywhere in the world are serving this sentence, according to Human Rights Watch. Seven are in Israel, four are in South Africa, and one is in Tanzania.

There are over 2,000 in the United States.

I’m the first to say that I made my share of mistakes in life–I’m not perfect. But life without the possibility of parole is a life-draining sentence. No matter how hard I try to better myself, I’m treated as if I am the worst of the worst. I can’t sleep nights. I can’t rest in my body because this one bad choice to hang with friends could cost me my freedom forever.

— Daniel Henney, serving a juvenile life without parole sentence in Illinois

One thing that stands out about prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole is that they don’t stand out as the inhuman monsters they are often depicted to be.

Among all prisoners with life sentences, from 1988 to 2001, 40 percent were convicted of a crime other than murder. Of juvenile offenders given life without parole sentences, 59 percent–well over half–had never been convicted of a previous crime, according to Human Rights Watch.

Antonio Nunez was raised in Los Angles, his life shaped by gang violence. As the Equal Justice Initiative described in its report “Cruel and Unusual,” at the age of 14, he got into a car with two older men, one of whom had been kidnapped. A police chase ensued, and gunfire was exchanged. No one was killed; no one was even hurt. But Antonio was sentenced to life in California’s San Quentin prison, where he remains today.

“He has lost all hope,” his sister Cindy Nunez told Reuters. “We try to keep his spirits up by saying something will change in the law.”

Rather than their alleged crimes, other factors stand out about those serving life without parole sentences. Invariably, they are poor. Many came from violent homes or suffered abuse. And an overwhelming proportion are minorities. According to Human Rights Watch, among juvenile offenders serving life without parole for crimes other than murder, every single one is a person of color.

In Illinois, Mark Clements is one of 103 juvenile offenders serving a life without parole sentence. Of these 103, 74 are, like Mark, African American; 10 are Latino and 19 are white.

Ian Manuel is one. Raised in a climate of violence and poverty, he was drawn to gang activity at a young age. At 13, he committed a robbery and shot a woman, who survived. Feeling remorseful, Ian turned himself into the police and pled guilty. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Ian has spent years in solitary confinement and attempted suicide several times. He remains in prison in Florida despite the fact that the victim has forgiven him and petitioned the court for his release.

One reason these injustices can take place is that judges are barred, under mandatory sentencing laws, to take any account of age or background information.

In Illinois, for example, where judges are required to impose life without parole sentences on defendants convicted of certain crimes, without consideration of any mitigating circumstances, several have gone on record with their misgivings.

In passing sentence in one case, Judge James Linn stated that he believed the defendant “should suffer harsh criminal consequences for acting as a lookout in this case, but to suggest that he ought to receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, I find to be very, very hard to swallow, to the point where I can describe it as unconscionable.”

Probably the most notorious mandatory sentencing policy in the country is California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law, passed in a referendum of California voters in 1994. A third felony conviction automatically lands defendants in prison for 25 years to life. Since it was implemented, over 1,000 people have gone to prison under three strikes in California for non-serious crimes.

Take Santos Reyes. His “crime” was to help his cousin, a Mexican immigrant who was unable to take a drivers’ test because he couldn’t write English but needed a license, so he could begin working as a roofer with Reyes. For this, Santos was convicted of felony perjury.

Reyes had been convicted of two previous felonies more than a decade before–stealing a radio when he was 17 and a robbery when he was 22. In neither case was anyone harmed. In the years between, he had gotten married, had two children and worked steadily as a roofer. But because the perjury charge was a third felony, he was sentenced to prison under three strikes–where he has spent the last nine years, all for taking a drivers’ test for his cousin.

“He was convicted for the crimes of being poor and Mexican,” said Rachael Odes, who helps coordinate the Free Santos Reyes committee. “He’s just one of many. There are so many people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes. He’s a regular guy who was trying to make a living.”

I have little hope at all. This sentence is like a death sentence. It is torture on my sanity. There’s no second chances for any of us. No matter how good or bad I am, these cruel prison conditions are all I have to look forward to.

— Paul Lee, serving a juvenile life without parole sentence in Illinois

The standard argument in favor of harsh sentencing is that it keeps the public safe. But does it?

“Studies have shown that offenders who have served over 20 years in prison rarely ever reoffend and never for a violent crime,” says Linda Goodman from Citizens for Earned Release. “The recidivism rate for older inmates is less than 2 percent.”

And the rest of the industrialized world, where such harsh sentences are unheard of, has a far lower violent crime rate.

The U.S. hasn’t always had lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key sentencing policies. Before the 1970s, life without the possibility of parole sentences were unknown. During the 1960s, in fact, the emphasis in prison policy was on rehabilitation and helping prisoners get training and education so they could successfully rejoin society upon their release. Congress amended federal parole statues to make it possible for prisoners serving life sentence to be eligible for parole after 15 years.

But in the 1970s, this began to change. Politicians saw that “tough on crime” rhetoric could both win them votes and drive back the gains made by the civil rights and other social movements of the 1960s and early ’70s.

The emphasis of new laws turned to punishing prisoners, rather than rehabilitation. In 1984, the Sentencing Reform Act eliminated parole for all federal crimes. By 2000, 33 states had abolished parole, up from 17 over previous decades–and 24 states had introduced three-strikes sentencing laws.

And more and more states established life without the possibility of parole sentences. Currently, only New Mexico and Alaska don’t have a life without parole sentence on the books.

U.S. policymakers seem determined to march out of step with the rest of the world on the use of harsh prison sentences. In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling on all nations to abolish life without the possibility of parole sentences for youth offenders. The margin was 185 to 1–with the U.S. casting the one and only vote against.

Efforts to win change in sentencing laws have had mixed results. In 2004, California activists organized a campaign for a referendum to amend the three-strikes law to trigger the sentence only if the third felony was a “serious” one. Leading up to the vote, opinion polls showed two-thirds support for the referendum. But a last-minute advertising blitz and campaign by conservatives like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned the tide, and the referendum lost by a narrow margin.

This year, supporters were unable to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot again in California. But a bill to abolish life without parole sentences for youth offenders passed the Senate Public Safety Committee in April and is being considered by the full state Senate. If this legislation passes, California would join nine other states that prohibit life without parole sentences for juveniles.

In Illinois, efforts by some grassroots groups to allow juveniles with life without parole sentences to come before a parole board after serving 10 years is underway, but the attempt is being stymied by opposition from victims’ rights groups.

It’s long past time that life without paroles sentences were eliminated–for juveniles or adults.

Everyday that I wake up, it’s a pain knowing that I have this sentence, and if these devils get their way, I will have to be here the rest of my days. Knowing this, and being in this situation, just the thought alone will kill you from the inside out. A natural life sentence tells the public that you are a vile and insidious person, and that you possess no rehabilitative potential to reenter society and be a productive citizen. This is a bald-faced lie, and this lie can be brought to an end today.

— Jamie Jackson, serving a life without parole sentence in Illinois

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on August 2nd, 2008 at 12:08pm #

    A quote from an article titled “The Deposition” By Rosemarie Jackowski

    “A citizen in United States should never expect to gain justice through the judicial system. The system is so corrupted that in the rare case when justice prevails, it is not because of, but it is in spite of, the system.”

    There are many innocent in US prisons, and there are also many who are not innocent who are on the outside. Most lawyers are skilled at gaming the system. The influence of money – ‘expert witnesses’ who are bought – are a big problem.

    If that wasn’t bad enough – the thrust of most trials is NOT truth and justice. Gaming the system and winning in order to enhance career goals is usually the sought end.

    There would be more justice in the US, if cases were tried in the streets or in front of high school classes. There is something about law school that seems to destroy a natural appreciation for justice.

    I am a candidate for Attorney General in Vermont because I have seen the dark side of the system close up.

  2. John Hatch said on August 2nd, 2008 at 1:19pm #

    I’m sure the irony is not lost: Here are kids doing life sentences while the Great Dear Decider can lie, spy, kidnap, torture, ‘disappear people’, murder people, assassinate people, start two wars and maybe a third, use illegal weapons of mass destruction -Depleted Uranium, Mark 77 (the new napalm), white phosphorous, and probably other experimental weapons like lasers, thermobaric bombs, microwave weapons. But no jail cell for this Christian, whose favorite philosopher is Jesus.

    I’ve always wondered how a nation can become so crazy. I’m beginning to understand. Through selfish indifference and wilful ignorance, just ennable people like Bush/Cheney et al. Eventually everyone gets hurt.

  3. rosemarie jackowski said on August 2nd, 2008 at 3:53pm #

    John…you make an important point. Tomorrow, Sunday, on C-span2, Book TV, Vincent Bugliosi will give an in depth interview. Topic is why Bush should be Tried for Murder. I think that it can be viewed on the computer. Check the C-span web site.

  4. rosemarie jackowski said on August 2nd, 2008 at 4:02pm #

    John…The Bush Indictment Project is the answer. Click the link, please.

  5. HR said on August 2nd, 2008 at 5:09pm #

    Our justice system never was anything to brag about, except for the wealthy, which it has ever protected. Hell, in the 70s, there were TV shows depicting what a fouled-up mess of plea-bargaining and coerced confessions it was, a farce which guaranteed that poor people would have to cop a plea or face a stiff jail sentence if they pled innocent, lacking as they did funding sufficient to mount a proper defense. Apparently USans think that is just fine, though, since they continue to elect monsters at all levels of government who never in their wildest dreams would lift a finger to change the wealth-biased judicial system. You’ll even hear them even babble incoherently about how we have liberty and justice for all. Ya gets the govamint ya damned well deserve!

  6. Joseph Broxton said on August 3rd, 2008 at 2:38am #

    It’s possible that our Judicial System has strayed away from our equal justice for all (with Liberty and Justice for All). In all fairness, I do not beleive the California Law, three strikes and you’re out, is constitutionally fair and justified for an individual..After 10 years of lockup, anyone should be given the right for a paroll hearing, regardless of his or her sentence, especially those who were under 18 when sentenced! I want to add also, that taking Prayer out of the Schools, you will note, our Crime Rate has doubled over the years since, although, I might add, that much is to be said about Parents who don’t take their Children to Church regularly, alot of the blame is on us as Parents, when our children are growing up.. Shame on Parents! However, that’s for another discussion.

  7. Donald Hawkins said on August 3rd, 2008 at 8:53am #

    The rules for society are made by people who have pretty much one thing in mind, staying in power and making big money. Then of course you have people who work for these people who I guess like being part of that thinking and feel special that way. Let’s say you were a fly on the wall at a party for policy makers, big shots. To listen to these people talk at the party and say the fly on the wall has half a brain the fly would understand how far these people are away from reality the real World and the arrogance astounding. I don’t think these people think that they are intellects but that the rest of us are just stupid and easily persuaded by bullshit. Now the same thing is true with the stuff you see on TV weather it is news or commercials. The commercials that I see for the most part seem to like to keep you stupid or say it is Ok to be stupid and buy my product it’s Ok. Degrading for the most part and again I don’t think these people think that they are intellects but that the rest of us are just stupid and easily persuaded by bullshit. Let’s look at Hollywood well what happens to a person who was once famous and lost that famous part for whatever reason. They do commercials like maybe for a reverse mortgage or cash for gold. Corporate big shots and the people who make the laws are almost one now. What do you call that Fascism? I don’t think we are there yet but darn close. Now was this a master plan by people with secret hand shakes, no. Money makes money and over the years less and less people have more of that money and give that money to the people who make the rules and look how well it as all worked out. Let’s pick a number of these groups I just talked about say 5% of the population so that leaves 95%. Now the 95% of us how come we are who we are. Of course this is not true in all cases but I think most people have no desire to be like the other 5% because that voice in the back of our head say’s you know something is not quite right with this thinking and I’ll be who I am if you don’t mind and of course the 5% do want you to be like them well almost they want you to buy there bullshit. Just the one group the policy makers I have watched for the last few day’s the Senate. To watch these people talk and there reasons for this or that again I must say I don’t think these people think that they are intellects but that the rest of us are just stupid and easily persuaded by bullshit. I was reading the other day and came upon a little something about the Universe you might like.

    I would suggest that the negative energy attribute of the Universe is spacetime itself, along with it’s dynamic properties of expansion and acceleration due to dark energy. And if you’re looking for a quantum principle that fits in with that, what could be more fitting than the idea that matter and spacetime are quantum conjugates that arose at the moment of the Big Bang, driven by the “negative/dark” energy hyperinflation of spacetime that overrode gravity as mass/matter/radiation came into existence simultaneously?

    That hyperinflation of spacetime that overrode gravity as mass/matter/radiation came into existence simultaneously.

    It all seems pretty simple to me! (unknown Author)

    Hyperinflation when talking about the big bang if you think it did happen was that first trillion, trillion of a second in the beginning when mass was moving faster than the speed of light.

  8. Donald Hawkins said on August 3rd, 2008 at 10:20am #

    Was I always who I am now, no. Hell been there and back. I knew something was not quite right but I didn’t know what it was. One of my relatives favorite things to say to me was if you are so damn smart how come you are not rich. So of course I tried to get rich and that worked out real well. Then of course drugs and alcohol and after a few years hell was not the right word. I am lucky many don’t make it and the something isn’t quite right part hasn’t changed but I did. Hell or living in a box with walls made of bullshit is not one of my favorite things or people who want me to believe in things that are so far from the truth that they border on insanity not going there if I can help it. I am older and yes it is easer for me now and now day’s the level of bullshit to me is mind boggling. There you know to much now just kidding and hay what about the new thing I hear from our fearless leaders drill, drill, drill it’s what the American people want. Yesterday on Foxnews this one man said the American people want to drill for more oil and these environmentalists need to get out of the way. Whatever happened to the fair and balanced part maybe never there in the first place. I know these so called elites are leading us down a very dark path as they know not what they do.

    Ohhh! Great warrior! [laughs and shakes his head]
    Wars not make one great!

    “You must unlearn what you have learned.” “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will…”

    Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things.

    “You will know (the good from the bad) when you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. ” Yoda

    Use the force for knowledge and defense and the time is now.

  9. Brian Koontz said on August 3rd, 2008 at 1:58pm #

    The primary point of incarceration as done by the state has always been to terrorize the population – increased incarceration simply means the state feels it has an even greater need for terror to control it’s population.

    And what a need they have – the rise of neoliberal economics and the prison-industrial complex occurred at the same time. Or that is to say, the expected unpopularity of neoliberalism resulted in a need to increase the amount of terror applied on the US population by the US elite. Also coinciding with neoliberalism is “abuse TV”, beginning with The Gong Show (the original version).

    There are three ways to reduce the prison population in the US – submit (to consensual slavery) to the ruling class such that they no longer feel a need to terrorize the population, destroy the ruling class such that they no longer have the power to terrorize the population, or substitute terror by incarceration to terror by some other method.

  10. HR said on August 3rd, 2008 at 2:41pm #

    Joseph Broxton, rates for real crimes, like murder, manslaughter, burglary, robbery, etc. have been fairly constant since they have been recorded, and most likely throughout human civilization. That is likely to continue, no matter how many people are locked up. It’s just that crimes get reported with particular emphases, to fit particular political, business, and religious agendas, and to keep us living in a state of fear generally, in which we feel comforted knowing that police are militarized and free to do as they choose, and that our houses are made “safe”, thanks to hired security goons. We have created “crimes” through draconian drug laws that give the government the right to arrest anyone who is poor, or of the wrong skin color.

    Our system hasn’t strayed from equal justice. It never provided it. For example, do you remember slavery? That was condoned by the Christian god, according to plenty of good southern Christians. And, it was bought into by plenty of wealthy northern ones as well.

  11. Hue Longer said on August 3rd, 2008 at 3:28pm #

    I love post hoc arguments because they’re fun and creative

  12. A said on August 3rd, 2008 at 7:28pm #

    American Justice!

  13. Carlyle Moulton said on August 3rd, 2008 at 10:17pm #

    One cannot overestimate the extent to which anti-negro racism motivates the US justice system. The timing of the start of the insane punitiveness alone, starting in the seventies is enough to identify it as a counter attack to the successes of the civil rights movement.