Life Without Parole Is Forever

The dreaded acronym LWoP stands for “Life without Parole” and it means exactly what it says: When you go through those prison gates, you won’t come out again except in a body bag.

According to Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center, and an invaluable resource for this series of articles, LWoP began to get traction in the 1980s in a most oblique way. Gallup and other nationwide polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans favored the death penalty – but that when LWoP was offered as an alternative to death, many Americans opted for LWoP. In consequence, one state after another has either abolished capital punishment or offered jurors the choice of LWoP or death.

Now the LWoP movement has emerged full blown in California, a state with a middling-high rate of executions. The anti-death penalty group Death Penalty Focussucceeded in getting a referendum, the California SAFE Act, on the November ballot: voters will have the opportunity to decide whether 700 death row inmates will live or die; SAFE will abolish the death penalty and replace it with LWoP. That SAFE has divided the abolitionist movement and raised profound moral questions is suggested by the response to my attempt to interview Jeanne Woodford, Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus and former warden of San Quentin, where she presided over four executions. Death Penalty Focus’s press office decided that Woodford should not talk to me, for fear of upsetting the fragile equilibrium surrounding the SAFE referendum.

Inmates like the outspoken Kevin Cooper would rather have death than SAFE. Cooper expressed that sentiment eloquently on Moorbey’s Blog. “My ancestors had to do LWOP on the thousands of plantations in this country back in the day. They didn’t like it then, and I ain’t going to like it now.”‘

How could the death penalty seem preferable to Life without Parole? With exceptions, most prisoners – “lifers” – are not tortured; it is the daily grind that wears them down. They work in the laundry. They swab the floors. They labor in prison shops: with no hope of clemency, either from governor or parole board. However, if an inmate incurs the enmity of the authorities, for example, by joining – or being accused of joining – one of the gangs purportedly rampant in correctional institutions, then solitary confinement – where inmates may languish for an indeterminate period of time – may be assigned. Laura Magnano, a missionary with the Americans Friends Service Committee, described solitary as being “buried alive.” I asked her whether these prisoners get adequate psychiatric attention. She considered the suggestion almost risible. Steve Hall, Project Director of the anti-death penalty group StandDown Texas Project, told me subsequently that about one in ten California inmates dies for want of medical care – let alone psychiatric attention – and Laura told me that half of all prison suicides occur in solitary.

Death penalty lawyer and university professor David R. Dow expressed his opposition to the SAFE act this way: “LWOP saves lives, but that’s about it. In every other way it’s a nightmare. It gives up on everyone, regardless of whether they exhibit any capacity for growth and change; it robs people of hope; it exaggerates the risk to society of releasing convicted murderers, and it turns prisons into geriatric wards, with inmates rolling around in taxpayer-funded wheelchairs carrying oxygen canisters in their laps.”

It is true that LWoP might indeed have some gruesome consequences, but death penalty inmate Donald Ray Young, writing in San Francisco Bay View, had some percipient observations that cut through the foliage: “After winning this highly contentious battle, we will join resources to abolish all forms of permanent imprisonment. All prisoners should have the right to be released if they are not a threat to society.” This understanding that LWoP can be a way station where innocent prisoners await exoneration – and that down the road progressive forces may get rid of LWoP – is behind many death penalty opponents’ support for LWoP.

At its annual convention in 2010, the aggressive grassroots abolitionist organization, The Campaign to End the Death Penalty,voted against LWoP. In June 2012, CEDP had a conference call for any and all members to hammer out a new decision in the wake of SAFE. It is an onerous decision. On the one hand, there are the prisoners who would rather die at the end of a catheter than spend their entire lives behind bars. On the other hand, DNA testing and other forensic methods are leading to an increasing number of exonerations: so far about 140 death row inmates have been exonerated, and furthermore, the very potential of exoneration is a powerful driving force behind the abolition of the death penalty. And then there are those 700 whose lives would be spared – many of whom want to go on living. In the event, CEDP has yet to change its position on LWoP.

For all the sound and fury, anti-death penalty groups are as divided as ever. Professor Dow got it right when he wrote: “LWoP saves lives.” And where there is life there is hope. That is why activists should put their weight behind SAFE, flawed as it is.


James L. Knoll, IV, MD is a forensic psychiatrist – a specialist in criminal behavior and corrections. Knoll is Director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, where he is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and director of the residency training program in forensic psychiatry.

Bob Wilbur for Truthout: What are the most common mental illnesses among LWoP inmates?

James Knoll:It may be surprising for many to learn that the life sentence has not been well studied. This would give us a measure how cruel LWoP is. In one of the few such studies the anti-capital punishment group The Sentencing Project found that a higher percentage of LWoP inmates suffered mental illness – mainly serious depression – than so-called “lifers” who stand a chance at parole or clemency. On the other hand, it has been my experience that some LWoP adapt to their hopeless situation and even set positive examples for other inmates. In addition, a common theme I have seen in the mental and emotional lives of LWoP inmates is the struggle to find purpose or meaning, given their circumstances – as I’ll explain later.

How do you treat these conditions?

One hopes, the same way as in a free society. But a prison is not a free society. I’ll give you one example from my own experience. During my service as director of psychiatric care for the New Hampshire State Prison system, I was shown a newspaper quote from a highly influential state representative who “told officials that prisoners are not entitled to the same health care standards as other people and should be receiving the lowest standard allowable.”

The good news is that some states, like New York, are making great strides in the field of forensic psychiatry. We still have a way to go, but at least we are accepting our ethical obligations to serve both society and the inmate. And I might add that we are carrying out our duties under the 8th Amendment of the Constitution.

It seems to me that LWoP is intrinsically punitive (retributive) rather than curative? Do you think that LWOP, or even twenty years, is too Draconian for say, I’m thinking of a scenario like this: Two guys get drunk in a bar. They start fighting. One of them whips out a knife and the next thing you know, one of them is dead.

The example you give is well taken because alcohol and weapons do not mix. Other examples of “hot blood” crimes would include certain instances of domestic violence, and enlightened states like New York have mitigating sentences to accommodate them.

Focusing on LWoP, the purpose is retribution, punishment, and deterrence. As for the last, it is very dubious whether LWoP exerts a deterrent affect. As for the first two, it is questionable what earthly purpose is served by locking away a “hot blood” killer – someone who will probably never commit a crime again in his life – until the day he dies.

Since we have been in an age of retribution and “just desserts” since at least the 1970s, it is widely accepted that rehabilitation has gone by the wayside. I think we have seen, and continue to see, the negative results of giving up on rehabilitation in favor of warehousing.

However, two recent decisions by the Supreme Court hold out the promise that we are backing away from retribution, though it is too early to tell whether we are on a trend. First, the Supreme Court forbade capital punishment for rape – a major breakthrough, especially in the Southern “execution belt.” And the second decision impacts squarely on LWoP – it forbids LWoP for those under 18, giving them eventually a chance to reintegrate themselves into society.

You are unique among forensic psychiatrists in that you’ve adopted a humanistic/Buddhist treatment model. To what do you attribute this outlook?

My personal experience in correctional and forensic psychiatry has involved heavy exposure to the more traumatic and tragic aspects of the human condition. The intensity and immediacy of inmates’ emotional struggles are palpable, and bearing witness to these struggles makes one humble and reverent about man’s fate. Correctional staff who are honest and brave enough will freely admit that, but for a bad day – or a difference in skin color – it could be one of us inside the cell.

Specifically in correctional work, our freedom is an idea that we are free. Behind the walls of a state prison, it becomes impossible to take freedom for granted, as one quickly grasps what loss of freedom means. This is where Buddhism comes in for me, because it deals with finding freedom – particularly from suffering imposed by our own mental prisons.

Already, meritorious work is beginning to bring helpful “tools” inside prisons – work such as mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhist teaching groups. Indeed, I have seen some LWoPs find peace and true freedom in spite of their circumstances. This seems to me to be in line with the Dalai Lama’s encouragement for us to work towards “an exalting task” for humankind. I don’t mean to imply that it is Buddhism alone that has the potential to positively transform corrections; it’s just that I find it a very helpful way to understand and address all the challenges I see behind the walls. As the saying goes – there are many paths to the top of the mountain.

What would you like Truthout readers to take away with this interview?

First, do not expect corrections to “correct” any problem for which free society has no solutions. Violence, drug dealing, substance use will not magically disappear inside the walls of a prison. They will fester. And one day – unless he’s serving LWoP, – he’ll be back on the streets.

Second, society must choose among warehousing, behavioral modification, and rehabilitation. In the world behind the walls, only one of these is likely to predominate. We persist in warehousing, even though experience tells us it is a failed modality; behavior modification slides down the slippery slope into punishment; treatment/rehabilitation (including medication) seems to me to be the most potentially productive route. It will not be easy, nor will it produce the quick results that politicians cry out for. But in the long run, I believe we all benefit from this option because it forces us to look inward, to discern those inner bars that keep us imprisoned in patterns of hurting others and ultimately suffering ourselves. Will we look away, or try to eradicate the failings we do not wish to see?

The author wishes to thank Steve Hall, Michael J. Tria, and Lee Wengraf for their help with this article.