The above image shows vultures in front of CCA’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville, TN. They know how to find houses of death, and landscapes of destruction. CCA is always and only a house of death. Some systems cannot be reformed; they must be stopped. Such is the case with private prisons. Because there is no place in a free society for carceral slavery, help us break the largest human auction block in America. No Exceptions—through collaborations with sister regional organizations—will expand its focus to end private prisons and carceral slavery. Please keep up with us on FB and Twitter for future actions.
Tennessee is the only state in the U.S. with two life without parole sentences. HB1128/SB1181 seeks to change that, and here’s why.
In 1995, after only twenty minutes of discussion, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to increase the mandatory minimum number of years for a life sentence with possibility of parole from 25 to 51 calendar years.
Though brief, the discussion did also include the presentation of reports which stated that because long-term incarceration reduces life expectancy by about 25 years, prisoners serving the 51-year life sentence were not expected to survive its duration. In fact, experts have determined that only 1.5 percent of individuals might survive the entire 51 years.
Therefore, a person who is sentenced to 51 years is effectively sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
The majority of states in the US have two life sentence options: A life without parole sentence, and a life with parole, in which a person is sentenced to a mandatory 20 to 25 years, on average, prior to going up for parole. No state has two life without parole sentences. Tennessee’s 51 year life with possibility of parole sentence is the only such sentence in this country. The national average is 25 years for life with possibility of parole.
There are two important questions to consider when determining the appropriateness of the 1995 decision.
What is the economic cost of implementing two life without parole sentences?
For the additional 26 years over and above our historical 25 year life sentence, are we actually purchasing an additional 26 years of safety? Do these individuals realistically present a continued risk to the public after serving for 25 years? If so, would that risk justify the economic cost?
In consideration of the vote to increase the mandatory minimum of years for a life sentence with possibility of parole from 25 to 51 calendar years, the projected increase in state expenditures was approximately $60 million for all 11 sentences that were increased.
But the estimation was woefully inadequate.
There are currently about 1,200 individuals serving the 51-year life sentence with option for parole. The annual cost to incarcerate an individual in Tennessee is slightly more than $26,000 per year per person. Keep in mind that for those over the age of 50, incarceration costs double; costing instead an average of $50,000 per person per year.
Shockingly, the actual cost of keeping these individuals locked up for life will be a staggering $2.097 billion.
Lastly, when we adjust for a rise in incarceration costs over time, that amount will continue to climb.
At the time of enactment, the General Assembly didn’t budget for the reality of this $2.097 billion price tag for the 51 year life sentences, in fact, the estimated price tag for all 11 increased sentences was only about $60 million.
HB1128/SB1181, will adjust the life sentence with possibility of parole back to 25 years, saving the state of Tennessee as much as $1.27 billion.
Parole statistics show us that on average individuals serving a life sentence with possibility for parole under the 1989 sentencing structure will serve about 28 years. Even with this adjustment, the state would still save at least $700 million.
Is having two life without parole sentences worth the economic cost to citizens? Does the mammoth cost of excessive sentencing yield any real benefits to public safety?
In fact, data shows that those who have served life sentences with parole are the least likely to reoffend and return to prison upon parole.
A 2011 Stanford Law School Study looked at 860 individuals who had been convicted of homicide, served 25-year life sentences, and were released in the state of California on parole.
Over a 15 year period, less than 1 percent of those paroled lifers returned to prison or jail because of new offenses, zero percent of which involved taking a life.
In 2002, a more comprehensive review by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics examined 272,000 lifers, paroled from 15 states. This group had a meager 1.2 percent recidivism rate; dramatically below the estimated national average of more than 60 percent.
Lastly, a 2007 recidivism study conducted by The Department of Corrections found that across categories, felons who had committed person offense — including homicide — have the lowest return rates, system wide.
This extremely low recidivism rate is why the national average for a life sentence with possibility of parole is 25 years.
Sentencing limits exist based on the guiding principle that public policy should be guided by justice, not vengeance. To consider justice means to consider the common good of society. In other words, laws and policies should promote stable families, and stable communities.
Studies have consistently shown that people age out of crime, particularly violent crime, and more specifically, murder, which is most often a crime born of a particular circumstance often involving high emotion, and the psychological break of an offender between the ages of 17 and 27.
The Stanford Law School report showed that most acts of violence are, in fact, committed by people under age 30; that number declines drastically after age 40; and even more so after age 50.
While the likelihood of re-offense declines dramatically as one ages, the cost to incarcerate individuals over the age of 50 more than doubles.
Thus, it is evident that the 51-year life sentence with parole is based not on justice, but on vengeance. It disregards the good of families, communities, and the economy.
Finally, the possibility of parole means that 12 citizens have the option to consider whether the individual being sentenced may one day re-enter society, rejoin their family, and make meaningful contributions to their community.
When a jury elects a life sentence instead of a life without parole sentence, it is clear that they intend for that individual to at least have the chance for parole. The option to select a life sentence with possibility for parole must reflect the wishes of the jury accurately. As it currently stands — the 51-year life sentence — does not.
If HB1128/SB1181 passes, prosecutors will still have every option to pursue a life sentence without parole if they believe that the crime warrants it, and if they can prove the aggravated circumstances required by law.
HB1128/SB1181 will repeal the 1995 law and restore Tennessee to the 1989 law, reducing the minimum life sentence with possibility of parole to 25 years.
For more information contact us:
Rev. Jeannie Alexander
Director, No Exceptions
Article 1 Section 33 of the Tennessee Constitution reads: “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.” We the undersigned individuals and organizations believe that the time is long overdue for the State of Tennessee, and indeed the United States of America, to permanently abolish all forms of slavery with no exceptions. To that end we call on the Tennessee Legislature, the Governor, and the citizens of Tennessee to amend Section 33 to henceforth read “That slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited in this state.” The only moral response to slavery is abolition, and we refuse to continue to participate in this immoral order which is nothing short of a crime against humanity.
Children’s Defense Fund
Dawn Deaner, elected Public Defender Nashville
Harriet Tubman House
H & S Farm
Human Rights Defense Center
Just City, Memphis
Mercy Junction, Chattanooga
NAACP – Nashville Branch
No Exceptions Prison Collective
Open Table Nashville
Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation
Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)
Support our Collective
Cascade Books has just released No Exceptions co-founder Michael T. McRay’s new book Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners, with a foreword by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Myriad works discuss forgiveness, but few address it in the prison context. For most people, prisoners exist “out of sight and out of mind.” Their stories are often reduced to a few short lines in news articles at the time of arrest or conviction.
But what happened before in the lives of the convicted? What has happened after? How have people in prison dealt with the harm they have caused and the harm they have suffered? What does forgiveness mean to them? What can we outsiders learn about the nature of forgiveness and prison from individuals who have both dealt and endured some of life’s most painful experiences?
Expanding on his MPhil dissertation Echoes from Exile (with Distinction) from Trinity College Dublin, Michael McRay’s new book brings the perspectives and stories of fourteen Tennessee prisoners into public awareness. Weaving these narratives into a survey of forgiveness literature, McRay offers a map of the forgiveness topography. At once storytelling, academic, activism, and cartography, McRay’s book is as necessary as it is accessible.
There is a whole demographic we have essentially ignored when it comes to conversations on forgiveness. What would we learn if we listened?
Here’s what some folks had to say about it:
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, from the foreword
“[T]his book is important … We cannot encounter these pages and remain unaffected. But what will happen to us if we listen to those we tend to ignore? This book is one way to find out. I encourage us all to listen.”
Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling The New Jim Crow
“At a time when our nation leads the world in incarceration rates, and activists as well as politicians across the political spectrum are questioning for the first time whether the ‘get tough’ movement and the politics of punitiveness have taken our nation down the wrong path, we would be wise to pause and consider whether forgiveness might hold transformative power and potential. We can theorize about what forgiveness really means, or we can talk and listen to those we have viewed as unforgivable.
Where the River Bends does both, and thus offers depth of insight and perspective that is rare yet essential if we are going to move to higher ground.”
Shane Claiborne, activist, abolitionist, and author of Executing Graceand the best-selling Irresistible Revolution
“In this book, Michael McRay shares the stories that should make the headlines, but usually don’t. These are the stories of grace, mercy, and forgiveness—both the rewards and challenges. They are the stories of offenders who made victims and were also victims themselves. These stories are about folks who desire forgiveness but not forgetfulness, whose memories demonstrate the power and pain of mercy. On these pages, Michael McRay proves that our wounds have the power to hold us hostage to the past or to compel us to build a future where grace gets the last word. Here is a book pregnant with the hope that comes through the power of forgiveness.
Don’t just read this book–let it move you to become an agent of mercy in a merciless world.”
Everett L. Worthington, Jr., author of Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past
“Michael McRay has written an extraordinary book. It tells the grand narrative of how justice, forgiveness from God, seeking and receiving forgiveness from others, and struggling with forgiving the self come together like a turbulent river. The origin of this particular river is in McRay’s understanding of forgiveness, and McRay draws most heavily upon the superb theology and psychology of theologian Miroslav Volf, and peacemakers John Paul Lederach and Desmond Tutu. Then, fourteen prisoners’ personal stories form ‘tributaries’ that arise from the turbulent river. Those stories recount crimes, address justice, and describe self-recrimination. It is forgiveness that often bends the flow of narrative into the grand narrative that forgiveness of self and others changes lives.
This book could actually change your life.”
Donald B. Kraybill, co-author Amish Grace
“This book stands tall among the tomes on forgiveness. McRay takes us deep into the souls of prisoners, who explain the hard grubby work of releasing rage. Their stories make it clear: the recipe for forgiveness is not simple or easy. Yet the gritty work of letting go, opens the door to freedom even behind bars.
Caution: reading these heart-wrenching stories may change your life.”
No Exceptions Prison Collective began in October 2014 when co-founders—Jeannie Alexander and Michael McRay—transitioned from their work on the inside of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, to the world outside in order to engage in full-time advocacy to end the American nightmare of mass incarceration they had both witnessed. The framework for NEPC was formed and committed to in collaboration with prisoners, and thus the work of NEPC is more than a mission: it is a promise to prisoners and their families that we intend to keep.
Over the past seven months, we have dedicated ourselves to the work and established No Exceptions as a well-respected and well-known abolitionist organization. We have formed an outstanding radical Collective Council (i.e., board) made of both insiders and outsiders; built local, regional, and national partnerships; taught college courses; spoken in churches and universities; presented at regional and national conferences; served as planners and sponsors of a major national conference; continued our advocacy for insiders; and traveled the state to meet with prisoners’ families; and organized lawyers, legislators, faith leaders, policymakers, educators, and students to end mass incarceration in Tennessee through specific targeted means.
In this productive busyness, we have had no time for fundraising, fronting all personal and business costs out of our savings. This, however, is no longer sustainable. Having put No Exceptions “on the map” and seeing the work snowballing, we now need to focus more on making the work sustainable: i.e., acquiring funding.
That’s where you come in. The battle to transform social segregation and end carceral slavery in Tennessee is a communal one. We cannot do this alone; we need your continued support, both in physical and financial numbers. We are in the process of becoming a registered non-profit, thus all donations are tax-deductible. We gratefully welcome any contribution, regardless the size. By offering your donations here, you can make a deeper investment in the work of No Exceptions. We would be so grateful for any spreading of this notification.
You can give my clicking on the “Donate” button or by visiting this link: noexceptions.com/donate/
We know you believe in this work. We do too. We want it to continue for years and years to come. You can help us do that.
We need you and thank you.
by Jacob L. Davis
Jacob Davis is currently incarcerated in a Tennessee prison with a 51 year life sentence. He wrote the following story about his experience in solitary confinement at Riverbend, before being shipped to a different facility. This story was presented at Tenx9 by a friend, reminding all in attendance the dire importance of hearing the voices of insiders. The movement to reshape and re-imagine social separation is guided by the minds and mouths of men and women confined inside these institutions of carceral slavery. If we want to know how to abolish slavery, we must listen to the slaves. Here is one slave’s story.
After 16 years of living as a model prisoner in minimum security honor units, I discovered that my efforts and struggle for dignity and community meant nothing when I was found guilty of a Class B disciplinary offense. I did nothing violent or threatening to anyone, certainly nothing to justify being treated as dangerous. My infraction, rather, was perceived as a threat to the system itself, and so I was held in solitary confinement for two weeks and then banished to another penitentiary, away from the community and family I love. Yes we have family and community in prison, and those already in hell can be further exiled into deeper hell. My sojourn into solitary confinement left me with the surest deepest understanding that we as prisoners today are engaged in a struggle for our very humanity.
In my two weeks in solitary confinement, I learned that a stripped-down, burned-out concrete box with a steel door and a toilet without toilet paper are all that are required to bring me to the point of kicking the door and screaming to get attention in desperate frustration. This type of outburst is a behavior I had witnessed before from the other side of the door as a minimum security inmate. Back then I was comforted by the thought that I could never be brought that low. The brute fact is that had I not acted out this way, the man in the cell next to me and I would have remained soiled with our own feces. I had to throw a fit to receive toilet paper. Aside from shoving food through the double-locking pie flaps that eliminate human contact, the guards ignored our cells, as if they were empty. And I might have used my hand or shirt and held on to my dignity out of sheer stubbornness, but the man in the cell next to me was my best friend of 14 years, and I knew he would not act out that way. It was my fault he was there, and I could not bear the thought of him being reduced to having no toilet paper.
I tried every manner of normal, polite behavior, confident that the officers would respond in kind to someone making the effort to remain civilized in the midst of the hammering cacophony. But what I learned instead was that polite, normal requests almost never receive a response. Only those willing to act out in the most vile, inhuman, animalistic ways could even get the slightest attention from the staff for the things they needed or wanted.
Confined in that kennel, listening to the supernaturally loud noise of all the other animals competing for what they could only receive from the officer milling around and ignoring them outside in the dayroom, the bare facts of the situation reduced my humanity to a simple choice: kick and scream like an animal, or do without the necessities of civilized life. Either way felt like a most bitter defeat.
I struggled over such choices the entire time I sat in that hole. Every moment I imagined all the people who know and love me – my family, friends, the good people that attend church services with me, both free and inmate, my spiritual mentors, my professors and allies in the community – and what they would think or feel if they could see me in this situation, squatting like an animal, held captive by my own body’s functions in a concrete box that still bore marks on the walls where a previous inhabitant literally tried to destroy his confines. He went so far as to tear the metal out of the walls, set the place on fire, and covered the walls and ceiling with feces.
The literal function of these cages is to ignore and degrade the humanity of those placed within them. The authorities who claim solitary confinement is necessary contend that the cages are required for prisoners who display a lack of humanity, who are a danger to others and to the system itself. I, however, found that the use of the cage very quickly and effectively functioned to diminish my humanity.
The threat of this power continues to loom over me. Recently my entire world has suffered apocalypse, but I will not return in anger. I know that some people celebrated a job well done when they destroyed my life and gutted a whole community. Some people have lived in the one-sided cartoon world of cops and robbers for a long time now. But I remain dedicated to the principles of reconciliation and live with hope for a better day precisely because, other than the humanity which they may one day take by force, hope and the bonds of love which cannot be broken by a tragically ignorant system defending itself are all I have left.
Those 15 days come back to me now months later in waking moments and in my dreams. There are many ways to confine an animal, to try and break its spirit. The efforts are more subtle in my new surroundings in a different prison, but the more subtle technologies of dehumanization are no less effective than cages and feces, torture takes many forms.
Days ago the unit manager stands outside my cell during morning inspection. “Good morning,” he said to me in front of my cell when he went in. “Good morning,” I replied while I suppressed the basic human instinct to resist having one’s only personal space casually violated, judged, and raked over, after just the promise of it happening in the future had been enough that morning to cause me to rearrange every single possession I own in a way not intuitive or convenient. Then I also suppressed the question which naturally arose in my mind as a man who has served sixteen years already and faces the need to live permanently somewhere on this earth, whether my basic human dignity will endure the Chinese water torture effect of such daily assaults for the rest of my long life, or whether I and everyone else will simply go mad long before then.
Two minutes later the unit manager emerged with a rolled piece of maroon upholstery fabric in his hand, about six inches wife and twenty-four long, which my cellmate uses to cover the cell window when he uses the toilet.
“See this?” He holds it out to me, and I nod.” “Not good. It’s not good to have colored pieces of cloth like this in your cell!”
At that moment, an elaborate response played out in my head, and I suppose I may be the worst kind of coward for writing about it now instead of just saying it out loud. This is how it went in my head:
“But Mr. B____, how can a piece of upholstery cloth be good or bad? Is God looking down upon us right now and declaring ‘BAD!’ The human race struggled for millennia to produce the technology to manufacture such embroidered cloth, but now there are a trillion shreds of such material in our landfills. Nobody cares. And you’ve been around longer than me, so you remember just as I do only fifteen years ago all over the state men in our prisons had bits of carpet on their floors, cushions on their toilets, bedding from Wal-Mart, and even wall hangings to warm the walls. Nobody cared. Why would they? We were still the poorest, most pathetic people you knew, barely scratching out an existence on the planet, merely trying to take some pride in our hovels. And the thought of holding up a bit of cloth and calling it ‘bad’ would have seemed ridiculous to men such as you and me. What has happened to us? Why this obsession with the way things look instead of the way they really are? Why not inspect the inmates themselves instead of their uniforms? How about that guy with the cuts all over his face? What happened to him while the inspectors weren’t watching?”
Instead, I said nothing and looked at him and looked at the piece of cloth and nodded. I know it does no good to protest to the person who has a job to do. After all, he is also following orders. “Look, I hear what you’re saying,” he would say, “but you know I’m just doing my job. I’ve got people watching me and they expect me to get it done or they’ll find somebody else who will. I got mouths to feed. So let’s make this as painless as possible, okay?”
As painless as possible. But for whom?
In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there’s a scene in which a German soldier kills one of the American heroes by driving a knife slowly into his chest. “Shhh,” the German urges as the American’s strength fades and the blade slowly sinks deeper. “Shhh. Shhh.”
No Exceptions co-founder Michael McRay shared a story at Tenx9 Nashville’s night of storytelling on the theme “I Was in Prison.” He tells of seeing the scars on a man in the mental health pod of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution and what that illustrated about the depravity of prison.