Laverne Shoemaker overcame what some prison reform activists call “a living death sentence.”
“I am a ‘DROP LWOP’ advocate. I will not ever stop advocating for LWOPs and lifers. LWOP is a ‘Death
by Incarceration sentence,’” said Shoemaker. “When you are given that sentence, what they are saying is, you are irrelevant, you’re irredeemable, you’re beyond redemption. And that’s just not true.
“Look at me. I have 19 arrests, 16 convictions, three prior prison terms and the fourth was the life crime of murder. Sure it took over 10 years, but I did change. Now I’m a taxpaying citizen. We are all capable of transformation,” she added.
The Shumate fellowship highlights the life and legacy of Shumate, who suffered from sickle-cell anemia. She died in prison. Her supporters say her death was due to negligence on the part of the California prison system. Shumate was one of the founding members of CCWP. She was a lead plaintiff in the 1995 lawsuit that challenged California’s women’s prisons health care system. She also helped start The Fire Inside, the organization’s newsletter.
“I was blessed to live with this woman as a roommate. I was fortunate enough to see her in her high highs and her low lows,” said Shoemaker in correspondence with SQ News. “I saw her in action and witnessed her determination to make a change. She was famous for saying ‘It’s not a me thing; it’s a we thing.”
Shoemaker was resigned to living out her life in prison. But she credits Shumate for being one of the inspirations who helped to educate her about the need to stand up for the rights of everyone inside.
“In the beginning I did what most did. I jumped right into the criminal elements inside. I got involved with the prison politics. I racked up many 115’s (disciplinary write-ups) and SHU (administrative segregation) terms,” said Shoemaker. “I had seen people change and grow. But I had two dilemmas: one, I didn’t think change was possible for someone like me, and two, I didn’t know ‘why’ I should change.”
Shoemaker’s change came when she started being honest with herself and addressing all her childhood traumas.
“I began to see a human with value and worth under all the tarnish,” said Shoemaker. “The LWOP was not a factor. In all actuality, receiving the LWOP sentence saved my life. The truth is I was a very dysfunctional, unstable substance abuser.
“I was very dangerous and an extremely violent individual. But after a few SHU terms I changed my thought process. I went from I don’t care if I live or die and I’m a piece of sh#*t anyway to…..It doesn’t really matter ‘where’ I die, in the free world or prison, I’m still going to die,” she continued.
What began to matter to Shoemaker was what type of person she was going to be and what her quality of life would be like.
“My motto became, ‘When shall I live if not now?’” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever get out. So every group, program, workshop facilitating, curriculum I created was for me and my community. Not for anyone else.
“I definitely learned who I was and who I am today. I’ve grown and learned the impact that we have on our victims and communities,” said Shoemaker. “I learned that by taking a life I have committed the most serious crime of humanity.
“I’ve learned that changing my behavior is the only acceptable atonement. Living today and every day for your victims is not just words you tell the BPH (Board of Parole Hearings).
That is what you have to you live by,” she added.
Shoemaker shared her re-entry experiences and goals for her fellowship.
“What I see is that we (lifers) are impatient and want to hit the ground running. We think we have the formula that we know it all,” she said. “I get it—we have sat decades and planned what we wanna do. But the hard truth and the reality is this is a different world.
“I began to see a human with value and worth under all the tarnish,”
“We need to take it one day at a time. The adjustment period is tough. We are new to the free world. The technology alone is mind-blowing. Some days I feel like a refugee. I guess the hardest part of being out is missing being back inside.
“Most will read this and think I’m crazy. But it’s true while inside you spend all your time thinking about freedom, but when you’re out here you spend a considerable amount of time thinking about back inside,” she added.
Shoemaker knows and understands her responsibilities. She is in the process of creating a curriculum for the LWOPs.
“I will spend my last breath advocating for the LWOPs,” she said. “We are always left behind, overlooked, or at the bottom of every list—that is, if we even make the list at all.
“Yet we (LWOPs) are the pillars of the prison communities, we are the glue that holds the yards together.”
Her plans and goals for the fellowship are to honor her friend Shumate and not stop or back down.
“Charisse didn’t just com- plain or just file a grievance—no she went up against a system. And she got that system to listen. She made a difference,” she said. “She left some pretty big shoes to fill but I think collectively together we all can fill them. I promise to do her name justice!”