“It’s going to be a historic day in the fight to abolish death by incarceration, and it’s a blessing to be alive to be part of it,” read Ghani Songster’s email.
The next day, a few law school classmates and I drove two hours to the state capitol in Harrisburg for a rally to end the sentence more commonly known as life without the possibility of parole. We are studying law in the context of a reenergized national conversation around criminal justice reform, which made for an electrifying conversation on the drive. One of my classmates is a self-described “prison abolitionist” who has also lost a relative to gun violence; another wondered how theoretical approaches could ever be reconciled with the harsh realities of our prison system. I grew up accepting the idea that life sentences were the more “humane” alternative to the death penalty; now I confronted the notion that the sentence corresponds more closely to death itself.
Four buses from Philadelphia were parked outside the Capitol when we arrived, and hundreds of people, mostly black women, began spilling out and climbing the steps to the Rotunda. Many wore t-shirts and carried posters bearing images of their incarcerated husbands and sons: formal graduation photos, men in jumpsuits posing with their children. Jarring then-and-now images spanning decades.
Kempis “Ghani” Songster was a ninth-grader of 15 when he and a friend, both runaways from Brooklyn, were convicted of killing another teenager during a dispute in the crack house where they worked. You can listen to the story in his own words here. (Of the third friend, who’d gone back home before things went wrong: “Man, we wish we’d have went home with you… I knew that I was wrong… but it was one big adventure, one big excitement, one big sense of freedom.”)
Songster was sentenced to die in prison. In a landmark 2012 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that automatic life-without-parole sentences imposed on children are unconstitutional; in 2016, the court made the decision retroactive, leading to a wave of resentencing hearings for many of the 2,500 “juvenile lifers” across the country.In 2017, after 30 years in prison, Songster was released.
Songster has since fought to bring visibility to the stories of juvenile lifers, and he is a founding member of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI), a statewide group that includes people in prison, their families and formerly incarcerated people, all working for restorative justice in communities harmed by gun violence as well as mass incarceration. CADBI had organized the day of action in Harrisburg to pressure state legislators to end the mandatory sentence.
More than 5,400 people are serving life without the possibility of parole in Pennsylvania, the second-highest number of any state. A report by the Abolitionist Law Center called my hometown of Philadelphia the “DBI capital of the world.” Pennsylvania mandates this sentence not only for first-degree murder but also for felony-murder, participation in a felony that results in a person’s death—including those who did not pull the trigger, and even those who never anticipated that death would result. Nearly half of “lifers” in the state are at least 50 years old, an age at which the likelihood of re-offending drops dramatically. A report by the Sentencing Project noted that most European countries do not have life-without-parole sentencing, and have not experienced a corresponding increase in crime. There is also a larger moral question: Does this sentence reflect a societal belief that some people are irredeemable and unworthy of a second chance?
The discussion around violent offenders tends to focus on worst-of-the-worst hypotheticals—“What about Ted Bundy?”—but at the rally, I was confronted with families who were reframing these questions: “What about my son, who made a terrible mistake many decades ago?”
The families and activists are not asking for automatic release, but rather for the chance to stand before a parole board and be heard. “Not everyone in prison is a monster,” a soft-spoken woman told me as we neared the rotunda entrance. “They made mistakes, but they’re not who they were twenty years ago.”
The speakers, each introduced by Songster and fellow CADBI member Lorraine Haw (affectionately known as Miss Dee Dee), took the microphone.
“I am here with a simple message: second chances, forgiveness, redemption, and not holding people to the worst of their actions,” said activist Kim King. She and others described themselves as “dual victims”: One of King’s brothers was shot to death; another is incarcerated for life.
“Imagine making a bad decision, a wrong choice, a moment of just losing it, and then paying for it for the rest of your life,” said Pastor Larry Anderson.
We heard from State legislators who have put forth Senate Bill 942 and House Bill 135, which would allow life-sentenced individuals in Pennsylvania the opportunity to be considered for parole. (The bill was reintroduced in the 2019-2020 legislative session to reflect the current sentencing of juvenile lifers).
After the speeches, the crowd sang their way through the hallways of the state capitol. “Healing my friend, you do not walk alone // We will walk with you, and sing your spirit home.” An altar had been set up at the Rotunda. People laid flowers on the altar and called out the names of relatives lost both to violence and to incarceration.
Karen and Crystal met while visiting their husbands at the State Correctional Institute in Somerset, in southwestern Pennsylvania. Crystal’s husband, Rick, has been incarcerated for 23 years; he had told her about CADBI, and she in turn told Karen. Our conversation was interrupted when she received a call from her husband. After a moment she came back over; he wanted to talk to me. I crouched in the dark hallway of the capitol building, my ear pressed to the phone trying to hear over the robot voice reminding us how many minutes we have left, and that the call is being recorded. For the first time in decades, Rick said, the activism around lifers had created the smallest flicker of hope and changed the climate for them. Later, Crystal told me that her father-in-law’s lifelong wish had been to one day see his son a free man, but he passed away last year.
After the call, we walked outside where the group had gathered to eat sandwiches. I stood with Songster by a ledge overlooking the fountain. His conversation ranged from Aristotle’s reflections on youth to the 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone. He spoke of Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 Supreme Court decision banning the execution of minors: Determining whether punishments are proportionate, he recalled, must be viewed in light of “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
Songster is now the father of a 10-month-old son, and he is constantly thinking about the “unbearable excesses”—climate change, mass incarceration, war—that characterize contemporary society. “What kind of seeds do we sow onto the next generation?”
“The whole child lifer issue is lifting up complexity and presenting a liability for the dominant narrative,” he said. “It has sent cracks and fissures in the philosophical foundations of criminal responsibility, and crime and punishment.”
After a group photo, my friends and I got back in the car, commiserating about the hours of homework we would face that night. But we also felt reinvigorated to return to school, reminded of the stakes and the movement that had inspired our decision to become lawyers. That night as I fell asleep, Ghani’s words played on in my head. “It’s about how we preserve our humanity as a society… Are these sentencing practices healthy for our own humanity?”