Guest post by Kenneth E. Hartman, Executive Director of The Other Death Penalty Project, a grassroots organization of prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and the award-winning author of the recently re-issued memoir Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars (The Steering Committee Press, 2015). For more information, please email Kenneth.

Introduction by Marion Vannier, DPhil candidate in Criminology, University of Oxford.

I met Kenneth Hartman during my fieldwork in California in 2014. Ken is currently serving life with no prospect of parole, the alternative sentence to the death penalty in the United States. His experiences of, and perspectives on, the sentence, including the way he understands what it means to serve life without the possibility of parole, provides a different lens through which to reflect on, and conceptualize, this particular punishment.

In a context where research on punishment and its relation to society is somewhat stalled, Ken’s post is a reminder of the importance of including prisoners’ accounts. For instance, Mary Bosworth and Emma Kaufman have argued that some readings in the sociology of punishment have become rather ‘intellectually stuck,’ asking ‘[w]hat, for instance, are the effects of endlessly retelling the story of how the state disciplines, and in doing so creates, its subjects?’ Kelly Hannah-Moffat and Mona Lynch have similarly claimed that the subfield of ‘punishment and society’ has had a tendency to ‘neglect a number of questions about what constitutes punishment in diverse settings, and are limited in their ability to explain on-the-ground punitive practices, particularly in contexts that challenge traditional understandings of the penal realm.’ They suggest re-evaluating the boundaries of punishment substantively, disciplinarily, methodologically, and theoretically.

Including prisoners’ accounts not only provides a new impulse and alternative perspectives to explore the ways in which the state punishes, it will also draws attention to the human beings who experience such practices. Theorizing without including the lived experience of punishment indeed risks eclipsing the very individuals exposed to punishment and of delivering what Lucia Zedner calls a ‘dystopic’ approach to state power, one which is pessimistic about any change. Combining prisoners’ experiences to reflect on the state’s power to punish has become a conceptual, methodological, and ethical necessity.

Ken’s post is clear: more attention and research needs to be granted to life without parole and, more broadly, to all those sentenced to die behind bars. –MV

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America’s Other Death Penalty Problem 

What does it say about a country that can condemn 50,000 men and women to the slow, grinding death in prison of life without the possibility of parole? In 49 of these United States, the sentence of death by imprisonment is a well-used option. In several states―California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania―there are thousands of individuals suffering under this sentence, in the worst prisons, with the greatest restrictions, and the fewest privileges.

The United States is a country that argues about whether a three-drug cocktail or the two-drug version is the acceptable way to execute people. Consequently, the plight of lifers without the hope of parole isn’t paid much attention. It doesn’t help that death penalty abolitionists think it a great success when they convince a state to trade the grotesquerie of lethal injection for the boring drift into oblivion of life without the possibility of parole. It’s telling, however, that one of the abolitionists’ main selling points is that life in prison devoid of an end point is actually a much more severe punishment. For those singularly focused on the roughly 3,000 people on various death rows around the country, the 50,000 of us being killed slowly seems not to matter as much.

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It’s hard to put a finger on how life without the possibility of parole grew from a rare aberration to the fastest growing form of life sentence in this country. Maybe its roots lie in the punitive streak that’s part of the fiber of the United States. Or perhaps it’s because of death penalty abolitionists’ insistence that it’s the ‘reasonable’ alternative to a death sentence. Yet, I wonder that since both options result in death, what’s the difference? Regardless, death by imprisonment has steadily grown into the operative form of capital punishment in the United States.

For those of us serving life without the possibility of parole, the most frustrating aspect of our situation is being trapped between the punishers’ desire to bury us and the abolitionists’ willingness to trade our lives for their cause, however noble. Because of this conundrum, our plight has never managed to attract much attention from scholars, lawyers, civil rights advocates, or the media. We are the modern-day disappeared inside America’s vast system of punishment.

I’ve been a vocal opponent of life without the possibility of parole sentences for many long years. I’ve received hate mail from death penalty abolitionists for daring to call into question their ‘deal’ with the executioners, and I’ve been rejected from left-wing publications for being critical of this ‘deal.’

My experience of challenging the orthodoxy of opposition to the death penalty has taught me several lessons. First among these is the desperate need for intellectual and academic support―support from the brain trusts of the criminology world. The dominant conclusion in the United States is that life without the possibility of parole is the appropriate replacement to death by injection. This position is held and advanced almost entirely without critique. Until there’s strong scholarly research demonstrating the broader truth that my personal body of experiential knowledge has already taught me, it will remain difficult to dismantle these other ‘truths.’

Deeper still, the accepted position holds that only the worst of the worst, the irredeemables, are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The reality is quite different and much more complex. Being sentenced to the ‘other death penalty’ is much less a consequence of the severity of the crime than one’s ability to procure adequate representation, his or her socioeconomic status, and the color of his or her skin. This has been well-established in regards to the lethal injection form of the death penalty, and I’d say it’s no different for the lethal term of imprisonment form.

It’s difficult to be optimistic that this situation will change anytime soon. Before long, there will be 100,000 men and women sentenced to die in prison across this country. Life without the possibility of parole―a sentence that's mostly unheard of in the rest of the world yet sadly is now being considered in countries like Canada―will continue to spread What can put a stop to this form of sentencing? At what point will it become obvious that the terrible bargain was a disastrous mistake?

Until the field of criminology takes up the challenge and pushes back against this rising tide, I fear that there isn’t much hope for those of us sentenced to die in prison.

Learn more about life without the possibility of parole by visiting The Other Death Penalty Project website.