The torture of life behind bars

April 10, 2009

Mark Clements is a victim of torture at the hands of Chicago police and has been incarcerated since age 16--with four life sentences plus 30 years--for a crime he did not commit. He is one of Chicago's youngest police torture victims and one of the first juveniles to be sentenced to "natural life" in prison. He is fighting for justice for himself and other victims of police torture.

IN THE state of Illinois, there are 103 people who were tried as adults when they were juveniles and sentenced to natural life in prison without parole.

Nearly 2,500 of these kids exist in the country's prison system. Many of them were sentenced to prison at an extremely young age to die behind prison walls. Today, many juvenile alternative sentencing groups have been calling on state legislators to grant parole opportunities or to abolish the natural life sentence from being applied to kids between the ages of 13 and 17 years old.

With the recent presidential election of Barack Obama, the first African American president, many sentencing reform groups are counting on him to whip state sentencing guidelines into shape by cutting federal dollars used to incarcerate state inmates all across this country.

Today in Illinois, and in most states, juveniles as young as 13 years old have no possibility of parole if they are sentenced to natural life. They are afforded no second chance--only the harsh reality of prison forever. This does not speak too highly of the U.S., which--at least before the election of George W. Bush in 2000--pressed human rights standards and reforms on other countries.

Because of corrupt government and harsh prison system administrators, rehabilitation barely exists currently in Illinois prisons. "Reform" of Illinois prisons amounts to warehousing men and women in their cells for some 16-20 hours each day.

Locking up kids and throwing away the key has become Illinois practice and policy--the harshest, most destructive and barbaric measure of desensitizing self worth in kids and turning them into miserable human beings. Youth should be afforded a second chance.

All eyes are on the president to wipe out the practice of natural life sentences for juveniles. He should go even deeper and expose further injustice by abolishing the death penalty. Both natural life sentences and the death penalty are applied unfairly to those who are poor, or African American. In 2006 in the state of Colorado, life without parole was abolished for youth offenders, giving those kids a second chance. Bernadine Dohrn, the director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School, and lawyers Patricia Soung and Toni Curtis, also at the Center, have condemned the practice of sentencing kids to natural life in Illinois. They have been fighting diligently to have lawmakers get rid of this sentence and to grant those who have it parole opportunities.

Locking kids up, teaching them no morals, and giving them no rehabilitation does not work. What it does is suck up tax dollars for use in warehousing human beings.

For the past two years, however, legislation has been defeated in committee in the Illinois House that would abolish this harsh sentence. The fight to keep this law alive and well has been led by Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, who lost her sister, her sister's unborn child and her brother-in-law to violent crime at the hands of a 16-year-old juvenile. The judge promised, during sentencing, that the teen would never get out of prison. Bishop-Jenkins seems to believe that the possibility of her family members' killer getting out of prison on parole would be a slap in the face.

Yet, she has acknowledged that there are innocent people in prison, serving natural life sentences without parole. She has called on those prisoners to exercise post-conviction remedies through the courts or to pursue executive clemency petitions with the governor. She has failed to acknowledge that Illinois courts have a backlog of cases and that there are already 2,400 requests for executive clemency on the governor's desk.

As Illinois state prisoner Daniel Henney states:

Never providing me a second chance--it sure is not reform nor rehabilitation. Throwing me in prison forever--it does not deter crime, or it would have done so by now! To lock someone up and throw away the key when they are deemed an irresponsible kid under the law, it's barbaric and prejudging the kid as if it's truly known that they will never amount to anything in life. I'm treated as if I'm a misfit by the criminal justice system and I hate it. It's mental torture.

There are 74 African Americans, 19 Caucasians and 10 Latinos who make up the faces of those who are in Illinois state prison serving natural life without parole. Seven more are currently in Cook County jail who could be sentenced to natural life by November 2009. Seventy-three of these kids came from Cook County. To learn much more about these kids, and how to help abolish the "death sentence" of juveniles never getting out of prison, visit the Children and Family Justice Center or call attorney Patricia Soung at 312-503-8576 or 312-503-0396.

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