Former incarcerated persons address high rates of life-sentences in America

Tuesday, July 23, 2019 - 6:18pm

Romarilyn Ralston, black feminist activist, scholar, and formerly incarcerated individual discuses prison system reform at Wayne State University’s Spencer Patrich Auditorium on Friday.

Romarilyn Ralston, black feminist activist, scholar, and formerly incarcerated individual discuses prison system reform at Wayne State University’s Spencer Patrich Auditorium on Friday. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Catherine Nouhan

On Friday, July 12, approximately 80 prison system reform activist gathered in Wayne State University’s Spencer Partrich Auditorium for a keynote address and panel discussion about prison system reform. The keynote speaker, Marc Mauer, spoke about his research and recently released book, “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences”.

Mauer, who received his master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan, started working on criminal justice reform with American Friends Service Committee, during which he and other members would use donations to post bail for persons imprisoned who could not afford to pay. He is now executive director of The Sentencing Project and was recently interviewed on "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" about his latest book.

In the book, Mauer explains how parole become politicized in many states.

“In the research we’ve done, we find that one in every seven people in prison today are serving life sentences,” Mauer said. “206,000 are serving life sentences.”  

There are three different categories of life sentences: life with possibility of parole, life without parole and sentences over 50 years which are, essentially lifers.” American courts have become more inclined to distribute life sentences than ever before. 

There are more people serving life sentences than the entire prison population of 1970 and approximately 2,500 juvenile life sentences in the U.S. There are only two known cases of juvenile life sentences in the rest of the world. 

Mauer was joined by four formerly incarcerated persons 一 Emile DeWeaver, Romarilyn Ralston, Checo Yancy, and Daniel Jones 一 who continue to review and criticize current incarceration policies and promote ending life-long and long-term prison sentences. Each had their own area of focus. 

DeWeaver is a writer, community organizer and co-founder of Prison Renaissance, a magazine featuring the art and writing of incarcerated persons. His organization also examines at how organizers and communities accidentally reinforce the systems they aim to dismantle due to internalized white supremacy. 

During his section on the panel, DeWeaver highlighted how important it is to invest in and empower incarcerated groups in the fight for their freedom.

“I want you to imagine America walking across the bridge at Selma, but all the black people stayed home,” DeWeaver said. “Could the Civil Rights (Movement) have succeeded? Until we start investing power directly into the people who are impacted … that’s exactly what we’re doing. We are trying to win a fight about prison and incarceration and we’re expecting incarcerated people to stay home.”

Ralston is a Bllack feminist activist and scholar. Her organizing work has been centered around gender and racial justice, along with organizing against the violence of imprisonment. She is currently the program directed of Project Rebound at California State University-Fullerton, which works with providing formerly incarcerated students the tools and opportunities necessary to thrive as scholars. Much of her work revolves around women’s unique challenges in the prison system. 

“The environments of prison are so traumatic on the mind, the body and the soul, even when we are released there are collateral consequences of confinement,” Ralston said. “You incarcerate a woman during their childbearing years, you strip from them everything they have…and you put them in a system that is designed to rehabilitate and correct? It doesn’t … it debilitates.”

Jones was a former juvenile lifer who was released just this past March. He was in the Prison Creative Arts Project, a University program through giving incarcerated folks a chance to pursue creative outlets.

LSA senior Taylor Luthe volunteers for PCAP. She is an advocate for abolishing life-long prison sentences, but told The Daily her reasoning for activism is quite different than many of her peers.

“I have looked at life sentences in academic and non-academic settings due to working with PCAP and UMich Behind Bars, but my own interest in life sentences and mass incarceration in general comes from my own personal experience as a child of someone who was incarcerated rather than groups on campus,” Luthe said. 

Yancy, the director of Voters Organized to Educate, which advocates for restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, said his with Louisiana's Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants seeks to reduce crime through criminal justice reform and help reintegrate formerly incarcerated people back into society. 

Yancy spoke about the importance of the language used when discussing incarceration, such as using “formerly incarcerated persons” instead of words with negative connotations like “prisoner.” He spoke about the ways that the prison system does not seek to repair the communities harmed by crimes. 

“The criminal justice system is not broken, it’s working perfectly for those making money,” Yancy said. “We should stand proud, hold our heads up, and continue to do what we’re doing. Because if we don’t do it, who is going to?”