In California, teens sentenced to life without parole are not placed in adult prisons until they turn 18 years old. When they are transferred to state prison, they serve their time in maximum security prisons among the most violent adult criminals in the state. The majority of individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed as teens told Human Rights Watch that the fear of entering adult prisonespecially given the striking physical differences between themselves and the older prisonerswas overwhelming. I felt like, What am I doing in prison with all these grown men? Robert C. recalls of entering prison as an 18-year-old.127 Anthony C. remembers riding in the prison transport van as it pulled up to the prison where he would spend the rest of his life. I was scared. I was really young. When I first saw the outside of the prison, my stomach was hurting. My stomach started cramping. I had heard all the stories about the violence.128 David C., now 29, was sent at age 18 to one of Californias highest security prisons: [I was] scared to death. I was all of 56, 130 pounds and they sent me to PBSP [Pelican Bay State Prison]. I tried to kill myself because I couldnt stand what the voices in my head was saying Youre gonna get raped. You won't ever see your family again.129
David C. was not the only one who said he had tried to kill himself. A number of others told us they had considered or attempted suicide when they entered prison. Yekonya H. wrote, I felt scared not knowing what would become of me, nor what to expect. I was alone, in desperate need of guidance. I thought about killing myself to escape the pain and frustration I felt, for not being a better child.130 Several of those interviewed described watching other inmates commit suicide. Prison life is a lot harder than it's made out to be. Especially when a juvenile is placed in a grown man's prison. There are no friends in prison. It's every man for himself in prison. Many don't make it, Jason E. said.131
Small physique and the status of being newly incarcerated heighten the risk of being sexually victimized. At 17, when Billy G. was convicted, he was tiny: At trial, I was 55 and 119, 120 pounds. Upon first entering adult prison, he said, I was scared, confused, and intimidated.132
For many, violence becomes a daily reality. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents who answered questions about victimization in prison reported that they have been physically or sexually assaulted.133 Someone tried to cut my throat with a razor knife, Gary J. told us.134 Nearly every survey respondent reported witnessing violent acts.135 Their descriptions make clear that the violence they encounter is not simple fist fights: nearly half reported witnessing stabbings; some described witnessing murders, rapes, strangulations, and severe beatings.136 I've seen more death in here than I did when I was living in the inner city, Rudy L. said.137 Bilal R. wrote, I have seen stabbings, rapes, robberies, and many other things. Ive been stabbed more than once.138
For youth in California, a sentence to life without parole has consequences beyond experiencing daily violence. Educational, rehabilitative, vocational, and other self-improvement programs ordinarily available to most inmates are often denied to those serving life without parole, including those sentenced as juveniles. Thirty percent of survey respondents said no programming was available to them at the prison where they were housed. Among those who said programs were available, 47 percent said prison-imposed barriers prevented them from attending. There are several reasons why inmates serving life without parole are denied access to existing programs and work opportunities: inmates with shorter sentences have priority, security classifications not necessarily related to individual behavior make them ineligible, or they must contend with frequent system lock-downs that are not the result of their individual behavior.
First, prison practice and regulations give persons sentenced to life without parole the lowest priority for accessing programs. Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that their sentence puts them on the lowest rung of waiting lists for GED classes and substance abuse rehabilitation groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), with priority being given to inmates with a set number of years on their sentence. Those programs are mainly for people that are going home, one individual told us, echoing the conclusion of many.139 For example, Bill C. was 22 years old when we interviewed him. He said he had been in prison five years and during that time had just one month in a GED class. I wanted to get my diploma, he told us. I did everything I could to get into the GED program and I was working hard in the class. But after a month, he said, he was removed from the class and told there was no room for lifers.140 Ross Meier, the CDCR Facility Captain in the Classification Service Unit, told us that the programs offered vary from prison to prison and availability is limited. We have 173,000 inmates. There are limited spots in programs. 141 He confirmed that those who will be released from prison are likely to be given priority for certain types of programs.142
Second, security levels assigned to prisoners limit participation in existing programs. Every prisoner is classified and given a security level. Different types and quantities of programs are available at each security level, with the fewest opportunities at the highest level. Typically the security level is based on several factors, including the inmates sentence and behavior. For those serving life without parole, behavior is not counted: Meier clarified that state regulations mandate a level IV assignment.143
Level IV places significant restrictions on inmates, limiting how long they can be out of their cells, what types of jobs they can perform, and where they can move within the prison. Most prisoners can reduce their security level over time through good behavior, but those serving life without paroleno matter how exemplary their behaviorare at stuck at level IV for years. Interviewees said that despite a clean disciplinary record, they believed inmates serving life without parole sentences cannot be moved from a Level IV to a medium or low security unit.144 Theres a point system . [You get points for bad behavior], said Saul Paul G., I have zero points, explaining that he has had no behavioral problems and not received a single infraction since he entered prison in 1995. Despite this he remains in a high security setting.145 A number of those interviewed had experiences similar to Saul Paul.
Meier told Human Rights Watch that individuals serving life without parole are allowed to petition to have their level lowered. However, for those serving life without parole, a change in security classification to a level III requires a decision by the Deputy Director after review by a classification committee.146 Meier refused to speculate as to how often an inmate serving life without parole has his or her classification reduced.147 None of the 135 individuals who have communicated with Human Rights Watch said they had had their classification reduced from a level IV to a level III.
Third, when inmates do get into programs, frequent lock-downs of facilities impede their ability to participate. Lockdowns are a method of controlling prisoners and are usually in response to violence or feared violence. The lock-downs confine inmates to cells for 23 hours a day. I'm enrolled in education and I can attend AA/NA (Narcotics Anonymous) when it comes around but most of the time we're [on] lockdown so its almost impossible to get any certificates, said Cesar B.148 Most California state prisons are at double or nearly double the population capacity for which they were built. 149 Violence is more common in overcrowded conditions.150 See, theres no time for program, wrote Jose Luis C. Its a continuous thing, [were] always locked down I've been here since last March 2006 and [in those 17 months Ive] only been [able to go outside or go to programs] for a total of maybe two and a half months. You do the math.151
The lack of educational and other rehabilitative opportunities is particularly disturbing for youth sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Regardless of their sentence, young people should be provided basic educational and self-improvement opportunities.152 By virtue of their age, most had not finished high school at the time of arrest. For many, substance abuse and other problems that gave rise to their criminal behavior need to be addressed. More than half of survey respondents reported that mental health, drugs, or disability played a direct role in their crimes.153 An overwhelming majority86 percent reported that they were abusing alcohol or drugs during their teen years, with 64 percent using drugs or alcohol at least four times a week and many using every day. Only 14 percent had received counseling or substance abuse treatment before their arrest.154 For example, Leo T. said he was drinking alcohol every day when he was 16 years old and arrested for the crime that sent him to prison for life. He had no intervention as a teen, and when he entered prison he wanted to change. I couldnt get into AA, theres a waitlist, he said.155
Those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles describe their daily prison life in terms of hell, nightmares, and loneliness. [Its] a terrible dream that I can't wake up from. No matter what I say or do in my dream, I can't wake up, wrote William R., now 28 years old.156 John D., now 31, says, I feel like I am dead. My life doesnt even matter.157 There's no words to describe this experience. I'd rather be dead, said 22-year-old Jesse A.158 Many describe the pain of being separated from family, especially as parents and other loved ones die during their incarceration. Others write of trying to keep a positive attitude and make the best of their situation.
Youth sentenced to life without parole are sentenced to die in prison before theyve really begun life. As a result, the frustrationand in certain cases despairregarding the futility of their lives is intense. It makes you feel that life is not worth living because nothing you do, good or bad, matters to anyone. You have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, you are given absolutely no incentive to improve yourself as a person. It's hopeless, wrote Jason E.159
Because California prisons offer little help or tangible incentives for rehabilitative change, and youth who are able to change do so by virtue of their growing maturity in combination with sheer will and determination. In describing his choice to not be violent and focus his energies on studying history, Saul Paul says, It takes a lot of patience. I guess God has been good to me. I live and survive how I can.160
127 Survey response from Robert C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 28, 2007.
128 Human Rights Watch interview with Anthony C., serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007.
129 Survey response from David C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 28, 2007.
130 Survey response from Yekonya H., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.
131 Survey response from Jason E., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 20, 2007.
132 Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.
133 This percentage is based on Human Rights Watchs survey in which 67 out of 114 respondents reported that they had been the victim of an assault in prison.
134 Survey response from Gary J., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.
135 Ninety-one percent of respondents to the Human Rights Watch survey reported that they had witnessed violence while in prison. Respondents often provided longer, narrative answers to explain with more specificity the types of violence witnessed and the perpetrator. Several did not answer the question and wrote that they feared retaliation if they answered the question.
136 Without being asked directly about the type of violence witnessed, 46 percent of respondents who wrote a narrative answer describing violence they had witnessed noted that they had seen stabbings.
137 Survey response from Rudy L., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 29, 2007.
138 Survey response from Bilal R., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2007.
139 Survey response from an individual serving life without parole in California who asked that his or her identity be kept completely anonymous to Human Rights Watch, 2007.
140 Human Rights Watch interview with Bill C., serving life without parole in California, January 26, 2006.
141 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ross Meier, Sacramento, California, November 14, 2007.
142 For example, some California inmates who are not serving life without parole can earn a day off of their sentences for a day of work, thus reducing their time in prison. Those prisoners will have priority for work and programs that give credit toward time off of their sentence. See California Penal Code §2932. This day-for-day calculation is not allowed for people convicted of serious or violent crimes.
143 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ross Meier, Sacramento, California, November 14, 2007. See California Code of Regulations, Title 15§3375.(2)(a), which states, An inmate serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole shall not be housed in a facility with a security level lower than Level IV, except when authorized by the Departmental Review Board.
144 Even the two people serving life without parole for childhood crimes interviewed by Human Rights Watch who are located on the states Honor Yard serving are still at a level IV, although their movement and access to work and programs appears to be much better than those on other yards and in other prisons.
145 Human Rights Watch interview with Saul Paul G., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.
146 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ross Meier, Sacramento, California, November 14, 2007. A requirement of a Deputy Director-level decision appears to be Department policy, not regulation.
148 Survey response from Cesar B., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 1, 2007.
149 The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation lists on its website the current inmate population and the design capacity of each of the states 33 prisons. Twenty-five prisons have near double the population (1.9 times designed capacity) or more than double the intended population. Seven prisons have almost double the population (1.5 to 1.8 times the designed population capacity). Only one, the California Medical Center, has prisoner numbers at or below designed facility capacity. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Adult Facilities and Locations,2007, http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Visitors/Facilities/index.html (accessed November 5, 2007). Conditions in California prisons, including those related to overcrowding, are the subject of several lawsuits and legislation.
150 Overcrowding, poor physical conditions, lack of meaningful activities, and limited contact with visitors can lead to increased violence in prisons. Daniel L. Low, Nonprofit Private Prisons: The Next Generation of Prison Management, New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement, Winter, 2003, p.9. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recognizes that overcrowding increases the risk of violence and other problems in California prisons. This concern about violence, along with the specter of a federal judge considering whether an inmate population cap was warranted, caused the Department to create a plan to reduce overcrowding in mid-2007. Unprecedented legislative and executive action also was taken. See California Responds to Federal Courts with Plan to Reduce Prison Overcrowding, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, press release, Press20070516, May 16, 2007, http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/2007_Press_Releases/Press20070516.html (accessed November 25, 2007).
151 Letter from Jose Luis C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.
152 UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, (Standard Minimum Rules), adopted by the First United
Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolution 663 C (XXIV) of July 31, 1957, and 2076 (LXII) of May 13, 1977, art. 77(1) and 78.
153 Fifty-two percent of respondents who answered questions about mental health, disability, or drugs in relation to the commission of the crime reported that at least one of those factors played a direct role in the crime.
154 In survey responses that represent nearly half of all youth offenders serving life without parole in California, 64 percent report using drugs or alcohol consistently, that is, four to five times a week or every day. This rate of alcohol use is more than 11 times than that of the general teen-aged population. The 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 6.2 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 in the general population are heavy drinkers, and that 28 percent of youth in the general population have used alcohol at least once in the last month. The same study found that 9.8 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 had used drugs in the last month. US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/nsduh/2k6nsduh/2k6Results.cfm (accessed October 31, 2007).
155 Human Rights Watch interview with Leo T., serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007.
156 Survey response from William R., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.
157 Survey response from John D., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 30, 2007.
158 Survey response from Jessie A., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 30, 2007.
159 Survey response from Jason E., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 20, 2007.
160 Human Rights Watch interview with Saul Paul G., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.