What is Death By Incarceration?

by Jason Keag

While you are reading this please remember that this idea/argument comes from a person who has served 28 years so far and I know not all men and women will survive their sentences (Death, Life Without Parole, 3/4/5 decades) until some miracle gives them a second chance at redemption or freedom. I’m asking to walk a mile in another’s shoes and see Death By Incarceration (D.B.I) through my/their eyes, we all may learn something new. I’ve learned through writing how to better understand my situation and as a reader I hope that you may learn and gain a better understanding of Death By Incarceration from my point of view.

Death By Incarceration can mean more than just a physical death, there are multiple ways of slowly killing or even “torturing” an individual by incarcerating them for extremely lengthy amounts of time. This idea of mine covers more than just Life Without Parole (L.W.O.P) or Death sentences, it covers all who are serving multiple decades of incarceration. Death By Incarceration is a self explanatory title/statement, a person serving a sentence that will lead to their death while incarcerated.

I would like to say this before you read any further, I believe all victims deserve justice and that communities, loved ones, family & friends who are touched by a crime deserve justice or closure as well. I will also state/ask this; Who gains from a person dying in prison? Do the victims receive justice or just retribution? Does it make a community safer or is it just an eye for an eye? How about the men and women who have not taken a life, do they deserve to die while they are incarcerated?

So what does Death By Incarceration (D.B.I) mean? Different people will see it and explain it differently. Here is how I see it or can best explain it; It is more than just a physical death while incarcerated. My idea of D.B.I applies to all sentences Death, Life, multiple decades because any of those sentences can lead to a death sentence.

I apply my idea of D.B.I to all sentences Death, Life, or 3/4/5 decade sentences because any lengthy sentence can lead to a death sentence.

The most obvious definition of Death that comes to mind is; The end of life or physical death, Death and Life sentences would be prime examples of this. I would ask that we also think about a person serving 3/4/5 or more decades, they could also be serving a death sentence. Diabetes, Heart problems, Cancer, Aneurysms, Stress/Anxiety, Suicide, and now Covid-19 are all real illnesses that are contracted while incarcerated, combined those illnesses with decades of incarceration and it could lead to a person’s death while incarcerated. As the incarcerated age and their immune systems weaken they have a high likelihood of contracting any of those illnesses which will most likely lead to their death. I feel we can get so locked in on what death means, a physical death, that we do not realize the other ways a person can die while incarcerated. Secondly, a person’s Mental well being, Hope, Spirit, or Emotional state can also be killed which can lead to that individual just “giving up” that can also lead to their physical death. Once an incarcerated person “gives up” they are most likely to contract any or all of the illnesses I have mentioned above.

To touch on the subject of Mental Health for a moment and the effects it has on a person serving decades/Life/Death or the fact that the Department of Corrections has become aware of this mental health problem. They have hired and put into place more psychologist/psychiatrist in the past decade than they have since their inception. This does not include the CPS (Certified Peer Support) workers they have trained and work throughout the institutions. Those workers are trained to sit down with “troubled” individuals discuss whatever problems they may be having. Suicide, anxiety, and the inability to cope with lengthy sentences are just some of the side effects of long-term incarceration, which includes Life, Death, and decade long sentences. If a person’s hope, spirit, or mental stability is killed does that not create a less emotional or empathetic person who is more likely to “give up”? Does that person not also die while incarcerated, maybe not a physical death but a death all the same.

Here is another issue that could lead to a person’s death while incarcerated; A person begins their sentence with an abundance of family, friends, supporters and over the decades some of those people will pass away, move on, or just give up on an individual, all of which is beyond their control. Now say that same person by some miracle receives a chance at parole, commutation, or even resentencing what are the odds of a good outcome for that person with less support than they started with? That person may have to keep serving their D.B.I sentence because of the ” lack of support”. I am not saying they will automatically get denied but their odds are very low for getting relief because of the lack of support they may have.

I hear talk of prison reform and lessening prison populations, are those people touching on what is needed to accomplish this such as dealing with the issue of D.B.I sentences? How do people with those type of sentences get relief before they die in prison? How do you rehabilitate a person who knows they will most likely die while incarcerated? They can be rehabilitated and returned to society and the communities they left, get them from under their D.B.I sentences and give them hope or a second chance at life. Like I have stated before, ” We as a people are better than the State and Justice system portray us to be”.

Across the Nation there may be prison reform happening, I just don’t see it here in Pennsylvania, at least not for those serving Death, Life, or multiple decade sentences. There is no Good time, Second Chance, or Aging Out Bills that would help those individuals gain release after decades of incarceration no matter what their sentence may be. What we do have is an aging population of men and women who are slowly dying in prison that do not need to be.

My whole point is to hopefully bring attention for all of those men and women who are serving multiple decades or D.B.I sentences who are having either their physical lives or mental stability extinguished. I feel if there was something like a Second Chance Bill it could help many of those who are serving sentences like Life Without Parole, multiple decades, or even the Death Penalty. I say that because I know of and have seen the change in myself and others after decades of incarceration. One could say it is like a switch is turned on and the want to change is apparent and increases as the years pass.

There are multiple benefits from finding ways to release people who are serving D.B.I sentences or at least what my idea of a D.B.I sentence is. We as a society, community, and the State just need to look for and realize the benefits that there are.

In closing I wish to convey this once again to those who may be reading or have read this; This is my definition of what Death By Incarceration means and in my eyes D.B.I covers more than just Life Without Parole or the Death Penalty. I would also like to convey this, there are multitudes of men and women who are serving what I view as a D.B.I sentence who have not taken a life.

If we can get away from the need for retribution, maybe, just maybe then we can truly rehabilitate individuals and get them back to their communities. I would say a good start might be to find ways to get away from the Life Without Parole and Excessively(Decade) long sentences. Bring the individuals who have changed and learned back to the communities they had left, let them speak to the youth and bring to those who need it the guidance that can be given from those who have served decades and learned from it.

What do I know, I am One Voice

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