8K prisoners released, but not 1 serving life without parole

Two decades ago, 22-year-old Sam Redmond played a role in taking two innocent lives through gang violence. Rather than go to trial, Sam accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to two life without parole, or LWOP, sentences. Consumed with guilt and remorse, Sam signed the plea agreement believing he deserved to die in prison.

Since then, despite having no hope for release, Sam has transformed himself into a good and responsible man who makes daily amends to his victims by doing his best to help others. Sam strives to reach beyond prison walls to be a force for good in the outside community to which he has caused harm. Disturbed by the revolving door of young men repeatedly returning to prison, he created a program with local businesses to hire released prisoners trained in construction skills through Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility’s Inmate Ward Labor program. A number of parolees have been hired by companies involved with Sam’s program.

So, I had mixed emotions when I learned that in response to COVID-19, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, will be sending home 8,000 prisoners starting in August. Except, as usual, those serving LWOP sentences.

Of course, I am delighted to see the CDCR proactively responding to COVID-19 by reducing the prison population. However, much more must be done, especially for those prisoners facing LWOP sentences. I am happy for the prisoners who will be eligible for earlier release. But my heart breaks for Sam and those like him, who once again have had the door shut in their faces.

The landmark Unger v. Maryland case was a unique “natural experiment” illustrating the safety of releasing such persons. In Unger v. Maryland, nearly 200 prisoners, most of whom had been convicted of murder and rape and had been incarcerated for decades, were released in 2012 when their convictions were overturned due to unconstitutional jury instructions. Six years later, all but one had safely reintegrated into society.

Despite this proof that reformed LWOP prisoners are no threat to society, no matter how much work they do to demonstrate their remorse and fitness for release, they are unfailingly forgotten and ignored. According to recent CDCR statistics, 5,117 people are serving LWOP in California, and about every recent advance in sentencing reform has systematically left out these individuals.

While these new releases will not benefit people serving LWOP, there are other ways Gov. Gavin Newsom and the CDCR can provide a pathway for these individuals to be considered for release. Commutation applications already submitted by LWOP prisoners should be prioritized and acted upon promptly by the governor’s office, especially from those at high risk of death from COVID-19.

Each facility should prepare a list of LWOP prisoners with excellent conduct records for the governor’s office for prompt clemency review, whether or not they have already submitted a commutation application and, of course, prioritize high-risk individuals. Consideration should be given using the quicker and more nimble CDCR resentencing method to evaluate selected newly commuted LWOP prisoners for release, rather than the cumbersome and lengthy parole board process.

LWOP is wrong and inhumane because of its complete and total deprivation of hope. Ending LWOP does not mean everyone will be released, but only that they will have a meaningful opportunity to show they are safe to come home.

I first learned of the suffering created by LWOP years ago when I became a volunteer teacher at a rehabilitative program in a maximum security prison. Before then, in my ignorance I believed LWOP was a “reasonable alternative” to lethal injection. Many of the prisoners I met were good and decent people who bore no resemblance to their younger selves and had rehabilitated themselves to an extraordinary degree.

Through my students’ eyes, I saw the truth and agony of serving LWOP: the ravaging effects of aging in prison, the desperation to obtain medical care, the terror of being permanently cut off from loved ones and the daily dehumanizing and abusive treatment that would cease only with the end of life itself. I came to see that LWOP is, in fact, the death penalty.

#FreeThemAll campaigns are unrealistic, as there are some people who are so damaged and dangerous that they must be permanently separated from society. But it is not realistic to hold people in prison without so much as a second look or reconsideration of their sentences.

One simple step would be for CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz to reactivate regulation 15 CCR 2817, which mandated a “Board of Prison Terms Review” for all LWOP prisoners 12 years into their sentence and every three years thereafter. Unlike a parole hearing, at an LWOP review, parole board investigators evaluate the prisoner’s progress during incarceration to make a merit-based recommendation to the governor regarding consideration for commutation of sentence.

The LWOP Review was a routine part of the parole process and gave prisoners hope they would be considered in some way for release. This process officially ended in 1994, but because it only requires a regulatory change (not the passage of a new law), it can be done easily by a stroke of Diaz’s pen.

Sam’s victims, Michael and Jessica, and the suffering he caused them, their families and the community as a whole are never far from his mind. Sam knows he cannot undo what was done, and he carries a lifelong moral responsibility for his actions. But, as Sam told me recently, he does not “deserve” clemency; he instead is humbly asking for mercy. In the end, that such mercy is so frequently and arbitrarily withheld says more about the nature of our society rather than the character of the people serving life without parole.

Susan E. Lawrence, M.D., Esq., is a physician, lawyer, award-winning writer, founder and CEO of The Center for Life Without Parole Studies and a prison reform activist instrumental in founding the Other Death Penalty Project.



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