The Other Death Penalty -- Life Without Parole

C.S. McClellan By C.S. McClellan, 31st Dec 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Society & Issues

America has two death sentences. One of them is specifically designed to end life. The other death sentence is invisible and almost unknown to the public. It, too, ends life, but slowly over years and decades.

Life Without Hope

Some call life without parole a humane replacement for the death sentence. The international community calls it cruel and unusual punishment and a form of torture. Many prisoners call it a worse sentence than the death penalty. It’s significant that the first essay in Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough, a new book about life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), is entitled “Making the Case for Suicide.”

 A sentence of life without parole is nothing like what the American public understands as a life sentence. The ordinary lifer has the possibility of leaving prison after a number of years. A sentence of life without parole means that the only way you will leave prison is in a body bag.

Kenneth Hartman, the book’s primary editor: “Life without the possibility of parole is the ultimate anti-human prison sentence, even more than the traditional execution, which as an act of pure revenge is really not a commentary on the worth of the criminal, only on the severity of the crime. The other death penalty, by contrast, is a statement of condemnation against even the mere possibility a person might, someday in the future, manage to struggle against the odds and become better than their worst moment. It is a sentence that posits, as its underpinning, that in no amount of time or consequent to any degree of concerted effort could an offender achieve rehabilitation or reform sufficiently enough to warrant consideration of another chance in the world on the other side of the fences.

“ without the possibility of parole freezes someone into their worst moment forever. It denies the hope of positive growth and change that’s oxygen for the spirit of all human beings.”

Dollars, Numbers, and Lives

There are currently some 50,000 men and women who will die “natural” deaths in prison. What little discussion of life without parole takes place, centers primarily on the costs of the death sentence vs. a LWOP sentence. Supposedly, it’s cheaper for the state to keep someone in prison for the remainder of their life than to bear the costs of appeals and court cases as the condemned fights to stay alive. This dollars and cents approach is just beginning to take into account the costs of health care for aging prisoners, so the savings may not even exist.

It’s an indication of how far the United States has sunk into a profit and loss mentality that prisoners’ lives are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet. It goes along with the calculations as to how many calories are necessary to sustain their lives without any consideration for the quality of those calories, as in Florida’s prisons. The growing cost of mass incarceration is motivating states to take measures which make life in prison ever more restrictive, punitive and unbearable. Hundreds of thousands of men and women live in conditions which would have animal rights activists beating the drums and holding protests. Prisoners living out life without parole sentences fare even worse as a rule, being deprived of educational opportunities and programs aimed at rehabilitation.  They’re not going anywhere, after all.

We need to open a national discussion about LWOP and its human costs. The majority of lifers are not the monsters and psychopaths that the media portray. They are damaged human beings, most of whom accept responsibility for their crimes, bear a daily burden of regret and sorrow for their victims, and want a chance to redeem themselves. By the time they’ve served a couple of decades in prison, they aren’t even the same people who committed the crimes that locked them behind bars. Sentencing must change to reflect the possibility of growth and change. Every human being deserves at least that much.

Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough, and anthology published by the Other Death Penalty Project Kenneth E. Hartman

The Other Death Penalty Project

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author avatar Steve Kinsman
31st Dec 2014 (#)

Excellent piece, and excellent that you have brought up this subject. The American penal system is unjustly cruel and even barbaric, and it seems to be becoming more so with each passing day. For-profit prisons are an abomination, in my mind a reflection of a society and culture that has lost its soul.

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author avatar C.S. McClellan
31st Dec 2014 (#)

Thanks. I'll be writing more on this topic.

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author avatar Retired
31st Dec 2014 (#)

It's a moral issue. Are we to release criminals because we cannot support their lifetime in prison (hence the spreadsheets) or keep them in prison draining the wallets of the people they hurt plus many others.

Perhaps you are a more forgiving soul than me, but I'm not sure criminals spending decades behind bars are not the criminals they once were. Recidivism is high among parolees. And I wouldn't want them living next door.

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author avatar C.S. McClellan
31st Dec 2014 (#)

LeRain, your comment is very typical, I'm afraid (no blame to you). All you know about criminal justice is the sensational stories in the media. It's a complex issue that has to be examined piece by piece for better understanding.

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
31st Dec 2014 (#)

Indeed I do agree with Steve its barbaric most of the times and unjust the American penal system were many innocent have been half their live s in jail. Interesting post!

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