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Dispatches from the Inside: LWOP Versus the Death Penalty in California

California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at the California Men's Colony (CMC).

November 8, 2012

The votes are counted and the people of California have spoken. I applaud the voters' presence of mind to re-visit and (in my opinion) mend an ill-considered law. Amending the Three Strikes Law will not only save millions of dollars, but will make the dispensation of criminal justice more efficacious and humane.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the fate of Proposition 34: the measure to abolish the death penalty and convert existing sentences of execution to life in prison without the possibility of parole, or LWOP as it is known. As both a native of and a prisoner in California I have some unique reasons for advocating a change to this law, but my reasons may not be what you might expect. 

Even though I am currently incarcerated in the California prison system, I, and most men in similar circumstance, do not feel any kinship or amity toward those condemned to die. As a group they are the most despicable specimens of inhumanity to breathe the same air. If they are guilty of the crimes for which they've been convicted, they deserve to be banished from society and punished every day of their miserable lives. But, there is something we must bear in mind: hundreds of former death row prisoners have been discovered to be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. So, the chances that someone, or several someones, sitting on California's death row right now are innocent is just one compelling reason to amend the law. 

Another reason to change the law is the cost of maintaining it. A recent accounting placed the burden to taxpayers at $184 million dollars per year. Since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978, only 13 prisoners have been executed while, during the same period, 55 have died of natural causes and 19 have committed suicide. This was as of November 2011. Averaging today's costs over the 34 years the death penalty has been in effect, it has cost taxpayers about $3.4 billion and counting.

Death row advocates talk about closure for the families of victims, but how much closure or finality do they get when death row inmates file appeal after appeal, each on carrying with it the possibility that a reviewing court might reverse the verdict and state the emotionally painful process over again. And the reality is that most of these prisoners are dying of old age anyway.

To those that believe a life sentence is not punishment enough, let me enlighten you. As it stands, men on California's death row are treated better than the average prisoner. They are assigned lawyers that ensure they receive all the privileges and amenities the law and the courts say they are entitled to. They enjoy a celebrity and notoriety not bestowed upon other prisoners, due to their crimes and continued media attention. They are held up to the spotlight as victims, while the good people they victimized suffer the media hype in obscurity. And they are kept apart from other prisoners.

If they were transferred from their secure accommodations and forced to live out their lives on a Level IV yard, most of them would become the target of other prisoners, due to the nature of their crimes: even prisoners as a group have a code of ethics; we single out pedophiles, rapists, and child murderers for personal retribution, because most of us have wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and sons. Therefore, most of these individuals would be banished to Security Housing Units, to live out their lives in solitude and obscurity (the only time anyone hears about Charles Manson or Sirhan Sirhan is when they come up for parole, and let's face it, nobody's ever gonna let them out.) If there was no parole you would never ever hear about these guys again. And for those few that could walk a mainline, I've been in a Level IV prison. Faced with interminable years confined to such a dangerous dystopia without reprieve, I would seek the release of death, thus giving my victims some satisfaction and saving the taxpayers the expense of even this existential support. 

And finally, we've all heard the phrase, "A fate worse than death", but before coming to prison, I for one couldn't conjure up exactly what that could entail. Well, by defeating Proposition 34, the voters have spared those on California's death row that very instantiation. 

Take it from one that has been there; the next time this opportunity presents itself and it is your wish to mete out the harshest punishment available, banish these men to a life without the possibility of parole – life of pain, violence and ignominy, solitude and obscurity – and use the money saved for more deserving endeavors.