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Friday, January 18, 2013

Afterlife

By Jeremiah Bourgeois

On May 25, l992, my life completely changed.  On that day, I was arrested for murder. I have been incarcerated ever since. I was never supposed to be released from prison.

On June 25, 2012, my life, once again, completely changed. Buried in the coverage on the U.S. Supreme Court`s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (aka, ObamaCare) was the Court`s decision that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. Since age fourteen, I have been serving a life without parole sentence. Twenty years later, at age thirty-four, my sentence, along with 2000 others across the country, was determined to be a Cruel and Unusual Punishment. I was elated. I truly believed that I would, in the not-so-distant future, be freed.

In the months preceding this decision. I did not sit around praying (but I was hoping). I prepared for the possibility that the Court would render a decision that invalidated my sentence. Countless hours were spent in the law library studying the rules governing the application of new legal precedents to old cases, researching how state law would affect the remedy that could be forthcoming, and exploring how mitigating and aggravating factors might affect a resentencing hearing. I wanted to know all of the possible variables that could alter my fate, and my mind would not rest until I found the answers to these questions.

I even went so far as to prepare a legal brief seeking the restoration of good-time credits, which allow prisoners to reduce their sentences based upon good behavior. Back when I was convinced that I was going to die in prison. I could care less about losing good-time. What did it matter? I would never get out anyway. Even after I learned the law and realized that DOC officials had acted arbitrarily when sanctioning me to the loss of good-time, I still had no reason to seek legal redress. I do now. With the possibility that I could be resentenced to a term that would allow me to be released, I wanted every day of that good-time back. Each day that I regained might equate to one less day that I would have to remain confined. With that in mind, I mailed off the petition and accompanying legal brief one week after the Supreme Court`s decision.

I was proud that I was so far ahead of the curve. Yet in retrospect, I realize that everything that I had done was based upon a false premise: namely, that I would have to be resentenced to a term that would allow me to be freed while I am still relatively young. That is only the most optimistic outcome. The bitter reality is that my new sentence could be so long that the end result is the same: a lifetime of imprisonment.

When the Washington Legislature`s regular session begins in January 2013, it is likely that a legislative fix will be enacted that brings our state`s Aggravated Murder statute in compliance with the Supreme Court`s decision. While juveniles will no longer be subject to mandatory life without parole sentences, a discretionary sentencing scheme could very well be enacted: one that still allows juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole so long as a judge or jury weighs all of the mitigating factors that might merit leniency before choosing whether to impose such a sentence. Alternatively, the legislature could pass a bill that allows my sentence to be modified to a term that keeps me imprisoned for another ten, twenty, even thirty or more years. With my fate in the hands of lawmakers, I have spent far more hours dreading what legislation might possibly pass than I had spent in the law library brainstorming my path to freedom. `

Another thing that I have realized is how cathartic all of that research and writing was for me. I was under the blissful illusion that my fate was, to some extent, in my own hands: that there were proactive steps that I could take to increase the probability of a positive outcome in my case. I should have known from the beginning that there is nothing that I can do that will alter the course of events. Over the past few months, disillusionment has led inexorably to anxiety and stress that constantly weighs upon me. The irony is that I am getting exactly what I had wanted for so very long. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to give a speech...

video
(Jeremiah speaks at 2:50 into the video)

... at an event that was held at this prison, and amongst the crowd of social justice advocates were several state legislators. I urged those lawmakers to change criminal justice policies so that sentences would reflect the fact that children are less culpable than adults who commit the same crimes. Three years later, the legislature is poised to do just that. Nonetheless. I am still terrified that the forthcoming changes will be so insubstantial that my rekindled hopes and dreams could never be realized.

I might actually complete my final year of undergraduate study on a college campus instead of through the mail. I might live with the woman I love instead of have our relationship circumscribed by my confinement. I might be mentoring at-risk youth to prevent them from coming to prison instead of mentoring young men who are already imprisoned. I might be working as a legal assistant making a decent salary instead of helping prisoners resolve their legal problems for free. Yet it is just as possible that none of this will ever come to pass.

Doing time was much easier for me before the Supreme Court gave me hope. Long ago, I had adjusted to the idea that I might never be released. I knew that the Court might one day invalidate such sentences. There was also a chance that my sentence would be commuted. Both of these outcomes, however, were so remote that it was impossible for me to become attached to them. Today. I am so consumed by thoughts of freedom that I can barely maintain my routine: working as a teacher’s assistant, completing correspondence courses, and exercising every evening. It takes all of my effort to stay consistent.

It is stunning how fast I went from guarded optimism (before the Court’s decision) to elation (when the decision was made) to guarded optimism (over the next several months) to ever-present fear (my current psychological state). Deep down I am frightened that at the end of this emotional rollercoaster is depression, a depression that will have taken hold because, in the end, my new constitutional sentence will result in my being imprisoned from the time I was a pubescent boy to a late middle-aged man: a man confined long past the point at which he could meaningfully contribute to society. Although I can rattle off a litany of reasons why such a dire outcome is unlikely, rational arguments do not hold sway in the recesses where my fears lie. I still spend my days and nights worried about just how long it will be before I am freed. I still fear that, in the end, they will ensure that I am never freed.

Jeremiah Bourgeois



Jeremiah Bourgeois #708897
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
USA

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