Twenty-First Century Barbarism

The US is the only country in the world that sentences minors to life without parole. The consequences are devastating.

Adolfo Davis, who was sentenced to life without parole at fourteen years old. Alyssa Schukar / New York Times

It is a wet, dreary day in Chicago when a group of thirty-five people gather at Precious Blood Church on the southwest side of Chicago to make the long drive to Menard Correctional Center. The prison is at the southern end of the state, a six- or seven-hour drive from Chicago, depending on traffic.

Julie Anderson has made the trip, on her own, with a friend or with her husband, five times a month — the maximum number of visits a prisoner is allowed — every month for the past twenty years. Her son Eric was fifteen when he was convicted of a double homicide and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“I never knew my life was going to be like this,” Julie tells me. “What I once thought of the criminal justice system has completely changed. I used to believe in it — I don’t anymore.”

People have their bags, suitcases, and blankets, and they’re beginning to congregate in front of a large bus, donated by Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. This is the fourth annual trip, coordinated to help family members visit their loved ones, many of whom were sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles.

For some, this bus trip will be the only time this year they will be able to go to Menard, since many don’t drive and wouldn’t be able to afford a hotel stay. Ray Joiner, whose son is incarcerated at Menard says, “They put these prisons so far away for a reason. It makes it so difficult for family to visit. That makes it hard on these guys, not getting to see your family. It’s like they want to break you. And that’s exactly what they do — they break you.”

A minister says a prayer before we leave. As he steps off the bus, someone says, “This is the party bus.” People chuckle as the bus pulls away.

Of the 3,400 prisoners housed at Menard, seventeen will get visits over the two days we’re there.

Julie will be seeing her son’s cellmate, Michael, because her own son is presently at Cook County Jail, awaiting a resentencing hearing. “He’s a wonderful person,” she says of Michael, “and I feel bad because he doesn’t get visits very often. He’s been such a good influence on Eric. They’ve become very close. And he’s so smart. He helps a lot of people in there.”

Julie sends as much as she can to both Michael and Eric, so they can share items they buy from the commissary. Julie’s mission is to bring her son home. Since she can’t do that right now, she’ll instead bring as much home to him as she can. That’s why she makes this long trip five times a month — she is Eric’s lifeline.

Like the other juvenile offenders at Menard who were given mandatory life without parole sentences, Eric has had a stroke of luck. Because of the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, it is no longer constitutional to sentence people who were juveniles at the time of their alleged crime to mandatory life without parole sentences. In 2014, Illinois became one of several states to determine that the Supreme Court ruling should be applied retroactively.

Each of the eighty prisoners still incarcerated in Illinois who were given a mandatory life without parole sentence as juvenile offenders will get a resentencing hearing. Each one will come before a judge, who will decide if the sentence was correct or if it should be reduced.

In theory, a judge could listen to a prisoner’s appeal and determine that he or she has already served enough time and vacate the sentence. That’s what Julie and the other family members are holding out hope for.

Unfortunately, the Miller decision didn’t do away juvenile life sentences. Going forward, judges can still impose this barbaric punishment, even for a juvenile. But now they will be required to take “mitigating circumstances” into account: defendants’ age at the time of the crime, their life circumstances, and that juveniles have less impulse control and are more vulnerable to peer pressure because their brains are still developing.

The US still has more than two thousand juvenile offenders serving life-without-parole sentences — a punishment no other country in the world imposes on minors.

Resentencing has begun in Illinois, and that has Julie very much on edge — especially considering how the first case went: that of Adolfo Davis.

Back in 1990, when Adolfo was fourteen years old, he agreed to be the lookout for his fellow gang members in a crime that resulted in the death of two people. He was arrested and put on trial as an accomplice, but the courts treated him as responsible, as if he had pulled the trigger. When he was convicted, he was given a sentence of life without the possibility of parole — even though he didn’t actually kill anyone.

Earlier this year, Adolfo, now thirty-eight years old, came before Judge Angela Petrone for his resentencing. The hearing lasted eleven hours. One of the moms of an Illinois prisoner described what a grueling day it was:

[Petrone] let the prosecutors talk for four hours, and they just kept saying the same thing over and over again, and dramatically pointing at Adolfo. She only gave us a two-minute bathroom break, and then you had to be back in the courtroom. Some people couldn’t even get downstairs to the bathroom in time.

Petrone re-imposed the original sentence, stating in her opinion: “This sentence is necessary to deter others. It is necessary to protect the public from harm. The defendant’s acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of fourteen.”

Julie was in the courtroom to support Adolfo. She was stunned by Petrone’s ruling. “She didn’t even give any credence to the new findings on brain science that were presented at his hearing,” Julie said. “The judge said it was only speculative. But the Miller ruling specifically talked about the brain science. It’s not speculative! She had her mind made up as soon as she came in there.”

Julie described watching Adolfo — who has already spent almost two-thirds of his life locked up in prison — when he heard he had been re-sentenced to life without parole. “It was awful,” Julie said. “He just broke down. His shoulders were heaving as he sobbed. I was so angry. I just went home, and I thought: Really? Really?”

Julie said Adolfo wasn’t even in the room when the judge entered and began to read out her seven-page decision. His lawyer had to interrupt to stop her so he could be found. “She wasn’t even aware that he wasn’t here,” Julie said. “She wasn’t even going to look at him. She’s throwing away his life, and she isn’t even going to look at him. He wasn’t even a person to her.”

On the bus, someone puts on a movie, a few folks chat quietly with each other, and others stare out the window at the endless miles of flat, open land on each side of the highway.

Julie tells me I won’t be able to take pictures of Menard. “No, they don’t let you. They don’t even allow photos of the prisoners.” She pulls up a picture of Eric on her phone. Beaming out is a young, slim, handsome boy of fifteen. “This is Eric when he was fifteen,” she says proudly, “but that’s it. I don’t have anything current.” Even though Eric is now thirty-five, there is nothing to depict him over the years or to chronicle his visits with his family. “It’s just cruel — another form of humiliation.” Julie says of the policy.

Gladys Weatherspoon is talkative and friendly. She is traveling with her mother Maxime to visit her brother, Fred Weatherspoon, who has served twenty-two years in prison. He was also charged with accountability. “I’ve been on three of these trips, and I just hope we don’t have to make it again,” she says, referring to her hopes that Fred’s sentence will be vacated at his hearing.

Gladys has two kids of her own, who are grown and out of the house. She talks about some difficulties in her own life. “I live with my mom now,” she says. “I haven’t worked in three years.” She talks about hopeful job prospects and of maybe being a nursing assistant.

I overhear her ask Ray if he believes in God and then if he believes in hell. Ray says he does, and Gladys is incredulous. “Like all that fire and heat and stuff?” she asks.

Throughout the bus ride, people share similar stories of the awful conditions inside prison, starting with the petty and cruel restrictions. Julie recounts one incident:

Remember when the woman visited, and they told her she couldn’t leave with the candy bar she bought? She didn’t see the signs, and she had bought the candy bar from the commissary, so she thought she could bring it out with her. They were so mean. They were just screaming at her: ‘No! YOU CANNOT BRING THAT OUT!’

So the girl just sat there and opened up the wrapper, and she just shoved the candy bar all into her mouth, and just munched on it right in front of them. She just stared at them as she munched on it. They were so mad. She got banned from visiting for that.

Another family member talks about the routine shakedowns inside the prison. While their cells are searched, the men are brought into a main area, their hands are shackled, and they’re made to squat down and put their foreheads on the wall. They aren’t allowed to move, and they might have to stay there for hours. Some defecate on themselves, and others fall over or pass out.

When I ask why they’re made to do this, Julie answers: “Because it’s prison. Because that’s what they do.” Others nod in agreement.

We pull into the convent where we will be staying before 5 PM, and the nuns — all of them white and most of them elderly — are waiting for us and start to fuss over us immediately: “How was the drive? You must be hungry? Come in and have something to eat.”

Everyone will have a room of their own, with a dresser and internet; every three people will share a bathroom. The nuns show us to our rooms down the expansive corridors, where our names are handwritten on each door. The nuns refuse to take any money for our two-day stay, and they insist on feeding us several meals while we are there.

Emmanuel Andre is the tall, elegant man who co-organizes this annual event with Julie. Outwardly, they are a study in contrasts: Julie is short, white, and gregarious; Emmanuel is tall, black, and reserved. But both care a great deal about these families and the prisoners, and they convey respect when talking with each of them.

A certain amount of dignity is stripped away from family members when a loved one is in prison. How do you tell your friends that you are taking a three-day trip to downstate Illinois to visit your son, who is locked up in prison and may die there? Emmanuel wants to give back family members their rightful dignity.

Emmanuel is a practicing attorney who knows the inside of the criminal justice system and helps break down the legal jargon for people. Each night, he pulls people together in a circle to share what is on their mind. We each take a turn responding to the questions he poses: “What are you most looking forward to on this visit?” “What is it that you feel you need most right now?”

Mary Hicks, who will be visiting her son Keon, says how happy she is to be seeing him. Unlike the family members of others in the circle, Keon is not eligible for resentencing. “My son missed it by a year.” She expresses her gratitude to everyone. “It just feels so good to be with you all,” she says, smiling broadly.

Many people give thanks and recognition to God, and one mom says, “I know God is going to see us through this.”

When Gloria Jackson speaks of visiting her son Demetrius, she breaks down. Between sobs, she talks about how isolating it was before she met the other family members in the room. “It was just so hard,” she says. “I just cried so much. I felt so alone, and I didn’t think I could do it. You all helped me.”

Sitting next to her, Gloria’s daughter is also crying as she tells us how happy she is to be seeing her brother. Demetrius, like Eric, will be getting a resentencing hearing. He was also found guilty of accountability.

The Guerra family — a mom, brother, and sister — are in the circle for the first time. Maria, the mother, talks about how frustrated she is with the criminal justice system. “They twist everything you say,” she says. “You say one thing, and they twist it around like it was something else.” Anita, the sister, says, “My brother didn’t do anything wrong. He shouldn’t be in there.” Daniel, the brother, remains silent, fidgeting nervously with his hands.

The next day, we go in two shifts to Menard. People are dressed up like they are going to church. Gloria has on a white denim pantsuit. Vera has her hair done up nice and is wearing a striking purple shirt.

Approaching Menard is like approaching a fortress. It’s a huge facility, perched on top of a hill. We are processed and assigned seats in the small visiting room, which looks like a workplace lunchroom — there are twenty or thirty small tables with chairs that are bolted to the floor. Signs listing various rules are hung around the room (e.g., prisoners aren’t allowed to get up from the tables once they sit down).

This will be my first time visiting Jamie Jackson. I came to know him from working alongside his mother Marva in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s Chicago chapter. Even though Jamie didn’t get the death penalty, his “life until death in prison” sentence is essentially the same thing. Marva and other moms wanted a place to fight for their sons too.

Julie is excited I will be able to visit with Jamie. Marva is getting older, and it’s difficult for her to make the trip. “I’ve called her a few times, begging her to come, but I just can’t convince her,” Julie says. “I just love Marva. She is the sweetest thing. She’s always praying for me.”

Jamie is late in arriving, so I sit and watch as others greet their loved ones, hug, laugh, begin chattering. We call out to each other, and some introduce me. I comment more than once, “He looks just like you!” Even though we can’t go to each others tables, there is a sense of camaraderie about the visit.

Ray, who lives in the Englewood neighborhood, is the only dad making the visit. He’s here to see his son Robert, who is serving a forty-year sentence and is also not eligible for resentencing. In the group circle later that night, Ray identifies the atmosphere in the room that day. “It was a good visit,” he says. “It had a good energy in the room. I’ve been on other visits, this was a good one.”

Finally, Jamie comes out. We exchange a hug. His smile is warm, and he’s upbeat.

He tells me the guys were calling him pops for a while because he had a long beard until just a few days ago. “Then I just cut it all off,” he says. His head is bald, too. “I shave it,” he says. “Does it look good?” He tilts his head back to show me. He has an easy laugh, oftentimes from the belly.

He wants to know how the ride down was, what it’s like at the nun’s place. I tell him about how I took a walk around the grounds surrounding the convent and got lost. “I walked toward a barn I saw,” I say, “and a whole family was eating at a picnic table out back. I walked towards them, and they all turned to look at me, surprised to see me there, while I apologetically asked them if they could point me in the direction of where the nuns live.” Jamie says, “Good thing you weren’t black.” He leans back in his chair laughing, and so do I.

There aren’t many black people around this area. The majority are confined inside Menard. This area has a reputation of being Klan country.

Jamie tells me of his work at Menard. He works in the kitchen six days a week, six hours a day. He and a crew of guys clean the food trays, wash and stack them again. It’s very physical labor, for which he gets paid $19 a month.

He talks about how he once had a job stocking items for the commissary: “I really liked that, and I was good at it. I had to figure out how much to order of something, and I always changed it up. Like I always had a different pair of sneakers, not the same ones. I would figure out what was selling and what wasn’t and always changed it up a bit.”

Jamie was convicted of robbing and killing a store clerk in 1991, when he was seventeen. His punishment was life without the possibility of parole. But his sentence doesn’t quite fit under the Miller decision, as the judge who imposed it wasn’t required to do so under mandatory sentencing. “But he may as well have,” says Jamie. “He really didn’t take anything into account, like the fact that I had no prior record.”

Jamie and his lawyer believe that the Miller decision will have ramifications that will eventually help Jamie, too. Presently, he has a petition before the court for a new trial, and he is also pursuing resentencing in light of Miller.

Jamie went to prison when he was eighteen. He just turned forty-two last month.

At the circle that night, people share how happy they were to see their loved ones.

“It just felt so good to give him a hug,” LaToya Jackson said of visiting with her brother Demetrius. Vera Wages enthused over her visit with her brother Michael, and Esther Clark was beaming about her visit with her son Javell.

I was embarrassed when it was my turn, and I cried. I felt overwhelmed by the injustice of it all — to look around and see them visiting, chatting, all dressed up, and seemingly so happy in such an impossible, sad situation that has pushed their relatives so far away, maybe for the rest of their lives. I choke out: “I hope we can get more people like me to visit, to be involved, to help make this invisible injustice visible.”

Sarah Silins, who used to help organize these events, drove down on her own with her ten-year-old son. She has brought him before, and he likes the whole experience. “This is good for him,” she says, “it’s good for him meet these family members and prisoners.”

Sarah notes how family members have been deprived of seeing their loved ones in social situations. “They never get to see them interact with other people,” she says. It’s something that you can see that Sarah treasures, as she watches her young son’s interactions with family members and prisoners.

These parents, these brothers and sisters — they’ve never gotten to see their family members hang out with their peers, or interact with a coach or a teacher or a workmate. So the very brief moments in the visiting room — when we call out to each other across our tables, “Oh you look just like your mom!!” “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.” “How are you doing?” — for just a very few precious moments, it’s almost kind of normal.

The next day’s visit goes equally well. Jamie is in a good mood. He wants to talk about his case, and what he feels needs to be done to help him get out of prison. Again, the time goes by too quickly, and I’m getting up to leave. I can see the tears welling up in his eyes. “You’d better send pictures,” he yells as he stays seated on his bolted seat, while I line up with the others to leave.

Shortly after arriving home, I get a letter from Jamie. The judge has ordered him to court, and he isn’t sure why. In a few days, I learn that the judge has agreed to consider his petition for a new trial. Jamie and his lawyer now have sixty days to prepare the best case they can.

Hope leaks out of his letter. “I’ve just spent so much time in here,” he writes. “I’m ready for the next part of my life to begin.”