Diminished Men, Diminishing Returns

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Illustration by Tom Froese

Nathan was in his early 20s when he and a friend decided to rob an empty house. The job went horribly wrong. He claims he was waiting in the getaway truck when his partner shot and killed the homeowner, who had walked in mid-burglary. But the friends refused to testify against each other, and both were sentenced to life without parole.

Though the friend later admitted to the shooting, Nathan, now 61, remains in prison. He’s been behind bars more than half his life. He never saw his daughter grow up, and barely knows his grandchildren. He hasn’t walked down the street or driven to the grocery store in almost 40 years.

When he eventually dies in prison, there will be no demonstrators shaking signs that read, “Execution is NOT the solution!” and “Execute justice, not people!” Life without parole doesn’t stir up the same emotions the death penalty does, even though it claims many more lives.

It doesn’t stir up much interest among criminologists either, says Associate Professor of Criminology Margaret Leigey, who’s been studying its societal and economic effects for nearly a decade. With her new book, The Forgotten Men: Serving a Life Without Parole Sentence, Leigey wants to start a conversation about how best to reform a system in which the number of life-without-parole inmates has skyrocketed—from about 10,000 in 1992 to almost 50,000 in 2013. (By comparison, there are currently about 3,000 inmates on death row.) The spike, she says, is a result of dissatisfaction with parole boards and the aftereffects of the “tough on crime” movement of the past several decades.

In 2006, and again in 2011, Leigey interviewed Nathan and 19 other men, ages 50 to 75, serving life without parole*. She wanted to learn what life is like for them, how their sentences have affected them, and how they’ve dealt with growing old in prison.

She says she observed many commonalities among the inmates. Their physical health was declining. Their connections to the outside world were dwindling. They were sad, lonely, and remorseful. But they were surprisingly hopeful, too. That hope influenced everything they did, says Leigey. It was the reason they exercised, took classes, and stayed out of trouble. “It was almost a survival mechanism,” she says. Many believed they would someday return home to their families. But when pressed to name someone who had committed the same crime and received parole, they couldn’t.

“I don’t know if it’s good or bad that they have this hope of release,” says Leigey. “It gives meaning and purpose to their lives, but it’s sad knowing their likelihood of getting out is so low. It’s almost like they did all this work, but it still comes down to the seriousness of a crime they committed decades ago.”

Which isn’t to say Leigey is opposed to life-without-parole sentencing—or even that she wants all her interviewees to be released. Instead, the research has convinced her that the U.S. needs to reexamine its use of these sentences.

“We need to reserve life-without-parole sentences for the worst of the worst offenders,” she says, pointing to findings from The Sentencing Project showing that, in eight states, more than 30 percent of the life-without-parole population was convicted of non-homicide offenses. (Four of the men Leigey interviewed were serving time for nonlethal crimes.)

Then there are the financial implications to consider. It costs about $1 million to incarcerate an inmate for life, says Leigey. That money could be better used to fund inmate rehabilitation programs—counseling, education, vocational courses—and provide services for at-risk children or minor offenders, she says. “I believe in the potential for people to change.”

Citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics that show older inmates have the lowest recidivism rates, Leigey argues that the country should abolish the current sentencing system and adopt what she calls a “modified life-without-parole” sentence. She points to the European Union as an example. By law in the EU, all life sentences must be reviewed; as a result, few inmates in EU countries die in prison. Pardon boards and governors in the U.S. need to be willing to review life-without-parole cases to see if any of the inmates can be safely released, she says.

In her book, Leigey writes of a prosecutor who says he remembers every defendant he faced who received the death penalty, but none of the defendants who received life without parole—despite how serious the latter sentence is. “Life without parole just isn’t talked about very much. It’s not researched very much. And yet the vast majority of the people [serving the sentence] are going to die in prison,” says Leigey.

Next year will mark a decade since Leigey first met Nathan and the other inmates she wrote about in The Forgotten Men. She plans to return and interview them once again. “I’m interested to see what their lives have been like,” she says. “It was a professional relationship, but I do care what happens to them.”

Eventually, Leigey wants to research women serving life without parole. There are far fewer of them—slightly more than 1,500 in the U.S.—and even fewer in the age range she has studied. “I very much want to interview some of them and compare their experiences to these men’s,” says Leigey.

* In her book, Leigey doesn’t name the state prison in which she conducted her research, and uses pseudonyms for the inmates.

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