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Book cover of "Death by Prison" by Christopher Seeds
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi

Let me say that I opened “Death by Prison” with a deep level of trepidation. Written by Christopher Seeds, an assistant professor at University of California, Irvine, the book informs me about the hole I dug for myself each time I was arrested, convicted and sent away. 

Death by Prison” examines how life without parole went from an extraordinary sentence to one that is commonly imposed by the United States justice system, both directly and indirectly.

To read Seeds’ book is to learn more about my unwitting complicity in my own demise. As an adolescent, I misguidedly equated my self-worth with material possessions, or the lack thereof. In 1970s New York City, both my peer group and poor people of color in general judged one another on this basis. 

Selling drugs and stealing was and remains culturally sanctioned by some people in poor communities. My role models were the street hustlers, people who pursued money in any number of unlawful fashions. In my mind and the minds of others, the ends justified the means.

I didn’t know that my extraordinary risks to acquire material wealth and possessions made me fodder for a system whose appetite was insatiable, impersonal and self-perpetuating. I started getting locked up when I was 16. I will soon be 61, having served 10 1/2 years of a 16-to-life sentence. I will eventually have to appear before a parole board with my criminal history as an unshakable companion and adversary.

“Death By Prison” is a scholarly and historical look at the development of life without parole sentencing — commonly called LWOP — in America over the last 200 years. It serves as a sobering portent to men like me who have served several decades in correctional institutions: With each arrest and conviction, we are digging our own graves. I am part of the graying population of incarcerated men who have served multiple prison sentences dating back to adolescence.

For the first 70 years of the 20th century, LWOP was not yet the LWOP we know now. There was still the possibility for release through executive review. It provided judicial closure to aggrieved victims and an outraged public while at the same time leaving open the possibility of clemency and parole for incarcerated people who availed themselves of rehabilitative opportunities.

In recent decades, those ideals have dissolved. Today, it is widely assumed that rehabilitation programs inside prisons are ineffective and that many of the nation’s incarcerated are irredeemable and disposable. Seeds identified many reasons for the country’s reactionary turn. 

One seminal moment marking the shift away from parole and clemency can be found in Furman v. Georgia, the landmark Supreme Court case from 1972. This case called into question the constitutionality of the death penalty and placed it on hiatus from 1972 through 1976. The case also marked the shift from indeterminate to determinate sentencing practices — in other words, the shift from people being sentenced to a range of time to a specific amount of time in prison. 

In the wake of the Furman ruling, death penalty abolitionists became reluctant but early proponents of LWOP. They saw Furman as a win since it put a moratorium on executions, which have long been plagued by biases and indignities inherent in carrying them out. 

The state of Florida was a bellwether in LWOP pursuits, Seeds wrote. This was despite Florida officials being initially alarmed by the specter of housing men with no hope of ever getting out in the state’s general prison population. Fast-forward a few election cycles, the state took the plunge into the extremes of sentencing practices. Over time, its Republican governors and legislative committees included a host of non-capital offenses eligible for LWOP. 

Today I sit at the table with people serving LWOP sentences as well as those who have life sentences with minimums so long that they are meant to die in prison too. These men are some of the most decent and compassionate people I know — there is a lot of truth to the idea that most incarcerated individuals age out of crime. For maybe the first 10 or 15 years of a long sentence one may continue to hold on to the self-image that got them arrested; but after spending time in a special housing unit, sustaining scars and wounds that disfigure faces, and suffering losses too numerous to count, most guys see the errors of their ways and change for the better. Many also try to help rehabilitate the generation coming behind by becoming positive role models in prison.

We didn’t start out this way, but we now exist to pay it forward, taking responsibility for the past and present. As individuals and as a collective, we hope to be stewards of positive tomorrows. But there is the ever-looming possibility that we may never get the chance. 

“Death By Prison” provides a big-picture view of its subject. The text is simultaneously illuminating and hope-stealing. 

At its conclusion, a reader can’t help but realize that LWOP is the culmination of sentencing policy 50-plus years in the making. Public outrage about crimes and overzealous politicians have fueled a nationwide practice of locking people up and throwing away the key.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.