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“Until I Am Free:” Prisoners of their Youth

Last night I had the privilege of experiencing an event where the voices of people who are removed from our society in every way, physically and intellectually, were heard, listened to, and represented. “Until I Am Free: Voices of Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole” is a project, facilitated by Chicagoan poet, artist and youth organizer Kevin Coval.  The purpose of the project is to distribute and share the stories and poetry of people who were convicted of crimes and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole as minors, some as young as 14. Jane Addams Hull House Museum hosted a poetry reading which showcased the work of these victims of our sometimes unforgiving youth justice system.

Michael Cooks is 35 years old and has been in prison since he was convicted of double homicide at age 14 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In a poem that was read for Michael, he wrote about being told to have beliefs…He wrote:

“So my entire life I have believed in believing in something. The problem is I never figured out what that something should be.”

Double homicide is a heavy conviction. I cannot say whether or not he was responsible. Whatever the crime, and however inhumane the act, 14 is simply too young to try someone as an adult or to give them a life sentence and it is certainly not okay for a just-barely-teenager to face the rest of  his or her lifetime in prison with no hope for parole. He was a child when he was convicted. He was given up on before he was even able to develop ideas or beliefs of his own. There are lots of problems with youth justice, but whatever happened to juvenile correction or rehabilitation. It is not right to assume no possibility of change and to allot no room for improvement in people who are so young. Even if their mistakes have been huge and violent and criminal, the character of most teens has not been carved into stone and there is most certainly a point to second chances. By chances, I do not mean slack and I do not mean passes, but I mean that minors should be reprimanded and also given the opportunities, the environment, and the tools to change themselves when crimes have been committed.

Albert Kirkman was seventeen when he was convicted and sentenced life without parole. Now, he is 35 and still argues and fights for his innocence. His poem is called “Behind these Walls” and in it he wrote:

“Behind these walls

Young men come with baby faces

And leave with gray beards.”

It’s so interesting how a person develops when they are removed from the world. Prisoners who have been locked up their entire adult lives, have they grown up in prison? Or have they just aged without the chance to finish growing up?

Darnell Foxx was sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was 15 for two murders. He wrote piece called “Freedom is so far away.” It ended with…

“It’s a mental slavery in action.

You will die here.

Freedom is so far away

you can smell death

wash over your cell.”

A cube with three concrete walls, a ceiling, a floor and a cluster of steel bars, reminding a person that they have lost their rights of freedom. That doesn’t sound like living, so Foxx is right. Prison without parole is dying. It is dying again and again with no hope for freedom.

What about restorative justice? This would be an approach where the goal would be to have criminals do something to restore the damage done indirectly or directly. They may write an apology to the family of a murder victim in addition to doing some type of intensive community service to provide for the community in another way. The restorative part of the sentence would most likely be accompanied by a classes on non-violent behavior. This is a constructive and useful way of punishing young people. It could give them a chance to reevaluate their priorities and the choices they’ve made.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing a minor to life without prison with no possibility of parole is unconstitutional and is considered “cruel and unusual punishment,” if the young person did not commit murder.  It’s a small step because it only ensures that  some minors who are sentenced to life in prison will have a possibility of parole but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Hopefully, one day minors won’t be sentenced to life in prison and our justice system will be able to give every under age criminal a chance at rehabilitation if they are willing.