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Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences. Portraits and Interviews

by Howard Zehr

Book Review by Dan Pens

What does it mean to face a life prison sentence? That question holds a unique meaning in Pennsylvania, where more than 3,000 men and women are doing life. In Pennsylvania the only way out of a life sentence is commutation, and those are exceedingly rare. A PA lifer is six times more likely to die in prison than to ever get out alive.

Zehr gained access to lifers in several PA prisons. He interviewed and photographed about 70 men and women for this book. The reason? As Zehr states in the book's brief forward: "We tend not to see victims or offenders as real people.... Offenders are faceless enemies who embody our worst fears."

Zehr invited the lifers he interviewed to choose street clothes to wear, then photographed them against a neutral background with their eyes engaged by the camera. The result? Readers of this book cannot help but view the subjects as real people -- not the faceless enemy.

I found the interviews unremarkable. Maybe I am jaded by the thought that "I've heard it all before." The photography, however, is striking and powerful. The book is attractive and the printing is of high quality.

I recommend this book, not so much for those closely involved with prisons, but for those who have never seen a prison and have nothing but the "faceless enemy" stereotype with which to guide their image of who prisoners are.

Howard Zehr is a professor of Sociology and Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University. He was instrumental in developing the first Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) in the U.S.

Dr. Zehr offers a brief conceptual outline of "restorative justice" in the book's forward and afterward. Readers who find this topic of interest are encouraged to read Changing Lenses , one of Zehr's earlier books.

Doing Life , ISBN 1-56148-203-X, is available for $15.95 from: Good Books; 3510 Old Philadelphia Pike, PO Box 419, Intercourse, PA 17534-0419.

BJS Reports on Sentencing and Imprisonment

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released two reports that may interest PLN readers: Prisoners in 1996 (NCJ 164619, June 1997) and Felony Sentences in the United States , 1994 (NCJ 165149, July 1997).

The report on prisoners provides state-by-state (and federal) prison population statistics through year-end 1996. Highlights:

During 1996, the number of female prisoners rose by 9.1 percent, nearly double the 4.7 percent increase of male prisoners.
California (147,712), Texas (132,383), and the federal BOP (105,544) together held 1 in every 3 U.S. prisoners.
On December 31, 1996, 1 in every 118 men and 1 in every 1,818 women were under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities.
In 1996, the number of state and federal prisoners increased by 5 percent, lower than the 6.8 percent growth rate in 1995 and below the annual average growth rate of 8.1 percent since 1985.

The report on felony sentences reveals a stark difference between how felony convictions are disposed of by state and federal courts. Unlike the report on prisoners, this one does not offer a state-by-state breakdown on sentencing figures. It combines all states into one category and compares that figure with federal sentencing statistics.

The breakdown falls along category of crimes and how they are treated differently by state and federal courts. And this is where some surprising data are presented. Despite the general belief that federal courts are in the forefront of the vaunted "War on Drugs", according to this report, 83 percent of all state felons convicted of drug offenses were sent to prison, compared with only 34 percent of persons convicted of federal drug charges. This figure, however, combines both possession and trafficking. When broken down by those sub-categories, only 48 percent of those convicted of state drug trafficking charges were imprisoned, while 84 percent of federal drug traffickers received prison sentences.

One highlight of this report is the revealing statistics on the differences between state and federal sentencing practices in all categories of crimes. One of these differences is in the amount prison time expected to be served. The mean prison sentence for "all offenses" imposed by state courts in 1994 was 71 months, in federal courts it was 80 months. However, the amount of time expected to be served differs greatly: 29 months (or 41 percent of the sentence imposed) for state felons, compared to 68 months (85 percent) for federal felons.

These (and many other useful reports) are available free by calling the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data at the University of Michigan, 1-800-999-0960. The reports and data are also available on the Internet at: [a link to this and many other criminal justice related Internet websites can be found on PLN 's home page:]

Both reports can also be ordered by mail from:
BJS Clearinghouse
P.O. Box 179, Dept. BJS-236
Annapolis Junction, MD 20701-0179.

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