Serial, Mass Incarceration, and the Hidden Death Penalty


The Serial sensation, the most downloaded podcast series in the history of podcasts, has sparked avid “whodunit” debates in living rooms, bars, and offices all across the country. Now that it has finally come to an end, it leaves listeners with more questions than answers. Thousands scoured over internet message boards and newspaper archives attempting to get closer to the identity of the true person behind the 1999 murder of 18-year old Hae Min Lee. Was it Adnan Syed? Did Jay Wilds set him up? Or was it some third party?

As Serial’s listeners attempt to tie loose ends of the complicated murder mystery together, the bigger picture slips further away. Much of the appeal of the show has been the long, meticulous search to find the real killer.  The public frenzy around the murder of Hae Min Lee’s murder and the possible exoneration of Adnan Syed has brought to light immense problems with our criminal justice system, yet it still may make us too comfortable with prisons as the only answers to violence. While listeners caught in the frenzy around the possible exoneration of Adnan Syed continue to hunt for answers, the framing of the show risks perpetuating the notion that justice would be found simply by finding, trying, and convicting the real killer to a lifetime in prison. While host Sarah Koenig raises many critical questions of the trial process, she risks making us too comfortable with prison as the sole response to violence. Would finding and locking up the real killer in prison until they die make us feel any better?

For some, it definitely might. One can wholeheartedly understand why the Lee family would want some closure after the murder of their daughter or why the Syed family, seeking to exonerate Adnan, might feel as deeply committed to finding the killer.

But the search for the perpetrator is perhaps even more complicated than Serial’s listeners make it out to be. Given the structure of the law, whoever is found to be the culprit in this case would continue serving Adnan Syed’s life sentence alongside one out of nine prisoners currently incarcerated in the United States. While people who commit violence ought to be held accountable for their actions, locking someone in a cage until they die contributes little to the values of a just society.

As momentum swells against mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex all across the country, a growing number of individuals and organizations have called attention to the dramatic rise in life-sentencing in the United States. Tyrone Werts, a former prisoner who served 36 years of a life without parole sentence until finally being exonerated in 2011, has taken to advocating for parole eligibility for lifers and reforming the broken commutations process in Pennsylvania, which currently incarcerates the second most lifers in the country.

Werts called his final day in prison a “kind of bittersweet” moment.

“There’s all these guys in the hallway waiting to greet me and wish me the best,” Werts said in an interview with Newsworks. “And you know I’m walking out the hallway weeping like a baby, because I knew that all these guys I had built a tremendous amount of respect and love for are going to die there.”

In October, Pope Francis called for the abolition of life sentencing, labeling such the penalty a “a hidden death sentence.”

“All Christians and men of good faith are therefore called upon today to fight, not only for the abolition of the death penalty but also to improve the conditions of incarceration to ensure that the human dignity of those deprived of their freedom is respected,” said Pope Francis to the annual conference of the International Association of Penal Law. “And this, for me, is linked to life sentences. For a short time now, these no longer exist in the Vatican penal code. A sentence of life (without parole) is a hidden death penalty.”

While crime rates in the United States have declined over the last twenty years, the number of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled. Over 159,000 people were serving life sentences in 2012, with nearly 50,000 serving life without parole.

The rise of life sentencing parallels the rise of mass incarceration in the United States which has left the country with a quarter of the world’s prison population despite only having a twentieth of the world’s total population. The number of men and women who are currently serving life without parole (LWOP) has increased more sharply than those with the possibility of parole, with a 22.2% increase in LWOP since just 2008. Nearly half of lifers are African American and one in six are Latino. Blacks represent 35 percent of individuals sentenced to death since 1977; they represent half of those sentenced to life without parole.

The United States has also sent more children to die in prison than any other country in the world. More than 10,000 life-sentenced inmates have been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18, such as Adnan Syed who was convicted at 17, and nearly one in four of these juvenile sentences were without parole. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that such sentences amounted “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus a violation of the 8th amendment. But several states have decided against applying the court’s ruling retroactively, leaving thousands of juvenile lifers to wait for for politicians fearful of appearing “soft on crime” to somehow find the courage to enact parole eligibility.

For most of the 20th century, a sentence as harsh as life without parole was rarely used. Instead, a person sentenced to “life” could be released after 15-20 years upon the parole board determining that the prisoner had been fully rehabilitated.

After the War on Drugs, states began to restrict the use of parole as “tough on crime” politicians denied virtually all requests for commutation or clemency. Some advocates for the abolition of life without parole sentencing have said that anti-death penalty activists have also been partly to blame, offering life without parole as an alternative sentence to the death penalty.

Life sentences are also helping turn prisons into geriatric centers where access to vital health services are difficult to find and cost is high. The average cost of care for a geriatric prisoner is over $68,000. Of state prisoners age 51 or older, over forty percent have sentences ranging anywhere between more than 20 years to life.

Research has shown lengthy sentences do nothing to improve public safety. The likelihood of a lifer to commit a crime after being granted parole is low. A 2004 analysis by The Sentencing Project found that individuals released from life sentences were less than one-third as likely to be rearrested within three years as all released persons.

Adnan Syed is serving a life sentence plus thirty years in Maryland. He is technically eligible for parole, but release on parole for a life sentence is practically nonexistent and requires a signature from the governor. No one serving a life sentence has been paroled in Maryland since 2004. In Maryland, where parole eligibility is legally accessible, a sentence to life is a sentence to die in prison.

While life-sentencing does little to quell violence, it also fails to provide a venue for a prisoner to be rehabilitated, demonstrate remorse, or seek redemption. It simply renders a human being disposable regardless of what the future might hold for them. As fans of Serial begin to point fingers at all of the possible suspects and add even more questions to the case of Adnan Syed, perhaps they could also the question what will almost always be standing before them at the end of the “whodunit” hunt–yet another person condemned to die in a cage.

“A significant portion of the death penalty abolitionist community right now believes that death is wrong no matter what—even if the person is guilty,” said I. Bennett Capers, professor of criminal law at Brooklyn Law School, in an interview with In These Times. “I’d like to have that same conversation about extreme punishments like life without parole. I think right now is the time to make the argument that all extreme punishments are problematic.”

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  • About the autor
    Waleed Shahid

    Waleed Shahid is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. He also works at Decarcerate PA, a grassroots coalition seeking to end mass incarceration in the state of Pennsylvania.
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