Hundreds of families, friends and supporters of prisoners packed the Massachusetts State House Oct. 8 to support “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration.” This bill, H3358, would eliminate life sentences without parole. A person serving a life sentence would be allowed to have a parole hearing after 25 years, then every 5 years. This would apply retroactively, so people currently in prison would be affected.
Prisoners and prison activists refer to life without parole, or LWOP, as “death by incarceration” or “the other death penalty.” The Sentencing Project states that as of 2016, some 162,000 people are serving LWOP nationally.
According to the ACLU, 65 percent of those prisoners are Black. Massachusetts has the second highest percentage of its total prison population sentenced to LWOP — 1,018 out of about 8,500 in 2016. (New Boston Post, March 1) Nationally, thousands are serving LWOP for nonviolent drug offenses and such acts as shoplifting or siphoning gas.
Racist, cruel laws have filled prisons
In the 1980s Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
According to the ACLU, “African Americans are 4-5 times more likely to be convicted for drug possession, even though whites use drugs at a higher rate.”
Another law from that era is the “Three Strikes” law, where a person convicted of three separate felonies receives the maximum penalty, usually 25 years to life with no parole.
Determined to speak for their loved ones and friends behind the walls, hundreds waited hours, standing or sitting on the floor, to testify in favor of the bill.
Suzette Cook, a community organizer in Rhode Island, told the crowd and legislatures: “The prisons are a big business. Prisoners provide free or cheap labor. You have people basically working for nothing; and if they are not working for free, they are working for wages like 25 cents an hour that, if we saw this happening in other countries, we would be very critical.
“When you read the 13th amendment that [addressed] freed men and women [who] were enslaved, inside it is a clause allowing the reenslavement of people who are convicted of a crime.
“Two million people in the U.S. are incarcerated at this time, my husband Sam Smith being one of them. He has spent the last 18 years systematically enslaved to a system that has been designed to keep him in there. In there, he has been away from his family, friends, his ill mother and, most importantly, me. … As a result of a corrupt judicial system, we have wasted a lot of taxpayers’ dollars forcing him to prove what he did not do and not giving him a fair trial.
“My husband is specifically under this bill; he was sentenced to life without parole, and he was 17 at the time and charged as an adult. Under this law, all I request is that he be given a fair chance to come home and show that he is a productive member of this society.”