Opinion

Needed: Good-time credits for lifers

Sunlight streams through the bars of a prison cell. (Photo: nobeastsofierce, via Shutterstock)

Proposition 57’s 50% good-time credit should be applied retroactively to all incarcerated people, including lifers who committed violent crimes. Contrary to popular fears, releasing reformed lifers may be the best thing we can do to reduce violent crime.

The stereotype about prisons and incarcerated people is widespread and builds walls that do not exist. The common stigma is that incarcerated people are the worst of the worst, and that all we do is kill and rape each other.

The CCPOA and other assorted interest groups promote the idea that the worst of the worst are in prison.

This blanket statement does not include all incarcerated people, or even most of them. I met a lifer who gets his therapy making jewelry boxes from popsicle sticks and polished stones. I have read proposals for nonprofit organizations formed by lifers to curtail violence in their communities. Others work towards better opportunities for education and employment for youth and ex-offenders. Still others are working towards transitional housing and further vocational training for youth and ex-offenders so they can have jobs instead of running the streets.

More and more lifers are concerned with stopping crime than re-offending, and want to keep their children and family members out of prison as well.

The CCPOA and other assorted interest groups promote the idea that the worst of the worst are in prison. While there are some bad people in prison, many of us have taken a long, hard look at our lives and have worked to fix our problems with anger and drugs and violence. We hope that one day we will rejoin society and begin the real work of making amends.

Lifers who parole undergo an extreme vetting process. The Board of Parole Hearings is comprised of ex-law enforcement personnel and victims’ rights advocates. This panel spends two to four hours navigating the thought process of candidates.

Once this panel uncovers how the candidate thinks, they determine whether or not the candidate poses a threat to society. If it is agreeable, the panel sets a tentative parole date, and sends the decision up to the governor. If the governor believes the parole candidate isn’t a threat to society, then the candidate gets to go home and start making amends in earnest.

Recidivism rates for lifers are about 2% compared to 60% for non-lifers. The idea behind going to the penitentiary, which has its roots in the word “penance,” is a making amends for crimes against society. Since prisons are supposed to be about making amends, as is the idea of justice, it is fitting that an offender is given a chance to make a change for the better, and good time credits are a good way to help offenders return to society to be of assistance and not a hindrance.

My idea of making amends is doing my part to make up for the wrongs I have done to my family and my community. This means doing what I can to give the youth better options than crime. I want to teach life skills and I want to open educational and creative doors for the youth so they follow their dreams instead of their big homies down a road to ruin.

It is my firm belief that better education leads to greater opportunities, and I want to be a part of a better world for our children, and to help them make a better world for their children. I want to open a school that teaches the things in life necessary for building up humanity. That is my pledge to you.

I ask that legislators extend Proposition 57’s 50% good-time credit to violent and serious offenders, and apply the credits retroactively. I also ask that community members contact their representatives in support of extending these time credits to all incarcerated people willing to do the work to earn them.

Ed’s Note: George Coles is a freelance writer serving a life sentence in San Quentin State Prison. His work is forthcoming on prisonrenaissance.org.


  • Deanne Heinrichs

    This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read. He says nothing about the victims and families of his violent crime that are left behind to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. There is no remorse, only words about what he wants to do, maybe he has rehabilitated, maybe he has changed but that doesn’t change the fact that he committed a violent act against someone and he has to pay the price. The victim or the families will never have the chance for a normal life and neither should he.

  • rgaura

    A well reasoned article. The person who commits a violent act as a youngster is not the same person 7 years later. Every cell in their body is new, and after 7 years of incarceration and sobriety, they have done a lot of thinking and growing up. Violent offenders get sentences 3 times longer in the US than in Canada, and 5 times longer than in France. Prisoners used to be able to work off %50 of their time with good behaviour and classes, and now must do 85% of their overly punitive sentences. This only creates a situation where they may be exploited as slave labor for decades, or indefinitely, and has nothing to do with rehabilitation or protecting society. Many young men are imprisoned for a rash, perhaps inebriated act that took all of two seconds. We can do better by them as a society.

  • http://www.papillonfoundation.org TriqNasty

    It is impossible to “punish” people into good behavior. Rehabilitation is the only answer and once a lifer shows rehabilitation, why keep him/her incarcerated?

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