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The links between a bizarre time perception and an indeterminate future found in Lifers Without Parole (LWOPs)

by Scott Culp 

“Never shall I forget that night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.” -Auschwitz’s survivor Elie Wiesel

There’s a peculiar sort of deformed time experience called inner time, where a smaller unit of time, like a day, seems endless, and a larger unit of time, like a week, passes more rapidly.

There are five distinct societal groups of the 19th and early 20th century: World War I prisoners of war, chronic tuberculosis patients, the Jewish people in the death camps of the Holocaust, unemployed coal miners of the 1980’s, and the men and women under the verdict of life without parole.

Eerily, they are the only people in our history to experience this warped perception of time that’s aggravated by an indeterminate future. A. Vischer’s (1884-1974) early research on the mass warehousing of prisoners is the bedrock for our understanding of the psychiatric syndrome called barbed-wire disease.

Coined by Vischer, the disease is characterized as something elusive and darkly shrouded by fear. Vischer concluded that “being held behind barbed wire for prolonged stretches of time,” prisoners develop a form of psychosis. This wasn’t confined to a minority – it was common to all prisoners – and the severity depended on the length of captivity.

John Yarnall’s book Barbed Wire Disease details the 1918 Armistice when more than 5.5 million prisoners were interned during World War I. During that time, mass incarceration became a modern phenomenon.

According to Matthew Stibbe in “Archives & Manuscripts of The Great War,” the French also had a word that describes the fusion of a strange time experience and an indeterminate future: cafard. This word is defined as seeing a form of spiritual homesickness to be fought against and overcome.

There’s a stark difference between how different individuals come to grips with life without parole. Some view everything beyond the barbed wire with a ghostly aspect, and then those with some “higher power dynamics” can inspire their communities with a loftiness of spirit that enables them to bear calmly with an existence of unknown limits.

The colloquial “stir crazy” notion was applied to those first prisoners of war who experienced forms of psychosis and suffered from mass warehousing. Vischer compared these early prisoners to “polar explorers, heroic men navigating an unexplored, monotonous, and hostile terrain.”

“When I meet someone for the first time and tell them I have life without, they always say sorry as if someone has just passed.” – Tien Tran

In the final stage of chronic tuberculosis, the disease progresses into a very slow drowning. It was documented that sufferers experienced a never-ending, ever-present distorted view of time. Also noted was the cascading effect of the disease that corresponded with their grim outlook on the future.

“There’s a dramatic link between losing faith in the future and giving up. A prisoner who loses faith in the future is doomed, with this loss, he also loses his spiritual hold and subsequently lets himself decline into mental and physical decay.”- Auschwitz survivor

In Janelle Skeard’s Come Hell or High Water,  she described “the emotional distress caused by losing the primary employer in a single-industry community.” Think of the coal industry and the entire State of West Virginia. It decimated whole communities, some becoming ghost towns, and created a void that was filled with an opioid epidemic of biblical proportions.

Studies done on unemployed coal miners of the 1980s identified several unique commonalities with LWOPs: “The dangerous and peculiar environment deep within the earth forged bonds of friendship where men were required to trust each other and look out for potential hazards.”

Below the Earth’s surface, weird perceptual experiences occurred. In the grips of this inner time, you dare not avert your eyes, minutes feel like hours. Due to their unemployed state, “an indeterminate future,” as Skeard calls it, the fusion with this perception phenomena also brought resilience.

Mining activities had stopped but friendships forged under mountains remained. Despite the challenge from the Duck Pond Mine closure, the town of Buchans off Red Indian Lake in Newfoundland was able to maintain its identity.

“The mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those that as a whole would be easy to condemn. The boundaries have overlapped and we mustn’t try to simplify matters by saying these men are angels and those are devils.” – Auschwitz survivor

A tenet of California Governor Newsom’s paradigm shift towards the Norway Model proclaims, “An environment for transformation must already exist for transformation to take place.”

I say that an idea untethered by machination is the genesis of transformation, and it precedes the data-driven modeling, and the statistically analyzed architecture of the warehouse space at San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.

These self-transcendent ideas are present here at Chino. California prisoners will evolve naturally into this Scandinavian model. There are men whose pasts’ still linger, but the majority of prisoners look forward to a broader cultural experience that focuses on advanced job placement.

In the 1990s while Norway was revamping its prison system, the interlocking of government and corporate interest here in California saw the most rapid expansion of a prison population ever recorded. Those profits enhanced an increased interest in the California warehouse model nationwide.

According to the Office of Research for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the United States holds 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s total prison population. For there to be a start to Governor Newsom’s $360 million flagship Norway model at San Quentin there has to be an end.

“Recognizing the errors and harm caused by the hyper punitive policies enacted in the 1980’s and 1990’s which led to an era of mass Incarceration.” – Assembly Bill 1104

According to First Step Alliance, California prisoners were often given lengthy sentences in harsh conditions to deter others from incarceration. The marked end of one era and the beginning of another exposes inequity. At its peak, mass incarceration resulted in a 70% recidivism rate.

Human Rights Watch reported, “Extensive research on recidivism rates suggest that people convicted of homicide are unlikely to re-offend after release from long-term incarceration.”

It is easy for an outsider to get the wrong impression of LWOPs. The mingling of crucifixion and the sentiment of pity are just bricks in the road that led to a system that stifled hope. LWOPs are the casualties left behind on the front lines of that failed experiment.

According to, Norway does not give life sentences. The maximum penalty is 21 years and in severe cases up to 30 years. Norway does have the lowest recidivism rate in the world.

After everything has been stripped away, the last of human freedoms remains the ability to choose one’s attitude. There are 70 men here at Chino under that sentence and their reactions to such an abnormal situation differ from man to man. Each must find out for himself/herself their purpose.

Nobody can tell another what that purpose is. This is a story of men whose inner strength, tested by the difficulties imposed by such a sentence, take every opportunity to give their lives purpose. A Roman road is long so I’ll be highlighting several LWOPs who are helping re-imagine the correctional landscape of California.

“More than 5,000 of the nearly 56,000 men and woman sentenced to LWOP are in California.” -Human Rights Watch

Duane West and Tyson Atlas, graduates of the Occupational Mentorship Certification Program, are mentors fighting recidivism at the grassroots level. 67% of 18- to 19-year-olds re-enter prison within two years.

The State paid 20 thousand for each student’s training. This is an assessed, and evidence-based program that’s paying dividends. When asked about the light that shines in the present darkness of his life, Tyson Atlas responded, “I discovered a guiding truth that begins with the process of acknowledging the harm to my victims, and to create a better man for them, myself, my family and my community.”

Duane West expanded, saying “becoming honest with myself in regards to how unmanageable and morally offensive my life had become and taking responsibility for the harm I caused my victims and their families.”

His words sparked my transformation. If you wanna face yourself, it starts with the inward battle first; it’s there that you begin disregarding those things that once held you in bonds and chains

“When I tell someone that I have life without parole, it’s like a shadow passes before their eyes.” – Duane West

Tien Tran and Nerio Celaya are dog trainers for Pawz Behind Wallz, a community-based organization that promotes individual and societal change here at Chino. They take the one thing they can so readily identify with: “A neglected puppy from a local shelter.”

For a minimum of six weeks, and up to six months, these discarded animals are trained to recognize behavioral issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and Down’s syndrome. To aid paralyzed and other mobility-impaired veterans, the dogs are trained to take off socks, shirts, and jackets. They are also taught to retrieve bottled water, medicine from cabinets, and other items.

Growing up in Vietnam, Tien remembered, “My Dad had ten mouths to feed, unlike other soldiers in the A.R.V.N. Dad would bring his check home and give it to my Mom.” When his mom and sister visited him at New Folsom, Tien’s lightbulb moment happened while witnessing their reaction, “tears in their eyes” to the ankle restraints, belly chain, and cuffs he had on.

Because of the two community organizations, Tien found his calling, dog training. The Canine Support Team and Paws for Life K-9 Rescue helped him find this love. John Grobman, “ex-inmate” and Director of Programs showed how dog training makes indirect amends daily.

“Life without parole both saved me, and will kill me,” Nerio said as a black labrador named Everly rested at his feet.

If it wasn’t for life without parole I never would have understood myself. I had thought, felt, and acted the same way for so long.

My journey began the moment Javier Staurling of Healing Dialogue Action notified me that my victim’s mother wanted to speak. I felt my soul had abandoned me.

Six years in the Army, a Bachelor’s from San Diego State, and fourteen years in the U.S. Customs & Border Protection couldn’t have prepared me. Day after day of vomit sessions and intense one-on-one counseling brought me the strength to be accountable.

“I count my blessings,” he says as he and Everly exchange a trusting glance, “giving back to the brothers and sisters I served with, by training her to be a service dog, is lifetime cool.

The wife of his victim, Georgia Herr, became a surrogate mother to him. Micheal Herr pleaded to the jury to spare his life from death row “in the name of her faith.” Micheal Herr said, “Today I am the teacher and you are my student, tomorrow you can teach.”

Georgia visited him for thirty years. On Sundays at 9:00 AM, on Southern California’s F.M. 90.7 KFPK, he is a regular on Gerry Silvas’s “Think Outside the Cage” which brings awareness to life without parole.

The Latin word “Finis” has two meanings: the end and a goal to reach. A man who can’t see a future existence is not able to aim for an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future.

Does a man who observes, while he himself is a prisoner, possess the necessary detachment to make effective judgments? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man on the inside knows.

Allen Burnett spent twenty-eight years under the burden of life without parole. After his release, he got a bachelor’s and master’s degree from California State University, Los Angeles. Mr. Burnett co-founded and is the Executive Director of Prism Way.

Thaisan Nguon spent twenty years under the weight of that sentence. After his gubernatorial commutation, Thaisan went on to graduate summa cum laude with a BA from Cal State L.A.

Those men and women whose sentences were commuted by Governor Newsom are like graffiti artists who spray in luminous paint, or rappers who record in sub-sonic beats, unheralded but to a few and to them they’re rockstars.

Like the coal miners, LWOPs form friendships under the weight of mountains too. Through a myriad of viewpoints, they also assess the weaknesses and strengths of their tight-knit community. There’s a hierarchy of pain here. We all feel it.

We dare not avert our eyes. Labels, colors, and prison numbers fall by the wayside. How can we be insensitive to the plight of those whose names were called on the train platform? I gained many insights into the folklore of life without parole from John Malarkey and Jose Barragan.

As we spoke of superstitions, “Some men won’t walk in the shadow of LWOPs” I thought it ironic because I’ve witnessed these two men explaining this macabre superstition display the kindest smallest gestures to those LWOPs who are struggling and view everything beyond the barbed wire with a ghostly aspect.

I’d like to thank Dr. David Chuquimia, “Clinical Psychologist,” for his critiques and insights and the Librarians here at Chino, Ms. Tajada and Ms. Rodriguez for providing me with resource material and for supporting my writing.

“One must have an appreciation for the experience of the coal miner who labored deep within the Earth.” – Anonymous

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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