To: Mama and Papa Systems From: Your Kids Convicted
How can you say you want us to learn and then send us to a place the complete opposite. You rip away our freedom and expect us to thank you; well, good luck. You tear apart our families and that’s supposed to be okay. Every time our families leave visiting, everytime our kids cry we hate you more, and every missed call and unreceived letter we hope someone would end you. But you do teach us. Allow me to tell you something I’ve learned. I can make a pretty good knife, so thank you. 1 can make wine and even vodka, thank you. I’ve learned that there’s more Blacks in prison than any other race. 1 don’t think that’s a coincidence. (Yes, I’m Black.) Know enough about what I’ve learned, but here are some things people should know: did you know slavery is legal in prison, very shocking yet true. I’ve had jobs making 7 cents an hour. One more time, that’s 7 cents an hour. Now keep in mind slaves were Black and were considered less than human, so to get paid like a slave, what’s that say about the system? I hope whoever’s reading understands. Did you know that in prison there’s plenty of racism? Whites don’t cell up with anyone but Whites, Black with Black and so on. There’s no simple way to settle a physical dispute between races, and it usually ends with more people involved than there would have been on the streets. We’re taught to distrust another person based on their color or nationality. How do you think that affects those getting out after years? We’re expected to get a job and function in society, but we don’t trust anyone and have a record. So in closing, thank you Mama Court and Papa Prison because you taught us so much, and since you’ve been doing this for who knows how long, you’re really good at it and know exactly what you’re doing. Some ot us will grow up. But because ot you some will always be in Mama’s and Papa’s grasp.
We don’t know when We don’t know where We don’t know how We don’t know if We don’t know why We don’t know how long But we believe to know that.
1 Translated from German by Johannes Feest.
Abolition as radical reform
Jacob Lee Davis
In 1998, I murdered my rival in a high school love triangle and received a life sentence in theState ot Tennessee. I spent twelve years in a privatized facility before transferring to state-runprisons. There I found the opportunity to pursue higher education and experienced a shift inconsciousness as I was introduced to the writings ot Michelle Alexander, Wendell Barry, MichelFoucault and others. Since that time, I have served the cause of abolition, primarily throughwriting. The past seven years have tempered my initial hopes. In the US we have exposed the toughold roots of an overgrown criminal justice system, but translating that knowledge into widespread change eludes us. Among those opposing mass incarceration are moderate reformerswho hold that abolition goes too far and rightly point out that laws are necessary and lawbreakers must be held accountable. Those who may be called abolition purists on the otherhand correctly insist that cycles of reform dating back to the first modern prisons have onlyallowed the cancer of incarceration to grow and spread. As a prisoner who has served twenty-one years with no settled hope for redemption because of mandatory minimum sentencinglaws, I want to bring my experience and the urgency of my situation to bear in this debate.}} 
from twenty-five years to fifty-one, the legislature effectively duplicated the life without parole sentence and nullified the jury’s choice.
1 emerged from the initial shock of the actual event horrified by the mistake 1 had made. 1 have attempted to express my sorrow many times to the various people I hurt. Yet 1 also do not believe this sentence serves the common good, not because 1 want to escape responsibility — 1 accept the justice of being punished tor this grave act — but because of the impossibility of redemption implied by the length of the sentence.
Historically, the law in this state expressly contemplates the gravity of inflicting a permanent term of imprisonment and requires the jury to consider aggravating and mitigating factors before choosing life without parole. The mitigating factors outweighed the aggravating factor in my case. 1 had no criminal history. I was a model student on my way to study computer science after graduation. I worked as a waiter after school and 1 was on track to become an Eagle Scout before my life began to spiral out of control due to my unfortunate involvement in a lover’s triangle.
The jury also heard expert testimony about my undiagnosed struggle with severe depression. Even though 1 have a family history of mental illness on both sides, 1 came from a rural area where poverty was the pervasive norm and mental health services were unavailable or unaffordable.
Although the jury did not inflict life without parole because the mitigating factors were so strong, 1 quickly realized that the 1995 law still ensured that I would die in prison. (1 am still unaware of anything living for fifty-one years in prison in this state.) Having no prior experience with the justice system, 1 brought into my encounter with it the notion that the end of punishment was the recovery of the offender, who would have improved or grown in some way.
1 soon found that the disillusionment 1 carried into my life sentence was perhaps the one thing I was sure to have in common with any prisoner I met. By then, the warehouse model was ramping up in our state. Rehabilitative services disappeared as new CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) facilities opened. At every juncture, prisoners were treated with uniform disdain. People with short sentences struggled to find meaning in their existence just as 1 did. And no wonder, when the felony stain followed them out of the prison — and usually back in again. The public was justifiably frustrated with recidivism, but when law enforcement, parole officers, prison staff and potential employers alike treated the offender with suspicion and looked tor any chance to exercise authority and punish them, felons got a clear message that society did not want them to succeed.
Those serving time as a result of addiction are perhaps the clearest example of the retributive nature of our justice system. Instead of recognizing addiction as a public health issue, we fill the jails and prisons with addicts, then ask ill-equipped administrators to deal with them. This pattern continues today because we as a society choose this response as part of the larger abdication of collective responsibility that has attended neoliberalism. We focus so tightly on individual guilt because that focus obscures our abdication.
The example I always think of that demonstrates our failure to treat addiction as a public health issue is a young man nicknamed Gas Can. His desperate need for a certain drug would lead him to get some on credit and then tell the people he owed he refused to pay. He would also refuse to check into protective custody and tell the dealer to do their worst. But, he noted, he followed the philosophy of “hands laid, dept paid.”
One week he told a dealer he wouldn’t pay and was brutally assaulted by gang members. Unaware at first of what had happened, 1 walked into a common room where he had retreated and saw him hunched over against a wall while blood poured from his face. I thought he was crying but realized he was laughing when he lifted his face and smiled at me. His upper and lower lips had been split from his nose down to his chin, a new vertical mouth spitting blood while he kept repeating, “I love this hit ... I love this shit ...” 1 told him he needed to go get stitches. He didn’t care because he had already scored more of the drug on credit that morning, he explained. I lost track of him after that.
The drug he needed so badly was suboxone, an addiction treatment drug available at clinics all over the US. This is the ultimate end of our policy to throw people away as if they were just so much garbage, our refusal to recognize addiction as a public health issue. His self-destructive behavior indicates his sickness just as our choice to neglect the common good and perpetuate this arrangement indicates ours.
It is not only the outward manifestations of imprisonment we must oppose but also this acting out of retribution without recourse to the possibility of redemption. Abolition must have as its defining goal the elimination of this practice of permanently marking and excluding those who once broke the law from full social participation. Model systems such as Norway’s have the goal of reclaiming the offender from the outset. Our aim must be to bring our various systems to the same model and make redemption our goal rather than never-ending retribution. Thus, the spirit of the justice systems must be reclaimed. The common good demands it.
I believe abolitionists must accomplish this goal through radical reforms that meet this standard. While we have a vision in mind of a transformed justice system, we must choose concrete plans of action that will bring us closer to that vision. Retributive systems have suited the fears and the needs of certain segments of our population at the expense of others. Now with a holistic concern tor the common good, we can shun reforms that merely maintain the status quo and advocate reforms that are informed by the literature and by our experience. The hard line between the two is defined by healing and redemption. If a law, a policy or a program maximizes the possibility of these while still upholding the law, it will necessarily be disruptive to a retributive system and should have our support.
As an example of reform that does not make the grade, let us consider former Tennessee Governor Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism, a body heavily stacked with law enforcement officials and prosecutors who recommended sentencing legislation and policy changes for parole and probation violations. The VERA Institute participated as a nod toward objectivity, but its evidence-based recommendations were completely ignored. For instance, VERA recommended looking more closely at the limited impact of prison sentences for burglary, a crime committed almost exclusively by addicts to support their habit. It pointed out that other states had found ways to reduce their prisoner populations and crime rates in recent years and that increasing sentence lengths does not effectively reduce crime rates or recidivism. VERA was ignored. Law enforcement got the sentencing increase they wanted and guaranteed growing costs and increased prison populations in an era when the opposite should have occurred. This result clearly is not good reform.
The other significant result the Task Force ultimately produced is a little more nuanced. The Task Force found that around forty percent of men and women entering the prison system every year were technical violators of parole or probation, that is, a dirty drug screen. On its face, revising the guidelines so that a single violation may only trigger a few days in jail rather than several years in prison makes good sense. A tiered response can help struggling addicts, for instance, who typically relapse on their way to sobriety. A trip back through the system will not only shatter the fragile structure an ex-felon creates for support after release, but he or she also will not receive treatment while incarcerated.
Yet this development is at best a half-win. We who have known the spirit of incarceration and community supervision cannot help but point out that if our society wanted us to succeed after incarceration, it would not have been sending so many back through this traumatic nightmare tor such minor technical mistakes in the first place. The shift in spirit is an important development, but it is bittersweet all the same.
Abolitionists who track the big picture in our state also viewed this change with skepticism. The professed goal of the Task Force, to reduce recidivism, is, again, undeniably good on its face. Yet there is something suspiciously obvious about this result, that we find a way to send fewer people back to prison by sending fewer people back to prison. A comment Governor Haslam made to the press at this time is telling. When confronted about prison and jail overcrowding, he said that our prisons and jails are “an investment in security” that should be “maximized.”
In fact, the net result of this “reform” is a larger population under some form ot state control. By sending fewer people back to prison, the number of people on parole and probation increases while those beds are filled by others who otherwise could not have been accommodated. This growth of what the literature terms the metaprison sector did not go unnoticed by Corrections Corporation of America, which is headquarted in Nashville. In addition to opening a giant new prison under Haslam’s administration, CCA quietly began buying up private metaprison service providers just before the report was released. They even changed their name to “Core Civic,” which vaguely hints at their expansion into the civic area.
This kind of “reform” is exactly the kind of insidious maneuver abolitionists must try to oppose and expose. Missing from these changes is any plan to help change the complex conditions that have led us here. Missing is any plan to address addiction as a health issue or to help offenders overcome mistakes and find real redemption. Instead, we find here a tired old emphasis on individual guilt and expanded punishment and control.
Another example ot bad reform is the attempt made in recent years to pass a law mandating parole review for juveniles convicted as adults after they have served thirty years. About one hundred prisoners in this category are serving life without parole, the fifty-one-year life sentence, or other impossibly long sentences in this state. The US Supreme Court recently banned mandatory life without parole and sentences for juveniles prosecuted as adults, but life without parole is not mandatory here. A jury can impose the other life without parole sentence, the fifty- one-year life sentence. So far, the courts have declined ruling on whether the fifty-one-year life sentence is functionally equivalent to life without parole, leaving prisoners who fit this category in a kind of legal limbo.
Since my partner Jeannie Alexander is director ot No Exceptions Prison Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to abolition, I have a direct source of information about reform legislation being advocated in our state. Several bills have been floated in recent years which would entitle prisoners who fall into this category to a parole hearing. Among them has been a bill that would grant a hearing after thirty' calendar years. On its face, this would seem to be good reform. A parole hearing after thirty' years is better than none or a hearing after fifty-one years.
However, this bill divided reformers in our state for a number of reasons. First, similar bills in other states give such men and women a chance at parole after fifteen or twenty years. The harsh thirty-year number was a demand from a key' committee gatekeeper who was once a hard-line prosecutor. Second, thirty y'ears goes beyond the norm of twenty-five years for adults that most states require, a norm Tennessee followed until Clinton’s mandatory minimum mania. Given that the federal monies dried up and given that the cost of housing prisoners beyond twenty-five years makes little sense when they have aged out of any potential danger to anyone, many state officials on both sides ot the aisle are reconsidering those laws. This leads to the third reason: abolitionists, especially Jeannie, have worked tirelessly advocating a bill that would return this state to the more sensible norm of parole eligibility after twenty-five years for all those affected by' these mandatory minimum laws. This reform will give ten times as many people a renewed hope for redemption. The fourth reason follows from the third. If a law sets the floor to thirty years for juveniles sentences as adults, the proposed law affecting the rest of us would presumably have to raise its floor to thirty-five years. When we know that those in our situation who do get paroled serve an average of three to five years beyond the minimum, we are still contemplating serving forty years or more — for those who somehow live that long. This effectively kills any chance at real reform tor over twelve hundred men and women in this state.
For all these reasons, the thirty-year juvenile bill had to be opposed by those serious about reform in Tennessee, even at the risk of alienating other more moderate reformers. This is the line that separates real abolition work from reforms that perpetuate the old cycle. Bad reform is worse than no reform in this instance. So far we have prevailed.
We as prisoners recognize the need for solidarity in holding out against quick compromises that waste the precious opportunity we have in this political climate to achieve radical reforms. For example, my longtime friend Jamie Rouse is one of those who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile. Even though he would have come up for parole after only about five years under the thirty-year bill, he wrote an open letter to all reform advocates and legislators opposing that law in solidarity with those of us who have had our chances ruined by it. This act shows tremendous character and deserves to be noted by abolitionists everywhere. Yet he was not the only one in his position who stood with us. We have grown from children into sober men in these circumstances and as a generation that may yet be lost, we understand the great need to accomplish change that makes redemption possible tor this and future generations. This is what abolition requires of us.
Obviously, an example of reform that meets the standard 1 have set out is the already- mentioned bill that would revert the fifty-one-year life sentence to the norm of twenty-five years before parole eligibility. Doing so will restore the redemptive dimension of justice tor over twelve hundred lives that once were thrown away. Requiring someone to live this way for more than twenty-five years can only serve a limitless thirst tor retribution. Our society has lost touch with the severity of this fate. But, more importantly, it does not serve the common good to incarcerate aging prisoners long past the time when they might have been a risk to others. This suffering is pointless and very expensive. My experience has shown that the vast majority of us who have completed these long sentences are most likely to succeed upon release. Recidivism rates for lifers on parole confirm my experience.
As Marie Gottschalk and others have argued, we must confront releasing those guilty of violent crimes if we are serious about reversing mass incarceration in the US. Now is the time to challenge the false distinction between “violent offenders” and “nonviolent offenders.” This retreat into what seems a politically safe position is unnecessary and evasive considering that the so-called “nonviolent drug offenders” make up less than twenty percent of the US prisoner population.
In Tennessee, we have had considerable success gaining support for life sentence reform from both sides of the aisle. In fact, the bill to return life sentences to twenty-five years has been sponsored by Republican representatives and senators. Conservatives have good reasons to oppose the wasted costs of these sentences even if they are not persuaded by our moral arguments.
Another example of reform that disrupts the old cycle is the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI), which is the nonprofit that has enabled me and others to earn an associate degree and soon, hopefully, a bachelors as well. By bringing the higher education experience inside the walls ot the prison, THEI is literally transforming this environment from the inside out while it also gives prisoners a chance to transform their lives. The program partners with Nashville State Community College and Belmont University to offer classes Monday through Saturday here at the prison. Our satellite campus includes three classrooms and a computer lab where students type papers and take courses like biology online. Students pay $25 per semester
(no small sum when our day jobs pay only pennies on the hour) and the remainder ot the costs is covered by private donations and state funds. (Note: the state will not pay for liters like me, so my tuition is paid by private donations.)
When I began my sentence, the loss ot the opportunity for higher education was a bitter pill of self-destruction. Since childhood, 1 had dreamed of becoming the first in my family to earn a degree. I thought 1 would never do so, but this program has enabled me to reverse that tate. Even the most cynical prisoner looks at this opportunity as a potential life-changer. Earning a degree drastically reduces the chances of recidivism. More than this, such an accomplishment lends dignity to our lives that these circumstances cannot snuff out. The fact that the program has its detractors only testifies that it is the kind of disruptive, transformative reform that is possible with a vision that falls outside the spheres ot legislation and official polices. Professors and administrators of the program now enter the prison with a different kind of authority and offer a different kind of hope. In the classroom, we feel human again and find our voices once more. Education is a universal good that should be available for those who want another chance at life. What can be more fundamentally redemptive?
In this chapter, I have given examples from my experience that demonstrate the retributive nature of our criminal justice system, the kinds of reforms that perpetuate the status quo, and the kinds of reforms that disrupt that status quo in order to maximize possibilities for redemption. In each example, one can see at work either the tendency to disregard the common good by throwing away lives or the tendency to service the common good by encouraging the possibility of social redemption. Speaking as one who will die in prison if abolition fails, 1 urge abolitionists everywhere to look at themselves as midwives or shepherds guiding us toward our goal by disruptive degrees. We must begin where we are, distinguish between radical reforms and those that fail to advance our position, and dedicate ourselves to always taking the next right step.
-  believe that abolition must be achieved through radical reforms informed by a holistic concern for the common good. This middle way recognizes that a complete break without current retributive systems is not realistic, while it also disrupts the old cycle ot reform. Radicalreforms are those that recognize both individual and collective responsibility. With this broadview, these reforms will maximize the possibility ot healing and redemption in order to helpmarginalized populations and communities instead of using ever greater force to attempt tocontrol them. In this chapter, I will use several examples from my experience to illustrate thisdistinction in practice. My own case serves to demonstrate the retributive nature of our justice system. In Tennessee,a jury may impose three possible sentences for murder: death, life without parole, or life. In mycase, the prosecution did not seek the death penalty. Rather than take away the possibility ofever being released, the jury chose the lesser sentence. Presumably they saw the potential futurevalue of life given that I was only eighteen years old when I committed the crime. However,a law passed in 1995 elicited by Clinton’s 1994 crime bill now requires mandatory service offifty-one calendar years before release eligibility on a life sentence. By changing this minimum