Can Someone Who Commits Murder Reform?

September 10, 2019, 11:08 am

On September 7, 2019 NBC aired a special with Lester Holt on Angola prison in Louisiana. Angola is the largest prison in the United States, and it used to be considered the most dangerous, too. But a lot has changed there over the last two decades. Now, Angola, which houses predominantly offenders who have been sentenced to LIFE in prison, is a place of transformation and rehabilitation. Many, but not all, of the programs offered at Angola are religious-based. Its now retired warden, Burl Cain, implemented many changes that recognized the importance of giving purpose to the prisoners. He believes in the importance of transforming broken lives, not simply throwing them away. 

Angola is now well-known for its prisoner-run rodeo, its farming and cattle, its craft fair, and its religious and educational programs that transform the lives of the criminals sent there. When Lester Holt visited the prison, he also experienced some of the stark realities of life behind bars. Some prisoners, mostly black, worked the fields for two cents per hour–the same fields that a century before were a plantation run by slaves. Today, the fields are still operated by slave labor, but slave labor that is still legal under the United States Constitution. The irony is hard to ignore. 

Holt also met several prisoners who have been incarcerated for more than 50 years, two of whom were sentenced to life in prison as juveniles. One prisoner’s appeal to the United States Supreme Court changed the law for how juvenile offenders are sentenced. However, during Holt’s visit to the prison, this offender was once again denied parole by the Louisiana parole board. 

The subject of giving offenders, particularly those who are guilty of murder, a chance at life outside of prison is difficult. It is fraught with a lot of emotion, hurt, pain, and anger. Why should someone who took the life of another person ever have the chance at freedom again? The conversation has gotten easier (but still not easy) when it comes to juvenile offenders. After all, science has proven that young brains are not fully formed. They don’t have the capacity for judgment like adults do. 

But what about adult offenders? Should someone who commits murder never see freedom again? Some would argue fervently that they should not. Others believe in the power of redemption and believe these offenders should have the possibility for freedom again. The question really gets to the heart of what prison is for. If it is simply for punishment, many of these offenders should never be released. If it is to protect the public, we have to recognize that many of these offenders are no longer a danger to society. If it is for rehabilitation and reformation, then we have to allow for the possibility for a reformed offender to be free again. 

Mass incarceration has many causes, but tougher sentences, including a growing population of aging lifers, is at the root of the problem. If, as a society, we determine that redemption is either not possible or not available, we’ll continue to see our prison population grow, no matter what other reforms we enact. But if we can see our way to believe in an offender’s ability to change, we must make a path for redemption possible. Easy, no. Possible, yes. We can hold people accountable for their crimes while still believing in the possibility of redemption. If the most dangerous prison in the United States can transform to what it is today, a model to other prisons and states, then the people, including murderers, in that and other prisons can also reform.

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