“I just felt isolated, like, you know, I felt as if I was placed in a foreign country, I didn’t know anybody, nobody knew me, I didn’t know my position, my role. You know, there was no structure, there was nothing, it was just like, it was like being tossed, it is hard for me to describe, but it is just like being tossed in some plains were you have no survival skills, no tools, no nothing.” Ruben was incarcerated for fifteen years before being granted parole. His story is not unique. Today, one out of every nine prisoners is serving a life sentence. This adds up to roughly 160,000 people, or an entire midsize U.S. city, such as Eugene, Oregon, or Fort Collins, Colorado. Even though a proportion is serving a sentence of life without parole, the majority of life-sentenced individuals will at one point, most often after 30 years or more, be paroled to society.
For two-plus years, I interviewed over sixty lifers like Ruben, who had committed a homicide and, as a result, had been incarcerated for decades. After release, some were successful in staying outside the prison walls, while others found themselves back behind bars. I became intrigued by the questions: What happens after someone commits such a violent crime, and is put behind bars? And after decades of confinement, including prolonged periods in solitary confinement, how do they fare after their release? To answer this question, I talked to men and women who had committed a homicide, had served a life sentence for this crime, and were released or paroled following their sentence. In my book, I explore the experiences of these men and women before, during, and after serving a life sentence. I wanted to explain what made some of them “successful” after release, in that in that they were on parole at the time I interviewed them, as well as why other were “unsuccessful,” in that they were recalled to prison.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to their decade-long incarceration, they were faced with immense struggles: by the time they were released, family members had died or refused contact, friends had moved on. Without any job experience and the stigma of being not only an ex-prisoner, but also a murderer, the prospects of obtaining work were meager at best. And, in terms of intimate relations, many felt they had to “catch up” for time lost, and became involved in turbulent relationships. They had to find their ways in a new social world, with unfamiliar faces, unwritten rules, and an unknown future. Even though many lifers I interviewed were recalled to prison, none of the lifers committed another crime. Rather, they were recalled for parole violations, such as drinking, using drugs, missing appointments with their parole offices, or associating with other ex-prisoners. Those who were able to stay outside the prison walls were, in large part, able to manage the conditions of their parole. They had a strong sense of self-efficacy, coupled with a constant fear of being sent back behind the walls. One may wonder to what extent managing parole regulations constitutes what we think of as “success” post-release?
Strict parole regulations raise questions about the role of parole and its influence on reentry. Nowadays, a considerable part of the prison admission stream consists of either probation or parole violators. This creates a correctional system that feeds on itself, as the larger parole population creates more violations, which in turn feeds the prison system. Punishment serves various purposes: Deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation. One may argue that these long sentences, and strict parole regulations are a way to protect society and provide retribution for the crimes that they have committed. In the status quo regarding punishment of lifers, however, the final aim of punishment – rehabilitation – seems to have been abandoned. From a critical point of view, today’s policies of re-incarcerating lifers after technical violations does little except satisfy a need for vengeance. If we still want rehabilitation to be a part of punishment, we should be questioning to what extent we are willing to pay the price.
The vast majority of lifers have a chance of living crime-free, productive lives after release. Providing them a fair chance on the job market, adequate programming taking into account the prolonged period of confinement, and a sense of certainty in terms of reasons for recall would enable these lifers to start a life beyond bars.