The 182 women serving life without parole

By Marcus Henderson

Being sentenced to die in prison is a hard pill to swallow, especially if you are a woman.

California women’s prisons house roughly 182 women sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). The women describe themselves as “the lost population.”

“My biggest dream was to become a mother and have two children,” Tammy Garvin said. “I lost that with this sentence. When I leave this world, I will leave no legacy.”

These women have been labeled “the worst of the worst,” hopeless and beyond redemption, by the state of California, according to A Living Chance, a storytelling project of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). 

A report about the project is included in the coalition’s newsletter, The Fire Inside. It maintains that some of these women have made useful lives in service to their fellow inmates by being peer facilitators and mentors.

Judith’s portrait by Belo

“As an inmate facilitator and peer mentor here, I have dealt with many women wanting to commit suicide and finding out that their own children have attempted suicide while they were incarcerated,” Natalie DeMola was quoted as saying, “I have helped the mother through the guilt of not being able to be there for their child.

“I also have helped women heal from rape, molestation, incest, being abused in relationships, losing their loved ones, and helped them understand and deal with the fact that they started out as a victim and turned into a victimizer,” DeMola said

These women have tried to change the narrative by re-phrasing “LWOP” to mean Life With Possibility or Life With Purpose and not Life Without Parole; but they still feel discrimination.

“We are not a priority in rehabilitation since we have no chance of parole” said Amy Davis. “We are excluded from prison jobs, groups and opportunities. Some groups only let in one or two LWOPs at a time.

“Our peers question why we are allowed into a group since we do not have to face the (parole) board. This discrimination hurts. We are worthy of rehabilitation,” Davis said in a Fire Inside issue.

In 1976, California added LWOP to its Penal Code; it went into effect in 1978 and by 2012, California had sentenced 4,603 people to LWOP. By 2013, there were 39,250 people imprisoned for life terms, the report noted.

Natalie’s portrait by Belo

California also has sentenced many more people to multiple consecutive life sentences or 50- years (or more) to life sentences.

“Lots of us are here for actions of others,” Boualy Mangsanghanh said. “It’s wrong and the day it happens to someone important and people are forced to look at this, things will change.”

California prosecutors may apply what is known as the felony murder rule. This provision of law increases penalties for people charged with an unintended killing while committing another felony, such as a burglary, which resulted in a murder. The rule also makes an accomplice as responsible for murder as the “trigger man.”

“It’s crazy to give someone that much time, who was just there when something happened,” LaToya Daniels said. “To give them life without parole, to never be able to leave this place, when you never picked up a gun, never touch a gun in your whole life, never took any thing, never played a huge role in this crime.

“I still can’t believe it; it hasn’t hit me yet, and I hope it doesn’t ever hit me,” Daniels said.

Racism and the role of sexism in LWOP sentencing is not well documented, the report noted, but 66.4 percent of the total LWOP population in the United States is classified as non-white.

Tammy’s portrait by Belo

The overwhelming majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence; three-quarters have histories of severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during adulthood and 82 percent suffered serious physical or sexual abuse as children, according to Correctional Populations in the United States, 2013-Bureau of Justice Statistics published Dec. 19, 2014.

“And prove through actions that love does exist in this ugly world I’m involved in”

“The truth is I was stuck in a prison of abuse, pain and fear my whole life, and upon entering CDC (California Department of Corrections) I found my voice and my ability to stand up for myself,” Kelly Savage said. “And for others when they can’t, so as I reframe my thinking, I reach out to others and find my powerful LWOP sisters are just as driven as me to educate our community, to be free right where we are.”

Savage is a domestic-abuse survivor who was convicted of first-degree murder for aiding and abetting her abusive husband in murdering their child, the report stated.

“I may never drive down the 405 freeway again,” Savage continued. “But as I reframe my thinking, I walk down the highways and byways, sometimes even with traffic jams, right here at CCWF, (Central California Women’s Facility).

“I know as I help my sisters learn what they need for parole, I am making a difference in someone’s life,” Savage said.

Tracee’s portrait by Belo

These women who see themselves as lost and forgotten still find ways to deal with their emotional health and come to grips with their situation.

“Healing in prison comes from complete strangers who come into your life,” Mangsanghanh said. “And prove through actions that love does exist in this ugly world I’m involved in.”

Judith Barnett added, “Somewhere you begin to understand that everything takes time and impatience serves no purpose.”

Laverne Dejohnette, an inmate at CCWF, shared her story with CCWP’s Fire Inside.

“More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying them. I was thumbing through some random book and saw that quote,” Dejohnette said.

“It has become a focal point of my rehabilitation. Was it a mistake I participated in that murder? No, that was intentional. Was it a mistake when I committed my first crime and went to prison? No, that was a result of me wanting fast money….No, those were choices. My mistakes were the constant finger-pointing, denying, blaming, deflecting, blatant refusal of any responsibility for my actions.

“I’ve made peace with my life behind these concrete walls,” Dejohnette said. “Only when my life was interrupted, and I got kicked out of the world, did I begin to see my gifts, talents, strengths and my true essence, along with my shortcomings, distorted thinking patterns and areas needing improvement.”

Mimi Lee concluded, “To believe that a person is not capable of change and so therefore must live out the rest of their life in prison is … cruel and unusual punishment.”

Latoya’s portrait by Belo

Billie Simões Belo working with Adrienne Skye Roberts on the A Living Chance project has painted portraits from photographs of people serving LWOP in California’s women’s prisons.

“It is an honor to be a part of this project; to be standing with those who are fighting for their lives,” Belo told Fire Inside.

For more information, contact adrienne@womenprisoners.org.

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