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When I was sent to prison more than twenty-five years ago, I was sent to Walla Walla which was considered the "end of the line" prison in this state. That is how described it anyway. He was the one-eyed, hard-line lieutenant that everyone entering the prison had to go in front of. And what he meant by "end of the line" was that the only prisoners sent there in those days were ones who had worn out their welcome in other prisons, or who could not stay out after they had been released. The Walls was set up not only to manage these kinds of prisoners, but — let's be honest — it was meant to teach them a lesson as well. No one wanted to be sent there. Even though I was younger than other prisoners there and did not fit the criteria, they sent me because I had a brand new type of sentence: Life Without the Possibility of Parole.
When I arrived, the prison was filled with prisoners who were under the authority of the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB). This supported a much different function of the prison, and overall climate among prisoners, compared to that which exists today. In fact, it seems funny now when I think of , acting like a character out of a bad prison movie, referring to "his" prison as the "end of the line" for any one who was sent there. This is because that was not really true — not in the same sense that it is for so many today.
Although life for prisoners at The Walls has never been easy, under the ISRB they did their time with the assurance that they would be judged according to the merit (or demerit) of their own individual actions. They knew that if they worked hard to reform themselves, they might at some point be able to effect their circumstance. The crime for which a prisoner was sent to prison was always the focal-point from which he was judged. But also considered were other conditions: the age of the prisoner at the time of the crime, his degree of involvement, the amount of time he had spent in prison, and what he had done since he had been there. This did not mean that everyone earned release — if the circumstance of their crime or their actions since did not merit it, they would not — but everyone was reviewed, everyone was afforded the opportunity to give an accounting of themselves.
That is the difference between how the system operated at that time versus the way it changed when I was sent to prison, the way it operates now; indeterminate sentencing versus mandatory sentences. A mandatory sentence is a set period of time handed down to a prisoner with no requirement that he change his behavior or improve himself as a human being during his sentence, and no review at any point to determine his suitability for release. Whether a prisoner with this type of sentence is suitable or not, he will be released. The function of prison in relation to a mandatory sentence is solely to punish, and that is all many prisoners serving this type of sentence are able to accomplish — they merely make it through the punishment.
With indeterminate sentences, on the other hand, although the institution still punished (and don't think for a moment that it didn't), it also facilitated reform. Prisoners were required to work to reform themselves, and they had an obvious reason to do so. Despite the punishment, they had hope — and that is a powerful motivating factor for a person to change. Believe me when I say this — because I think that it is only those of us who have experienced life without hope that are fully able to appreciate what it means.
And that is how I was different from the prisoners around me when I was sent to prison. Because Life Without Parole is a sentence by which its very definition means that you will never be looked at, or be afforded the opportunity to give an accounting of yourself. Even in front of the judge in court, your circumstances are not reviewed or considered. And never afterward either... ever. As those of us who have it know, the reality of the sentence is that you are dead — and that is how you are regarded by the state. Prison is merely the place that they have sent you in order to wait for it to happen.
I have often wished that I could take people back to when I first came to prison so they could see what the reaction was, because it was so different from what the reaction is today when someone comes in with that sentence. When other prisoners found out what my sentence was, they were shocked, disbelieving. The reaction was the same from guards and other prison staff. Many prisoners were apologetic, "Oh... man...I'm sorry." I used to hate that because I knew why they said it. They saw me the same as I saw myself-- the same as my sentence said I was — as good as dead. They were apologizing for the way I had to die: death by culmination of the greatest fear of anyone who has ever been in prison; death by prison itself.
I remember the first time I spoke to a counselor in one of the filthy, overcrowded cellhouses at The Walls. Whatever I asked, he had to call another person in the prison or at DOC headquarters in order to find out the answer. No one knew what to do, because there was no policy on Life Without prisoners yet. When we started coming in, we did not fit into the system in place at that time. Prison officials literally had to make up the policy on us as they went.
One day, probably less than a year after I arrived at The Walls, Lt. had guards escort me to his office. He outlined for me what the policy would be from that point forward. They had decided that prisoners with Life Without Parole would not be treated the same as other prisoners: we would never be allowed outside of the walls (not even to go past the work-gate to work in the license plate factory or prison laundry), we were not allowed to go to school, participate in any kind of state-sponsored self-betterment program, earn lower custody, nothing ... ever. That was it — that was the policy they came up with after we started coming in.
After that, prison staff stopped calling people to ask what to do with me — everyone knew. That is why even today, a prison counselor does not really mean anything to a prisoner with Life Without. They don't want to see or talk to us, because they can't do anything for us. Their job is simply to process the report to headquarters once a year notifying them that we have not yet completed our sentence.
Of course, the policy I described was only in the beginning. A steady line of others with the same sentence have piled in behind me. Today there are 550 prisoners in our state sentenced to Life Without Parole. We now make up a segment of the population of every medium, close, and maximum-security prison in this state. And the policy regarding us has been changed a number of times over the years. We can now earn medium custody. Young lifers (21 years old or younger) have the right to earn a GED. And we have long since been allowed to go past work-gates. In fact, it is hard to imagine how prison industries and maintenance could operate without us. But these changes have only come about because prisons are increasingly strained by our numbers (and in the case of GED's for young lifers, only because the state was sued).
These are also not the only changes that have taken place inside of prisons in our state during, this same period. There are no longer any state-initiated or supported programs prisoners can utilize to reform themselves, and this has done much to change the culture among prisoners. There is a vast difference between prisons in which the majority of the population is actively seeking to rehabilitate itself and work towards release, versus prisons in which prisoners merely bide their time and make it through the punislunent. The latter creates a harmful and dangerous environment inside prisons, and makes communities outside much less safe as well.
Yet, remarkably, the absence of any effort by the state to effect reform among its prisoners does not necessarily mean that there are not some who find ways to do it themselves. I have seen many prisoners change over the years, reform themselves into decent human beings — all of us in here have seen it. And the ability to do it is not exclusive to any one kind of prisoner, but it is most prevalent in those who were sent here when they were young. It is these prisoners who have the greatest potential and predisposition to change, to reform themselves. And even young prisoners who have been sentenced to Life are not excluded from this. In fact, it is my experience that they are the most likely to do it — because they have the greatest amount of time to work with and, frequently, the most reason to dislike who they were and what they did. Some come to realize that even if they are not able to pay anything back directly to the victim of their crime, by bettering themselves as human beings and helping others, they can honor them. Some prisoners do this even though they have no hope they can ever effect their own circumstance or earn release. And that, to me, is astonishing. Inspiring.
There is a difference between what is happening in prison today, versus what was happening when I was first sent here. When a prisoner reforms himself nowadays, it is in spite of prison and the circumstances he is faced with in here — it is despite what is clone to him, not because of it.
I am ashamed to admit it, but I have found comfort and encouragement in the fact that I now share this fate — the same sentence — with so many others. The feeling of difference I had in the beginning has abated in direct correlation with how many of us there are. But it is also this which has caused me to begin to question what has been done to us. When there were not as many of us in here, it was easier for me to believe that it was okay to do this. But so many others have come in that have made it harder for me to believe that now.
I know a prisoner who was thirteen when he was sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. I know prisoners who were fourteen when this happened to them. And fifteen. I know a prisoner who was put out onto the Yard at Walla Walla when he was fifteen years old. I was there — I saw it! Walla Walla is a treacherous place :.. for a full grown adult. It's treacherous for a hardened lifer. To put a 130 pound fifteen year old out there with a sentence of Life Without Parole, to my mind, is inexcusable. I don't care what he's done — you don't do that.
I know a prisoner who was struck out and given Life Without when he was twenty-one for a domestic violence charge against his brother. No one was even hurt. I know another who was struck out when he was twenty for stealing a leather coat. How do you sentence someone to Life Without Parole for being a career criminal before they are even twenty-one years old? How do you do that? Is that really justice? Or is it just throwing people away like they are garbage? I understand that people were mad when they sent us here — and they had every right to be — but to lock away young people and at no other point in their lives ever to review them ... that can't be right.
Do not be afraid to look at us — all of us in prison, and that includes prisoners with Life Without Parole. Please, allow us the opportunity many of us never had — the opportunity to give an accounting of ourselves and to be judged as we should ... as individuals.