The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any country in the world. And Pennsylvania condemns people to die in prison in higher numbers than almost any other state. Over 5000 people in Pennsylvania are serving Death By Incarceration (DBI) – more commonly known as Life Without Parole.
Even as some policy makers are finally beginning to question the racialized, punitive nature of many U.S. policing and prison policies (thanks to the tireless efforts of activists and movements inside and outside of prison), this critique is rarely extended to DBI sentences. Even in states with declining prison populations, the number of people serving life sentences is still going up, and the number of crimes for which you can receive this sentence is also rising. Today more prisoners are serving life terms than ever before.
DBI sentencing is both expensive and ineffective even as understood on its own terms. The yearly cost per person serving DBI mounts ever higher as people spend the entirety of their elderly years in confinement, beset by the many health problems that confinement produces. More importantly, it is socially and morally wrong, representing a gross human rights violation that targets members of poor and marginalized communities and condemns them to a status of permanent exile.
DBI sentencing reflects the systemic racism that’s deeply embedded in the United States and must be confronted as part of any larger struggle for racial justice. In Pennsylvania, almost 75% of people serving DBI sentences are Black or Latinx. The carceral system (a term which includes not just prisons, but the entire police, court, and criminal legal structure) has become a key instrument of social organization/control and a primary means by which the U.S. state manages both “deviant behavior” and perceived threats to the social order. In it we find vividly reflected all the ongoing patriarchal, homophobic and white supremacist investments of our national politics. Our movements must address not just laws and policies, but the oppressive and divisive structures that allow such policies to exist.
Locking people in cages for the rest of their lives does not make us any safer. Incarceration destabilizes families and communities, perpetuates cycles of trauma, and exacerbates rather than alleviating harm and violence. It is past time for us to envision a new reality. Many people in prison – including many of the people featured here – have devoted their lives to developing models of restorative and transformative justice, mentoring young people, and laying the foundations for a world where dialogue, healing, and reparations are foundational to how we address harm.
In Pennsylvania and across the nation, the movement to abolish Death By Incarceration – and broader efforts to confront the systemic injustice of the carceral state – is growing. Collaborative projects and collaborative organizing are weaving together strong movements on both sides of the prison walls. Here in Pennsylvania, we finally have bills in both the state House and Senate that would effectively end Life Without Parole sentencing in the state. But we need a massive organizing effort to make this legislation a reality.
“I want people to know that we need all of their creative talents, innovation, cognitive abilities, passion for justice and freedom, and determination to bring forth structural changes to emerge at this hour in our struggle. We must understand that our struggle is a continuation of what was started centuries ago when people of various walks of life came together to challenge chattel enslavement, the Black Codes, Jim Crow segregation, discrimination on other levels, etc. The struggle for justice and human rights has historical roots and our current struggle to challenge and abolish DBI is in line with this same tradition.” – David “Dawud” Lee
At its heart, the struggle to end Death By Incarceration is about more than just a single issue, and more than just a policy change. If we want forms of justice that are centered on healing and self determination, we must ask ourselves, do we want a system that routinely judges our family, friends, and neighbors forever irredeemable? Do we want a society that deals death to the most vulnerable? Or do we want to live in a world where the inherent dignity of all is respected and upheld?
These questions are not rhetorical, they are life and death. And we’re fighting for life – not the kind lived inside a cage, but life with space for growth, transformation, redemption, and justice.