"Nothing Has Been Fair or Just About Prison" -- Putting an End to Extreme Sentencing

Editor's Note:

Zah has served 36 years of a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. From his decades of experience he makes the political, moral, and undeniable argument to end extreme sentences.

I am writing in the hope that I might contribute to changing the way that people think about the laws withregards to the draconian life without possible parole sentences, as well as other extreme sentencing.

I have a sentence of life without possible parole, of which I have served 36 years, and this sentence is the equivalent of a slow death. It completely removes from the equation that a human being is capable of redemption. It does not consider that most, if not all, of the people who are subjected to it have suffered severe trauma. As the country itself has experienced extreme trauma. Generational trauma. Trauma that has not taken a single day off over the past few centuries.

Life without parole means that we will not be allowed to mourn the loss of our parents, sisters, brothers, children, and loved ones when they pass away. It is a contradiction to, on the one hand, say that family ties are encouraged, but purposely keep them separated for the rest of their lives as a result of the life without parole sentence. Life without parole permanently separates families and communities from each other. Imprisonment makes it impossible for there to be a support system to be developed that helps us mature in any meaningful ways. It prevents us from contributing positively to society in any kind of meaningful way.

Like so many of us in prison, I have lost my parents, sister, and grandson. I know that they were heart broken, having me behind bars all the way until their passing. I think it's crucial for the families, loved ones, and communities to contribute to the discussion on how they have been and are affected by life without parole sentences. This punishment also extends to them. 

The problem with extreme sentencing, and for me the starting point, is that we are supposed to be so much more enlightened than this. The United States is an outlier as it relates to what amounts to the most hateful sentencing laws on the planet. And California might very well be, in spite of its reputation for being liberal, one of the most hateful states in the country. California has always been able to hide its hate behind the perception of liberalism. As a result, we have an incredibly unfair and unjust system.

There will come a time when California, and the rest of the country, will be exposed for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wrongful convictions. With many of those wrongful convictions are people sentenced to life without parole and other extreme sentences, including the death penalty.

I did not commit the crime for which I am in prison. I was not convicted for killing the victim in this case. I was acquitted on the charge that I personally used a weapon in the commission of the crime. I was found guilty of first-degree murder, but the jury found the personal use of the weapons allegation to be not true. The jury did not find that I was the actual killer or shooter. In spite of this, none of the recently enacted laws which are overturning some convictions, are being applied to me. I have consistently been told that I do not qualify for any of the relief offered in these new laws. 

Nothing has been fair or just about the prison experience. The tools needed to give the people who are constantly working on themselves simply do not exist in prison. There must be a clear and firm commitment by legislature and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to provide the incarcerated population with the tools that are needed to contribute to the maturation process while inside. There are many changes that would make the situation better. People should be housed closer to their families and loved ones, pay for workers should be increased, and they should receive technological training. The board that decides prison terms and parole should be expanded to include members of the community that the person will be paroling to, and should include psychologists and psychiatrists who are not employed by the state, since many of the ones employed by the CDCR write incredibly biased reports. 

Along with the self-help programs that are available in some prisons, a lot of the people who come to prison come as children. Psychologically, they develop a warped sense of what manhood is. There was a program in Solano prison, M.A.N.U.P., that focused on the development of manhood. In my opinion, it was a very effective program. We need more programs like that.

There must be a recognition that in order to know if we have learned, we must be put in positions to practice what we have learned. If prison is about rehabilitation, once we have started to engage in the life-long process of working on ourselves and fixing ourselves to become productive members of society - from that point on, our being in prison is just about punishment. To the extent that we are willing to achieve that level of personal development, we should be released. There are people who were found to be not suitable for reasons that are highly politicized. Politics should be removed from the equation of who is released. To help take the politics out of the situation, it should not be a discretionary choice for courts to resentence prisoners. Hearings should be held, and prisoners and their families should be allowed to provide testimony on their stories. The record that would come from that testimony would be valuable in crafting legislation that would  remedy those injustices in developing a more just system.

If our country and our state are to achieve their democratic potentials, we need to work together to create a just and humane approach for how crime and punishment are administered. I ask you to engage in that work.


Written by
Michael Reed Dorrough

My name is Michael Reed Dorrough. I have used The Swahili name Zaharibu (Zah) since the 1970's. I am 67 years old. I have lived in the Watts section of Los Angeles since 1968. A lot of my family resides in Los Angeles County today. I have been imprisoned since 1985 for a murder that I did not commit. I spend as much time as I can listening to jazz, trying to learn about the world that I live in, and contributing to changing it. You are welcome to write to me at Michael Reed Dorrough #D83611 SATF, 11, B3-6-4L P.O. Box 5248 Corcoran, CA. 93212
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