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Image: Rupert Ganzer

California has more prisoners serving life than any other state.

Life Support Alliance (LSA) has identified a group of prisoners – the life-term prisoners – who have increasingly become subject to Kafkaesque procedure in California justice. LSA advocates on behalf of these life-term prisoners and educates the public on the invisible cycle of parole denial.


There are four types of sentences handed down to California prisoners; the death sentence (execution), life without parole (never released), determinate sentences of a fixed period (3,5,10 years for example), and indeterminate sentences (5 to life, 12 to life, 20 to life). It is in this last category that life-term prisoners fall. If they are ever to win release they must serve the minimum term first and then convince a parole board that they are suitable for release. Suitability means not being a public threat.

In California there are 22,000 men and women on indeterminate term-life sentences. The average number of years served by a prisoner serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole is 20 years. For all these prisoners release is dependent on the Board of Parole Hearings.


The Board of Parole Hearings is not a neutral group however, and it is susceptible to political influence. New appointees to the board are made by the Governor. During our conversation, Gail Brown, Founder of Life Support Alliance talks about how the parole grant rate under Governor Gray Davis was 0%. During the tenures of Schwarzenegger and current Governor Jerry Brown, the figure rose as high as 20% and now sits at 18%. This increase is partly due to a more sensible approach to criminal justice, but also down to the economic crunch and to the fact that the governorship is likely to be Brown’s final job in public office; he doesn’t have to bow to powerful *tough-on-crime* lobby groups. Incidentally, California is one of only 3 states in which the governor has veto power over the board of parole hearings.


We should listen to Gail Brown. Her proposals will save every CA taxpayer money, forge progressive and forgiving attitudes, and force a return to legal procedure that means thousands of prisoners won’t be held in limbo, or worse, denied release because politicians don’t want to have prisoners – perceived as public safety hazards – released on their watch. (For a lesson in the damage a discharged prisoner can do in the worst circumstances to a political career, read up on Willie Horton and Al Gore.)

It also makes good common sense to release term-life prisoners. They are aging or aged. Costs to house an adult prisoner nearly double from $50,000/year to $98,000 when a prisoner turns 55. When they pass the age of 65, the cost triples to $150,000. The majority of these costs are medical care (which in CA was ruled as cruel and unusual in any case.)

As well as reducing costs, Gail Brown points out that aged prisoners have grown out of transgressive behaviours and are statistically the safest population to release.

In December 2011, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center released the first rigorous empirical study of prisoners serving life sentences with the possibility of parole in California called, “Life After Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California.”

The report found that California has laws enacted through the three branches of government often contradict one another.

In 2008, Marsy’s Law (also known as Proposition 9) gave victims additional rights to participate in parole hearings and the law greatly extended the time between hearings once a lifer is denied parole by the Board.

That same year, the California Supreme Court ruled in the Lawrence Decision that while the commitment offense is probative, in and of itself, it cannot serve as the sole reason to deny parole. The relevant standard for the Board to use in considering whether to release an inmate serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole is whether the prisoner is a current threat to public safety.

To further complicate matters, newly proposed legislation – SB 391 – would authorize the Parole Board to base its decision to deny parole solely upon the circumstances of the commitment offense. That would directly overrule the California Supreme Court opinion.


More than statistics, costs and legal definitions, Brown wants us to heal as a society and look toward restorative justice and not rely on state agencies to enact vengeance within unseen penal institutions. As much as we are all potential victims of crime, we are all potential activists against the cycles of punitive violence that persist in broken prison systems.


Still from Sentencing the Victim

It is my stated mission to discuss the unprecedented growth, size and activities of the American prison system. I believe that there are better solutions to solving transgressions in our society than warehousing people. I especially believe this with regards to people sentenced to non-violent crimes.

However, prisons should exist for people who are a threat to public safety. I worry that sometimes people may mistake me for an apologist for all criminals. This is not the case.

For heinous crimes – such as rape, kidnap, torture or pre-meditated murder – prison is a fitting punishment.


As part of Women’s History Month, PBS and Independent Lens – in a series named Women & Girls Lead – are making available (only during the month of March) online films that amplify the voices of women and girls acting as leaders, expand understanding of gender equity, and ‘focus, educate, and connect citizens worldwide in support of the issues facing women and girls.’

There is a vast array of films, some about criminal justice. Me Facing Life is about a 16-year-old sentenced to life for killing a man who picked her up for sex and Troop 1500 is a participatory documentary about, and made by, the daughters of mothers who are serving time for serious crimes, giving them a chance to rebuild their broken bonds.


Very different in tone and very difficult to watch, Sentencing the Victim tells the story of Joanna Katz who was gang-raped in 1988. Following the trial of her five attackers, she is required to appear before the North Carolina parole board for each and every parole hearing. The film fluctuates between her account of the ordeal and the repeated visits and legal mantra by parole board members. The inflexibility of a system means the parole hearings of her assailants are not heard at the same time. This difficult process is something Katz and her incredibly supportive and wise parents go through five times as many times as should be reasonably expected.

Katz is now an advocate for all victims of rape and it is a testament to her strength that she produced this film; it is for all our educations. The film was instrumental in streamlining the legal process and lessening the burden on victims.

What I expect of a prison system is that it makes possible for every individual sentenced the opportunity to take full account of their responsibilities. Joanna’s assailants don’t feature in the movie, nor should they given its purpose to roundly describe the victims experience. Violence is a learned behaviour and it can become a disease of communities. It is much easier to continue a life of violence than it is to educate oneself and see the destructive and unforgiving reach of violence for what it is.

Taking responsibility for ones actions is transformative and positive; prisons need to allow the space and the environment for remorse and accountability to surface. Some prison do that and others engender violence further.

To deny liberty to the most predatory of criminals is a reasonable expectation of prisons. But there is too much violence in the world and prisons shouldn’t be incubators of violence. Even for the worst of the worst – especially for the worst of the worst – prisons should be places of self-examination, apology and healing.


On June 17, 1988, Joanna Katz and another woman were abducted at gunpoint, taken to an abandoned house in Charleston, South Carolina, and brutally raped, beaten and tortured by five men for more than five hours. Sentencing the Victim is the story of how a blood-soaked 19-year-old was able to walk away from her attackers, save her friend from certain death, and continue fighting for the convictions of her assailants — and for the rights of crime victims everywhere.

Under South Carolina law, felons convicted prior to 1996 can eventually be considered for parole every two years. Despite their 30-to-35-year sentences, Katz’s attackers were eligible for parole after serving only a fraction of this time. And in a particularly cruel twist, criminals in South Carolina who participate in a group assault receive separate parole hearings on separate days. Victims who wish to oppose parole for their attackers must subject themselves to an emotionally agonizing experience that must be repeated year after year. In order to ensure that her attackers would remain behind bars, Joanna Katz had to travel more than 100 miles from her home numerous times every year to attend separate parole hearings for each of the men who assaulted her.

The hearings continue until the criminals are either paroled or complete their sentences and are released back into the community. Each hearing reopens old wounds. With each hearing, Katz wonders who was really sentenced: was it her attackers, up for parole after serving a minimal sentence, or was it her, forced to relive her trauma over and over again?

Through April 1st, view the WOMEN & GIRLS LEAD ONLINE FILM FESTIVAL and visit the website.


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