491 | Lessons on Lifers

April 4, 2020
Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
Letter #491: Lessons on Lifers


Recently, I learned a lot about a particular group of prisoners that I haven’t had much experience with up until now: lifers. I have friends who are lifers, including two that I knew before any of us went to prison, and I’ve had several close friends in prison who are serving life sentences.

The main reason I haven’t had much experience with lifers isn’t because I didn’t care about them. It was because there were no lifers at the private prisons I was housed at for years 3–12 of my prison term. I began my term with lifer cellies (that I still write to) for the first two years, and now I have dormmates (yes, we call them dormies) who are lifers. I’m ever-more curious about the penal system, the equity of laws and punishment, and what we are doing to prepare prisoners for release. So, I ask questions. Lots of questions.

At an event hosted in the gym on my yard just prior to the recent shutdown, a former lifer inmate recently discharged from parole came to speak with us about lifer issues. His wife heads up a lifer support organization, and they visited each of Avenal State Prison’s six prison yards to help lifers prepare to write a letter to the family of their victim as part of the Board of Parole Hearings required paperwork. I signed up for the event and was one of the only two non-lifers to attend the two-hour class, Victim Impact Class.

Based on restorative justice principles, the class walked us through the purpose of a so-called “amends letter” and included helpful tips on what not to say and what to know about the process. While much of the apology-type information was common sense, there was much about the prison system that I learned.

For example, I never knew that there is an Office of Victims Services within the state. I’m certain my victims don’t know about it either, which is terrible, since the OVS is tasked with providing for victims’ therapy needs from a fund that I pay into. Their other job, I found out, is to receive these amends letters (written by offenders to victims) and hold them in a repository. Then, they are supposed to contact the victims and their families to let them know a letter is available for viewing, if the victim wishes to see it. This sounds great, a forward-thinking, progressive, restorative-justice-minded initiative … except it isn’t happening.

I asked why victims aren’t notified that help exists for them, why offenders aren’t notified that we can write letters of apology to our victims, and why the Office of Victim Services is no longer accepting apology/amends letters. No one could give me an answer, so I’m writing to the OVS themselves/itself. Somehow, I’m choosing to think they’ll receive at least a letter of inquiry. We’ll see.

I learned other bits of information I hadn’t known before too. I learned that the chances that prisoners serving life sentences will eventually be paroled has dramatically increased over the last ten years. No longer can the prison system take in an inmate with a “7-years-to-life” sentence (even that length of sentence is illegal now), as they did to Don, a good friend of mine, and then deny him parole for forty years after he is eligible. There are criteria that must be met, evaluations made, and those who are ready to be productive, law-abiding citizens again are granted parole.

When I first came to prison, I discovered that many of my assumptions about prisons and prisoners were wrong. I’d enjoyed so many books about police dogs, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the inner workings of law enforcement, but I’d never considered what happens when people get out of prison. In fact, I remember being shocked to discover that some criminals are let out. I really used to think they should just stay in prison forever. We as a society would be better served. Or so I thought.

Now we are seeing the costs associated with lengthy prison sentences that do not restore and rehabilitate offenders, and the U.S. is beginning to eye countries such as Germany who have much lower prison terms and a much lower crime rate due to rehabilitative measures and societal re-entry programs. As a result, the former California Department of Corrections added “and Rehabilitation” to its name in 2004. And, thanks to rehabilitation efforts, nearly one-third of all parole hearings for lifers resulted in parole being granted last year—a grand total of 1,183 lifers making parole in California in 2019.

As a society, we aren’t done with these lifers. They will continue to cost us valuable resources as they are supervised on parole for a period of three to ten or even twenty years. It is much less costly than the more than $75,000 per year it costs to house one inmate, in California, but it still costs precious tax dollars. And the costs only escalate if the formerly incarcerated—lifers or not—remain homeless and jobless.

I’ve learned what a difference it makes when a parolee is welcomed into a church, helped with job training if needed, and matched with a place to live and a basic job. Not only do they begin paying society back, but they are faced with the staggering truth of redemptive love.

I’m blessed to have welcoming friends, family, and business partners, but many don’t have these things. I’ve had to ask myself what kind of country do I really want? Are safety and restoration mutually exclusive concepts?

As a Christian, will I continue to believe “tough on crime” is best, is right, is … biblical? Or will I be willing to put down the stone when Jesus writes in the dirt? Can I rejoice with the Father when the Prodigal returns? Even for me, this is difficult.