New report shows 1/6 of women in Mass prisons sentenced to life without parole.
“The fear of the unknown is what I feel every day,” Angela Jefferson writes. The note came in an email from MCI Framingham, where she has served “30 long years.”
Jefferson adds, “I get sad a lot of times when I think about all of the things that I could be doing out there in the world to give back. I look out the window to my room and see the cars passing by, but the thing that makes it depressing is the barbed wire that is wrapped around the fences.”
Jefferson is one of the 26 women out of 163 currently held at the oldest women’s prison in the country who are serving life without parole (LWOP). Parole does not mean a guarantee of release but offers a second chance, whereas LWOP is often called “the other death penalty.” (I previously wrote about this in 2019.)
A 2021 Sentencing Project report, No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment by Ashley Nellis, senior researcher at the DC nonprofit, has just been released and details damning statistics on the practice of LWOP. As political science expert Marie Gottschaulk said in 2012, “The United States continues to be deeply attached to condemning huge numbers of offenders to the ‘other death penalty’ despite mounting evidence that lengthy sentences have minimal impact on reducing the crime rate and enhancing public safety.”
The new statistics are startling about women: In the United States, “[o]ne out of every fifteen women [in prison] is serving life sentences.” Meaning, these women are sentenced to either life with parole eligibility, virtual life (up to 50 years), or life without any opportunity for release. One of the starkest findings is that “women serving LWOP increased 43%, compared to a 29% increase among men, between 2008 and 2020.”
At a press conference about the report, Nellis called the number of Massachusetts women serving a life sentence “astonishing,” topped only by California.
Some research suggests that the crimes leading to a life sentence for a woman may be in response to “intimate partner victimization.” In a 2019 study the Sentencing Project wrote that a California study of 42 survivors of “intimate partner abuse convicted of murder” found that “all but two had received life sentences and six were sentenced to life without parole.” According to the 2021 report, many were sentenced in eras “when medical understanding, much less societal views about domestic violence and trauma, were not evolved.”
Jefferson has come a long way from 1990, when as a 21-year-old she killed Anthony Deas, a man she loved who cheated on her, and received a first-degree life sentence with no chance of release. She is close to earning a bachelor’s degree from Boston University, and has completed a multitude of programs. Jefferson’s daughter, Shanita, a member of the advocacy group Families for Justice as Healing, talks often about her mother, pushing for her and women like her to get some form of clemency. She has said in public talks that she wants a chance at parole “not only for her mom, but also for the man who killed her father.”
In Massachusetts, clemency is so far nonexistent with the current administration. Thomas Koonce may become the only LWOP-sentenced prisoner to receive a commutation since 1997. He earned a positive vote on Jan. 15 from the Advisory Board of Pardons, i.e. the Mass Parole Board for clemency cases, to reduce his LWOP sentence to life with parole eligibility. The petition is currently on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, awaiting his signature. If Koonce gets a commutation, he must then see the Parole Board to earn release.
The Sentencing Project found other stats to clarify why they recommend 20 years behind bars even for the most violent crimes before a person earns parole eligibility (proposed Mass legislation recommends 25). Such sentencing is in line with many other countries around the world. Those “convicted of violent offenses are not any more likely to commit another violent crime than persons convicted of nonviolent offenses.” Research proves, wrote Nellis, that those convicted with a life sentence for homicide are “less likely to commit any act of violence than other individuals released from prison.”
Heather Painter also has an LWOP sentence for first-degree murder, and is in her 26th year at MCI Framingham. Like Jefferson, she has a close-knit family, and realizes that at this point, her only chance of release is through clemency or a change in the law. She wrote in an email about her relatives, “I just don’t want to disappoint them by giving them false hope.”
Painter described LWOP: “No light at the end of the tunnel! No matter what I do or don’t do, it is never enough, and I get it, if a loved one of mine was killed, I would want them to go to prison too. But for how long? And at what cost?”
Painter is 57, and is considered elderly in prison. No End In Sight points out that it is “staggering” that in Massachusetts, more than half of LWOP prisoners are over 55 years old. The cost for those who are very sick is phenomenal—it can be up to $283,000 a year at Shattuck Hospital—but meanwhile, this population poses no threat to public safety. Author Nellis also states that “During the COVID-19 pandemic, the immediate release of elderly lifers should be a priority.”
Those who support people sentenced to LWOP are struggling in the age of COVID to maintain hope, since nationally, per the justice-focused journalism nonprofit the Marshall Project, 381,398 people in prison have tested positive for the illness, and more than 2,417 have died.
Brashani Reece told me it was terrifying when her partner with an LWOP sentence got COVID behind bars. Reece, who has a PsyD in forensic psychology, met Steven Quinlan in 2015 when she was a volunteer at MCI Norfolk. She said in a phone interview that a life without parole sentence is “devastating.”
“I’m in a prison with him,” she said. “I see all the things about him that have changed. The man he has become is incredible. He wasn’t these things 20 years ago.”
Quinlin was 21 years old when he committed first-degree murder in 2001. He was a “high-profile case” for years, said Reece, because of his gang involvement. She said he was “kicked out of Rhode Island for his violent behavior, and did a year in solitary where he went through soul-searching and made a commitment to leave the gang [he belonged to].”
“Being with someone who has been condemned and exiled … it’s heartbreaking to watch … So much of my life is stunted,” Reece added.
Massachusetts follows Louisiana, per the report, for having the second highest percent of those incarcerated serving LWOP compared to our state’s overall prison population—14% of the prisoners in Massachusetts. The racial breakdown of those numbers is telling—34% Black; 41% white; 20% LatinX. This fits national stats: “More than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color.”
State Rep. Liz Miranda is a cosponsor of recently-filed legislation which aims to end LWOP in Mass, HD.3275, along with Rep. Jay Livingstone (profiled here). In an interview, Miranda explained her passion for survivorship and racial justice, and thus why she wants to change the law to allow everyone an opportunity for parole.
“I too am a survivor,” the representative said, adding that she wanted people to know that she came to file this bill because she cares deeply about ending life without parole. Miranda added, “In [August] 2017, I lost my youngest brother, Michael Miranda, shot and killed outside of a Boston nightclub.” The state rep explained that she is also the only legislator with a sibling currently incarcerated in the DOC. “I came to the State House with a heavy understanding of mass incarceration, of community violence, and of understanding loss in a very deep way,” she said.
“I wanted to be able to file this bill because I do believe in justice,” Miranda noted. “I do want the gentleman who killed my brother to go to jail, but I also believe that in 25 years, that young man deserves the right to go in front of the Parole Board and plead his case.
“Every day that I go to sleep, I think about my brother and his two children, but I also think about the young man who killed him and his two children. What does it mean if he goes to prison for the rest of his life and dies in prison?”
Angela Jefferson puts it this way: “I have done everything in here to share my story and try to get the word out, but we are not heard, and it seems like no one cares enough to even give any of us a second chance.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. You can support more reporting like this at givetobinj.org.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.