A question for our movement

The "in house" death sentence

By: Marlene Martin

What do anti-death penalty activists have to say about the sentence of life without the possibility of parole? More than 70 percent of people polled are in favor of the death penalty, but that support drops to 44 percent when people are told of the option of a life without the possibility of parole sentence, according to a May 2003 Gallup Poll. Unquestionably, people opting for this sentence as opposed to a death sentence is an indication that the flaws of the death penalty and the tragedy of sending innocent people to their deaths have touched a nerve with people.

But what I want to introduce for us as an organization is a discussion of whether or not we should advocate life without the possibility of parole sentences as an alternative to the death penalty. I don’t think we should. But other anti-death penalty groups and activists, as well as many politicians, would not agree. In his 1996 book Legal Lynching, Rev. Jesse Jackson writes, "Our focus should shift to toughening sentencing alternatives in the few states in which they are lacking...Maybe when the public, our nation’s jury pool, again has confidence in non-capital sentencing, and the alternatives to the death penalty are stringent and widely known, the death penalty will fall into disuse as juries opt for tough life imprisonment sentencing."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, one of the most progressive of the Democrats who ran for President, was unequivocally against the death penalty, calling it racist and class-biased. But his Web site noted, "Life without the possibility of parole is an acceptable moral alternative to capital punishment."

Politicians who oppose the death penalty risk being labeled as soft on crime. Therefore, they adopt a defensive strategy to send the message that they do want to see criminals punished severely--they just don’t want them executed.

But supporting a "lock ’em up and throw away the key" sentence as a legitimate alternative to the death penalty sidesteps the real questions that need to be asked of our society: What are the causes of crime? What would lessen crime and homicides? We need to demand of politicians that they worry more about getting tough on the causes of crime. Studies show overwhelmingly that when poverty is up, so are crime rates. It is no coincidence that countries with a wider social safety net, better unemployment benefits, universal heath care and no death penalty or life without the possibility of parole sentencing options have far lower crime rates and far fewer homicides.

While we in the Campaign are abolitionists on the issue of the death penalty first and foremost, we shouldn’t be ignorant of how the fight to get rid of the death penalty is being framed in the wider society. Forty-seven states have life without the possibility of parole sentencing options. Do we tout this as a viable alternative to the death sentence? We can reject the narrow parameters of this debate and instead adopt a stance that we don’t advocate life without the possibility of parole as a humane alternative to the death penalty. Our movement will not go forward if it adopts a defensive posture. We need to build on what we feel is right. Locking people away for life without the possibility of ever being free again isn’t right or just.

Many prisoners under a life without the possibility of parole sentence have written us letters over the years, arguing that their sentence is in essence "an in-house death sentence." Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who is under the sentence of death in California and whose life is portrayed in the newly released movie Redemption, calls this sentence "slow death in a cage." It offers no hope and implies that a person can never be rehabilitated.

In the 1950s and 1960s, activists building the movement for racial justice had to face many questions that helped shape their movement: Should they defy the courts and risk arrest? Should they speak out against the Vietnam War? The question of life without the possibility of parole is one that we should address--and in doing so, I believe it will help to define and shape our present struggle.

Write to the Campaign with your agreements or disagreements on this issue, and we will post them on our Web site, as well as print excerpts in a fall issue of the New Abolitionist. Mail letters to: CEDP, P.O. Box 25730, Chicago, IL 60625. Or e-mail them to marlene@nodeathpenalty.org

Voices from the inside: Prisoners speak out

Life and death

The struggle continues. As one of the men personally affected by the shocking and unprecedented actions of former Gov. George Ryan, I feel very qualified to speak on this subject of fighting for justice and mercy, fighting against the death penalty, as well as now fighting wholeheartedly against life without HOPE--or as they say, life without parole.

I’ve served 13 tortuous years on death row and seven horrendous years in the notorious Cook County Jail living without hope, and suffering daily from the mental distress and anxiety that comes with prison life.

Now, with all due respect to the courage of Gov. Ryan, who deserves our thanks and appreciation, the truth is simple. His actions did not fix the flaws in the system. In fact, for many of us, his actions only made it more clear just how badly the justice system needs a full overhaul. Life without the possibility of parole is like taking my shoes and setting them on fire, then telling me to put them on and walk around with those shoes on fire for the rest of my life! I say, we must fight against all forms of torture.

Our so-called criminal justice system is too full of arbitrariness and capriciousness to be allowed to sentence anyone to death or life without parole. The dungeons are full of hopelessness and many that deserve mercy. Friends, make no mistake, life without the possibility of parole is a human rights violation.

Our voices must be heard. I’m calling on everyone in the system to start writing out your story. Help us put faces on this struggle for human dignity.

Renaldo Hudson B02995, P.O. Box 112, Joliet, IL 60434

Dying a slow death behind these walls

In comparison with the death penalty, natural life is just the same--except with natural life, there is no set time or day when you shall die. Instead, you are subjected to the elements that sooner or later will kill you. Whether you will be shot or beaten to death by an officer, stabbed to death by another inmate, or die from a lack of medical attention, or even from suicide under the pressures you face daily in this land of captivity.

It is not natural for a man or a woman to spend the rest of their lives to die in a living institution of hell. It is not natural for a person to have to live in a cage like an animal; to eat like an animal; to be treated like an animal; and to die in these cages like an animal. It is not natural for our families, loved ones and friends to suffer the pain and anguish of knowing their loved one is dying a slow death behind these walls. It is not natural for an innocent person to be subjected to these types of conditions for a crime they didn’t commit.

My heart goes out to all of you, and I thank you for your patience and dedication to the cause of justice.

Jamie Jackson B-56656, P.O. Box 112, Joliet, IL 60434

Retried and re-sentenced

I was on Ohio’s death row from 1976-1978 when my sentence and that of the other 100 death row prisoners was found to be unconstitutional. Although it was a welcome relief to have that happen, it seems that I am doing life without parole--even though I saw a parole board in 1995, at which time I was given an additional 20 years!

I was not the only Ohio prisoner that experienced these "super-flops" during that time either. Life without chance of parole was not a viable sentence until recently, yet the Ohio Parole Board basically retried us, found us guilty and re-sentenced simply because parole in Ohio is not a right, but a privilege.

Patricia N. Wernert #13056-JG, 1479 Collins Ave., Marysville, OH 43040