Visualizing Your Future, And Building It


There’s nothing quite like the feeling of getting a call from a client you helped get released from prison, letting you know that they’re thriving. Even more so when their prior sentence was mandatory life without parole.

My client spent 18 years being told he would die inside the federal prison system. But instead of withdrawing, he committed to bettering himself.

I heard a lot in criminal justice circles about the concept of people being able to see or visualize their future, as a step that is required before you’re able to start building that future. Many clients I’ve had over the years struggled mightily with this.

But this client was told he had no future to visualize. And yet, he still built anyway. He took every single program he was eligible for in the federal system. And once he’d done that, he mentored other inmates in those same programs, including some challenging cognitive behavioral therapy programs.

I have long been opposed to any kind of throw-away-the-key sentence: not just death, but also life without parole. I think the existence of these sentences at all has a profound psychological effect on the way we think about how to structure our society.

It is extremely easy for us to dismiss deaths and other catastrophic individual outcomes when we’re already trained to accept that life without parole sentences exist. That there are things that we can do to lose our inherent humanity in society’s eyes.

Perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of humanity, in my mind, is our ability to grow and to change. We adapt to disparate climates, diets, and social situations with relative ease. We draw on experiences in ways that help us with new and different ones.

To tell somebody that they will be confined until they die is to tell them that any additional growth or change over any period of time cannot matter. “We can forget about you, and we will.”

But this kind of thinking infects our approach to a lot of situations. Not just in dismissing preventable deaths, but in amplifying folks who we believe did not deserve to die. Look at how sad it is that *this* person died. That framing implies that there are people who aren’t as big of a loss. Even if it’s not a full-blown statement that somebody *deserved* to die, it likely still excuses the conditions that led to their death.

People see long prison sentences as a failure of an individual. We’ve been fed this framing for generations. But a society that cannot figure out how to integrate one of its members—one that wants to give up on that endeavor? That sounds to me more like an indictment of that society, not of that member. Especially in a society like ours where trauma is distributed as part and parcel of our social order.

200,000 people in the US, almost 1 in 1000, are serving a functional or actual life sentence right now. This comes at great monetary cost, but I’d argue that the psychological toll is far, far greater, just on the basis of how we think about lives as disposable. (Making decisions about incarceration based on money also avoids grappling with the real problems of incarceration more generally.)

How many of those 200,000 people could, right now, reintegrate into society after spending years and decades in prison? How many, with modest support upon their release, could be like my client, who started immediately studying and managed to get his commercial driver’s license (CDL) within a couple of months? The CDL shortage, which has persisted for a few years now, means that my client already has other trucking companies interested in hiring him and giving him a raise, only six months after his release.

How many of those 200,000 people would have gladly worked to be in a position to do those things now, if we hadn’t told them that they had no chance at it? How many could visualize their future if we hadn’t told them they had none?

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned what my client’s convictions were for. But why should it matter? What could he have done two decades ago that makes him unfit to demonstrate how much he’s changed? And aside from the fact that a judge found him affirmatively not to be a danger to the community, my client remains on supervised release, an overly punitive shoulder-watching system that is ready to levy more jail time if he does things like, say, *drink alcohol*.

Indeed, the overall reincarceration rate of people who have been let out of prison early due to the COVID-19 pandemic is in the single digits. Almost everybody is doing well despite the punitive nature of supervised release, which should indicate that we’re letting too few people out of prison early, rather than too many.

(As an aside, my client kept asking back in April and May 2021, while his compassionate release motion was pending, whether he could get a third vaccine shot to get him more protection against COVID. I found it funny at the time, but ultimately, he was way more right about that than me.)

Of note: A few weeks after my client’s release, the prosecutor in this case filed a motion for reconsideration. They wanted to send my client back into prison for the rest of his life, based on a small tweak in the applicable law. Interestingly, that motion didn’t even contest the judge’s original conclusions that my client was rehabilitated and no longer a danger to the community. They simply believed that this technicality meant that my client couldn’t be released.

People often refer to defense wins as people getting released “on a technicality”. But when the defense wins, the technicality in question is usually the U.S. Constitution. And defense lawyers, while not unified on this position, often either understand incarceration as inherent violence or at least recognize the excessive nature of prisons in US society. (The best data on the matter indicates that every year of incarceration takes two years off of a person’s life expectancy.) Fighting on the “technicalities” as a public defender therefore is in the service of justice.

But I can’t for the life of me figure out a good justice-based reason for a prosecutor’s office to ask my client to head back into prison, AFTER his release. All I think of is Jimmy McNulty’s Season 5 rejoinder in The Wire, in a moment of frustration about the major drug investigation in jeopardy at that moment: “He does not get to win; WE get to win!”

But, of course, even with the playing field tilted toward prosecutors as much as it is, that isn’t how it works. And if that’s how you view the people you can send to prison, you’re not going to do anything but perpetuate the idea that some lives are meant to be thrown away. That some people don’t deserve the chance to visualize their future anymore.

And once you’ve assumed that much, there is no line-drawing that will leave your hands clean, no matter what you try.

I’m excited, once the pandemic subsides, to meet my client in person. To meet his 22-year-old son, who was too young to remember him in 2003 but drove across 3 states to pick him up in the middle of the night. I’m excited to see how he continues to grow, the way he did in federal prison when the entire system told him it wouldn’t matter.

But I also know that nobody should be told their future growth won’t matter. My client’s growth should not have been against all odds. While I am in awe of the odds my client overcame to be here, the best thing we can do to honor that is to unstack those odds for those who come after him.
It wouldn’t take a lot to get from where we are to a system that does that. That looks for growth rather than incapacitation when there is a crime.

All we have to do, after all, is visualize that future. From there, we can work to build it, even if the current system tells us it isn’t possible.

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