By Kathleen White
When I began my year-long Jesuit Volunteer position with CFSY 11 months ago, I knew a large part of my role would be to correspond with individuals sentenced as children to die in prison. However, I did not know how transformative the power of their stories would be and how important these letters would be for me.
Each morning, I sit down at my desk and look down at a stack of letters from men and women who are serving these extreme sentences. Many letters have a stamp labeled with the word “forever.” Although this means the stamp will never expire, I find myself thinking about that word entirely differently. Just how long is forever?
These letters contain the stories of people whom our society has deemed irredeemable. As children, they received permanent judgments based on the worst things they had ever done. They were so young and most of their short lives had been filled with trauma. Imagine being as young as 13, and having a judge tell you that you were a lost cause and deserve no more than to be sent to prison for the rest of your life.
No two letters are the same. Many letters graphically describe the traumatic circumstances that led these children to make a mistake that would cost them the rest of their lives. Other letters are shorter, lacking details but begging for help with such urgency that I can only try to imagine the suffering and loss that the writer has endured. Despite the differences and writing styles, these letters share one key message: adult prisons are not the place for children.
Surely there is a better option than sentencing these vulnerable children to die in prison. There is nothing dignifying about being told that you are irredeemable—especially when we know that children possess a unique capacity for change.
While the role of the Jesuit Volunteer is ever changing and rotating, the influx of letters from individuals serving is a constant part of this position. They serve as a constant reminder that there are far too many individuals serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed before they were old enough to vote, join the military, or sign a contract.