Am I Going to Die in Prison?

posted in: Juvenile Justice | 2

By Jamal Lewis, New Jersey Parents’ Caucus

“Am I going to die in prison?”  I was arrested and charged with committing my offenses at the age of 16. I was transferred into the adult criminal justice system at the age of 17.  I had none of the assistance available to youth serving their sentence in a youth facility, where young people were offered rehabilitation and vocational training.  There were no therapeutic or vocational programs in New Jersey State Prison, where I served the first 11 years of my sentence.

The enactment of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1994 banned federal financial aid, like the Pell Grant, for Higher Education programs within state and federal prisons.  Therefore, post secondary education courses were no longer an option for me, and my education stopped after I acquired my G.E.D. in 1998, almost 20 years ago. To date, I have been in administrative segregation (solitary confinement) over 10 times.  I have struggled to learn social and civic responsibility without any meaningful assistance.

Since my incarceration, New Jersey raised the minimum age that a youth may be transferred to adult court,  former Governor Christie signed a law banning life sentences without parole for juveniles in 2017, and the New Jersey Supreme court ruled in State v Zuber (2016) that courts could not sentence juveniles to a term defined as the “practical equivalent of life without parole.”  There are many currently incarcerated, like me, who received their sentences prior to these changes, who are not afforded their benefit, which begs the question: “Am I going to die in prison?”

I am not familiar with an excess of cases where offenders serving life with 30 years parole eligibility, who have been to a parole hearing where he or she was granted release.  However, the few that I am aware of who were tried as adults as juveniles and had parole hearings, have not only been denied parole, they have received an F.E.T. of 120 months (10 years) or more.  There is neurological and developmental science and research that tells us youth are different than adults. There is a growing national consensus to change how youth are treated in the adult criminal justice system.  Yet, these advances are not recognized by New Jersey’s Department of Corrections and some in our judiciary, particularly when it comes to the treatment of youth tried as adults before these reforms. I ask that reformers and advocates for youth locked in prisons don’t forget to advocate for those of us who have been in adult prison for decades and who have to ask ourselves everyday, “Am I going to die in prison?”

2 Responses

  1. Barry Pinckney

    Having met a few Men that received life sentences as juveniles. I have asked myself the same question. Are they going to die in Prison? I do not want to think about that answer because in this country there are some that already have. I will do whatever I can to make sure no more do not. I will also work so when these humans are released from prison they do not end up in the confinement of an impoverished community within a capitalist society that pushes them back to Prison. Do not read this and get lost in sympathy for Jamal Lewis. Read this and look at it as a critique of the system that you can work to change in a way that does not create something that perpetuates shades of what you fought to change. Do not get lost in sympathy. Jamal is telling us that we should work together to change this not just for him but for the countless others who sit in Prison with similar cases. You can force your elected officials to make these policies and laws retroactive for the children and teenagers that were imprisoned before they were enacted. We cannot forget about the Children and teenagers who are still in Prison. Thank you, Jamal Lewis, for this POWER

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