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What Kind of System Sentences People to a “Living Death”?

Revolution #324, December 9, 2013

With some 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with the majority of prisoners Black and Latino. Thousands of prisoners in California recently went on a hunger strike, protesting and exposing conditions of torture that 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement face in the U.S. A total of 105 countries have already gotten rid of the death penalty, including all the countries in Western Europe. Meanwhile the United States is infamous for executing people—and keeps thousands on death row, many of whom have been then found to be innocent, indicating that many more innocent people have been executed. The U.S. is also the biggest transgressor of the international ban on executing juveniles, and 26 states in the U.S. allow putting to death mentally retarded defendants.

Now, the American Civil Liberties Union has released a report, “A Living Death—Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offense,” revealing another ugly reality of mass incarceration in the USA. [Unless indicated, statistics in this article are from this report.]

In the U.S., 49,000 prisoners are serving life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences—told they will live in prison until they die. As of 2012, 3,278 of these prisoners are being punished for non-violent drug and property crimes in the federal system and in nine states (that provided statistics). This doesn’t even include those prisoners who are serving, say, a sentence of 100 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Nor does this include others found guilty of a “violent crime” even though what they did was non-violent—like failing to report to a halfway house or trying to steal an unoccupied car.

Four decades of the War on Drugs has resulted in extremely harsh sentencing laws—like “three-strikes” provisions where judges are required to give minimum sentences for a third felony conviction or certain types of crimes. Such laws force judges to issue sentences that are severe and unjust and three-strike laws have expanded the number of crimes a person can get LWOP sentences for. This has all resulted in an increase in the number of people imprisoned and the lengths of their imprisonments. And this has also given rise to so many people condemned to LWOP—with many sent to prison for life including: drug couriers; drug addicts who sold small amounts of drugs in order to support their addictions; petty thieves; girlfriends or wives who were caught up in the mass arrests of members of drug conspiracies and, because they knew little about their partners’ or ex-partners’ drug activities, were unable or unwilling to trade information for more lenient sentences.

Imagine you get arrested for one of these things: possession of a crack pipe; possession of a bottle cap containing a trace, un-weighable amount of heroin; possession of a small amount of marijuana with intent to distribute; acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer; sharing several grams of LSD with Grateful Dead concertgoers; having a stash of over-the-counter decongestant pills that could be manufactured into methamphetamine; attempting to cash a stolen check; a junk-dealer’s possession of stolen junk metal (10 valves and one elbow pipe); possession of stolen wrenches; siphoning gasoline from a truck; stealing tools from a tool shed and a welding machine from a yard; shoplifting three belts from a department store; breaking into a closed liquor store in the middle of the night.

You’re found guilty and then a judge basically tells you: “We’re putting you in a cell and you will stay there until you die.”

You might be wondering—could this really be true? Thousands of people did something as little as shoplifting and now their whole life has now been thrown away? Someone maybe as young as 25 is convicted of a very small crime and now they will be in prison until they die?

Yes, this is happening—and the statistics only tell part of the unjustness of the story.

Here are just two examples from the ACLU report, which profiles 110 offenders sentenced to die in prison for nonviolent crimes:

Sharanda Purlette Jones, a mother with no prior criminal record, was sentenced to mandatory life without parole for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine based almost entirely on the testimony of co-conspirators who received reduced sentences for their testimony. All 105 people arrested as part of the conspiracy in her majority-white Texas town were Black. Other than a taped phone call during which she agreed to ask a friend where two government informants might be able to buy drugs, there was no physical evidence, including no drugs or video surveillance, presented at trial to connect her to drug-dealing with her co-conspirators.

Timothy Jackson is serving life without parole for shoplifting a jacket worth $159 from a Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans in 1996. Jackson, who was 36 at the time, worked as a restaurant cook. A store security agent followed Jackson, who put the jacket down on a newspaper stand and tried to walk away when he realized he was being followed. At the time, Jackson’s crime carried a two-year sentence for a first offender; it now carries a six-month sentence. But the court sentenced Jackson to mandatory life without parole, using a two-decades-old juvenile conviction for simple (unarmed) robbery and two simple car-burglary convictions to sentence him under Louisiana’s four-strikes law. Jackson has served 16 years in prison.

The War on Drugs and Life Without Parole

Before the 1970s, sentencing people to LWOP was actually very uncommon. Then in 1972 the death penalty was temporarily abolished through the Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia. This is when the courts began giving lots of people LWOP sentences—in part because the courts couldn’t give people the death penalty. But even after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, LWOP sentences continued to soar.

In the mid-1990s only 16 states had some form of LWOP—now 49 states hand out such sentences. In 1992, less than 12,500 prisoners were serving LWOP. Today this number is over 49,000. The use of life-without-parole sentences is not only used more, but it has been made available for a broader range of offenses—including nonviolent crimes, including low-level nonviolent offenses.

This rise in LWOP sentencing is part of the larger situation of mass incarceration where in the United States, since the 1970s, there has been an explosive growth of prisoners in the United States. In 1970 there were 338,029 people being held in federal and state prisons and local jails. In 1990, this number had risen to 1,148,702. And by 2010 it was 2,266,832. (Bureau of Justice Statistics: “Correctional Populations in the U.S.”, and Justice Policy Institute analysis of U.S. Justice Department data.)

Carl Dix from the Revolutionary Communist Party talks about what is behind mass incarceration in the United States—and the stakes of the struggle against it:

“Mass incarceration is a huge attack on the masses, especially on oppressed nationality masses. 100,000’s are jailed for simple possession of banned drugs. People in prison are subjected to horrible conditions. The pipeline leading to this warehousing in prison includes inner-city educational systems that are geared to drive millions of youth to drop out and a criminal justice system that treats a whole generation of youth like potential criminals, guilty until proven innocent, if they can survive to prove that innocence. It includes racial profiling by police, gang injunctions and discrimination in the courts.

“And after release, millions of people are stamped with a badge of deprivation and shame. Denied job opportunities, access to public housing, food stamps, government loans for education, the right to vote, and more. All this is the result of conscious policies adopted by the ruling class.

“This horrific racially targeted massive incarceration is a consequence of not having made revolution in the ‘60s. The revolutionary upheaval of that period rocked the ruling class back on its heels, but it didn’t seize power from them. Having ridden those storms out, and conscious of the role the uprisings of Black people played in spearheading that and their potential for sparking future upheaval, the ruling class has moved to viciously suppress that potential before it can manifest itself—counter-insurgency before the insurgency.

“If things are allowed to continue on this trajectory, the reality of millions of the oppressed penned up in the ghettos and barrios without opportunity or hope will intensify. Going in and out of jail will remain a rite of passage for millions of oppressed youth, many of whom already look to their immediate future and can see nothing more than prison or death. This is slow genocide and, given the sharp divisions in the ruling class and the building up and unleashing of outright fascist forces, it could easily become fast genocide.” (Revolution #242, “Taking the Movement of Resistance to Mass Incarceration to a Higher Level Thru Unleashing Determined Mass Resistance“)

This is what has brought about three strikes laws. This is what policies like stop-and-frisk— where the NYPD illegally racially profile Black and Latino people, stopping and harassing millions who are doing absolutely nothing wrong—are part of. The “school to prison pipeline” is part of this—where “zero-tolerance” policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules channel kids into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. And this is what the explosion of LWOP sentencing is part of.

Part of the Slow Genocide of Black People

Mass incarceration in the United States—where 40% of the prison population is Black—is a major component of the slow genocide of Black people being carried out by the system. Black people are clearly disproportionately incarcerated and there is even more disparity when it comes to those who are given LWOP sentences overall, and those with LWOP sentences for nonviolent offenses. For example, Black prisoners comprise 91.4 percent of the nonviolent LWOP prison population in Louisiana, 78.5 percent in Mississippi and 70 percent in Illinois. And Black people were sentenced to LWOP for nonviolent crimes at 20 times the rate of whites.

Black people constitute about 11 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 60 percent of the prison population serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses—and they serve such sentences at a rate of 46.5 per 1,000,000 residents, over 20 times the rate of whites. These disparate rates cannot be explained by white and Black defendants’ differential involvement in crimes alone. As the ACLU notes:

“A report released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in February 2013 concluded that in recent years, Black male offenders have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. The racial disparities increase with the severity of the sentence. The level of disproportionate representation of Blacks among prisoners who are serving LWOP is higher than that among parole-eligible prisoners serving life sentences. The disparity is higher still among prisoners sentenced to LWOP for nonviolent offenses.

“Blacks receive disparate treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, points of arrest, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials, and sentencing. In some of the cases documented by the ACLU, there is anecdotal evidence of possible disparate treatment by law enforcement and justice authorities, such as apparently baseless traffic and pedestrian stops and searches that may be the results of racial profiling and targeted drug enforcement in predominantly Black communities.”

A Living Death

The title of the ACLU report is “A Living Death” and this completely inhumane suffering is what this system is forcing upon tens of thousands of people, including thousands who are being punished for doing non-violent and in many cases, very minor crimes.

The ACLU reports that prisoners sentenced to LWOP talked about “feelings of unremitting hopelessness, loneliness, anxiety, depression, fear, isolation from family and their community, and suicidal thoughts.” Those who had committed nonviolent crimes described their sentences as “a slow death sentence,” “a slow, painful death,” “a slow, horrible, torturous death,” “akin to being dead, without the one benefit of not having to suffer any more,” “like you’re...a walking dead,” and “like you are a living dead person on a [life] support machine.”

Let’s be for real. Some lip service is paid to “rehabilitation” by certain sections of the ruling class. But to understand what is really happening here, we need to step back and look at the larger picture, as concentrated in the quote above from Carl Dix. Rehabilitation is NOT at the heart of the unjust prison system. The massive incarceration of Black and Latino people is not about protecting the society from crime—and few people with their heads on straight would argue that possessing a small amount of marijuana “with the intent to distribute” constitutes a crime against society that should be punishable by life in prison.

Incarcerating over two million people is about wielding the power of the state apparatus to keep whole sections of the population (and particularly Black and Latino people) down, by first of all locking up hundreds of thousands of people which as Carl Dix says has long term implications for them and their families—and in doing that delivering a message broadly to certain sections of society that what awaits them is prison or death. The state apparatus is not a force which “stands above” all the different contending forces in society which mediates the conflicts between them and protects the people as a whole. What we have is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, with not only laws but a state apparatus of repression consisting of the armed forces, the police, the courts, the prisons, the bureaucracies, etc., to maintain the basic economic relations of exploitation and the basic social relations that go along with that in society.

What Kind of System Is This?

An editorial in the New York Times quotes Burl Cain, the warden who presides over the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, saying, “Everybody forgets what corrections means. It means to correct deviant behavior. If this person can go back and be a productive citizen and not commit crimes again, why spend the money to keep him in prison?” The editors end by saying, “If the United States is to call itself a civilized nation, it must end this cruel and ineffective practice.” (New York Times, 11-16-13)

Indeed, this does raise a huge question of legitimacy for the United States. The supposed “leader of the free world”—with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, that so clearly targets and locks up Black and Latino people disproportionately, many of them youth for whom this system can provide no future, and condemns so many people to a “living death” for very small, non-violent crimes?

And we also have to ask: What kind of system locks away tens of thousands of people who have carried out other crimes—and gives them no hope, no chance, no opportunity to change, rehabilitate or ever make any contribution to society.

What kind of a system looks at people this way? What kind of a system wastes so much human potential?

It is a system of capitalism/imperialism that looks at everything, including human beings, as either something to be used by the system or discardable waste to be controlled and repressed. And in the case of tens of millions of Blacks and Latinos, especially the youth, this system sees them as potentially volatile who must be put under extreme social control.

This system has no reason to treat prisoners with humanity. It has no reason to rehabilitate people. It sees no reason to recognize and act on the fact that people can change—even those who have carried out terrible crimes—and can in turn contribute to society.

In a genuine socialist society, not based on profit, the economic and social institutions would be based on cooperation—enabling people to work for the common good and contribute to the betterment of society and the world. Such a system would have a whole different kind of judicial and penal system that would be part of moving society in the direction of getting rid of all oppression and exploitation. As the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) says:

“In regard to all those convicted and sentenced to be punished for violation of the law, the basic orientation with regard to such imprisonment shall be to rehabilitate the persons convicted and imprisoned, and to release them and reintegrate them as productive members of the larger society, as soon as it may be possible to do so, in accordance with the judgment that this can be done without unacceptable risk and danger to society and the people, and where doing so would not be contrary to what is set forth in this Constitution. To this end, education, in accordance with the principles set forth in this Constitution—and in particular the principle of “solid core, with a lot of elasticity,” including education in the communist worldview and values but also access to a wide variety of political and philosophical, scientific, literary and other works, expressing a diversity of views—shall be afforded prisoners, and they shall be provided with the means to engage in productive work which can make a contribution to society, under conditions which are not only humane but which conform to the general standards of work in society at large. In no case shall persons be kept in prison for a period longer than that provided for by law and through legal proceedings embodying due process of law.”

In this way, such people can be further transformed so they can then take part in the struggle to bring about a whole new world where the prison hellholes of capitalism will only be found in history books.

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