The Death Penalty by Another Name

By Jane Dorotik

The sentence of Life Without the Possibility Parole (LWOP) rarely receives much attention. People serving “death-by-incarceration,” as it is often called, are consistently forgotten and overlooked. I’ve been unnerved by recent articles in the press that use tabloid headlines to define many of the people released from prison during COVID19 by the worst thing that they may have ever done. It’s dangerous and it undermines their efforts — and the efforts of so many others — to fight for release after spending decades behind bars. After such a long time, they deserve a chance to regain their freedom, their dignity and contribute to their communities.

It’s not the people getting out of prison after 30–40 years who make me feel unsafe. What does make me feel unsafe is the idea that we live in a revenge culture that demands unending, perpetual punishment.

I can tell you what it’s like serving a long prison sentence. The emotional toll of feeling that you are unredeemable in the eyes of the world. The years looming ahead with no real future. The permanent loss of family, friends, a place in society.

People serving LWOP are human beings, and they should not be forever judged by the one terrible moment in their lives. In 2013 the European Court of Human Rights barred LWOP sentences under the premise that all prisoners should have, “the right to hope.” At that time, there were 49 people serving LWOP sentences in the United Kingdom. In the United States, there were over 49,000. The United States, which has about five times the population of the United Kingdom, has 1,000 times the number of persons serving LWOP sentences. LWOP also disproportionately impacts Black Americans, poor people, and people with disabilities.

I would like to tell readers about a couple of the women I came to know and love while behind bars:

R.P. was barely 21 when she was sentenced to LWOP in LA County. She grew up in an abusive, alcoholic family and was regularly exposed to horrific violence. She hooked up with a fool, who treated her in the same way she had always been treated, with violence, threats, and coercion. When he brought her out to California and planned a pizza store robbery, she had no idea that the taking of a life was a possible outcome. She was sentenced to LWOP, and the first few years in prison were met with the same mistrust and violence that she was used to. She worked on her own rehabilitation tirelessly. Staff and other prisoners now look to her as an example of a model prisoner. Shouldn’t she now, after more than 30 years behind bars, be given a chance?

Or V.H., now in her 80s, and suffering from multiple medical conditions that make even getting to and from the chow hall very challenging. Her one joy is mothering the baby kittens that are often dumped on the prison grounds. I don’t even know what brought her to prison 40 years ago, but clearly, she could be no threat to anyone now. Her medical care alone likely adds up to close to a million dollars a year, mostly because of the prison rules that require double guarding every time she is transported off prison grounds to a hospital setting for health treatments.

Think about how society could better utilize the millions of dollars wasted each year on keeping people in cages who could return home and be contributing members of society: a tax contributor instead of a tax burden.

Think of the daycares, housing, women’s shelters, and other services or programs that would actually enhance public safety.

California must abolish LWOP sentences and give each person an opportunity to go in front of the parole board to be considered for release. Governor Gavin Newsom must be encouraged to increase the number of commutations for meticulously vetted applicants — not second guess his well-informed decisions.

Clemency is a vital corrective tool for a criminal legal system that far too often produces unfair and unnecessarily harsh outcomes. Newsom, District Attorneys, the public — and reporters — must learn to accept that people are not disposable, and that revenge is not justice.

About the author: Jane Dorotik is a recent exoneree who spent nearly 20 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. She serves on the Advisory Board of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), and is a member of the California Coalition of Women Prisoners.

Though not sentenced to LWOP, many people she loves are serving this extreme sentence. A relentless advocate, Jane’s conviction was overturned thanks to the vital work of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent.

CURB is coalition of 80+ grassroots organizations demanding divestment from policing, jails, and prisons, and investment in community-based systems of care.