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No One Should Have to Die in Prison

Thousands languish and die in prison because of bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of political will to fix the system.

The words "help we matter 2" are seen written in a window at the Cook County Department of Corrections, housing one of the nation's largest jails, in Chicago, Illinois, on April 9, 2020.

Part of the Series

Every year people die in the custody of Illinois Department of Corrections, the vast majority due in part to overincarceration. COVID-19 is highlighting this fact because it is attacking the elderly and infirm, many of whom have spent decades enduring harsh prison conditions. They die lonely deaths for no other reason than incarceration politics, and in a vain attempt to satiate the insatiable appetite some people have for revenge.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others have recently voiced support for early releases of “non-violent offenders,” and insinuate that this shows they still consider public safety as the main priority. Not only is this insufficient to address mass incarceration, but if public safety is the main priority, then they should have no problem releasing ” violent offenders”. That’s because people convicted of violent offenses have lower recidivism rates and even a lower likelihood of committing violence if released.

The thousands of people currently serving long sentences are doing so due to racism, fear-mongering, dehumanization, political exploitation, and the false promise that harsher sentences are needed to deter crime.

Politicians of both parties have used tough-on-crime rhetoric to get elected for decades, telling the public over and over again that even longer and harsher sentences are the only way to deter people from committing crimes. In Illinois, this facilitated the abolishment of parole, the passage of accountability and felony murder laws, Truth-In-Sentencing, the Habitual Criminal Act, gun add-ons, life without parole and de facto life sentences, and increased sentencing ranges for nearly every crime imaginable.

It might seem logical to assume that if you threaten someone with a severe enough consequence, they’ll refrain from committing a crime. Unfortunately, this type of punitive deterrence is a myth, as has been shown by studies.

For punitive deterrence to work there are several prerequisites necessary. The person has to know the consequence, believe they will be caught and face that consequence, and have the ability to rationally weigh the costs and benefits of committing a crime versus not committing it.

Punitive deterrence doesn’t work, because, not only do people not know what sentencing laws stipulate, but people don’t believe they will be caught, let alone charged and convicted. Moreover, many people who commit crimes are juveniles or young adults with immature prefrontal lobes, and most are either under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are diagnosed with mental illness, or are simply acting in the heat of the moment, while in anger, without thinking clearly. Deterrence is largely a myth.

Craig Findley, the chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, who has interviewed over 25,000 incarcerated Illinoisans, stated in a hearing on parole that he likewise concludes that “long sentences are not a deterrent to crime”. Nonetheless, every day men and women are receiving very long and inhumane prison sentences under the guise that they will deter people from committing crimes.

What is never mentioned when arguing for more severe sentences to deter crime is the inhumanity of the practice itself. Each person who has their prison sentence increased (and their life, as well as the lives of his or her family, increasingly destroyed) to allegedly deter others, is irrationally being held accountable for whether others will or won’t commit a crime. For the state to increase the pain and suffering of one individual to coerce the behavior of another is morally repugnant.

We currently have thousands of people sentenced to die in prison in a vain attempt to coerce others to follow the law. Let me show you how incarceration politics has affected three of my friends’ lives. All three were sentenced to death by incarceration.

Darrell Fair, incarcerated with me in Stateville Correctional Center, was coerced at gunpoint into a false confession by Detective Michael McDermott, an underling of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who during his tenure tortured more than a hundred Black men. Darrell was then wrongfully convicted and sentenced to spend 100 percent of a 50-year sentence in prison thanks to Illinois’s Truth-In-Sentencing law, passed in 1995. His liberty was violently stolen by a corrupt legal system, and his release has been continuously denied due to incarceration politics. First, the system denied him release through Illinois’s lack of parole. Then he was denied release when the Torture Inquiry Relief Commission (TIRC), created to prevent such abuse, refused to examine non-Burge claims. He was again denied release when the TIRC opened up to include non-Burge claims but was insufficiently funded. The pattern repeated again when his case’s prosecutor, for months, neglected to divulge the fact the Detective McDermott refused to testify under oath that he did not assault and threaten Darrell. Now, his release continues to be denied as the court is shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Darrell is a 52-year-old with asthma. He has a college degree and enormous community support. Will society collectively shrug if he too contracts COVID-19 and dies, like society has shrugged off the thousands of other deaths over the past few decades in the Illinois Department of Corrections due to long sentencing and incarceration politics? Will society care more if people learn that his wrongful conviction will cost taxpayers millions of dollars?

Many additional people could have already been safely at home with their families if politicians hadn’t played incarceration politics with the young adult parole bill over the last few years.

Due to political calculations, the youth offender bill was not retroactive. Had it been, at least two of my friends might still be alive. James Scott and Joseph Wilson. James was 18 when he committed the crime he was incarcerated for. He was a kind old man who had spent decades in prison and simply wanted to get out and reunite with his family. Joseph was a writer, artist and entrepreneur, who had also served decades in prison and simply wanted to regain his freedom so that he could give back to this community. Both are now dead. While COVID-19 may have prevented them from taking another breath, it was incarceration politics that put the bag over their head. They will be sorely missed.

There are probably thousands of other people convicted as juveniles or young adults that deserve a chance to go home. Instead, they are all sitting in prison, unable to protect themselves from COVID-19 let alone return home to help their families in these dire times.

If Illinois had not abolished parole, among other measures, all three of my friends would likely have returned home to their families a decade or more ago. They would be living full lives and contributing members to their communities. I can say that because I know their character, not just the false label society placed on them. Instead of sending them home, however, the state has spent billions of dollars to continue to incarcerate them.

These are just a few examples of the thousands of people who deserve a chance to return home, but who are being forced to grow old and die in prison unnecessarily. It is high time to stop playing politics with people’s lives.

We are tired of watching our friends die in here for no other reason than to benefit the political careers of yesterday’s politicians. Many have noted that the COVID-19 situation in prisons is a moral test that our society is failing abysmally. It is also shining a light on another abysmal moral failure: that of mass incarceration and incarceration politics in general.

A version of the above statement was delivered by Joseph Dole at “A People’s Tribunal: COVID-19 and the Crisis of Death by Incarceration,” a Zoom webinar that took place June 4, 2020. The event was organized by a coalition of groups led by Parole Illinois, an inside-outside prison project addressing the effects the long-term incarceration.

Listen to a recording of Dole reading the statement here.

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