But for those serving a life sentence who cannot find a purpose, the prospects are bleak
Erwin James Guardian/UK 7 July 2013
This morning I posted a letter to a friend in prison in the US. I began my letter with the usual niceties: "I hope you're well and healthy and staying positive …" After that, it took me a while to think of what to say next. My friend was convicted of murder when he was 15 years old and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. So far, he has served 15 years and probably still has a few decades to go. Whenever I think of him, I can't help wondering how he manages to keep going. What is the point?
Last week it was reported that a man in a UK prison who recently began a life sentence for murder with minimum tariff of 30 years had written to Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, asking the same question. Not surprisingly he couldn't see a future beyond the prison gates. "I'm not going to want to get out in 2043," he wrote. "If the state pension exists it will barely cover the basics; I'm likely to commit a minor offence just to get the free bed and board HMP service offers. When I become eligible for parole I'll be 66 years old. I'll have no money, no contact with anybody on the outside, no house or other material possessions.
As a "lifer" now out on parole, I remember all too well the struggle to find a reason to get out of my prison bed in the morning. In the beginning, for 23 hours a day, all I had was a bed, a table, a chair and a plastic bucket for a toilet. The future was just a long, dark tunnel. My trial judge had given me a minimum term to serve of 14 years, but being released was never my priority. I was just glad that my old pain-inflicting days were over. It took a while, but eventually I discovered a purpose. I decided to try to find a better way to live. There were moments when I eyed the bars on my cell window and considered a swift end. But blessed, or cursed, with a strong will to live, I kept going. On prison wings and landings, lifers are the walking dead. You're alive but you're not living.
I sent my friend in the US a still from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, signed by the stars Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. I wanted to make him smile, so on the back I wrote: "Hope will set you free … " The truth is that hope for a lifer is exhausting. It stops you sleeping and can drive you insane – much safer to expect nothing and never to be disappointed. You know your crimes, the grief you have caused, the shame and the guilt you live with – and the amends you can never make. Sometimes it feels like the whole world hates you, but not as much as you hate yourself. Against the odds, with help from various prison professionals, I made progress.
My friend in the US is not so lucky. He gets little help from the authorities. As an LWP (life without parole) prisoner, he is excluded from education classes or any other official activity aimed at personal development. So he taught himself to paint. After years of borrowing and begging materials, he now creates the most remarkable images of wildlife, using leaves he finds in the prison exercise yard for canvasses. His art has brought him purpose.
For lifers who cannot find purpose, the prospects are bleak. The man who wrote to Inside Time said: "I see Dignitas on the news and can't help thinking it makes more logical sense … Put me in a chemical coma – wouldn't that be cheaper?" He's not alone in his desolation. In 2007 in a letter to the Italian president signed by 310 fellow prisoners serving life, convicted mobster Carmelo Musumeci, who had been inside for 17 years, asked for "our life sentence to be changed to a death sentence". Musumeci said he and his fellow lifers were "tired of dying a little every day". In that same year, 18 life-sentence prisoners in the UK took their own lives.
There are around 13,000 men, women and children serving indeterminate sentences in the UK, almost 8,000 serving mandatory life. England and Wales has the highest number of lifers in Europe. In the last 10 years, of the 724 people who took their own lives in our prisons, 114 were serving indeterminate sentences – 90 were mandatory lifers convicted of murder. Juilet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust says: "Failure to support and manage work with life-sentenced prisoners is leading to an accumulation of lifers in our prisons. Noms [National Offender Management Service] is making efforts to enable life-sentence prisoners to progress, but the system needs further review to be fully effective and to allow people some hope in their lives."
Hope may be exhausting and dangerous, but one thing I did learn in prison is that there is no such thing as false hope – there is only hope.