California has an estimated 5,000 people serving life without parole (LWOP), and their plight is almost never discussed—especially the way the sentence affects female prisoners.
A campaign to drop California’s use of LWOP received a public airing late last year. Kelly Savage, Tammy Cooper-Garvin, Brandi Taliano and Susan Bustamante shared their pain and the trauma of serving a LWOP sentence with a packed audience.
The Oakland event marked the first time the women were able to participate in a town hall meeting similar to one that first created public awareness of their situation. Then-Governor Jerry Brown commuted the women sentences.
Their stories and those of others still imprisoned are described in an audio storytelling project titled “A Living Chance,” released through the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP).
“The event was eye-opening; people really don’t know what LWOP is,” said Laverne Shoemaker, another panelist, whose sentence was commuted. “Once I was in a group of 23 San Francisco police officers, I had to explain and I mean really break it down to them what an LWOP sentence is and what a life sentence is.”
In criminal cases involving “special circumstances” a person may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole instead of condemned to death in the penalty phase of a trial. The sentence is not restricted only to the person who pulls the trigger, but also to anyone else who was a participant in the crime as well, under California’s “felony murder rule.”
The advocates are fighting to have LWOP eliminated from the state’s penal code. They argue that it is worse than the death penalty, because it is really a living death sentence.
“I was praying that I wasn’t going to get the death penalty,” shared Taliano. “I was praying for LWOP, ironically—it seemed like the lesser of the two. Then I go to [prison]… and my counselor says, ‘do you understand that you’re going to die in prison?’ And it hit me. It literally hit me.”
Shoemaker said she was distressed to discover that many law enforcement officers have no idea what LWOP means, “I was frustrated and couldn’t understand it, because they really did not know. I had to ask them are you guys freaking kidding me? Am I being punked? They were really, like, shocked and flabbergasted.
“I could see the confusion—they were perplexed and had mixed emotions that they could potentially be a part of giving someone ‘the other death penalty,’” added Shoemaker.
“We also needed to bring awareness to intimate partner battering,” Tammy Cooper-Garvin, told SQ News. “When I tell my story it makes me feel better and I pray that I am helping someone.
“There are many layers to my story and I get emotional when I tell my story, because I can still feel that little girl who wanted to be loved.
“I don’t regret coming to prison,” added Cooper-Garvin. “I needed to be incarcerated for that period of time to work on myself, and to show society that I was a changed woman who valued, and respected others, and also valued myself. Taliano and Cooper-Garvin both joined the Long Termer’s Organization, while incarcerated, a group of like-minded people serving LWOP supporting each other. They credit the program for helping turned their lives around.
“Prison taught me how to be a better person, it showed me how to deal with life,” said Cooper-Garvin. “I went to many self-help groups. I wanted to know what was different from me and my siblings. I knew I wanted to change, so I surrounded myself around positive lifers.
“I also knew I was a LWOP and that I had to make a life for myself. I didn’t have a good life in the world but with change I could have a life in prison, so I took full advantage of what CDCR had to offer,” added Cooper-Garvin.
With a second chance at life, the women are taking their stories and plight to Sacramento, lobbying for policy changes legislator by legislator. With support of other reform organizations such as CCWP, All of Us or None, Legal Services for Children and many others, the women are giving their time, energy and resources to change the narrative for all incarcerated and those finishing their sentences and returning home.
“We’re working on things like getting fair wages for all the incarcerated,” said Shoemaker. “We’re also trying to get the gate money raised to $1,000 (currently the funds upon release are limited to $200, unchanged for decades). We’re fighting for things that will make your conditions better in there and make your transition easier in the free world,” added Shoemaker.
CCWP hosted the “Drop the LWOP” event. Adrienne Skye Roberts moderated the affair and has work tirelessly to bring the “A Living Chance” campaign to Californians and legislators through the audio stories, portraits and postcards of the women who are still serving the LWOP sentence.
The newly released women thought they were supposed to die in prison. They felt they were held in bondage and captive to their shame and guilt, but have made that transition for success.
“If I could achieve my freedom anyone can,” said Cooper-Garvin. “It was hard work for me and it will be hard work for you also, but the pay-off is truly worth it.
“We may think people are closed minded about giving us a chance and it is just the opposite— they welcome us with our past because many see the good in us,” she concluded.