Skip navigation

Book Excerpt: Lessons of “The Birdman”

by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis

In the early part of the last century, Robert Stroud was considered one of the most notorious and dangerous individuals in the U.S. prison system. Born in Seattle, Stroud ran away from his abusive father at the age of thirteen. He settled in Alaska and became a pimp by the age of eighteen. In 1911, he was convicted of the brutal murder of a bartender who had allegedly not paid for the services of one of his prostitutes, and was sentenced to twelve years in prison.

In federal prison, Stroud on various occasions stabbed other prisoners and attacked a hospital orderly. After being transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, he got into an altercation in 1916 with a guard over a violation that would have prohibited a prison visit from his brother. In retaliation he fatally stabbed the guard in the prison cafeteria in front of 1,100 prisoners. He was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death by hanging, but in 1920 he received a commutation of sentence to life without parole from President Woodrow Wilson.

The name of Robert Stroud is not familiar to very many Americans today, but many more know of his fame as the Birdman of Alcatraz, played by Oscar-nominated Burt Lancaster in the 1962 film. Shortly after receiving his sentence commutation, Stroud came across an injured sparrow in the Leavenworth prison yard and took it back to his cell for care. Over time he collected three hundred canaries and, with the support of prison officials, studied their behavior in the adjoining prison cells that became his laboratory. His observations over many years led him to author two well-regarded books on canaries and to develop expertise on their diseases and treatment. Crime reporter Carl Sifakis regarded Stroud as “possibly the best-known example of self-improvement and rehabilitation in the U.S. prison.”

Robert Stroud’s personal transformation over time was remarkable and a testament to the ability of the human spirit to thrive under adverse circumstances. But it also raises fundamental questions about sentencing, redemption and predicting human behavior, particularly in regard to those who have committed great harm to others.

On the day of his sentencing for murder in 1911 neither the judge nor anyone else in the courtroom would have thought that Robert Stroud would someday gain a national reputation as a contributor to scientific inquiry. Nor would anyone have thought that possible at the sentencing for his second murder, or at any time during his first decade of imprisonment.

And yet Robert Stroud clearly possessed the human capacity for transformation, in his case triggered by the simple act of caring for a wounded bird. Other people experience such transformations through the aid of a gifted teacher, the caring of a loved one, or a book that opens one’s mind to new experiences and insights.

Sentences of life imprisonment are imposed for various reasons related to public safety and upholding societal values. To the extent that these goals are based on assumptions of future behavior, we should reflect on the difficulty of making such predictions. This does not suggest that every person convicted of a serious crime will turn out to be a Robert Stroud, but neither does it suggest that no one will overcome their transgressions.

American society is now at a moment of growing concern about the challenge of mass incarceration, a development described by many as “the civil rights issue of the twenty-first century.” Critical voices span the political spectrum, and increasingly we hear calls for a substantial reduction in the prison population over the next decade. Many states and the federal government have enacted reforms designed to produce better outcomes for people returning home from prison or to avoid sentencing people to prison in the first place. But while a handful of states have achieved substantial reductions in their prison populations, the overall pace of decline is still quite modest, particularly when viewed against the nearly four-decade buildup of the prison system.

Many factors explain both the massive expansion of the prison system and the relatively modest pace of decarceration today. One of the most significant is the severity of punishment imposed on people sentenced to prison. Along with the death penalty, the broad use of life imprisonment is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the American punishment system in relation to other industrialized nations. One of every seven people in prison in the United States – a total of more than two hundred thousand people – is currently serving a life prison term, more than the entire prison population in 1972, before the advent of mass incarceration. This includes those serving life without the possibility of parole, those with the possibility of parole and “virtual” lifers, as defined by a sentence of fifty years or more.

The implications of these figures for ending mass incarceration are quite stark. While much attention has appropriately been directed to the counterproductive War on Drugs of the past several decades, the portion of those incarcerated for a drug offense is only about 20 percent. (It is a higher percentage of the federal prison population, but only 20 percent of all incarcerated people.) This is hardly trivial, and is troubling in many respects, but it makes clear that even if we were to legalize all drug-related behavior, this would not end mass incarceration.

Life imprisonment, along with the death penalty, also serves to exert upward pressure on sentencing for all offenses, not just serious crimes. Since sentencing structures are proportional, generally based on the severity of the crime, a higher upper bound created by sentences of life imprisonment inevitably leads to harsher punishments for auto theft, burglary and other crimes.

While it is critical to examine the role of long-term sentences as a contributor to mass incarceration, it is equally important to assess the value of life sentences in promoting public safety. The best that can be said for long-term imprisonment is that it has had some effect on crime, but, as we will explore, the scale of that effect is far more modest than commonly believed. Further, due to the long-established finding that individuals “age out” of crime, the country is far past the point of diminishing returns for public safety as lifers age in prison.

The widespread use of life imprisonment also fundamentally violates legal and human rights norms concerning the scale of punishment. Scholars across nations have called for a scale of punishment that is no more than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing. The use of life imprisonment in the United States goes well beyond that standard.

Finally, the massive use of life imprisonment poses a fundamental challenge to any notion of forgiveness and redemption. How do we decide as a community how much punishment is enough to promote public safety and to express societal condemnation of a person’s illegal behavior? Americans generally frown at the thought of cutting off the hands of thieves, believing such barbaric behavior is not fitting for a modern society. Where, then, do we draw the line? At what point does punishment become barbaric? Is it at placing long-term prisoners in solitary confinement for months or years on end? Is it at housing life-sentenced prisoners hundreds of miles from home so as to make family visits virtually impossible? Is it providing little in the way of intellectual or cultural stimulation, or pathways to cope with the consequences of the crime that led to imprisonment? We may all draw the line at a different place along this continuum of punishment, but we nonetheless need to have a national dialogue about where that line should be drawn and why. In our consideration of these issues, we must not forget about the people who have been harmed by the crimes underlying these sentences. Family members and friends of murder victims and those who have been assaulted or otherwise harmed are in need of comprehensive support to recover from their losses. The ways in which we do this as a society may include financial restitution, medical and psychological support, victim-offender mediation and other services.

Ultimately, there should be no conflict between advocating for reduced prison terms for serious offenses and for greater support to those in our communities who have been victimized by crime. Achieving public safety is a process that involves multiple institutions within society and multiple approaches to changing behaviors. In the era of mass incarceration we have produced a distorted and counterproductive version of what that process should look like.

If the movement to end mass incarceration is to be successful, we will need to prioritize a challenge to the political culture and policies that have made the deep end of the American prison system a stain on the ideals of a democratic society. This fundamental human rights violation is not only counterproductive for public safety but lowers the moral standing of the United States in the eyes of the world. It is long past time to join the rest of the democratic world by scaling down the excessive nature of punishment that has become the hallmark of mass incarceration. 

---

This book excerpt was published as the introduction to The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences (The New Press, December 2018) by Marc Mauer, director of The Sentencing Project, and Ashley Nellis. It is published with permission from the authors, with minor edits.