Does Reform Matter? The Hopelessness of a Life Sentence

By Jermemiah Bourgeois, The Crime Report

Photo by Osvaldo Eaf via Flickr

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.

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