Guest column Lois Ahrens: Life without parole needs to go

  • Massachusetts State House in Boston, MA Paul Brady

Published: 11/4/2019 11:14:20 AM

At the Joint Committee on the Judiciary hearing held on Oct. 9, 68 people testified, in addition to many more of us who submitted testimony in support of H.3358/S.826.

If passed, this legislation introduced by Rep. Jay Livingstone and Sen. Joseph A. Boncore would end the sentence of life without the possibility of parole and replace it with the possibility of parole after a mandatory sentence of 25 years.

At the hearing, there were nine individuals/families opposing the bill. Each presented painful testimony about the murder of their loved one and what the loss means for their family.

In 2000, I began the Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization based in Northampton. In almost 20 years, all facets of my work have grown and evolved — largely through my connections, many of them deep and ongoing — with men and women serving a sentence of life without parole. When I first began, people would ask me if I had a loved one in prison and I would say “no.” Now, when I am asked that question, I answer “yes, many.”

My connection to people serving life began when I produced three comic books. The comic books focused on the war on drugs, the devastation to families and communities caused by incarcerating women and the building of jails and prisons.

Incarcerated people began sending me their research, their analysis of the system, insights into the cruelties, absurdities and corruption they witnessed, as well as concrete solutions for change. Much of this work is posted on the RCPP website on the pages “Writing from Prison.” These pages include writing and research by incarcerated writer/thinkers, including many men in the Norfolk Lifers’ Group, which I have been associated with for more than 15 years. Through the men of the Norfolk Lifers’ Group and hundreds of other lifers around the country, I have begun to understand the cruelty of the sentence of life without parole.

Over almost 20 years, I have come to know spouses, mothers, sisters and brothers of people sentenced to life. I know mothers with two sons, one sentenced to life for murder and another son who was killed by someone who was then sentenced to life. They are leaders in the struggle to end life without parole; both for the sake of their sons and for the men who killed their sons.

In the first-ever survey on victims’ views on safety and justice, completed in 2016, most victims say that they prefer rehabilitation to punishment. Six out of 10 advocate for shorter prison sentences rather than life without parole. They also want investments in prevention and rehabilitation.

As a loved one, I have experienced the heartbreak when two dear friends died in prison — Tiyo Attallah Salah-El at age 86 after more than 50 years of incarceration, and Jon Marc Taylor at age 56, who was incarcerated at age 18.

Both were brilliant, productive, loving, forward thinking men who contributed much despite the constraints and reprisals they faced. They could have done much more had they not had this terrible sentence. My remembrance of the remarkable life of Tiyo, despite the weight of his sentence, has just been published in the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons.

There are 1,059 men and women sentenced to die in Massachusetts prisons — the fifth highest rate in the country. In 1977, there were 170 people serving life without parole, an increase of 629% . What accounts for this huge increase? Has every crime gotten so much worse?

Quoted in Boston Dig, attorney Patricia Garin, who supervises Northeastern University School of Law students representing lifers at Massachusetts Parole Board hearings said, “We have gotten more and more punitive as a society.”

“In the past, prosecutors were more often willing to believe that persons should be given parole eligible life sentences so that they could earn a second chance. Presently, prosecutors’ charging decisions are often driven by politics and a misguided belief that they should always be seeking the longest sentence possible.”

The political culture of “tough on crime” has meant that prosecutors have led families of loved ones grievously harmed, as well as the public, into believing that an eye-for-an eye, or in the case of Massachusetts, decades and decades on “slow death row” is the only just sentence that they deserve.

Throughout the United States, organizers are working with legislators to end mass incarceration. In 1970, the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. was about 200,000. Today, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated due to mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, the growth of extreme sentences such as life without the possibility of parole and three strikes.

In Pennsylvania, California, New York, Massachusetts and other states, advocates, organizers and legislators are working to allow for the possibility of parole. If H.3358/S.826 were to pass, it will not mean automatic release for people serving life. It will mean the possibility of review after 25 years. It will mean that people who have caused great harm have taken responsibility for what they have done and are making amends. It will mean that we will not only say we believe in redemption but will act on it.

Lois Ahrens is the founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project.

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