VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Life without Parole – A Life of Death

By Damitrius Gallows

California’s prison system releases approximately 125,000 people annually. After 23 years of incarceration, I will soon join the ranks of the newly freed, happily exiting these confining gates. Yet there is a permanent class of incarcerated people who will never leave; they will die a slow death behind these unforgiving bars. Those poor souls are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

Had I thought about it, I would think people living without hope would have the worst dispositions. In my mind they should be super dangerous, and the most bitter. But after almost a quarter century inside, that was not my experience. I have interacted with many people sentenced to die over the years and most of them have the best attitudes.

There are two who particularly standout: Greg, always friendly, helpful and generous. When I first learned he was sentenced to LWOP, I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t look hopeless, with his cocoa butter complexion. He wasn’t bitter with his effortless smile. Greg is a mentor and model for all. He is respected by the guards and the population. Who wouldn’t respect anyone who has survived 40 continuous years of created chaos?

Big John, with his hint of an afro and his contagious smile is the other one. A deeply religious man, someone who would give the shirt off his back, John is a friend’s friend of the friendly. You interact with John for five minutes and you’d ask why he’s even in prison. He mentors youth through a program that brings at risk youth to the prison here in Blythe, and he takes self-help classes, though he gets no credit for them. I don’t get it! John is literally living a death sentence, second by second, minute by minute, day by day — for over three decades now. Yet his warmth drips off of him.

The paradox is that many of the guys who will get out are some of the most miserable, and too many of them will come back. Ironically, it’s those sentenced to life, and those rare ones commuted from their LWOP sentence, that are the least likely to return. (Non-lifers produce a 60% fail rate, “lifers” less than 2%) *

I imagine it helps that they, the lifers, must be screened by an expert parole panel, and then endure a governor’s review board. Personally, I think it’s totally inhumane to lock a person up with no hope. I think that philosophy of cruelty comes from the Old Testament, but the O.T. was replaced by the New Testament. Jesus taught to forgive, to have mercy.

Sure, accountability is important, and remorse and rehabilitation are a must, but I believe everyone is redeemable, or at least should have an opportunity to strive for it. In fact, Assembly Bill 1104, passed by the State Legislature in 2023, redefines the very purpose of prison — from punishment to rehabilitation.

Greg and John are rehabilitated! The reasoning of AB 1104 is as follows: “Recognizing the errors and harm caused by the hyper policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the era of mass incarceration, the Legislature has been engaged in a multi-year course correction.” (Source: AB 1104, Mia Bonta, Section 1(a)) Yet there is no hope for people trapped under this draconian sentence, even if, like Greg, John, and countless others, they have done the work of self-transformation. There is absolutely no mechanism for review. Condemned to a life of death, they are thrown away like garbage, ever to be forgotten. But I will remember them; I will remember Greg’s admonition to me: ” Get out and stay out, don’t come back!” because I know everyone doesn’t get a second chance in California.

* California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,

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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