By Harlan Richards
Back in the 1980s a person with a life sentence (lifer) would serve on average 13-15 years before release on parole. In the 1970s it was much shorter because Wisconsin's governors routinely granted clemency to lifers by commuting their sentences to 50 years or less. This allowed lifers to receive parole hearings far in advance of the statutorily mandated 11 years, 3 months (one lifer had his sentence commuted to "time served" after only 5 years).
It was so rare for a lifer to spend more than 20 consecutive years in prison that in 1980 there were only 2 prisoners with that distinction. In 1990, it was a newsworthy item when Steve Urban died in prison after serving 47 years on a life sentence. He was released on parole in the early 1970s but by that time he had become institutionalized and quickly demanded that he be allowed to return to prison. When he died, he no longer had any family to claim his body, which was buried in a pauper's grave outside of Waupun. The Waupun Correctional Institution Lifers Group took up a collection and bought a headstone for his grave.
Times have changed. The constant drum beat of vengeance, retribution and punishment has changed the political landscape. Newly convicted lifers no longer become eligible for parole after 11 years, 3 months. The judge sets the length of time to eligibility and it is not uncommon for lifers to serve 30 or more years to their first parole hearing.
Fast forward to 2009, and those same lifers who would have been paroled in 13-15 years are now hoping for release after serving twice that amount of time. In the 1980s, release on parole was virtually assured based on past practice. While there are a few lifers still being released on parole after an average of 30 years, it has become the exception rather than the rule.
From only 2 lifers with 20 or more consecutive years served in 1980, there are now 255. The number is increasing every year. One of those lifers who had already served 20 years in 1980 is still in prison. Garold Rheinschmidt has now served 49 years. He is not alone. There are 6 lifers with over 43 years served and an additional 37 lifers who have served over 30 years. There were none in 1980.
When data on lifers is evaluated based on year of admission, the critical year is currently 1979. That is the first year for which there are more lifers still in prison than have been released. The percentage of lifers incarcerated increases until 1989; none of the lifers who entered prison that year have been released.
Curiously, there are some anomalies. Two women came to prison in 1992 and were parole relatively early. Lashonda Mayhall was released in 2005 after 12.5 years and Mary Leggate was released after 13.4 years. One wonders why these 2 women were released in such a relatively short period of time while all other lifers spend years, or decades more.
For instance, Jesse Derickson is 85 years old, serving double life for shooting 2 men and trying to make it look like they shot each other. Jesse has spent 26 years in prison and is now a doddering old man, wasting away in a prison cell. Wayne Lowe is 81 years old and has spent 21 years in prison on a life sentence for killing his wife's boyfriend. Wayne weighs about 90 pounds and can-best be described as frail. These men have spent decades in prison, are near the end of their lives and no longer pose a threat to anyone. In an overcrowded prison system, who would you rather see in a prison cell: One of the many aging, now harmless, lifers or the young gun-toting gang member who is selling crack on a street corner near you?
To the layperson, it may seem right that "life means life", that regardless of what was done in the 1980s and before murderers belong in prison forever. It may seem that murderers are only now getting their just desserts. Perhaps that is true. Ex-governor Tommy Thompson made being "tough on crime" his mantra and served multiple terms as governor. The prison population was just 3,980 in 1980, grew to 7,362 in 1990 and hit 21,110 in 2005. Thompson made the warehousing of prisoners an established policy and became infamous among prisoners for his 1994 letter where he stated:
"The policy of this Administration is to keep violent offenders in prison for as long as possible under the law."
The data reflect this change in attitude as most of the growth in time served to release occurred in the late 1990s and beyond. Dierdre Morgan, who chaired the parole commission in 2001-02, is the only chairperson with the distinction of having gone an entire calendar year without paroling a single lifer (2002). In 2001, she paroled one lifer: Leon Christian. He was released from maximum security and that generally indicates that he was either paroled to a detainer to serve additional time in prison elsewhere or because he was terminally ill
Jerry Smith, Ms. Morgan's predecessor, was not much better. He released only 2 lifers in each of the 2 years he was chairman.
Ms. Morgan's successor, Lenard Wells, was Governor Doyle's first chairman. He started out slowly but once he gained confidence he began paroling many lifers. In 2005, he released 18 lifers. But he was forced to resign in 2006 due to the Milwaukee Police Department's outcry when he paroled 2 "cop killers". The news media never did tell the whole story, preferring sensationalism to fair and accurate reporting. Robert Prihoda and Lavern Rogers were 2 of the 4 men convicted in the 1975 shooting of an off-duty police officer during a tavern robbery. They were both young men who made poor choices and paid the price of over 30 years in prison. Now approaching middle age, they no longer pose a threat to anyone and were appropriately released on parole. Neither one has been involved in any further criminal activity although they have now been free for years.
Since his appointment in 2006, Chairman Alfonso Graham has followed a policy of denying parole to deserving prisoners based on political considerations. Any prisoner whose release might elicit a public reaction will not be paroled. With lifers, this is particularly burdensome as the only way they can be released is via parole. Mr. Graham has turned many life—with-parole sentences into life-without-paroLe sentences.
This seems to conflict with one of the basic constitutional protections our founding fathers guaranteed us: the right to be free from ex post facto laws. This includes not having one's punishment increased for a crime previously committed. It seems only right that this principle be respected in our country. Still, many oppose Such a basic guarantee.
The problem is that when the constitution was written it only proscribed actual changes in laws, not reinterpretation of existing laws. Although the spirit of the Ex Post Facto Clause would prohibit doubling a prisoner's time, in prison after the fact, the devil is in the details. In other words, our judges have chosen to rely on a strict literal interpretation rather than a more equitable analysis based on the intent of the constitution.
Many listen to the controversy over judicial appointments to the federal bench with a yawn. For most citizens it does not matter who becomes a federal judge because they will never see the inside of a federal courtroom. But for those on the fringes of society - prisoners and other social outcasts -federal courts are their only hope for justice. After decades of conservative judicial appointments, few judges remain who are willing to stand up for society's most oppressed people.
This leaves Wisconsin's lifers trapped in a system which exists solely to perpetuate itself. In 1990, Thompson funded a study which called for the prison population to reach 20,000 by 2000. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The growing population of lifers has contributed to that growth.
Those 255 lifers with more than 20 years served have cost taxpayers millions of dollars over the decades with no corresponding increase in public safety. The annual cost to house a prisoner in fiscal year 2005 was $44,118. Wisconsin can go a long way toward ridding itself of its $6 billion deficit and preventing future deficits by correcting the ill-considered corrections policies of the last 25' years..
The Department of Corrections has numerous programs which help prisoners learn to become law-abiding citizens. When prisoners change their thoughts, beliefs and actions, it should be acknowledged and rewarded. They should be permitted to return to their families and allowed to become productive members of society.
What's missing from our current correctional policies is another chance for those who have earned it. Regardless of one's personal beliefs about retribution and government-sanctioned vengeance, it makes economic and moral sense to give deserving prisoners an opportunity to demonstrate that they can be positive contributors to our society.
About the Author:
Harlan Richards is serving a life sentence for stabbing another man in a fight. He has served over 24 years in prison. Richards is a self-taught jailhouse lawyer who has litigated prisoner rights issues extensively during his imprisonment. He earned a bachelors degree in business administration from UW Platteville in 19'97, graduating summa cum laude. He is currently housed in Oakhill Correctional Institution.
Lifer data sources:
May 18, 2000 response to open records request made to the Department of Corrections regarding lifers in prison between 1980 and 1990. Response based on data culled from CIPIS database Y2K and pre-1991 monthly reports.
April 2009 response to open records request made to t n e Department of Corrections.
Notes on statistics:
All of the graphs presented in the graphs used in the article were obtained through the open records law or were based on the personal knowledge of the author. Lifers who were serving a period of revocation were excluded from the calculations. It was assumed for purposes of creating the graphs that any lifer who served less than 10 years was incarcerated for revocation.
Prison Population Data:All prison incarceration and annual cost data were obtained from the Wisconsin Blue Book 2007-2008, page 824.
chart one: click on picture below to view full size
Inmate status Per Year
persons serving life sentences based on year of admission
chart two : click on picture below to view full size
persons serving life sentences
time served on Sentence prior to parolechart three: click on picture below to view full size
number of lifers with 20 + years incarceraton