......Michigan's "Life Means Life" Parole Policy

          Hello!  Is there anyone out there who will listen to me?  How can I convince you that as a lifer, I have rehabilitated myself?

          For the past few decades, I have been keeping in touch with the world through the newspaper, my one great luxury.  For the past five years I have been reading about changes being made in the Michigan Department of Correction's parole process.  All I can see from these changes is that more lifers will be growing old and dying in prison.  I have read nothing about creating programs that rehabilitate lifers.  For, after all, who would care to release a rehabilitated lifer?

          While reading a January 2012 Prison Legal News, I came across a quote by Lewis E. Lawes, warden of Sing Sing prison, 1920-41 , which read:  "Death fades into insignificance when compared with life imprisonment.  To spend each night in jail, day after day, year after year, gazing at the bars and longing for freedom, is indeed expiation."  I am a 60 -year old male, and the only crime I committed was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and someone accidently shot and killed an innocent man.  I am convicted of felony-murder.  I am now trapped in a nightmare called life without parole.  (LWOP)  Michigan continues to be deeply attached to condemning huge numbers of offenders to this "other death penalty" despite mounting evidence that lengthy sentences have minimal impact on reducing the crime rate and enhancing public safety.  Michigan's parole board, ignores any potential rehabilitation of those sentenced to life or LWOP.

          In fact, Michigan's parole and corrections policies have taken yet another turn.over the past two decades urged on by crime-weary voters.  Political leaders have been eagerly jumping on the get-tough bandwagon--supporting such widely claimed parole policies as "Life Means Life."  While wealthy tazpayers have steadfastly applauded these increasingly retributive policies, the time has come to reassess just exactly who it is who has "struck out."   No doubt, Michigan's prisoner population figures confirm that more offenders serving life sentences are behind bars that ever before in the state's history.

          All kinds of people are thrown in Michigan's prisons.  I sit here and watch, day after day.  As I look around this prison, I see the pathetic ones (maybe the lucky ones--who knows?) who have lost there minds, elderly prisoners in wheelchairs, and the poor sick souls suffering in pain, who should be set free.  We are all locked up together.  Yet, governors, parole board members and other public officials remain deeply opposed to releasing lifers and long-time offenders.  No matter how many decades they have served behind bars.  No matter the pile of evidence showing they have turned their lives around.  No matter the compelling research findings about deterrence, and aging  out crime--Michigan continues its practice of life-means-life.

          It is time for change as we have now reached a major threshold in this state.  Educators and students alike have had their worst nightmares verified.  Michigan now spends more on corrections than on education, and public schools are being closed.  In fact, correctional spending has been increasing four times faster than spending on education in recent decades.  This trend is projected to continue well into this century.  Translated from dollars into human terms, this means that the state is investing more in those who are incarcerated than in those who represent its future.  Perhaps that discrepancy would be more justifiable if the ever-escalating correctional price tag was buying hope for long term change instead of hardware for short term control.  Mostly, however, taxpayers are funding an incredibly costly investment in the facilities, security and staffing needed to accommodate growing numbers of persons serving life sentences.  That is not buying much potential for the future.  It may not even be buying much in the way of justice right now.

          If society's intent is to create justice for all parties:  the victim, the offender, and the community, then the needs of each must be reflected in the practices of our criminal justice system.  One cannot overshadow the others.  Thus, Michigan's retributive "Life Means Life: policies must not overshadow rehabilitation for the person serving life which in reality, serves public interest best.

          Whenever I think about Michigan's "Life Means Life" parole policies, forcing most individuals sentenced to life to die in prison, I think about rehabilitation.  How do people who do wrong, become people who do right, and who can help them make that change?  These questions central to American discussion of criminal justice for over two centuries, continue to torment.  These attitudes towards rehabilitation are rarely positive as politicians responding to public outrage or for their own political ambitions pay more attention to retributive punishment than to reform.

          The idea of rehabilitation deserves careful thought.  There is substantial history behind it.  A belief that man is malleable and that lost souls can be reclaimed shaped the American Republic's approach to crime and punishment from the earliest days.  It does not deserve to be lightly dismissed.  There are strong positive arguments for continuing to pursue it.  As University of Michigan Law School Professor Paul D. Reingold recently pointed out: "For decades lifers who behaved well in prison would be released in about 15 years.  Judges, Michigan Department of Corrections administrators and parole board members expected lifers to be evaluated just like people who committed similar crimes, but received sentences of 15-30 or 20-40 years.  As Frank Bushko, a parole board member from 1962-1974, said:  'The fact that someone was a lifer....had no bearing on the case.  The only quee inprison is of great consequence both to the individuals who receive these sentences and to the society that imposes them.  While persons serving life sentences include those who present a serious threat to public safety, they also include those for whom the length of sentence is questionable:  For example, persons convicted under Michigan's felony-murder doctrine.  This rule which accounts for a large number of persons serving Life Without Parole sentences, refers to an instance where a defendant was present during the commission of a felony such as robbery, and someone is killed, even if the killing is unintentional.  In addition, the rule and it's mandatory LWOP sentence is applied without the benefit of judicial discretion.  Most importantly LWOP sentences often represent a misuse of limited correctional resources and discount the capacity for personal growth and rehabilitation that come with the passages of time.

          For what purpose are so many people incarcerated for life in Michigan at an exponentially increasing cost?  The rational for opposing the use of parole for persons serving a life sentence generally pivots around issues of punishment, retribution and incarceration in the interest of public safety.  These goals conjure up the question of the appropriate duration of prison time.  How are these various goals met by a life sentence, as opposed to a term of 15 to 25 years?

          In this state, there is a central concern regarding life sentences.  The failure to recognize the fact that someone who has been in prison for two decades is likely to be very different than when they were sentenced.  The primary purpose of incarceration is to work toward rehabilitation.  Parole and earned sentence reductions are intended both as a incentive for reform and a measure of one's suitability to be returned to society.  Historically, life sentences were seen as indeterminate, with the possibility of parole as a catalyst for seeking personal redemption and growth.  Michigan's consistent decline in granting lifers parole, or commutations, even in cases of clearly demonstrated personal change, undermines the incentives for reform and sends an inconsistent message to a person, regarding how to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

          While concerns about public safety may fade as an individual ages in prison and becomes less of a threat, the rational of retribution, frequently linked to the heinousness of the crime, does not diminish at the same time.  In many Michigan cases, the reasons for denying parole or commutation to lifers has little to do with concerns about safety or the person's unwillingness to accept the responsibility for their actions.  Instead, these decisions to deny a lifer parole or commutation are based in the retributive desire to continue to punish on the details of their crime.

          It is argued by many politicians that incarcerating people for decades, if not for the rest of their natural life, is necessary for public safety.  This argument turns on the point that to release someone who has been sentenced to life will jeopardize the public because of an imminent threat of re-offending.   However, Michigan's "Life Means Life" policy is almost exclusively reserved for those individuals convicted of some type of homicide.  If its purpose is vengeance, life means life serves a purpose.  On the other hand if it is designed to prevent such acts of violence, it is aimed at the wrong offenders.  Murder is often a crime committed in the heat of passion, emotional strain or unintentional during the commission of a robbery, and its recidivism rate is very low.  Those  convicted of homicide generally do not repeat their crime if and when released from prison.  This is supported by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation which recently reported that of 988 lifers who have been released in the past two decades, only 6 have re-offended by committing violent or serious crimes, none of which were murder.  From a realistic point of view, retribution is the only goal truly achieved by the imposition of Michigan's "Life Means Life" policy.

          Furthermore, the cost of incarcerating people for life will likely increase as a great number of these persons are 50 years of age or older. The aging lifer population is of great importance in contributing to the rising cost of health care for older prisoners.  Older prisoners frequently exhibit higher rates of health problems that the general prison population.  This is the result of a number of factors, including higher rates of substance abuse, physical abuse, and inconsistent access to health care.  There are higher rates of incarceration among persons from low-income communities, and communities of color.  This disparity is magnified further among older prisoners.  The cumulative effect of an unhealthy life-style, coupled with a prison environment that is not conducive to healthy living and a poor health care system, results in declining standards of health among aging prisoners.

          Thus, older persons in prison are substantially more expensive to incarcerate.  Higher rates of chronic illness among persons over the age of 50 result in an increased frequency of medical visits, procedures, off-site hospital stays, and dispensed medication. While cost estimates vary for care of aging prisoners, it has been estimated to be more than three times that of incarceration of a younger healthy person.  It has been estimated by The Sentencing Project that that cost to taxpayers is upwards of $1 million to incarcerated a life sentenced person for 40 years (from age 30  through 70).  This intersection of increasing health care cost and a rapidly aging prison population has placed an enormous burden on Michigan taxpayers to pay for this required health care. 

          What  can be done to curb the cost of life sentences?  LWOP sentences in Michigan are costly, shortsighted and ignore the potential for transformative personal growth.  Michigan, which has both life and LWOP sentencing, should amend its statutes to make all life sentences parole-eligible.  An example may come from Canada, where all persons serving life are considered for parole after serving 10 to 25 years.

          Such a change would not necessarily mean that all parole eligible persons would be released at some point during their term. In the interest of public safety, many individuals sentenced to life will serve the remainder of their natural lives in prison.  However, this reform would provide that a decision to release be made by a professional parole board at the time of eligibility, seriously taking into account a person's personal growth and prospects for a successful transition to the community.

          Persons serving life or LWOP must be prepared for release from prison.  The emergence of re-entry as a criminal justice policy in Michigan has largely ignored persons serving a life or LWOP sentences.  Typically, re-entry programs in Michigan are provided to persons within 3 to 6 months of their release date and offer transition help in the community upon release.  It is quite different for persons serving life or LWOP, their release date is not fixed and they are most likely to be overlooked as policy and correctional administrators consider re-entry strategies.  Additionally, persons serving a life sentence have unique re-entry needs based upon the long duration of their prison term.

          Michigan's  failure to design rehabilitation and re-entry strategies for persons serving life or LWOP neglects the possibility that a man is malleable and that lost souls can be reclaimed.  Rehabilitation, re-entry and reintegration programs must be developed and extended to specifically target persons serving life sentences.  Correctional programs can contribute to a successful release of lifers, and persons serving such sentences should be permitted and encouraged to access the types of programs that will help them transform their lives and improve their presentation before the parole board.  If such programs are given the resources they need and are allowed to work, they easily prove their value, taking pressure off the Michigan prison system.  They give persons serving life a chance to turn their lives around, to the benefit of everyone.

          Incarceration with no goal beyond retribution is backward-looking in an era that demands forward thinking.  Looking back enables society to learn from the past, but at some point, it is necessary to face the future.  That inevitability will come when taxpayers begin to realize exactly who is "striking out" under current "Life Means Life" policies.  Give lifers, who have made a choice to change their lives around a chance.  Give those who are attempting to change their life,  a chance by giving them rehabilitation resources needed to make that change.  Surely it is time to begin investing more in the future than failures.

          Sometime ago I read a poem.  It was by Robert Browning.  I think it was called "Rabbi Ben Ezra."  It went something like this:  "Grow old along with me, the best of life is yet to be."  How can I begin to tell you hat growing old in prison is for me and agonizing, lonely nightmare?  John E Dennenberg said it best in his article, Deaths Exceed Parole Releases:  "one can only hope that the concept of 'human dignity',  for state prisoners, invoked by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Plata, will eventually infuse reasons in to the parole decision-making process for lifers."  (June 2012, Prison Legal News)

          I am writing this because many lifers may live to be old like me, and by then it will be to late.  They, too, will be stuck here and wonder why nothing is being done, and they, too well wonder if there is any justice in life.  Right now, I pray every night that I may die in my sleep and get this nightmare of what someone has called life without parole over with, if it means living in this prison day after day, year after year, gazing at the bars and longing for freedom.

Fred (Corky) Proctor,  LWOP #178602
National Lifers of America, Inc.
Chapter 1026-A
Vice President
Michigan Reformatory
1342 W. Main Street
Ionia, MI  48846-1923