Abstract for Square One: Future of Justice Policy Roundtable

The following abstract will be read on behalf of John Purugganan at The Future of Justice Policy Roundtable, which will include and discuss one of John’s recent essays, “Life Without Parole: The Shocking Truth.” The Future of Justice Policy Roundtable is hosted by Square One Project, and co-hosted by Merritt College and the Justice Lab at Columbia University.

Life Without Parole, A Shocking Reality

by John Purugganan E-71364

Pelican Bay State Prison, PO Box 7500

Crescent City, CA 95532

Abstract for Square One: Future of Justice Policy Roundtable, March 2019

Thank you, Square One Project of the Columbia University Justice Lab, and Merritt College. And a special thank you to Professor De Hong at University of the West, and to College of the Redwoods Professors Chrystal Helton, Ashley Knowlton, Erica Silver, and Tory Eagle. These amazing educators, these wonderful people, they bring an exceptional learning experience to us, the incarcerated, and equally important, they bring their humanity inside these walls.

I have been incarcerated for felony murder in the State of California since 1989. I am one of 2 million 300 thousand prisoners in the United States.

I am deeply honored by this conference’s recognition of my essay Life Without Parole, A Shocking Reality.This piece illustrates the illogic and the inequity of both the felony murder doctrine and a life without parole sentence. For instance, in California, defendants in felony murder cases are not judged based on their level of intention or culpability, but are sentenced as if they had the intent to kill, even if the victim of the underlying felony actually commits the fatal act. Equally important, a Life Without Parole sentence undermines the need for rehabilitation even as study after study has shown that rehabilitation through restorative justice, education, and vocational training is the absolute best form of crime prevention. 

But very often in the midst of a conversation that includes all the facts about criminal justice reform, the discussion is thwarted by citing the most infamous prisoners and the most notorious crimes. This simple tactic is extremely powerful. But it is a detriment to society as a whole to allow valuable information to be blocked to serve the agenda of special interests.

 At the same time, we must remember the fact that violent crime consistently results in the senseless loss of human life; and the victimization does not end there. All of the people related to and otherwise connected with the victim must forever suffer anguish over the loss of their loved one. In moving forward, the tragic reality of the victim must never be set aside or forgotten. Prioritizing the safety of society while preserving humanity is essential. But in our society, this conversation often becomes political, with all the divisiveness that implies.

As a consequence, consideration of all these co-existing realities, truth, and facts becomes problematic. Determining what is best for all of society can become lost in argument. For example, how does one reconcile the fact that convicted murderers ultimately become the safest prisoners for release? This seemingly paradoxical truth is only one example of the confusion now inherent in our criminal justice system. A system that desperately needs restructuring at a very fundamental level.

As my personal contribution to the discussion, I offer the insight of my experience. As American journalist and commentator Bill Moyers said, “A story’s the way to tell it.” I took him at his word. I wrote a play called “Let’s Keep Dancing/A Death Row Story” in which I humanized prisoners while raising the same issues I wrote about in the essay. I’m happy to report that New York City’s prestigious Public Theatre is currently developing this piece into a radio-podcast production, an event that will make the facts and the argument available to the world. In addition, PEN America and the Marshall Project are also involved.

And there are other developments at work across the nation. I believe that at this singular moment we have a genuine opportunity to spark a national criminal justice reform movement. All we need is awareness. Esteemed scholars, advocates, community members and leaders, justice practitioners, students and all conscientious citizens, I encourage you to seize the moment! I urge you to come together with me in founding a nonprofit to be called Operation End Mass Incarceration. The mission statement is in the title. The means is by spreading the word and organizing events featuring guest speakers from the growing pool of support for criminal justice reform. I’ve drafted a multi-media public service ad campaign, a trilogy, designed for interchangeable head-turning facts and statistics. However, the visual narrative alone has the power to turn a nation against mass incarceration. Yes, quite a claim. For more information, I hope you’ll write me at Pelican Bay State Prison.

I thank you for your time and consideration. I leave you with words from one of the characters in my play. Hap is on California’s Death Row, in a future where not even a Governor’s moratorium on death could hold off the inevitable legally sanctioned, pre-meditated killings. In fact, 65 assembly line executions have already taken place when Hap concludes: “I promise you, all of this killing is going to end. One day soon, America is going to wake up and say, Where the hell am I? She’s still the greatest country in the world, she just lost her way. She doesn’t know what happened. She doesn’t realize that poverty was criminalized when she wasn’t looking. She doesn’t even know what that means. But she’ll find her way back. She will. If she doesn’t get here before they get to you, don’t make a fuss. Just hold your head up and go take your turn.”