It’s time to reevaluate how we think about life sentences

Richard Stover, Contributing Writer

“The Pennsylvania Lifer stands, in most cases, self-educated, progressive, and with the help of others, works for the ultimate goal of reacceptance into society by his merit. The statistics of Pennsylvania, as well as the nation, reflect the Life Term prisoner’s record to be one of achievement and excellence, both inside and outside of prison.” These are the opening words to the preamble of the Lifeline Association, a group of inmates with life or long-term sentences in a local state prison. The goal of the Association is to collect funds inside of the prison through sales and to then allocate those funds to local charities. So far, Lifeline has donated $3,800 to Kaupus Camp, a summer camp for at-risk kids in Mount Carmel, $1,000 to Northumberland County Special Olympics, and over $6,000 to the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way, an organization which helps bolster programming for children who have experienced traumatic situations in local school districts.

As part of my research, I have come to know the men of the Lifeline Association, especially Lifeline Association’s Executive Board. Along with Professor of Sociology Carl Milofsky, I go to this prison every other Monday to meet with the executive board in order to conduct a “think tank.”  Often, there are community leaders with us, as well, and occasionally executives from the Department of Corrections. We often discuss legislation relating to lifers and long-termers currently going through the legislature, programs in the local community that the men are interested in, plans for upcoming Inside-Out classes with the University and, more generally, how we can best utilize the collective resources available to us to enhance synchronicity with Lifeline and the local community. Often Joanne Troutman, the CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way, will accompany us to these meetings. In September, Troutman was a speaker at a summit on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), that occurred inside the prison. In fact, Troutman is working closely with the men of Lifeline to develop programming for at-risk children and teens who have experienced trauma in local school districts. We are also working closely with Lifeline and the superintendent of the prison to have trauma-informed training for the staff of the prison, as well as providing trauma screeners to intakes (new inmates in the prison), in hopes that the prison staff can become more cognizant of the serious traumas inmates often have, and more importantly, that the intakes themselves become more aware of said traumas. In effect, Lifeline, which has only been an established group in this prison for three years, has radically changed how the prison functions.

Ask yourself this: what do you think of when you think of a long-termer or an inmate with a life sentence? Do you think of a murderer, a bank robber, a rapist, or some other violent criminal? Do you think of a person with no redeeming qualities who should be locked away from society for their entire natural life?  Perhaps you do, and, if so, it’s not surprising. The popular narrative surrounding lifers and long-termers is that they are permanently incorrigible. One needs only to turn on a variety of popular television shows showing prisons for this belief to be reinforced. I thought like this once as well; I figured that these people were bad and needed to be away from society. However, I have conducted 25 life history narrative interviews with lifers as part of my research and there is far more texture to these human beings than one might think. I have seen hard men break down and cry, I have heard deep regret and shame come from their lips, I have heard them wish with all of themselves that they could do right by the families and communities they hurt. I have also heard some reports that they were improperly convicted, often because of the color of their skin and their economic status (see Emily Bazelon’s latest book, “Charged,” for a fascinating and scathing indictment of the current prosecutorial system).

Saleem Barlow, a man who served 50 years in prison, was recently at the University and shared his thoughts. His sentence was commuted earlier this year and he is living in Philadelphia with his wife, employing his intelligence and entrepreneurship as effectively as he can. I have recently written two letters of recommendation for commutation for two other members of Lifeline who are currently serving a life sentence. Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania John Fetterman is determined to give second chances to those incarcerated, especially those with life sentences. This level of support for the commutation has not been seen in Pennsylvania since 1994 when Tom Ridge took the office of governorship and did not provide any support for commutation. The men of Lifeline have shown that they are devoted to giving to communities in need, and indeed, are remorseful for the harm they caused. I ask you again, what do you think of when you think of a lifer? I think of self-educated, articulate, intelligent, and deeply compassionate men; I believe they should have a chance to show society, not just me, how deeply human and invested they are.

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