Howard Zehr and Barb Toews
New Press, 2022, 189 pages
Matthew T. Mangino
“Life without parole is a death sentence without an execution date,” Aaron Fox told Howard Zehr in the early 1990s. At the time, Fox was serving life without parole in a Pennsylvania state prison.
In 2017, twenty-five years later, Zehr and Barb Toews visited with Fox again. In their book “Still Doing Life, 22 Lifers, 25 Years Later, Photographs and Interviews of People Serving Life Sentences in Prison Separated by a Quarter Century,” published by The New Press, Zehr and Toews not only interviewed Fox 25 years later, they interviewed 21 other lifers, then and now.
Zehr is a distinguished professor at Eastern Mennonite University and Toews is an associate professor at the University of Washington Tacoma. Their book immediately caught my eye because of the home of the lifers—Pennsylvania. I served two terms as district attorney of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, a rustbelt community north of Pittsburgh, and followed that with a six-year term on the Pennsylvania Parole Board. Zehr and Toews’ book is both fascinating and sad. The book provides insight into what would seem a hopeless existence and how these men and women manage to keep the faith, the humanity and the respect for themselves and others with whom they touch.
In Pennsylvania, a conviction for First or Second Degree murder is a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the opportunity for parole. Simply put, in Pennsylvania, life means life.
Second to only Florida, Pennsylvania has more lifers than any other state. Even more troubling, Pennsylvania leads the nation in offenders serving life who committed the underlining offense as a juvenile.
What grabbed me when I first picked up “Still Doing Life” are the photographs of the 22 people interviewed by Zehr and Toews. There are two photographs of each person. The first in street clothes and the second, twenty-five years later—in a similar pose, wearing prison garb.
Bruce Bainbridge explains why, “When we had to get rid of the civilian cloths due to a policy change in 1995, it was depressing for me because I had to throw away my identity. That’s one of the biggest things that gave me character.” He went on to say, “I didn’t want to turn into a prisoner. I still struggle with keeping my humanity. I don’t want to get numb to that.”
The first interviewee in the book, Kimberly Joynes, reveals a painfully astonishing short-coming in the criminal justice system. “When I was sentenced, my judge literally believed that after seven years it was possible I would be paroled.” Joynes thought, as did the courts, that she would see the Parole Board. That was not to be. Now she relies on the possibility of clemency from the Board of Pardons. Unfortunately, prior to Governor Tom Wolf, clemency for a lifer in Pennsylvania was about as rare as Punxsutawney Phil not seeing his shadow.
Ricardo Mercado told Zehr that “It broke a lot of people here when they [Board of Pardons] changed from majority vote to . . . unanimous.” Politics, not some evidenced-based practice, was the reason behind the change.
In 1994, Congressman Tom Ridge was running for governor against then Lt. Governor Mark Singel. The Lt. Governor serves by statute on the Board of Pardons. That same year, a majority of the board recommended clemency for Reginald McFadden.
McFadden was granted clemency by the governor and committed a series of rapes and murders after his release. Ridge used McFadden’s clemency against Singel and got elected. Once Ridge took office, he called a special legislative session on crime and changed, among other things, the board’s clemency recommendation from a majority of the Pardons Board to unanimity for serious violent crimes.
The pain of a life sentence is no better demonstrated than in the second interview with Kevin Mines. Kevin shared with Zehr and Toews when he called a niece that he didn’t really know very well and she was reluctant to come to the phone. When she finally did, she told Mines “I don’t know you like that.” The girl’s mom told Mines, “I told her not to talk to strangers.”
For decades policymakers have wrestled with holding offenders accountable while still recognizing the dignity of those incarcerated—all the while trying not to be portrayed as soft on crime.
A small step in the direction of dignity is a movement to drop the dehumanizing label of “inmate” for those who are incarcerated. Cyd Berger, one of eight women interviewed for the book, makes the best argument I’ve heard in support of such a change. She told Zehr and Toews in 2017, “There’s no single description of an inmate because we are people . . . ‘Inmate’ is a word that the prison system gives us, but that’s not who we are.”
That is exactly what Zehr and Toews do with “Still Doing Life.” The book humanizes a group of people who society has hidden away and forgotten. Despite the seeming hopelessness that comes with being locked-up forever, Aaron Fox told the authors in 2017, “I have to confess, I’ve been blessed with a good life, even in prison.”
(Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George. P.C. and the former district attorney of Lawrence County, PA. He is the author of The Executioner’s Toll. 2010. You can follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)