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Why I Fight to End ‘Life Without Parole’

With SB 94, California lawmakers have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people behind bars. It is time to reconsider our LWOP laws.

Michele Scott poses for a portrait at a residential career campus for CROP (Creating Restorative Opportunities & Programs), a reentry program for formerly incarcerated people in Oakland, California, on Monday June 12, 2023. Now a fellow in CROP’s job readiness program, Scott once served a life without parole (LWOP) sentence. After 30 years of incarceration, in 2021 she was released thanks to a rare governor commutation, and she now works to support people in reentry and advocates for the rights of those serving LWOP sentences.
Michele Scott poses for a portrait at a residential career campus for CROP (Creating Restorative Opportunities & Programs), a reentry program for formerly incarcerated people in Oakland, California, on Monday June 12, 2023. Now a fellow in CROP’s job readiness program, Scott once served a life without parole (LWOP) sentence. After 30 years of incarceration, in 2021 she was released thanks to a rare governor commutation, and she now works to support people in reentry and advocates for the rights of those serving LWOP sentences. (Photo: Mabel Jiménez | Knock LA)

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Behind prison walls in Chowchilla, something monumental was about to happen. It was 2012. The housing unit dayroom was packed — some women leaned against walls while others squatted on the dusty concrete floor, squeezing in between the few couches and chairs already filled with expectant faces. Our older community, with decades of imprisonment having taken its toll, leaned on their walkers or sat in their wheelchairs in the front. 

There had been no need for the housing staff to make an announcement — everyone in the unit knew we were about to hear that one of our own had been commuted from her life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence and would be going home. 

When Sara arrived at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), she was 18 — a heartbreaking reminder of how teenagers who get an LWOP sentence are quickly transferred to adult prisons as soon as they’re legally adults. Over the next 18 years, she and I became close: we worked together, lived in the same housing unit, and occasionally I would sneak into her room (a serious no-no) to gossip. 

When Sarah received a governor’s commutation in 2010 and then was resentenced and paroled in 2013, she represented a possibility; it was the first time I dared to hope that — even with two LWOP sentences — maybe, someday, I could get out too. 

Life Without Parole in the State of California

California currently has approximately 5,200 individuals serving LWOP, with another 190 additional people sentenced each year. Those serving LWOP are excluded from self-help programs, housing assignments, vocational training, rehabilitative services, and certain prison job assignments.

The justifications behind these exclusions? We are considered to be the worst of criminals, the ones with no possibility of reform. An LWOP sentence holds no opportunity for release — so why waste resources or opportunities? 

This means that those sentenced to LWOP often can’t take self-help programs that teach communication skills and coping strategies for stress and anger. When it comes to housing assignments, those with an LWOP sentence are often placed in housing units or facility yards that operate under higher supervision and control.

There are also restrictions on access to some vocational training programs. My experience was that I was excluded from vocational cosmetology and from vocational landscaping because prison regulations didn’t want to give me access to the tools or be close to the fence. The job that was available to me? Housing unit porter: mopping floors for eight cents an hour. Hopelessness is imbued in every aspect of life with an LWOP sentence.

Commutations Offer Hope and a Second Chance

I can still remember the routine mail call in 1994, barely three years into my sentence, when a single sheet of paper was slid underneath the door of my cell. It was from the Board of Prison Terms, informing me that on December 20, 1993, the 30-year sentence review had been eliminated. This meant my sentence would never be reconsidered — slamming the door shut on any hope I ever had to get out.

Imagine having your only chance, your only hope of freedom, wiped out by a single sheet of paper. The desolation of that moment brought a heaviness that lingered within me for decades. I still have that piece of paper today. 

This was my daily existence as I survived decades serving two consecutive LWOP sentences: an unending nightmare inside a prison penitentiary, waiting for my human spirit and body to finally flicker out. Until one day, when everything changed.

I was granted a rare governor commutation in 2018 and was paroled in June of 2021. My process of change, personal accountability, and creating a life of purpose came about despite my restricted and regulated existence inside the world’s largest women’s prison. Self-reflection brought about personal self-realization, maturity, ownership — not an easy thing to achieve in an environment built to punish and exclude.

I am privileged to see firsthand what a second chance can mean. And I’m not the only one.

My friend Kelly Savage-Rodriguez is a domestic violence survivor who was wrongfully convicted for the actions of her abuser. Arrested at 21, Kelly served 23 years on an LWOP sentence. Kelly was finally commuted by Governor Jerry Brown in December 2017. Kelly now does medical advocacy for the incarcerated, helps people prepare for their parole hearings, and provides reentry support. In just four years, she’s gotten a second behavioral science associate degree and a bachelor’s degree in communications. She’s even purchased her own home.

Allen Burnett was arrested at 18 and imprisoned at 20. He served 28 years and 8 months of his LWOP sentence before he was commuted in 2019 based on the work he did to change his life while inside. Allen was found suitable for parole in 2020 and has been pursuing his master’s in communication studies from Cal State Los Angeles since then. He is also the co-founder of Prism Way, a nonprofit organization that provides reentry services and emotional wellness courses for people who have experienced incarceration.

Kelly, Allen, and I are all working together now, fighting to end LWOP with the Human Rights Watch National Life Without Parole Leadership Council. We are proof that change is possible, that reform is possible, and that redemption can be an outcome after decades of confinement.

But the reality is that commutations like ours are exceedingly rare. 

The Case for a Second Chance for All Incarcerated People

So how do we change that? A restoration of parole eligibility for those serving LWOP sentences would be one pathway. Another one would be introducing reform sentencing laws to provide a mechanism for those with an LWOP sentence to have their sentences reviewed and possibly reduced. Another option would be returning judicial discretion to impose less severe sentences in appropriate cases to judges, such as when the individual was not the actual perpetrator and did not take a life. Imagine entering into our prison system for the rest of your life for burglary or for being present when a crime resulted in a loss of life.

We’re already seeing these kinds of reforms unfold across the country. In 2016, the US Supreme Court decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana contributed to the release of 100 individuals sentenced to LWOP as children. A child should not be sentenced based on the same laws as adults, regardless of the offense committed, and should never have their lives defined by their worst act. In 2015, Vermont passed H.62, granting parole eligibility after 20 years in prison to those who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offenses, effectively abolishing LWOP for people sentenced as children. Here in California, in 2019, we passed SB 394, permitting people sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed under the age of 18 to go before a parole board after 25 years of incarceration. 

And now, California has another chance to change.

Senate Bill 94 and Its Implications for Those Sentenced to LWOP in California

California Senator Dave Cortese proposed Senate Bill 94, which would provide for judicial review for individuals serving LWOP sentences, or who were sentenced to death for offenses committed before June 5, 1990, and who have served at least 20 years of their sentence. It passed the Senate on May 24, 2023, and will be going before the Assembly next.

On average, those who would be affected by this legal change are now 60 to 70 years old. For me, those numbers have faces: I think of the women waiting patiently to hear the news of Sara’s commutation in the dayroom that day. Many of these same women took me under their wings when I was first incarcerated in 1991. I would not have survived those first few years but for their empathy and mentorship. I remember their kind words when I broke down sobbing in the shower stall, overwhelmed by the enormity of coming to terms with a death-by-incarceration sentence. Many of these women were imprisoned before me and were still inside when I was paroled. Many of them I consider family. At times, my experience of survivor guilt is overwhelming and I ache that they are still trapped in an unrelenting existence. 

As a society we need to realize that life without parole is too often life without hope. What gives us the authority to deny hope to other human beings? What is accomplished by laws requiring even more time from individuals already serving decades of imprisonment?  

Michele Scott is an author and a prison reform advocate. She served 30 years on a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in the world’s largest women’s prison in California — until granted a rare Governor’s commutation.