When considering social stigmas, Malcolm X says “if you’re not careful, the newspaper will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Oftentimes people form narrow judgments on certain groups based on negative portrayals in the media. I too formed false preconceptions and misunderstood the plight of incarcerated people. Before my internship with the Releasing Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, I seldom considered the moral dilemma behind sentencing people away to rot in prison.
In the RAPP campaign we are asked not to undermine the severity of any criminal case, but carefully examine excessive punishment by the state. Since the 1960s “tough on crime” legislation, courts administered longer and more severe sentences to guilty verdicts. As a research intern, I found that most people age out of a life of crime and their likelihood to commit a crime drastically drops after their mid-twenties. If people are left in prison and are constantly denied parole, what chance at reform do they actually have? How else are their stories told without the media having to tell it for them? Imagine if Malcolm X was sentenced to prison after the tough on crime movement and was denied parole after his seventh year in prison. With the RAPP campaign, I helped bring attention to the unjust, excessive sentences, like 25 years to life, which has become an institutionalized normality.
I was given the assignment of composing a booklet that would raise awareness to the injustices within parole boards. Just like the preconceived notions the American society has on incarcerated people, parole boards are composed of people who hold biases. Decisions made by parole boards are supposed to be based off the nature of the crime, good behavior, and an inmate’s remorsefulness for his/her crime. However, in reality, parole board decisions are often pre-determined based on the weight victim impact statements carry, and the negative media coverage associated with an inmate’s crime.
As an advocate for reform, I was assigned to build a correspondence with Pascual Carpenter (a currently incarcerated individual) and ask for his consent to include his story into RAPP’s booklet. I soon learned that at the age of 18, he was arrested for a robbery, admitting he was the lookout. During the robbery, a homicide was committed, which was highly mediatized. Subsequently, Pascaul was charged as the perpetrator even though the actual perpetrator already took responsibility for the homicide. As a result of poor defense, and society’s stance on being tough on crime, Pascual was charged with the heinous sentence of 25 years to life. Pascual is now currently 42 years old and is still being denied for parole. Through my internship I found a new moral obligation and a new appreciation for the work Malcolm X and Dr. King did for a disenfranchised population. I intend to follow in their footsteps and continue to help fight the current injustices within the American society.
Editors Note: This paper was published by Ajibola Allision.