Does Reform Matter? The Hopelessness of a Life Sentence

Print More
child in prison

Photo by Osvaldo Eaf via Flickr

Throughout Victor Hassine’s decades of imprisonment in Pennsylvania he achieved remarkable things, from receiving awards for his writing to, most notably, the publication of Life Without Parole: Living and Dying in Prison Today, which is used as a text on several college campuses.

But there will need to be an epilogue to future editions that reads “Mr. Hassine committed suicide after he was denied release for the sixth time.”

Hassine’s death on May 2 has given me pause. And it should make anyone who considers the fate of those serving life sentences wonder whether anything that a lifer does to remake himself into someone who could meaningfully contribute to society means anything.

Without freedom, all of that potential for success is meaningless.

My life is a testament to this meaninglessness.

I’ve achieved extraordinary things in spite of my life sentence. I am not being arrogant: I am simply stating a fact. The adoption of my legal analysis by the Washington Court of Appeals is one illustration.

Yet make no mistake about it. Nothing that I have accomplished—from earning my bachelor’s degree through independent means to publishing in law journals to writing a regular column in The Crime Report—has positively affected my subjective experience of imprisonment or improved my conditions of confinement.

All is the same in both respects so long as I remain behind razor-wire and fences.

Intelligent or ignorant, hard working or lazy, accomplished or a failure—all of those who are imprisoned share the same benighted experiences.

Had I spent the last decade using my meager resources purchasing marijuana rather than pursuing correspondence courses and textbooks, I would still be in the same situation that I am at this moment: Residing in a cell with no privacy, impoverished and indebted, starved of physical affection, and scarred psychologically.

I can change myself, but I cannot change this reality.

Nobody serving a life sentence can change this reality.

I have potential—potential that I have painstakingly developed—but potential does not improve one’s physical surroundings or sense of wellbeing. Award-winning writer Arthur Longworth, confined with me at Washington State Reformatory, can attest to this. Rest assured that he too would trade in his success for a release date in an instant because, without freedom, our lives will forever be spent imagining what could have been—and regretting the crimes that brought us here decades ago when we were lost and angry teenagers.

You can, however, find meaning by fooling yourself into believing that having a positive effect on others and trying to make prison a better place are worthy endeavors—as if this airy nothing could ever be a sufficient substitute for one’s liberty.

Call it the Change Agent Delusion. I used to suffer from it. I was bright-eyed and optimistic in the grips of this madness.

As a leader in the Concerned Lifers Organization long ago, I helped to organize regular presentations to audience members ranging from policymakers to mental health professionals, highlighting inequities in the criminal justice system and proposing reforms. When the presentations were over, I returned to the cellblock and life continued as miserable as before.

As a member of the Prisoner Advisory Committee for the University Beyond Bars, which is a nonprofit higher education program at Washington State Reformatory, I helped to guide the curriculum and assist the outside Board fulfill its mission. When the meetings ended, I returned to the cellblock to the same monotony and deprivation.

For years, I helped shepherd younger prisoners through their sentences, trying to instill all the knowledge and sense that I could in them. After giving them an embrace or handshake before they left to return to the community, I returned to the cellblock to continue serving out my life sentence.

Always back to the cellblock.

Reform is irrelevant.

You can receive praise from the highest quarters. But it means nothing because you will still remain imprisoned serving your life sentence. I have received praise from such quarters.

This Facebook post from the King County Prosecutor’s Office about me manifests that even if the agency that was instrumental in securing your life sentence is impressed by your efforts and wishes you the best, it is nothing more than an ironic anecdote to share with the rest of the lifers on the cellblock.

I regained my sanity after being denied parole in 2017. It was then that I truly understood the irrelevance of reform. Since then, working to help change the lives of others and trying to have an impact on society is no longer satisfying. I continue to do it out of routine and the absence of alternatives that seem worthwhile aside from sleeping.

But my heart is no longer in it.

Ultimately, wasted potential is destructive to a lifer’s psyche because long after hope is gone, they continue moving forward like zombies. Stubbornly, we cling to the hope that one day we will be freed due to a change in the law, a successful appeal, parole (if you’re eligible), or executive clemency.

I see them on the cellblock every day.

I see one in the mirror every morning.

We grow older. Our hair grays and hairlines recede. Yet our skills, intellectual gifts and positive qualities continue to be wasted on the cellblock solely for the sake of retribution.

Atif Rafay can write the Best Canadian Essay for 2013 and become a Nietzsche scholar, but he knows full well that his potential is shackled.

Arthur Longworth can be a role model for prisoners like me, but he is still destined to die imprisoned notwithstanding his remorse, reform, and writing awards.

I use these two examples due to my affinity for the writers who are confined with me. Yet countless rehabilitated prisoners across the country have the potential to meaningfully contribute to society and will never have the opportunity because of a life sentence.

Victor Hassine undoubtedly knew this better than me, given his 35 years in captivity.

For decades, he must have taken heart in the belief that his writing was affecting future policymakers. He surely saw himself as a voice in the battle against mass incarceration. Prisoners probably saw him as someone to emulate. Officials likely gave him kudos for his efforts.

Yet getting out of prison was unmistakably his highest priority. Such is the case for everyone who has sense and is serving a life sentence.

I can assure you that he wanted to use a word processor instead of a typewriter circa 1990. He wanted to lecture at Pennsylvania State University rather than to guests at Graterford Correctional Institution. Yet at the end of the day, neither his acclaim nor curriculum vitae enabled him to escape the grim reality that prisons dispense misery quite generously.

Success cannot inoculate against despondency.

So, while college students studied his text, he continued to be strip searched, face the threat of violence, and suffer the other countless indignities that are a product of punishment in America.

Jeremiah Bourgois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

He reached his limit, put down his prize-winning pen, and ended the cruelties by taking his own life—underscoring that acclaim and a curriculum vitae are the zenith of wasted potential for those who are imprisoned serving life sentences.

Editor’s Note: This column has been revised since publication.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and a Washington State prisoner who has been serving a life sentence since he was 14 years old. He is due for another hearing before the Washington State parole board in early August. Those who wish to support his release can sign the petition here. He welcomes comments from readers.

5 thoughts on “Does Reform Matter? The Hopelessness of a Life Sentence

  1. There are many ways to serve a life sentence. No longer behind prison walls is not being free. Former imates will forever be imprisoned by a society that discriminates through housing,employment,social stigmentation, neverending financial restitution, poverty level pay, constant feeling of hopelessness and belief that there is only one way out.

  2. To Mr Jeremiah: Some thoughts after reading your article: Freedom means different things to different people – and imprisonment doesn’t require bars and guards. For a paraplegic, for the severely depressed, for soldiers with violent memories , for women abused -so many have our own prisons with the tough among us learning acceptance then putting one foot in front of the other while seeking our quiet joy. Not every story is punctuated with loud vibrant highs but finding something that makes one feel worthwhile is the secret – imo. Someone drives drunk ends up paralyzed: she’s responsible . Your crime ? You chose to do it. I’m not judging – only saying your life is yours from beginning to end. You can disengage and you can embrace the small joys you still have. Either way, we ALL die. HOW you die and who you are when you die are clearly your business whether imprisoned in a building or inside your body or mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *