We Should Treat Everyone Like Marty Stroud III

Liliana SeguraBy now many have read and been moved by the extraordinary mea culpa published in the Shreveport Times by a man named Marty Stroud III, who more than thirty years ago sent Glenn Ford to die for a crime he did not commit…

Yet as these narratives become more ubiquitous, they also expose a nagging hypocrisy. If we are drawn to such expressions of penitence and moral clarity, if we see them as brave or enlightened or even noble, why don’t we grant people in prison the same potential for change? Why have we abandoned rehabilitation, once supposedly central to the mission we call “corrections,” and replaced it with the longest sentences on the planet? Why do we give people who do bad things so few pathways toward redemption? Is it too much to consider that murderers in prison are as complex and human as people who kill in the name of the state? …

Even as more states abolish the death penalty, we have installed in its place different forms of permanent punishment, astoundingly long sentences that deny people’s ability to evolve — or even the human tendency to “age out” of crime. Today, one in nine US prisoners, including people convicted as juveniles, are currently serving a life sentence, according to [PDF] the Sentencing Project, and “those with parole-eligible life sentences are increasingly less likely to be released.” More people than ever are serving life with no possibility of parole — including thousands for nonviolent offenses, as the ACLU found in a major study in 2013. In Shreveport, Louisiana, where Glenn Ford was wrongly sentenced to die, a lesser known man named Sylvester Mead was sentenced to die in prison after he drunkenly threatened a cop while handcuffed in the back of a police car. As I noted at The Nation, Mead’s own trial judge argued that his offense “does not warrant, under any conscionable or constitutional basis, a life sentence.” Yet “Mead’s prosecutor appealed multiple times seeking a harsher sentence because of his old convictions.” We can try to construe this as justice. But like Marty Stroud in 1984, this was a prosecutor bent on winning…

If there is room for redemption at all — and if we are honest about addressing the crisis of mass incarceration — we must start by recognizing that the 2.3 million people we have put behind bars are no less human than the rest of us. That includes many who have done terrible things. What if we gave more prisoners a second chance, some meaningful shot at parole — an opportunity to redefine their legacy, like Marty Stroud did when he sat down to write to the Shreveport Times? What kind of human potential might they reveal? …

“Looking back at that period of time in my life, I was not a very nice person,” Marty Stroud admits about the man he was when he sent Glenn Ford to die. Few seem to doubt his sincerity. How many people in prison would say the same about their own worst mistakes? Would we listen?

—Liliana Segura
A Prosecutor Seeks Redemption. Can We Allow Prisoners the Same?

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