GOVERNOR PRITZKER CALL GOVERNOR WOLF

After collectively spending nearly 90 years in prison, Freddy Butler and Oliver Macklin will soon be heading home.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf officially commuted their sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

The men will spend at least a year in a halfway house before being released on parole.

Butler, 72, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1970. He has been incarcerated for more than 50 years. The Board of Pardons recommended his commutation.

Macklin, who is 63, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1986. He was recommended during the same session. The board must vote unanimously to recommend someone for a commutation.

Since the tough-on-crime era, the number of people serving life without the possibility of parole has ballooned.

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FORGOTTEN PRISON PANDEMIC

In prison, having a cellmate you get along with is a rarity, but for Anthony Ehlers and James Scott, who have been cellmates for nearly five years at Stateville Correctional Center, they were one another’s family.

“He and I were a big odd couple to be best friends,” Ehlers, 48, wrote in a letter about Scott.

“Guys used to make fun of us. We didn’t care. I’m sure it was kind of weird, he was a short, bald, dark-skinned Black guy, and I am tall, and very white. But, we were inseparable.”

In March, when Ehlers felt body aches, a sore throat, dry cough and a loss of smell and taste, he worried he had been infected with COVID-19, and worse, that Scott would get sick too. He was right.

While Ehlers survived the virus, Scott did not.

Raul Dorado, 41, said when he first saw fellow prisoners exhibiting symptoms, the prison was not yet on lockdown.

“I noticed that many more than usual were sick,” wrote Dorado, who has been at Stateville since 2000. “Some said things like, I don’t know what the hell this is, but it’s kicking my ass!”

“I feel fragile, like a porcelain plate slipping out of a child’s hand,” wrote Dorado about his mental state. “Disposable, like a bent spork.”

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RUTH WILSON GILMORE: Transformative Justice, Not Pie-In-The-Sky

OK. Did I use the word evil? I might well have done. They’re twin aspects of the pandemic.

And that is to say that organized abandonment has to do with the way that people, households, communities, neighborhoods do not have equal levels of support and protection against the pandemic, and that the response to people trying to figure out how to shelter themselves and save themselves — let’s take an example from the city of New York, homeless people living in the subways — is to use policing and criminalization — i.e. punishment — to resolve the problems of abandonment.

Now, organized abandonment is not only abandonment by the state, it’s also abandonment by capital, whether it’s abandonment by real estate capital, that produces more and more luxury apartments but not affordable housing, as we can see in struggles throughout the city of New York and around the United States, or tourism capital, that pushes certain kinds of people out of certain areas of the city and only welcomes them in if they work as workers in the service industry, delivering, serving, taking care of and cleaning.

There are many, many ways for us to think about organized abandonment, but that thinking should bring us to consider both how capital — large and small — and state — municipal or greater — work together to raise barriers to some kinds of people and lower them for others.

Abolition seeks to undo the way of thinking and doing things that sees prison and punishment as solutions for all kinds of social, economic, political, behavioral and interpersonal problems.

Abolition, though, is not simply decarceration, put everybody out on the street. It is reorganizing how we live our lives together in the world. And this is something that people are doing in a variety of ways throughout the United States and around the planet already.

It is not a pie-in-the-sky dream.

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MASS INCARCERATION EPIDEMIC

April 2020 will be the month when mass incarceration becomes mass murder in America: large-scale, foreseeable, preventable. Amidst all the tragedy that COVID-19 will inflict upon us, the reckless and avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of people in prisons, jails, and detention centers may be our nation’s greatest source of shame.

Right now, the virus is insinuating itself into every one of the nation’s 6,000 prisons, jails, and detention centers. It is arriving on the breath or bodies of employees arriving for work or of prisoners being booked in or returning from court.

And because social distancing is impossible in these compressed worlds, every carceral institution will maximize the height of its own infection curve.

We’ve known for months that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has up to a 2-week incubation period. New studies suggest that half of all people with the virus may be asymptomatic or presymptomatic and that over 80% of all infections may come from contact with individuals without symptoms. That means that even if a prison had space to isolate everyone who was symptomatic, that would not stop the spread of the virus.

Essentially, we must assume that literally every single person who lives or works in our prisons, jails, or detention centers will be exposed to the virus over the next month and will become contagious.

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COVID-19: Life Without Parole

When a woman accused of trying to kill someone with a poisoned cheesecake appeared on a list of Rikers Island prisoners to be freed because of coronavirus risks, New York’s district attorneys banded together to strike her name. They also struck the names of two men charged in an armed robbery during which a police detective was killed by friendly fire.

The pandemic poses an outsize threat to the nation’s jails and prisons, where confined populations can’t take the recommended precautions and often lack access to such basics as soap and hand sanitizer — sometimes even running water. Federal and state authorities, as a result, have begun to release thousands of inmates.

The focus, however, has been on low-level offenders.

“There are some at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement,” Attorney General William Barr wrote tepidly late last month in a memorandum to the Bureau of Prisons director.

And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that his state’s efforts “will be for those nonviolent offenses, and we will do it in a very systematic way.”

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POLICY WONK: The History Of Large Scale Release

To protect the American public from COVID-19, schools have closed, non-essential stores have been shuttered, people with desk jobs have started working from home, and public gatherings have been prohibited.

But the criminal justice system continues to hum along as though nothing has changed: Most prisons and many jails have done very little to reduce the population density that puts both incarcerated people and staff at grave risk.

To justify their lack of action, DOC directors, governors, sheriffs, and district attorneys imply that saving the lives of people behind bars is not worth the inevitable public safety cost of releasing them. This talking point is as old as time.

It’s also out of step with history.

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CHANGING PERCEPTION, CHANGING THE LAW

With 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States is the world’s largest jailer.

Yet after decades of holding this dubious honor, many Americans have begun to question what Fordham law professor John Plaff calls “this massive experiment in punitive social control.” Decarceration is being discussed in states across the country.

In the debate over decarceration, advocates have realized that it is not enough to merely push for “low-level nonviolent drug offenders” to be let out. Decarceration defies such “easy fixes,” Plaff said.

Rather, in order to reduce our prison population, we must change how we respond to violent crimes. As a recent article in Slate argued, “replacing the death penalty with death in prison is not true progress.”

A growing movement is calling for an end to harsh sentencing, and in particular, an end to “death by incarceration.” Sometimes called a push to “Drop LWOP” or determination to “bring them home,” in recent years, education campaigns have taken hold to end what many call “perpetual punishment.”

From Vermont to California, activists are finding pathways to upend the “the other death sentence”—a fractured practice known as life without parole.

Debunking LWOP

Life without parole, explains Ashley Nellis of the Washington, DC, nonprofit the Sentencing Project, is often touted as a “humane” replacement for the death penalty. Indeed, all 21 states that have abolished the death penalty have LWOP as their “preferred alternative” (states with capital punishment also have LWOP). Alaska is the only state that does not permit LWOP, yet it allows a functionally equivalent sentence of 99 years.

Life in prison assumes that someone will “grow old and die naturally,” said California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty spokesperson Judy Kerr, whose brother was murdered. As James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, co-founders of Solitary Watch, argue, such sentences are hardly humane.

When Connecticut abolished its death penalty statute in 2012, it voted to replace it with life in solitary confinement, enacting what Ridgeway and Casella call “state-sanctioned torture.” Last year, a federal judge ruled the prisoners serving this sentence could sue the state. Meanwhile, the top European human rights court has declared life without parole “inhuman and degrading” and a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Political scientist Marie Gottschalk wrote in Prison Legal News that LWOP prisoners, the majority of whom are black, suffer “death in slow motion,” plagued by substandard care and high rates of suicide.

According to Columbia University’s Center for Justice, “ailments that accompany aging are compounded by the effects of incarceration, resulting in a prison population that has higher rates of chronic and communicable diseases, greater risk of mental illness, dementia, and other cognitive impairments.”

Critics argue that LWOP is not only inhumane, but also unnecessary. It does not deter crime or make us safer. Lifers are highly unlikely to return to crime once released.

A 2011 study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center found that out of 860 men, less than 1% committed another felony, and none committed another murder. A landmark court case, Unger v. Maryland, showed that states can safely release those who have been convicted of violent crimes and served more than 30 years.

Even victims of crime question the punishment of death by incarceration.

Findings by the Alliance of Justice reveal that six out of 10 people harmed by crime prefer shorter prison sentences for those who have harmed others, and prefer treatment services to incarceration by a two-to-one margin.

Yet, despite these findings and historic crime lows, the number of people serving life without the possibility of parole in the United States continues to rise, quadrupling since 1992. As of 2016, there were 53,290 people serving such sentences—one in every 28 prisoners—and the majority of LWOP prisoners in most states and in the federal system are people of color.

Today, these prisoners are speaking out.

People who have served extreme sentences, their loved ones, and the families of those harmed by violence are taking the lead to end perpetual punishment. Joined by former prosecutors, progressive district attorneys, and others in the criminal legal system, they are challenging what Plaff calls our need for “brutal punitiveness.”

JEAN TROUNSTINE