Use of life and long-term sentences has been growing globally. In 2012, of the 2.3 million prisoners in US prisons, 159,520 were serving life sentences, including almost 50,000 life without parole. Nancy Mullane was a winner in PRI’s journalism competition held as part of our death penalty abolition programme in 2014. While the competition was judged on the basis of articles submitted, she is also the author of this very unusual book telling the stories of five men sentenced to life imprisonment.
In June 2007, Nancy took on an extraordinary assignment – to interview some prisoners serving life imprisonment for murder in San Quentin prison, California. Her aim was to hear their stories, learn about their lives inside prison and follow their applications for parole – and then to find out how they fared in life outside after their eventual release on licence. The assignment took over four years.
The resulting book was published in 2012 and provides a unique insight into five men’s lives – describing the crimes for which they received life imprisonment; how they changed their lives around inside prison, accepting responsibility for and seeking to come to terms with the enormity of their crimes.
While the book follows the personal histories of each individual man, there are also some general similarities. Broken families, drink and drugs, guns and bad company were all part of the lives lived by these (then) youthful murderers. Inside prison they struggle to make sense of their crimes and themselves. After years spent inside, they hope for a second chance – to make a different life for themselves outside prison through gaining parole. This proves to be no easy journey, with many setbacks on the way, hopes of release rejected and favourable decisions reversed.
Meeting up with the men after release Nancy Mullane describes well the anxious times they now face as relationships with families and friends bring tension and crisis as well as support. But the outcome for all the five men is ultimately very positive. They have lasting and loving relationships, impossible to imagine in their youth; they honestly accept responsibility and accountability for their earlier crimes and look for ways to prevent other young men from following in their path.
The book is as easy to read as a good novel, drawing you into the personal stories of the men involved, feeling their feelings and riding the emotional roller-coaster of a journey through life with them. For anyone who thinks that people who commit murder cannot be human, and cannot change, this book will be a revelation.
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