“One of the biggest lies we’ve been told is that time heals all wounds,” Justin Singleton told an eagerly-listening crowd on the morning of Sept. 28. “But time adds to the wounds. Love heals all wounds.” Singleton is currently doing a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence at Angola State Penitentiary. Usually, people doing LWOP are silenced and hidden from the public eye. For one rare day, however, we heard from not just Singleton, but several others doing life. As a partner of the Life With Other Possibilities Summit, we gathered many concerned citizens, scholars, and activists to learn more about LWOP and what we can do to end it. We heard how the laws created and enforced by our elected officials can help or harm people currently sentenced to death by prison. In addition to hearing from six lifers still on the inside, we were also encouraged by two others who were released because freedom fighters on both the inside and outside demanded that laws and policies be changed. Their stories remind us how much more work we have to do to end LWOP. They also help us understand what we can do about it right now, including vote for elected officials that support real reform.
As Fox Rich, our beloved friend and fellow formerly incarcerated leader says, “When we are united, the laws will change.”
Laws change every day, because they are made by humans who can change every day, too. LWOP laws are no exception. They only began in the 1970s when the Supreme Court ruled against the death penalty. Those who wanted to maintain a system of retribution but could no longer send people to the chair as often decided that LWOP was an equally punitive sentence, Dr. Marcus Konkar explained to us on the 28th. While this history is a bleak one, it reminds us that LWOP was created not long ago, and therefore can be abolished just as quickly. Every day we witness public and political opinions of justice reform changing, which means more and more people are realizing that we can’t heal trauma with trauma.
We see that giving people the opportunity to hear directly from the people most impacted by the criminal (in)justice system really works, which was no less true at the Summit.
Singleton spoke on a panel with his allies Keith Morse and Samuel Kelly, who are also doing LWOP at Angola. Together they run a reentry program for men who are doing shorter sentences at the same facility. Their program has graduated more than 1,500 men in Angola, and their model more than 10,000 worldwide. While Angola’s general recidivism rate is 50%, only 9% of the men who have gone through their program have landed back behind bars. “[We do this] out of a willingness to say we are better than our worst mistakes,” says Morse. “To say we have something to offer.” Kelly agrees, sharing that he helps others succeed “to see hope.” The tragic irony, of course, is that the system has stripped these leaders of their chance at freedom, yet they’re directly showing others how to get and stay free. At their end of their panel, the men implored the audience to get involved as much as possible. To start, we can vote on their behalf, carefully choosing candidates who offer incarcerated people opportunities for freedom. “We are continuing to strive even though people tell us that it’s purposeless and meaningless,” Singleton says.
Samuel Kelly speaks on his experience of doing life without the possibility of parole in Angola.
From L to R: Samuel Kelly, Keith Morse, and Justin Singleton.
Michelle Benjamin was sentenced to LWOP at 16 years old. She did 24 years until being released this past spring because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to LWOP was unconstitutional. She explained how she was constantly treated like her life and opportunities didn’t matter as much as people who weren’t sentenced to life. After all, the system told her she was going to die in prison. She was denied access to many of the programs that people with shorter sentences were easily able to sign up for, including the high school courses she needed to finish her degree. Instead of giving up, she filed a lawsuit for her right to finish school. She got her GED, got out, and is now working on her college degree. In part because of her persistence, the prison policies have changed. Now people doing LWOP have equal access to resources. If Benjamin can organize for lasting change from the inside, we can do the same on the outside.
One of the ways we can organize is by supporting the families of those doing LWOP. As Selina Anderson, another lifer at the Summit, says “[many] mothers are struggling because they're away from their kids.” Shanda Crain chimed in, sharing that when her grandkids come to visit for children’s day activities, they can’t understand why she’s never coming home.
Shanda Crain tells us about the family separation she feels and sees in prison while doing her life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Kelly Garrett, is the Policy Council of our partner organization, Voters Organized to Educate. She’s also the partner of Singleton. “It's a challenge to try to explain to people that [those doing life] are a human being just like everyone else,” she told the audience. “They need even more love.” Her concerns about others’ judgement were echoed by Dominique Jones, Founder and Co-Director of Daughters Beyond Incarceration. Jones’ father is also at Angola doing life. As a kid she was one of the best track runners in the state, but without her dad around, the success didn’t matter to her. At 16 years old, high-schooler Kasey relates to this experience. Unsure what the right thing to do was, the adults in her life kept the secret that her dad was doing LWOP. The system has put countless families in this same lose-lose situation. Keisha White, now an adult, also grew up with her father doing LWOP. She explained how no one from the prison called her when her when her father started having medical troubles. They turned out to be fatal, and he died in prison.
Candice Malone, another lifer, posed the most poignant question of all.“[Is doing] a life sentence really justice?” she asks. “Does it truly make the community better? … I don’t think so.”
We don’t, either, and that’s why we need to use our power: as leaders, as neighbors, as family members, and as voters. The materials that build the majority of prisons are funded by voters, and so are the elected officials who ordered them to be built in the first place. This Saturday, we have the opportunity to vote for those who will order the closing of prisons and the creation of better approaches to harm.
Please vote on behalf of all of the voices heard above, and all others sentenced to life without parole. Not sure where to vote? Find out here. Still not sure who to vote for? Check out Know Your Vote to see who's running and what issues they care about. The primary election is this Saturday, Oct. 12, and the runoff is Nov. 16.