Reflections on Menard Correctional Center and Juvenile Life-Without-Parole Sentences

Recently, clinic student Sarah Staudt ('13) and colleagues from the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic interviewed two clients serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences at Menard Correctional Center.  Sarah's reflections on that experience follow:

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in the Juvenile Justice Clinic here at the law school since September. A couple weeks ago, I took a trip down to see two clients, accompanied by another law student, Michelle Gellar, the clinic’s social worker, and two social work students. Normally a trip to see a client is a couple hours of work, but this was a little different: these two clients are serving mandatory life without parole sentences at Menard Correctional Center, 6 hours south of Chicago. Both are serving life sentences for crimes they were convicted of when they were teenagers: M. was 14, and K. was 17.

A little background: in June, the Supreme Court made a decision in a case called Miller vs. Alabama and held that juveniles cannot be mandatorily sentenced to life in prison without parole. If they’re going to be subject to that penalty, a judge must at the very least individually consider “hallmark features of youth” like impulsivity, lack of appreciation of consequences, and family circumstances when sentencing youth. What happened to K. and M. can’t happen to similarly situated children who are convicted of serious crimes today. But the jury is still out about whether or not K. and M. will be able to benefit from Miller now that they’re already in prison. The clinic spent the fall quarter preparing briefs arguing that Miller should apply retroactively, and that individuals like K. and M. should get new sentencing hearings. If that happens, we’ll need to reconstruct a full profile of who these men were when they were teenagers, and of who they are now. To do so, of course, we need to talk to them.

After our 6 hour drive, we made our way through prison security, and met M., talking to him through a layer of bulletproof glass. After we shared a legal update we talked about his life, his childhood and about his time in prison. He and I discovered we have the same taste in books – he, like me, is an epic fantasy fan, and just finished the first of the “Game of Thrones” series, and was also a big fan of The Hunger Games. He’s funny, well-spoken, and thoughtful – it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that at age 14, he was convicted of a double murder. When he talks about the crime, he’s remorseful, and he also says that he was a different person back then: and like all of us, has grown up quite a lot since the 7th grade. And yet, as it currently stands, a split second decision he made when he was 14 defines who he is in the eyes of society for the rest of his life. Most of us are able to escape the mistakes we make as teenagers – even big mistakes. We grow up and get smarter, gain self-control, and move on with our lives. M. has matured, and has changed, but he’s not able to escape what happened when he was a middle schooler.

The conditions at Menard seem patently inhumane: 6’ x 8’cells shared by two people, in a decaying building. The prison has been on lockdown for the past 2 months, which means inmates are in their cells 23 hours a day, 7 days a week, eating only cold food, and having 1 shower a week. There are few education programs, little rehabilitation, and little hope. Menard is a place with only one purpose – to warehouse these thousands of young men who our courts have convicted.      

On our way back to Chicago, we got caught in a terrible ice storm and ended up having to spend the night at a motel in Springfield. It really drove home just how distant, how remote, Menard is. Chicago courts send thousands of young men like M. out to Menard, far from civilization, from their homes, and from us – and we forget about them. Some of them have families who remember. One of the other men at Menard serving a life without parole sentence has a mother who drives down every weekend – a 12-hour round trip drive for a 1-hour visit. Others aren’t so lucky; our client, K., hadn’t had a visitor in 14 years when we first went down to see him in November.

The trip of course made my work in the clinic, trying to get K. and M. at least a chance to leave Menard behind and rebuild their lives, all the more compelling. But my major thought driving back from Menard in the ice and snow was a broader one: that we, as a society, should be better than this. When we sentence men to prison time, particularly for long sentences, they move out of sight, and out of mind, and we are content to label them criminals and forget about them. But, despite one tragic mistake at age 14, M. deserves better than to be forgotten.