Human Rights

Life Without Parole: When You Know You'll Spend Your Whole Life in Prison

Even prisoner advocacy groups focus mainly on the conditions of confinement, without necessarily questioning sentences that drive prisoners to despair.

This article first appeared up for Segura'sRSS here.

Shawangunk Correctional Facility sits on a long swath of land in Wallkill, NY, just west of the Hudson River, and about an hour and 45 minutes north of New York City. Opened in 1985, last year marked the prison’s 25th anniversary, which was celebrated at Shawangunk’s “clubhouse” by some 200 officials. The local Wallkill High School Choir sang the national anthem and the prison was bestowed with the “Pride of Ulster County Award,” a recognition of its benefit to the community.

For prisoners’ families living downstate, Shawangunk is nothing to celebrate. Getting there can be prohibitively costly, especially if you don’t drive. Buses to nearby New Paltz cost more than $40 round-trip from Manhattan and leave you ten miles away. A train to Beacon, across the river, is cheaper, but cabs have been known to charge $40 to take you to the prison. The “free bus” that brings New Yorkers to upstate prisons only visits Shawangunk once a month, and getting a spot can be tricky. Inmates must put in a request for a limited number of tickets well in advance.

Most people visit on weekends. On this particular Sunday, a piece of paper taped to the wall in the visitor’s office announces that the free bus is being suspended for the next two months.

“Where’s the ID for her?” a young, white officer asks a very pregnant African American woman as she prepares to take off her shoes to go through the metal detector. “Her” is a young toddler in pigtails, shuffling around in her snow boots. Her mother runs outside, exasperated. She’s forgotten the birth certificate in the car. It’s lucky she has it. People have been refused visits for far less.

We fill out the usual forms—name of the prisoner we’re visiting, car model and plate number, relationship to prisoner and “reason for visit.” We get a key for a small locker, where we put items we’re not allowed to bring in. Today, these include a pen, my sweater (no zippers allowed) and my knit hat. “An inmate could use it to escape,” says a guard with a sardonic smile.

Yet Shawangunk seems more relaxed than other maximum security facilities. No one is making me take off my underwire bra here (although that has been known to happen) and, today at least, no one is being searched for drugs. With the exception of the man at the desk who seems to relish his little perch of authority, the guards are respectful of visitors.

The visiting room is full. As in every other prison I’ve gone to, visitors are mostly women, most of them non-white. There’s an outside area with picnic tables available for warmer days. Like the rest of New York, it is currently covered in snow.

It’s the second time I’m visiting Nick and I’m feeling bad. He has written me many time since the summer and I have not been good at keeping up. He is serving life without parole for a grisly rape and murder on Long Island that he says he did not commit. I’ve met too many men exonerated for similar crimes in New York not to take his claim seriously. But that’s not the point of my visit; he does not expect me to help him get out. As a leader within the prison’s Lifer’s Association, he wants to talk about sentencing reform, and so do I, along with two other visitors, a woman who works for an organization that provides re-entry services, and a social worker I’ve known for years.

Nick comes out wearing a collared shirt and the green work pants worn by all inmates. He nods and half-smiles, and sits down at the table, dwarfing all three of us.

Things have been bad since we last saw him. A “family day” event he was trying to organize fell through in the fall and he has recently lost his desktop publishing gig. Even for those with pristine behavior records, jobs at Shawangunk are mostly temporary, and earning a certificate in a given program doesn’t always mean there is anything new to move on to. So Nick is currently “idle,” as they say, volunteering to do the laundry in his cell block because it means getting first dibs on the phones in the mornings. For prisoners serving life without parole, being idle is much worse than being paid next to nothing for their labor. Idleness leads to frustration, which leads to aggression, which leads, inevitably, to “The Box,” otherwise known as a “close supervision unit.” This is essentially round-the-clock solitary confinement. No personal belongings, and practically no exercise or human contact allowed.

I ask how long inmates are kept in the Box and Nick raises his eyebrows. “Anywhere from a day until the rest of your life,” he says. At Shawangunk, he swears, there are guys who have never come out. According to published data, in 2009 the average amount of time spent by New York prisoners in the Box was 112 days.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times published an editorial calling for an investigation of prison suicides in New York, which have gone up dramatically in the past year. “State records show that there were 20 suicides in 2010, double the number in 2009 and the highest since 1978, the first year for which records were released,” the Times wrote. At least one suicide took place at Shawangunk. Nick says a prisoner in Cell Block A, who had a history of cutting himself, hanged himself in his cell in early December, but looking at the data released by the department of corrections later on, I realize it is dated November 22, 2010. That list includes a prisoner named David Paradise, serving a 30-year sentence for aggravated manslaughter. He killed himself on October 14, 2010. According to DOC records, his next parole hearing would have been in 2031.

Some suicides take place in the Box. But most are carried out by men in general population, who are serving very long sentences. Part of the problem, Nick says, is that even prisoner advocacy groups that come to inspect facilities like Shawangunk focus mainly on the conditions of confinement, without necessarily questioning sentences that drive prisoners to despair. “We’re supposed to be the worst of the worst,” he says. “You’ve got guys who have been in the same cell for 16, 17, 18, 19 years.” Especially for guys serving life-without-parole, he says, “no one is asking: ‘How are you holding it together?’”

Three hours after the start of our visit, it’s time to go home. Other visitors start to say their goodbyes. The rules dictate no prolonged physical displays of affection and everyone abides. “Start writing,” Nick tells me as he walks away. I tell him I will.

This article was made possible by theWallace Global Fund.

Liliana Segura is an independent journalist and editor with a focus on social justice, prisons and harsh sentencing. This article was made possible by the Wallace Global Fund.