Attica (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Democrats Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are widely known as the most liberal lawmakers vying to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2020. Both believe in healthcare, higher education, and childcare for all. They often cite that the country lags behind most other countries of the world in areas of maternity health, infant mortality, economic and wealth inequality, and many other societal measures of health and well-being. However, as far as international standards go, Warren and Sanders are both out of touch in their belief in permanent punishment and life imprisonment in the U.S. criminal justice system.
In June 2019, the New York Times interviewed Sanders, Warren, and the slew of other Democratic presidential candidates running at the time about their stances across many foreign policy and domestic issues, including the death penalty. Just about all of the candidates interviewed affirmed that they opposed the death penalty. Warren and Sanders took their stances a step further, adding that they believed people should be locked up forever as an alternative to the death penalty.
“I also oppose [the death penalty] because I think that people who have committed truly heinous crimes should die in prison, suffering for the rest of their lives,” emphasized Warren. Sanders echoed Warren in his reply by saying, “You have people who should spend the rest of their lives behind bars…” Sanders continued his anti-death penalty stance by saying, “part of the need for real criminal justice reform is for the United States to do what virtually every other major country on earth is doing.”
If Sanders and Warren want to continue to separate themselves from the Democratic presidential pack, then they should look to do what just about every major country on earth is doing and begin to unravel, not reinforce, life imprisonment. They should also examine the historical reality that the people condemned to a life of suffering and death by incarceration in the United States are disproportionately People of Color.
While it’s common knowledge that the United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated, fewer people know that 40 percent of all people on the planet serving a life sentence are behind bars in the U.S. Today, there are more than 206,000 people serving a life sentence in U.S. state and federal prisons—more than the total number of people in all U.S. prisons in 1972. Unsurprisingly, the large majority are black and Latino people. I was one of them.
In 1980, I was convicted of bank robbery and attempted murder of a New York City police sergeant. For the next 38 years, I served a life sentence and met countless others who were also sanctioned to life and death behind bars. I saw firsthand how life imprisonment ripped hope from people’s souls, permanently separated families, and destabilized entire communities, particularly communities of color. I witnessed my fellow lifers take their last breaths in prison cells and hospice beds, grow confused with dementia about why they were in prison in the first place, and age years and decades faster than most people in the outside world.
In January 2018, I was finally released from prison. The day I walked out of prison was the happiest day of my life. It was a day I started to suspect would never come for me.
Over the years some of my closest friends, men who were my mentors, others I had mentored, passed away behind bars. We shared decades of our lives helping each other confront the thinking that led to our incarceration and developing and facilitating the most comprehensive in-prison therapeutic programs that helped to completely change our behavior. We created victim awareness workshops and seminars to develop insight into the harm our crimes inflicted on innocent people. We took full responsibility for rehabilitating ourselves and empowering others with life-affirming principles and values, and a sense of community.
As my brother drove me past the prison grounds I thought about the men I was leaving behind, men who should have been walking out of the prison gates with me. Instead, many will likely die in prison.
When U.S. elected leaders talk about who should suffer and die in prison, they’re talking about men I personally know, men and women who for decades have helped entire generations of younger people transform their lives and who often pose no risk to public safety. Instead, they would enhance the safety of communities if given the chance to return home.
Formerly incarcerated people are often the only ones willing and able to reach out to at-risk young adults who are otherwise abandoned and neglected by society. We give them a vision of a future that does not include gangs, violence, and crime. Such men and women are the reason why I am the man I am today. They are the reason why formerly incarcerated people today serve as credible messengers, violence interrupters, and street counselors. They have helped their peers develop a greater sense of community and civic responsibility than most people who have never been incarcerated.
For these reasons and more, there is a growing national movement working against the sentiments expressed by Sanders and Warren. A movement founded on the fundamental principle that every incarcerated person has the potential for genuine transformation. Death by incarceration sentences are inhumane and rooted in the legacy of racism. They also don’t make us safer.
Decades of research has proven that life imprisonment does not promote public safety, deter crime, or meet the many needs of victims and survivors of interpersonal violence. Further, those serving life sentences are least likely to commit another crime or return to prison upon release as they grow old behind bars. This is even true for people convicted of murder and other forms of serious violence.
The rest of the world realizes these truths, and lawmakers in some states have started to realize them too. In New York for instance, lawmakers are working to pass a bill that would allow the State Board of Parole to give individualized case reviews and assessments for release to people in prison who are age 55 and older and have served 15 or more years. The governor of Virginia recently proposed a similar elder parole policy, while legislators in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Washington State have proposed an end to life without parole sentences.
While there is no one clear way to end prison sentences that amount to permanently punishing people and families, there is a growing understanding that something must be done. Warren, Sanders, and the other Democrats seeking to pave a progressive path to being the next Democratic nominee for president should get on board.
Jose Saldana is the Director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, a community organizing and advocacy campaign that works to reform long and life prison sentences and promote racial justice. On Twitter @RAPPcampaign.