There was a time in which I, like many others, believed that life without parole (LWOP) was a humane alternative to traditional forms of execution. That changed in 2004, when I began teaching a course, “Creating a Healing Society,” for the prisoners in the Honor Program at California State Prison-Los Angeles County. At that time I was the CEO of The Catalyst Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 1992, whose mission was to raise awareness of the impact of childhood trauma as the root cause and driving force of the most serious problems facing our society today, including violence, crime, and incarceration. Sharing these concepts with maximum-security prisoners, helping them to see the hidden motivators of their criminal behavior, seemed a worthy activity in pursuit of creating a healthier world.
It is said all true benefits are mutual, and what I learned during the many years I volunteered at the prison was nothing short of astonishing. I was permitted access to a hidden world few are privileged to see. Many of the prisoners I met were good and decent people who, a long time ago, had made terrible mistakes, but had rehabilitated themselves to an extraordinary degree. These were people I would not hesitate to have as my neighbors; however, no matter how impressive their transformation, how sincere their remorse, or how great their desire to make up for wrongs done, they would never again be welcome in society. Over time, as my students came to trust me, they revealed to me the truth and agony of serving LWOP. Through their eyes I saw the ravaging effects of aging in prison; the helplessness and desperation to obtain needed medical care; the terror of being permanently cut off from loved ones; and the daily dehumanizing and abusive treatment that would cease only with the end of life itself. I came to see that LWOP is, in fact, the death penalty.
In 2008, I was instrumental in helping the LWOP prisoner leadership in the Honor Program form The Other Death Penalty Project, a prisoner-led organization whose goal is to organize the tens of thousands of LWOP prisoners nationwide to peacefully advocate for the end of this cruel sentence. For ten years after its founding, I collaborated closely with the Project as its free world liaison, raising awareness of this vital human rights issue which at that time was far outside the consciousness of most Americans. During this work I quickly realized that absent the training and status of a lawyer I could not be as effective as I needed to be to make a significant difference. I attended law school so that I could become a full time advocate for the abolition of LWOP, while maintaining a connection to the population most affected by the issue, the prisoners, a vital source of experiential knowledge and wisdom. After passing the California Bar Exam in 2017, I launched The Center for Life Without Parole (LWOP) Studies, with the mission of ending this cruel and inhumane sentence nationwide and helping California LWOP prisoners have an opportunity for release.
For close to a decade, I played a vital role in securing a commutation of sentence and ultimate release from prison for one individual with whom I had worked closely on many criminal justice reform projects. Shortly after his release, and during a time in which I was seriously ill and facing my death, this man cruelly and maliciously betrayed my trust. This created an extraordinary crisis of faith, calling into question my desire to continue to end LWOP, work with prisoners, and even whether real rehabilitation and redemption is possible.
After deep reflection, I decided I would not allow the actions of one man to force me to turn my back on the tens of thousands of people in prison sentenced to LWOP, who should not be judged by his brutality and lack of integrity. Instead, I chose to strive to conduct myself honorably and with dignity in the face of unspeakable cruelty, and have redoubled my efforts to end this inhumane sentence.
However, this experience has changed me. While serving as the Other Death Penalty Project’s free world liaison, it pains me to say I rarely paid attention to the suffering of the families whose loved ones had been murdered or grievously harmed by the people for whose freedom I was fighting. Now, I have a far deeper understanding of the complexity of the issue. LWOP is wrong and inhumane, but so is ignoring, discounting, and minimizing the suffering caused to others by people sentenced to LWOP.
Infrequently, someone will be released who once again causes harm. Speaking as a person who has been deeply injured by a former LWOP-sentenced prisoner, this still does not justify locking up tens of thousands of people until they die without even the opportunity of a second chance.
Over the past 50 years we have gone from a retributive system, which has sentenced over 53,000 Americans to death by incarceration, to a culture that honors convicted murderers as heroes returning from the brutal war of prison while failing to acknowledge their ongoing moral responsibility for the harm they caused.
Through my leadership, the Center strives for balance. We recognize that most, but not all, people in prison possess the capacity for redemption, and all are deserving of the chance to demonstrate this capacity. We enthusiastically welcome people home as returning citizens and support them in building productive lives, but do not glorify them or make them into celebrities. We also acknowledge we cannot end LWOP without including the voices of those who have been harmed, treating them with the respect and compassion they too deserve.