Margaret E. Leigey. The Forgotten Men: Serving a Life without Parole Sentence. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015. 242 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-6947-5.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hull (Rutgers University at Newark)
Published on H-Socialisms (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
In The Forgotten Men: Serving a Life without Parole Sentence, criminology professor Margaret Leigey provides a rich account of what is sometimes called “the other death penalty,” or “death by incarceration,” as well as a surprisingly moving account of twenty-five individual men serving life sentences in New Jersey prisons (p. ix). People serving life without parole (what the author refers to as “LWOP”) are ineligible for release except in the rare instances when their sentences are either commuted or overturned by an appellate court. Most die in prison—usually after at least three decades behind bars.
Roughly 49,000 state and federal inmates are serving life terms—or about 3.3 percent of the approximately 1.5 million individuals incarcerated in this country—and more people now face life behind bars than at any other time in US history. People of color are far more likely to receive LWOP (as they are the death penalty) than their white counterparts. Leigey cites a preliminary study indicating that blacks, who comprise roughly 12 percent of the country’s population, nationwide constitute 58 percent of those doing life (in seven states, the proportion is more than 66 percent).
With the sole exception of Alaska, every jurisdiction in the country permits this severe sentence. Those serving LWOP now equal the total prison populations of forty-three states and exceed by about one-third the number sentenced to death. Yet for all their prominence, until Leigey’s book scant academic, media, or even judicial attention has focused on life-termers in general or aging ones in particular. When lifers die, no agitators march outside the prison gates protesting their unjust punishment. Institutional rules forbid the inmates’ newspaper from even noting a fellow prisoner’s death, and no memorial service is offered at the facility where an individual may have spent the bulk of his life. As Leigey says, “they’re a forgotten group” (p. ix).
The author intends to make them a little less forgotten—at least the twenty-five LWOP inmates with whom she conducted in-depth interviews in 2006 (with follow-up ones five years later). By design Leigey interviewed only men who, in 2011, were at least fifty-five years old and had been incarcerated at least twenty years (although fully half her subjects had been imprisoned more than thirty years). Her book examines their perceptions of permanent incarceration and the strategies they have adopted to cope with their decades-long separation from the free world.
Starting in 1974, the LWOP population began to surge, and since 2010 its numbers have increased 22 percent. This surge, the author explains, was the consequence of two warring forces. The first was the wave of punitiveness that swept the country beginning in the 1970s and prompted the United States to abandon what for decades had been the chief rationale for punishment: rehabilitation. Instead, as one lifer told Leigey, the prevailing attitude became: “Treat them like animals. Don’t give them anything” (p. 60). Prisons should be grim, and judges and parole boards should be prevented from gratifying their “bleeding heart” impulses (p. 10). How better to implement this “new punitiveness” than by embracing life without parole (p. 11).
The second was the campaign by abolitionists to curtail executions by offering life without parole as a palatable alternative. Leigey observes that as far back as the eighteenth century noted criminologists supported life imprisonment over capital punishment—although not because they considered it the more humane alternative, as do modern-day abolitionists, but because they deemed it a more severe sentence and a more formidable deterrent. In 1976, after the Supreme Court rescinded its brief moratorium on capital punishment, some abolitionists seized upon LWOP as the lesser of two evils. In addition to being more humane, it eliminated the possibility of executing an innocent person and, counterintuitively, saved the state money since it is much cheaper to house a prisoner for life than to execute him. Besides, at present it is the only alternative to capital punishment. According to law professor James Liebman, whom Leigey quotes, “the drop in death sentences—from 320 in 1996 to 125 last year (2004)—would not have happened without LWOP” (p. 6). The author complicates the argument, however, by noting that according to some critics this decrease would have occurred regardless, and that opting for LWOP was a devil’s bargain, providing US jurisdictions with not one, but two inhumane punishments.
LWOP critics point out, further, that whereas death sentences command special judicial scrutiny and automatic appeals, the safeguards to which lifers are entitled are very few. Leigey quotes one state official: “We don’t worry and lose sleep over the defendants who will never see the light of day again” (p. 23). The few constraints imposed by the US Supreme Court are easily circumvented. It held, for instance, that juveniles convicted of nonlethal offenses cannot receive mandatory LWOP sentences, and it subsequently declared this ruling retroactive (on the rationale that even children guilty of heinous offenses can change over time). In response, Iowa commuted the sentences of all thirty-eight juveniles serving LWOP in its facilities to ones permitting parole eligibility after sixty years of incarceration. Several other states are now mimicking this dodge.
The Court’s solicitude, moreover, has extended only to juveniles and even then only to those whose offenses were nonhomicidal (at least 2000 inmates in the United States are currently serving life sentences for lethal offenses committed when they were under eighteen). Its proponents argue that LWOP serves as a powerful deterrent, but Leigey cites substantial evidence suggesting that less severe punishments are at least as effective—in large part because deterrents can succeed only when offenders act rationally. Over half the men the author interviewed, however, had committed crimes when their rational faculties were impaired by alcohol, drugs, or emotional duress.
By imposing LWOP—and worse, by subjecting some juveniles to this draconian penalty—the United States violates Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Further, by subjecting so-called habitual offenders to life behind bars the country also ranks as an outlier among progressive democracies. Arguably LWOP may be appropriate for the worst of the worst. During the last thirty years, however, thirteen states and the federal government have adopted legislation mandating lifetime incarceration for anyone convinced of a third offense—regardless of its nature. They have done so with the Supreme Court’s blessing, a majority of its members finding nothing amiss in lifetime sentences imposed upon one man for possessing 672 grams of cocaine, or another whose third offense was shoplifting golf clubs and video tapes.
Indeed, four of Leigey’s subjects were handed life terms not for homicide but for being classified as habitual offenders. The rest committed serious crimes, to be sure, but none were depraved killers or sociopaths. They were young and they made appallingly poor decisions. Theirs were often offenses characterized by “impulsive, emotional reactions to stress,” or homicides that were the unintended result of a robbery or the consequence of drugs or alcohol (p. 28). In time, virtually all of the men Leigey interviewed had become deeply remorseful.
The men, moreover, were not among life’s chosen. With few exceptions they grew up amid poverty and suffered frequent abuse. They had, on average, ten years of schooling; as children, two had been placed in foster care. Thomas (all the men are identified by pseudonyms) had gone straight from an orphanage to a mental institution, and Matthew grew up penniless, the son of a sharecropper; in Vietnam, Charles routinely witnessed combat-related deaths, was sprayed with Agent Orange, and suffered afterward from PTSD.
Prison is enormously stressful for new lifers, particularly because they face the constant fear of being attacked or violated by fellow prisoners (and occasionally staff members). They learn, usually on day one, that they would be far worse off by reporting this abuse. (Poor Robert: he was segregated for over ten years because, as a reputed “snitch,” his life was in constant danger.)
Many lifers unable to adjust to prison life attempt suicide—a phenomenon easier to understand, perhaps, than the fact most inmates facing life behind bars never contemplate ending their lives—and usually, after an emotionally wrenching transition to prison life, actually adjust. Over time their “gazes turned inward,” Leigey says, and they think about “everything they’ve lost, everything they missed,” or, as one lifer told her, “all the opportunities that have went by” (p. 137). As they gain self-awareness, many come to rue their past behavior and lament the lives they have taken. They also reflect upon ways “to make their lives count for something”—often by serving others. This awakening, Leigey says, is a “transcending moment in an inmate’s life” (she quotes Troy: “we done walked into the light,” p. 53).
Leigey’s subjects have persevered despite the elimination of most of the programs they once enjoyed: vocational and liberal arts courses (along with the Pell grants that financed them), even free workshops in skills and self-improvement. Social clubs were also scuttled—one of the few respites in their otherwise monotonous lives. These cutbacks, reflecting the public’s mounting reluctance to finance “frills,” accelerated the transformation of prisons into warehouses and rendered it harder for the men to learn a trade or the social skills necessary to obtain employment or even avoid recidivism should they ever be released.
Many of Leigey’s subjects consider prison administrators to be almost gratuitously indifferent to their well-being. For instance, men seeking alternatives to the fat-and-cholesterol-rich diets the prisons provide could rarely afford the inflated prices the commissary charged for healthier options; anyone hoping to sustain relationships with family members were thwarted by the extortionist costs of making a phone call. Many correctional officers and medical personnel were also thoughtless and even abusive: “they throw your pictures, your personal belongings, on the floor (p. 117);” they were rude to the inmates’ families; refused to intervene when they witnessed young prisoners mistreating older ones.
Leigey’s subjects, to a one, disdained the medical staff, particularly those brought in after their facility hired a private medical contractor. Under this new management mortality rates spiked and treatment for HIV/AIDS was either nonexistent or woefully inadequate. The men were convinced that decisions were motivated solely by greed. As one said, “whatever’s left over is their profit so the least amount of treatment you get, the worse the care is, the more money they make” (p. 122). They claim that even after the appointment of a federal monitor the care did not improve.
Many felt that as a result of this fixation on profits, the medical staff was poorly qualified: the bulk were foreign-born, as such cheaper to hire but presenting language barriers that impeded communication. According to George, moreover, “one of the things with state agencies is you do not have to be board certified” (p. 122). The medical unit was also short-staffed—another cost-saving measure—and thus prescription refills, aids such as dentures, even life-saving medicine, were often late in arriving (Walter referred to one clinician as Dr. Death because “she discontinues all of their medicines to save money,” p. 123).
Several men reported years of delay before receiving needed surgery; few were ever examined by specialists or received necessary physical therapy. According to Walter and Michael, the diet they were prescribed for their diabetes was the same food “they serve on line” (p. 125). The life-termers similarly disparaged the mental health staff. Daniel accused it of prescribing mood-altering medications in order to make them more docile. While the lifers had little use for most of the prison staff, they were grateful to individuals who had treated them with particular kindness—typically noncustodial individuals such as clergy, counselors, teachers, cooks. Troy developed a warm friendship with an instructor who taught him to read and served as his “moral compass” (p. 129). Another teacher financed Victor’s college correspondence course.
Worse even than callous staff members were the loneliness and sense of abandonment that dogged even relatively “well-adjusted” lifers—particularly as their social support systems inevitably frayed over time. Only one-fourth of the men in Leigey’s group received even one visit per month (Robert received one every two years), and with the passing of the years many had no birthday or Christmas cards to open. As one man told Leigey, “no one likes to feel so insignificant as not to matter or even be remembered” (p. 73).
Leigey is intent upon understanding how a group of men, who presumably entered prison with scant coping resources, could not only endure permanent incarceration but often thrive. She quotes Hans Toch, who observed in 1992 that “paradoxically, weaklings become substantial and influential; shiftless men strive and produce; pathetic souls sprout unsuspected resources” (p. 130).
Leigey’s subjects were sustained in part by two seemingly contradictory forces: “the philosophy of minimal expectations,” and, despite daunting evidence to the contrary, the hope of eventual release (p. 106). The author notes that some men, even on their death beds, continue to challenge their convictions in court. This hope provides enormous incentive to obey, abide by the rules, and pursue all manner of self-improvement. Yet it also has its downside: “the men found the indeterminacy of their LWOP sentence to be one of the most painful acts of imprisonment” (p. 157). Even worse is the inevitable and profound disappointment they experience when, yet again, they are denied commutation. Their disappointment is compounded by the frustration of not knowing why.
Some of the lifers Leigey interviewed are convinced their health deteriorated in prison, although researchers have concluded that long-term confinement does not necessarily cause broad-scale intellectual, physical, or social deterioration. It can, however, impair mental health. Most life-termers suffer from psychosomatic illnesses, depression, and anxiety.
Most lifers will die in prison. Medical parole is theoretically available for terminally ill prisoners, but according to Human Rights Watch, on average only twenty-five inmates a year are granted release (p. 2). Inmates die, typically from natural causes, at relatively early ages (at Louisiana’s Angola prison the average age is 51). Leigey quotes Nancy Dubler, who concluded that “the good death—an acceptance of the inevitable and a reconciliation with family and friends, supported by spiritual counselors in a comfortable surrounding—is rarely available inside prison walls” (p. 145).
Leigey’s subjects feared, above all, dying without loved ones near and dying with their lives termed a failure. They objected to their worth being defined by a single event that obliterated all the positive changes they had made. According to one of Leigey’s respondents, “there’s a whole mess of us that do good. Why don’t you say, ‘Hey, he did this and he did that toward the end of his life’” (p. 145). The men felt the pardon board and governor, in particular, disregarded their positive changes. The men were haunted, as well, by the fear of being buried in the prison cemetery or a potter’s field, that no one will claim their bodies, that no friends or relatives will lay flowers on their graves.
In her concluding chapter Leigey argues for a few important changes designed, she says, “to ensure that the needs of older LWOP’ers are considered and that they’re treated with dignity for the duration of their lives” (p. 161). She recommends, foremost, that true life without parole be replaced with a modified sentence of life with the possibility of parole (LWP) after the inmate has served a specified number of years—a system, notably, that ten states have adopted. This would constitute adequate punishment while still providing prisoners with realistic hope of eventual release. On a strictly utilitarian basis, LWP is considerably more cost-effective. Leigey notes that roughly 240,000 people fifty or older are now behind bars in this country—about 16 percent of the total prison population. Since it costs the DOC three times as much to care for older inmates, studies estimate that state and federal governments would save almost half a million dollars for every inmate they freed after a thirty-year incarceration
Life with the possibility of parole also recognizes that by the time they are eligible for release the vast majority of inmates have become law-abiding. Studies show that older inmates and murderers have lower rates of recidivism and commit appreciably fewer infractions than the general prison population—a fact prompting the European Court of Human Rights to decree in 2013 that LWOP cases must be subject to review because “what may be the primary justification for determining at the start of the sentence may not be so after a lengthy period into the service of the sentence” (p. 167). Yet even when determining whether to parole someone sentenced to modified life, government officials still error on the side of caution. They are haunted by the specter of Willy Horton (the Massachusetts inmate who, on a brief furlough in 1986, raped and assaulted a woman). To ease such fears the author suggests adopting a protocol that has worked well in England—i.e., placing inmates sentenced to modified life on permanent parole.
Leigey recommends two additional reforms: medical parole for terminally ill prisoners—a humane as well as cost-cutting expedient that is nevertheless rarely granted, and facilities and programs designed to reintegrate into society older prisoners who have been incarcerated for decades. As a successful prototype she cites the Project for Older Prisoners (POPS) established by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. POPS has provided early release for prisoners fifty-five years or older who have served the average length of their sentence and who are unlikely to recidivate. Upon their release, POPS helps them secure housing, employment, and access to government benefits. Since 1989 it has secured the release of almost four hundred older inmates, not one of whom has committed another crime.
The Forgotten Men is an in-depth, sensitive study, enriched by Leigey’s broad familiarity with pertinent literature. Its only substantive limitation is one she herself acknowledges: because she interviewed only twenty-five men—all of whom, moreover, were imprisoned in the same state—her findings cannot be generalized to lifers as a class. Yet to the extent her work is less an ethnographic study than a contemplation of the human condition, its reach is broad.
Leigey describes her “lifers” without illusions, yet she also honors their humanity: “if the men’s narratives could be reduced to a single observation,” she says, “it would be that this group of men displayed remarkable resiliency in their abilities to adapt to the deprivation of LWOP…. They chose to find meaning and purpose in their lives and to help others” (p. 160). By the book’s end, we have come to care for Leigey’s men—to rue the circumstances of their lives while also applauding their courage, personal growth, and yearning for meaning even amid the most barren of settings.
. Adam Liptak, “Serving Life, With No Chance of Redemption,” New York Times, October 5, 2005.
. Hans Toch, Mosaic of Despair: Human Breakdowns in Prison, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1992), 8.
. Charles M. Unkovic and Joseph L. Albini, “The Lifer Speaks for Himself: An Analysis of the Assumed Homogeneity of Life-Termers,” Crime and Delinquency 15 (1969): 159.
. Human Rights Watch, “The Answer Is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in U.S. Federal Prisons,” November 30, 2012, available at https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/11/30/answer-no/too-little-compassionate-release-us-federal-prisons.
. Nancy Dubler, “The Collision of Confinement and Care: End-of-Life Care in Prisons and Jails,” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 26 (1998): 149-156.
. European Convention on Human Rights (Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe, 2012), 33.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-socialisms.
Elizabeth Hull. Review of Leigey, Margaret E., The Forgotten Men: Serving a Life without Parole Sentence.
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