|Susan Atkins wheeled into her last parole hearing in 2009, accompanied by her husband,
James Whitehouse. Photo credit: Ben Margot for the Associated Press.
Latest news on prisoner release: A couple of days ago, the three-judge Plata panel denied relief for procedural reasons (TL;DR “we are not the appropriate forum for this – go to the original courts.”) As good people are scrambling to put together writs for those courts, I wanted to address something that I *thought* would be obvious, but apparently isn’t.
In the aftermath of putting up my petition to release prisoners, I’ve been hearing commentary that we should limit the releases to “nonviolent criminals.” I use the quotation marks because the definitions of what is and is not “violent” and “nonviolent” is not as clear as people think, and because someone’s crime of commitment is not necessarily an indication of their violent tendencies at present, nor does it predict their recidivism.
In Cheap on Crime and elsewhere I described the post-recession efforts to shrink prison population, which targeted only nonviolent people; reformers understandably thought that such reforms would be more palatable to the public. The problem with this kind of policy, though–as this excellent Prison Policy report explains–is that these kind of reforms ignore the majority of people in prison, who happen to be doing time for violent crime.
In addition to this, if we are looking at releases to address a public health crisis, we have to release the people who are vulnerable to the public health threat. And who, in prison, is most vulnerable? Aging and infirm prisoners.
The math is simple. Out of the prison population, folks who were sentenced for a violent crime are the ones most likely to be (1) aging and (2) infirm. Aging, because the sentences are much longer; and infirm, because spending decades in a hotbed of contagion, with poor food and poor exercise options, does not improve one’s health. We know that a considerable portion of the health crisis in California prison is iatrogenic; not so long ago, Supreme Court Justices were horrified to learn that a person was dying behind bars every six days fo a preventable disease. So, a person who has spent decades in prison is more likely to be vulnerable to health threats. Such a person is also more likely to be older (by virtue of having been in prison for 20, 30, 40 years!) and therefore far less of a public risk of reoffending than a younger person who’s been inside for a few months for some nonviolent offense.
So, if there’s any reluctance to release people who are (1) old, (2) sick, and (3) more likely to contract a serious form of disease that will (4) cause more suffering and (5) cost more money, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves – why?
Is it really because of a mission to protect the public? Because old, sick people are not a safety risk to the public.
So, is it perhaps because we think of these releases not as an essential public health action, but as some kind of “reward” for people who we think are “worthy” or “deserving”?
The correctional system’s ignorance of old age and sickness is a topic I know something about. In Chapter 6 of my book Yesterday’s Monsters I describe the 2009 parole hearing for Susan Atkins, one of the Manson Family members who participated in the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends in 1969. Forty years later, in her early sixties and ravaged by an inoperable brain tumor, Atkins–a devout Christian with a clean disciplinary record for decades–was wheeled into her hearing on a gurney. At her side was her 17-year husband, lawyer James Whitehouse, who represented her in the hope that she be allowed to spend the last few months of her life by his side.
The Parole Commissioners’ treatment of the case was shockingly obtuse. They started by offering the barely conscious Atkins a hearing aid (as if she could hear them), analyzed old psychological reports from her file, and addressed her educational and rehabilitation “prospect.” They even mocked her husband for being able to afford palliative care for his wife. Incensed by this facetiousness, Whitehouse exploded:
For the record, she’s lying in her gurney here. She is paralyzed over 85 percent of her body. She can move her head up and down. She can move it to the side. She used to have partial use of her left arm, partial limited use, meaning she can’t wave to you. She can’t give you a thumbs up. She no longer can point at you, I believe. She can’t snap her fingers. And this is the evidence. . . . We haven’t been able to get her in a wheelchair for well over a year. Permanent speech impairment—“does not communicate, speaking or writing”—complex medical needs, assistance needed eating, bathing, grooming, moving, cleaning, permanent speech and comprehension impairment due to underlying medical problems. . . . That’s the only evidence regarding her medical condition. And all those things have to do with what we are supposed to be looking for the future of behavior. In light of that, is there anything that her commitment offense has to do that’s probative to what she’s going to be doing in the future as far as you know? That’s a question.
The Parole Board refused to release Atkins, arguing that “these Manson killings and the rampage that went on is almost iconic and they have the ability to influence many other people, and she still has that ability as part of that group.” Atkins, who had no ability to do anything at all, died alone in prison a few months later.
If this outcome feels okay to you, ask yourself: what’s it to you? Do you have an idea of deservedness, of a price to pay, of just deserts? Do you think your idea of an appropriate time spent behind bars bows to no one, to nothing, not even to old age, sickness, and death?
Do you feel comfortable sentencing thousands of California prisoners to death because of these ideas of deservedness, or appropriate retribution, that you have? Will these ideas give you comfort when CDCR has to reckon with thousands of preventable deaths of human beings, just like you?
And if your answer is, “well, they didn’t consider that when they killed their victims, right?”, I have news for you: The victims are not coming back. They’ve been gone for decades. It’s horrible, and tragic, and we can’t fix that. Certainly not with another tragedy.
Get in touch with our common humanity. Write to the Governor. Sign my petition. Do something.