Kenneth E. Hartman has served 30 years of a life sentence without the possibility of parole in the California state prison system, for killing a man “in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight” when he was 19 years old. Hartman spent several stints in solitary confinement before he found a kind of personal redemption through writing; since then his work on prison life and prison reform (some of which can be sampled here) has appeared in dozen of publications, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, and National Catholic Reporter. His memoir Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars, which Publishers Weekly called “a magnificent inquiry into the human condition,” was published in 2009.
Hartman’s powerful essay on life without parole, “The Other Death Penalty” was not written from solitary–but it is highly relevant to the issue of solitary confinement, since increasing numbers of inmates serving LWOP will live out their lives in isolation in supermax prisons. This utterly hopeless condition would be deemed torture under several international human rights conventions–yet as Hartman points out, prisoners serving LWOP, including those in solitary, receive little of the attention that’s given to prisoners who face the death penalty; in fact, this “quieter, less troublesome death penalty” is actively promoted by some “well meaning activists.”
More than 27 years ago I killed Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight. I was sentenced to death. Not the more controversial death penalty, the one with high-powered lawyers and celebrities willing to stand in the fog outside of San Quentin in all night vigils of protest. No, I was sentenced to the quieter, less troublesome death penalty, the one too many of those well-meaning activists bandy about as the sensible alternative to state-sanctioned execution: life without the possibility of parole.
Though I will never be strapped down onto a gurney with life-stopping drugs pumped into my veins, be assured I have already begun the slow drip of my execution. An execution in the form of a long, deliberate stoning that goes on for as long as I draw breath. Since I entered the system a couple of months after my 19th birthday, the stoning won’t come to full effect for 50, maybe 60 years. I have often wondered if that 15 or 20 minutes of terror found to be cruel and unusual wouldn’t be a better option.
There is more to it than the mere physical act of imprisonment, much more.The more than 3,000 life without parole prisoners in this state also enter a rough justice kind of limbo existence. We are condemned to serve out our lives in the worst (maximum security) prisons, which otherwise are specifically designed to be punitive. This means, in practice, rehabilitative and restorative type programs, the kind of programs that can bring healing and meaning to a prisoner’s life, are generally not available to us. The thinking goes that since we will never get out of prison there is no point in expending scarce resources on dead men walking.
Similarly, the prison reform community, with a few shining exceptions, can’t seem to run far enough away from us. On the one hand, there are the dedicated anti-death penalty advocates (who all too often advocate for this excruciating and grinding death penalty), and on the other hand, those who are mostly concerned with re-entry programs; needless to say, we do not fit either category. We never go to the parole board so we never get out. In fact, contrary to myth and legend, no one under an active life without parole sentence has ever been released.
What this means is a dissipation, a gradual disappearance into the ever-expanding concrete and razor-wire empire of California’s prison system. Family and friends run out of patience, out of hope, and out of our lives. It is understandable, though no less painful to experience. Imagine a close relative diagnosed with a terminal illness forced to stay at the hospital. Now imagine he hangs on for years and years. He grows old and removed, and maybe a little bitter. Plus, this hospital is surrounded by lethal, electrified fences, the windows barred so tightly the light has to sneak in lest it be smothered by the shadows.
At some point even the most kind-hearted, the most dedicated, will desire to be pardoned, paroled from being forced to touch this darkness.
I am a lot older, to be sure, and I am so far removed from the reality of the free world. Truthfully, though I accept full responsibility for my plight, and feel crushing sense of remorse and guilt, I can barely remember the details of that terrible night, all those years ago. Years that have moved on, stained by tears dried up in the hot wasteland of a life misspent. My own family abandoned me early on, perhaps sensing the torment that lay ahead. Both my parents have passed, and with them my hope for reconciliation. From my vantage point, far outside the realm of possibility and change, I have watched the world change so radically as to be unrecognizable. I have also watched, and suffered, as the prison system tightened the screws down on life without parole prisoners, gradually and inexorably squeezing us into a corner of not simply denying possibility of release, but annihilating possibility itself.
Anatoly Shcharansky, himself a former prisoner, once observed that as hard as it is for man to come to terms with meaninglessness and infinity, it is impossible to adjust to infinite meaninglessness. I can think of no better definition for the intent of the life without parole sentence. It is an exile from meaning and purpose, from hope. And as the years roll by, inevitably, bitterness begins to overtake even the strongest of men, fueled by this banishing from all that is most human. I fight the bitterness with all my might, all my faith and love, but without hope even these mighty forces seem inadequate to the task.
I agree that state-sanctioned execution is morally repugnant. I do not agree that a life devoid of any possibility of restoration is a reasonable or humane alternative. It simply is not. A death penalty by any other name is as cruel, as violent, and as wrong. While some life prisoners may not be able to earn their way back into the graces of society, none should be wholly denied the chance. At the very core of our culture the concept of restoration resides like a harbor light to the lost; extinguishing this light for any darkens everyone’s journey, diminishes all of us, and blesses the basest of human instincts. Both forms of the death penalty need to be discarded in a truly just society.