‘Who gets redemption?’

As the pandemic shines a spotlight on conditions in prison, it’s time to reconsider how we think about incarcerated people, reform advocates say.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Louie Hammonds Sr. writes on a board during a Peer Reentry Navigation Network meeting in San Francisco on March 10, 2020.

Society had essentially given up on Louie Hammonds Sr. The phrase “lock the door and throw away the key” was, in his case, almost literally true. He was a “lifer” in Pelican Bay State Prison, the supermax prison that houses California’s most violent inmates. He had been a gang leader, imprisoned for shooting a man at a bar seven times, and faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

That could have been the end of his story. “In my opinion,” one lifer in Michigan told Politico Magazine, “ninety-nine percent [of incarcerated people] have the fight knocked out of them because of the shock factor of this environment.” It is easy – perhaps even expected – to simply languish, “watching each year roll by like heavy fog,” the man told Politico.

Prison rehabilitation programs that teach skills and kindle hope are geared toward those nearing release. But what if you are never nearing your release? What life do you even have left?

This week’s cover story tells of lifers who have begun to find an answer to that question in unexpected ways.

For Mr. Hammonds, it began with a bunny knot in his shoelace. The hardened criminal who had so wanted to be like the Scarface of the silver screen was undone when a corrections officer made the small gesture of bending over to tie Mr. Hammonds’ loose shoelace when the prisoner’s hands were shackled. “He humbled me,” Mr. Hammonds told correspondent Patricia Leigh Brown. “He didn’t break the glass ceiling of my insanity all the way, but he cracked it. He had humanity in him, and when he touched my spirit, he gave me some of that humanity.” 

That crack of humanity expanded when California began to reconsider its approach to lifers, particularly those sentenced as juveniles. In some cases, like that of Mr. Hammonds, the state found the key and started opening doors, paroling those who were no longer seen as a threat. As the cover story tells, an act of grace met a moment of opportunity and the result has been a life renewed. Mr. Hammonds now works to help others who have been released.

For lifers still in prison, the Politico story tells of new movements across the country to restore some measure of humanity and purpose even to those not nearing a release date. Groups of lifers are starting organizations like the National Lifers of America in Michigan to help teach leadership skills, law, economic literacy, or how to connect with family. As the pandemic shines a spotlight on conditions in prison, it is a time to reconsider how we think about those in prison, reform advocate Shawanna Vaughn told Politico. “Who gets redemption? Who gets forgiveness? Because it’s not afforded or given to everyone.”

This week’s cover story is about the lifers to whom it has been given – and what they are trying to do with it. Says another former lifer who now works with those like himself: “Helping is my medicine. It keeps me humble.”

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