In 1986, Patty Prewitt was sent to prison for the murder of her husband. In addition to maintaining her innocence, she, like many others her age, has also been a model prisoner for nearly 30 years. Yet Prewitt, now 65 years old, will not be eligible for parole until 2036, so she is virtually guaranteed to spend the rest of her life behind bars.
In an essay published in the 2013 anthology Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough, Prewitt described an incident in a women’s prison in Missouri a decade ago, when a caseworker sat her down and presented a modest proposal. “I think we should start a cemetery behind 2-House,” the caseworker said. “A graveyard for you and the others serving no-parole.”
While she described her vision down to the flower beds and flat gravestones that can easily be mowed over, I sat sad, dumb and numb. It never occurred to me that the state was patiently waiting for me to die, although it makes perfect sense. In their opinion, a pine casket is my only way out, and since I am not directly sentenced to the death penalty, they must wait for me to die on my own … a second-class dead-woman-walking.
Patty Prewitt is one of the tens of thousands of Americans who will never again experience life outside of prison. While inside, Prewitt, a grandmother of 10, runs education and parenting programs, produces award-winning writings, and crochets teddy bears for charity. Yet for a crime committed three decades ago (and currently being reviewed by the Midwest Innocence Project), she will forever be barred from society, never again to live among free people.
In ancient times, communities would often rid themselves of convicted criminals and other undesirables through the practice of banishment: casting unwanted people out into the wilderness. The Romans often employed banishment as an alternative to capital punishment, and indeed, considered it a fate nearly as terrible as death. Later, the British Empire liberally employed the punishment of banishment and transportation to colonies such as Australia, while the Soviet Union became known for its use of internal banishment to Siberia. The terms exile, outlaw and outcast all owe their origin to this once widespread practice.
As the world grew smaller, banishment, as a practical matter, virtually ceased to exist. Though it still remains on the books in a few Southern states, it is generally thought of as an archaic form of punishment, and one that cannot function effectively in the modern world.
Yet the impetus behind banishment — to permanently remove individuals from society, and subject them to a kind of “social death” — flourishes today in the American criminal justice system, where prisons and jails are the settings for a new kind of internal exile.
The United States holds more than 2.2 million people in prison and jail, grossly outpacing the rest of the globe in terms of both sheer numbers and incarceration rate. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Compared with Western Europe, we incarcerate five to ten times as high a percentage of our citizens.
But those overall numbers are just part of what sets us off from other industrialized nations. In Europe, the nature of sentencing is such that virtually every person who is sent to prison will one day return to society. Even those who receive “life” sentences are eventually eligible for parole. The International Criminal Court stipulates that those convicted of the very gravest crimes should serve 25 years before having their status reviewed. That is one key reason why rehabilitation, and not purely punishment and incapacitation, is the primary aim of the prison system.
In the United States, people sentenced to death number slightly over 3,000. With the number of legal and de facto state moratoria increasing, more of them are likely to die in prison of suicide or natural causes than by an executioner’s hand. They join tens of thousands of others in suffering permanent banishment to the carceral state.
According to the Sentencing Project, nearly 50,000 Americans are currently serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), a punishment that has been called “the other death sentence,” and which, like capital punishment, is unknown in Europe. In excess of 100,000 more are serving life sentences — many, like Patty Prewitt, with minimums so long that they will die before their potential parole date arrives.
About 10,000 of these lifers were sentenced before they reached the age of 18. Nearly half are African American — a number even more disproportionate than the total number of African Americans in prison. Thousands of them have been further buried in the tomb of prolonged solitary confinement, removed even from the meager community that the prison might offer — another practice virtually unique to the United States.
What is it like to live out an incarcerated life, knowing that you are dead to the society outside the prison walls? In an essay titled “The Meaning of Life,” Joseph Dole, who is serving LWOP in Illinois, wrote:
It means you’re constantly being told that you aren’t worth rehabilitation … It means convincing yourself daily that your life has value even when the rest of the world tells you you’re worthless. It’s a lifetime spent wondering what your true potential really is, and yearning for the chance to find out … A life-without-parole sentence means constant contemplation of a wasted life. A continual despair as to your inability to accomplish anything significant with your remaining years … It’s a compounding of second upon second, minute upon minute, hour upon hour, of wasted existence.
Even such accounts, and the numbers of people sentenced to life in prison, do not tell the full story of how banishment operates in present-day America. For the most marginalized — people with inadequately treated mental illness — prisons have become what E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), calls the nation’s “new asylums.” A recent TAC report estimated that in 2012, more than 350,000 people with serious mental illness were housed in prisons and jails, while a tenth as many — about 35,000 — were in state mental hospitals. Many enter prison on relatively minor charges, then rack up additional charges as they act out due to untreated illness, eventually cycling in and out of jail.
A century ago, America purported to open its arms to the “wretched refuse” of other societies. Now we have “disappeared” our own underclass into permanent exile right in our own backyards. The philosopher Lisa Guenther has called all of these perpetual prisoners “stateless persons,” who have been “cast out of the common world and condemned to a kind of civil death.” Patty Prewitt describes them as having “been heaved into the landfill of incarceration to rot, not worth the time or trouble to recycle.”
It is here, and not just in the popular areas of low-level drug offenses or other easy reforms, that we must look for true change in our criminal justice system. For Patty Prewitt, the hope is that reformers recognize this, “before that caseworker gets her way and I’m buried out behind the Housing Unit 2 garbage receptacle.”
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty
James Ridgeway has been a journalist for more than 50 years. Currently he focuses on prison issues as co-director of Solitary Watch. This piece was written with the support of a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.