Pope Francis Calls for the End of LWOP Sentences

While California still tolerates sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles, and Massachusetts has ruled them out entirely, there is variation nationwide in the use of life sentences—with or without the possibility of parole—in all cases and for all people.

An interesting, multi-state report by The Sentencing Project identifies a total of 160,000 people as serving life sentences as of 2012, with 50,000 of them serving LWOP sentences; 10,000 of them serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses; and over 10,000 of them serving life sentences for conduct that occurred before they turned eighteen.

Last year, we covered a report by the American Civil Liberties Union on the status of people serving LWOP sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes. According to that report, we are in the minority of countries known to impose LWOP sentences at all, and we are virtually alone among our peers in doing so for nonviolent offenses.

Now comes news that Pope Francis has called for the abolition of LWOP sentences. At an October 23 meeting with representatives of the International Association of Penal Law, the Pope called life in prison a hidden death penalty and noted that the Vatican had removed it from its own penal code. He also called for the end of the death penalty and touched on overcriminalization, prison conditions, solitary confinement, and other issues.

Pope Francis said criminal penalties should not apply to children at all, and he denounced a growing tendency to think that the “most varied social problems can be resolved through public punishment.”

80,000 Ghosts

John McCain wrote of his time as a prisoner of war, “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Tomorrow night, PBS will air a Frontline documentary that looks at solitary confinement through the lens of conditions at one state prison in Maine. You can check your local channel listings here.

In the United States, we hold about 81,000 inmates in some form of isolated confinement at any given time, according to recent numbers from the Justice Department.

True, the practice may be viable or necessary in cases of serious, imminent security risks.

But if we employ the practice beyond that, we should confront the full costs of doing so, and those include the human toll exacted not just on prisoners but on their stewards as well.

We should consider, for example, the opinion of the former assistant chief of mental health for Rikers Island, who wrote about her experiences in the punitive-segregation unit there.

We should recall the story of the three American hikers who were accused of spying in Iran a few years ago; one of them spent 410 days in solitary confinement, and she lived to tell about it.

We should contemplate the words of one inmate who called solitary confinement “the cruelest thing one man can do to another.”

And ask ourselves if the horrors of solitary confinement undermine its use, or when.

The Cruelest Thing One Man Can Do to Another

In 1972, Herman Wallace was an inmate in a Louisiana state prison when he and two other inmates were accused of killing a prison guard in what may have been a politically-motivated prosecution. (But that never happens, right?) By many accounts, the case against the men had problems, and last week, a federal judge reversed Wallace’s conviction, ordered him released, and granted him a new trial. By then, however, Wallace was dying of liver cancer, and he had spent the last 41 years in solitary confinement, longer than anyone in modern U.S. history. He was not the only one, though. According to the most recent statistics from the Justice Department, the United States holds about 81,000 inmates in solitary confinement at any given time.

Herman Wallace died a free man on October 4, three days after his release. He had called solitary confinement “the cruelest thing one man can do to another.” His story gives us another reason to reconsider its use, especially its long-term or indefinite use, except as necessary to combat serious, imminent security risks.

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