“The State was Patiently Waiting for Me to Die”: Life without the Possibility of Parole as Punishment

Date01 April 2021
Published date01 April 2021
DOI10.1177/0090591720927800
Subject MatterArticles
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Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(2) 165 –189
“The State was Patiently
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Die”: Life without the
Possibility of Parole as
Punishment
Nolan Bennett1
Abstract
Despite its growing use over past decades, there has been relatively little
public or scholarly discussion of life sentences that deny the possibility of
parole. This essay outlines the labyrinthine legal and political developments
that have rendered life imprisonment difficult to address—including the
intertwined histories of the death penalty and civil death—and draws upon
the life writing of those serving life to theorize a more distinct understanding
of this punishment. Witnesses reveal how the possibility of life despite the
impossibility of parole punishes by subverting the goals of human growth and
development. The potentiality of what can be done in the present grinds up
against the futility of what could have been done and what could be done
were release an option. Considered alongside the laws and court opinions
and claims that characterize its convoluted development, these testimonies
reveal this punishment’s role in the American imagination. Life without the
possibility of parole reinforces and relies upon a vision that not simply some
people are unable to change, but that anyone in a democracy—no matter
their position—is some steps away from irretrievable exclusion. Permanent
confinement denies a restorative vision of democracy: any effort to abolish
or amend it must include the voices of those imprisoned.
1University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Green Bay, WI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Nolan Bennett, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Dr., Green Bay,
WI 54311-7003, USA.
Email: bennettn@uwgb.edu

166
Political Theory 49(2)
Keywords
life sentences, life writing, criminal justice, capital punishment, civil death,
death penalty
Writing from a Missouri prison, Patricia Prewitt recalls the epiphany that
struck her when a caseworker proposed that she and other inmates plot their
cemetery early:
While she described her vision down to the flower beds and flat gravestones
that can be easily mowed over, I sat sad, dumb and numb. It never occurred to
me that the state was patiently waiting for me to die, although it makes perfect
sense. In their opinion, a pine casket is my only way out, and since I am not
directly sentenced to the death penalty, they must wait for me to die on my own.
I’m sitting on a painstakingly slow death row.1
Prewitt’s memory captures the troubling juxtapositions of life and death that
confront the growing population of people serving a life sentence without the
possibility of parole (LWOP).2 Life sentences of every kind—with or without
chance of reentry—have metastasized over past decades in the United States
of America, as the number of people serving life has quadrupled from 1984
to 2016.3 If we include those sentenced to more than 50 years (what the
Sentencing Project calls “virtual” life sentences), the total number of people
serving life now eclipses the some 200,000 behind bars in the early 1970s,
with rates rising even as violent crime has dropped since the early 1990s. Of
those serving extreme sentence lengths today, 53,290 have been sentenced to
life with no chance for parole.
These trends reflect many of the causes and consequences of mass incar-
ceration that have mobilized activists, academics, and the average citizen,
and yet, as Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis write, “there has been virtually no
public discussion of life imprisonment,” including sentences that prohibit
release.4 Compared to the political theory and protest marshalled against the
death penalty, solitary confinement, and felon disenfranchisement, then, little
has been said of this slow death row. This essay’s first goal is to explain why.
As I argue in the next section, what we call “life without the possibility of
parole” is difficult to discuss because its labyrinthine development and hap-
hazard implementation among states reveal no single legal construction or
guiding principle. For example, the 53,290 cited above does not include the
many more sentenced to life in a jurisdiction with severely restricted parole.5
These varied forms of life imprisonment have been further veiled by two
other developments: the politics and procedures that accompanied capital

Bennett
167
punishment’s resurrection in the 1970s, and the transformation of “civil
death” from an explicit statutory condition of life imprisonment to a term
characterizing the collateral consequences of contact with the criminal justice
system. These developments have drawn the attention of activists, academ-
ics, and legal actors away from life imprisonment and diminished what lan-
guage we once had to define this punishment.
If we listen to those who do speak of this punishment—those sentenced
to live and die in prison—we hear a clearer account of what it means.
Witnesses like Prewitt reveal the surprising potential of living without the
possibility of release. “Yes, it is life-without-parole,” Martin Williams
writes of his twenty-two years in a Sacramento prison, “But it’s still life.”6
As I explore in the second section, the permanence of these sentences chal-
lenge many to recreate themselves and their community behind bars, even
though corrections may offer them few rehabilitative resources. But lifers
attest to how this potential corrupts the methods by which we all do time:
how we remember, grow, and change. What punishes those serving life is
not only that they will die in prison or that a judge and jury deemed them
civilly dead. What punishes is the very possibility of a natural life con-
trasted with the impossibility of reentry.
It would be enough if these lived experiences invigorated discussions of
life imprisonment. New conversations might cross the divides that other
scholars have pinned on this punishment—that life imprisonment banishes
those imprisoned and brandishes new legal statuses to distinguish the good
from the incorrigible. But when considered alongside the laws and court
opinions and claims that characterize its convoluted development, these tes-
timonies reveal broader implications for all life in American democracy. In
the third section, I propose that life without the possibility of parole relies
upon and reinforces a vision that anyone in a democracy—no matter their
position—is some steps away from irretrievable exclusion. Despite its rare
acknowledgment in public discussions of criminal justice, then, this punish-
ment is foundational to what Caleb Smith calls “the capacious and contested
cultural territory of the American imagination.”7 To sentence someone to live
and die in prison betrays a dim vision of what is possible in democratic life.
It denies those inside and outside the prison a restorative vision of wrongdo-
ing as the pivot around which all members of a democracy grow.
Though the account of life imprisonment I offer here is pessimistic and
constrained by my position as an academic author, there are reasons to be
hopeful. Supreme Court decisions or federal and state policy reform could
slow its growth. Opponents have made compelling arguments for the aboli-
tion of life without parole: it is inhumane, functions poorly as a deterrent,
does little for public safety, makes the United States an outlier among other

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Political Theory 49(2)
developed nations, and finds little footing in retributive theory.8 It is a
“revenge sentence,” Matthew Hutchinson writes from prison.9 As I briefly
consider in the conclusion, hope is a common theme articulated by those who
write from prison. Whatever optimism we may find in the arguments against
life without the possibility of parole, then, any effort to replace its dour
vision of democratic life will require we hear and respond to the life narra-
tives of those who endure and resist it.
What is Life without the Possibility of Parole?
“Life without the possibility of parole can mean a million things,” Joseph
Dole writes from an Illinois prison.10 “As its name implies, it encompasses
the entire remainder of one’s life. So what does such a sentence really mean?”
Before we look at how those serving life respond, we must consider why this
question is not often asked and answered by the greater American public.
“Life without the possibility of parole” is difficult to discuss because of its
labyrinthine legal and political development in the United States. No single
legal status or philosophy is evident across jurisdictions’ haphazard imple-
mentation of perpetual confinement. What has further curbed conversation is
that the intertwined histories of the death penalty and civil death statutes have
diminished what attention is paid life imprisonment and the vocabulary used
to describe it.
A life sentence did not always mean life. Although the United States has
long dealt long sentences at the state and federal level, penal reform from the
mid-nineteenth century till the 1970s introduced indeterminate sentencing
and parole to enable eventual release.11 As imprisoned intellectual Jon E.
Yount writes, “parole does not forgive an offender”; it is rather “the disciplin-
ary treatment of those who seem capable of rehabilitation outside...

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