I Was a Child When The State Sentenced Me To Die In Prison. But I Found A Path To Redemption In A Community Of Lifers.
I learned later than I should have what you probably already know: that it is strength not weakness to lean on somebody when you feel vulnerable and defeated and let them help you.
“Left Behind,” a collaboration between The Appeal and Oregon Justice Resource Center, presents firsthand accounts of growing up in prison from individuals sentenced as children to 25 years-to-life. Inspired by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits the imposition of a mandatory sentence of death in prison for children, this series reveals the humanity of those given life sentences by asking: What obligations do we have as a community of not leaving them behind? Each of the primary authors is incarcerated in the Oregon state correctional system.
I have spent more nights than I can count lying on the itchy wool blankets of my bunk. Through the bars on my window, all I can see are the security lights and the infinite blackness of a night without stars. I think a lot about living out my years here, eventually dying an old man, still in prison. I lie in bed, listening to the sounds of my celly snoring, the ventilation system, and toilets flushing. On the toughest nights, I pray for death, then wake up disappointed that I will have to face another day. I leave my cell for the dayroom or work and wander around like a ghost among the living.
Being sentenced to death by old age in prison for a crime I committed at age 15, being thrown away like trash, evokes feelings of soul-destroying depression that are something else entirely. I am sometimes amazed that I was able to make it through my teenage years at all. Most of my friends had a release date they could look forward to someday. Even if that date was so far away that it may as well have been a fairy tale, it was still a tiny point of light in the distance, gradually getting brighter.
I found myself in prison after I committed a murder when I was 15 years old. This was a tragic, thoughtless act that ruined many lives, and irrevocably changed the course of many more. The consequences of what I did are still rippling throughout the small community I grew up in. When I lived there, it was a rural Oregon town of about 10,000 people. No one there was prepared for my crime. This was well before most people had any idea about brain development and how that affects kids. The “super-predator” myth gripped my community; I was a monster in the making to them. I was given the harshest punishment allowed by law for a minor: death by old age in prison, also known as life without parole. I was to give up my future for the life I took.
Some people claim life without parole is a humane alternative to a death sentence. They aren’t the ones growing old while the world outside moves on without them. Life in prison is just a slower, more torturous form of a death sentence. When I was sentenced, my judge said I would never be able to rejoin society. I was told it was mercy in a way that I would never be let out, because the lesser alternative of a 30-year minimum would have destroyed anything good in me, making me unfit to receive parole and rejoin the community.
After I was sentenced, I was sent to a maximum-security unit for the “worst of the worst” children who commit crimes in Oregon. The unit was filled with kids who had been told they would spend decades or even the rest of their lives in prison. Many of the sentences seemed like cruel jokes. I am now in my mid-30s and have already served nearly 20 years in prison. Twenty years is a long time, about the maximum sentence in many European countries for crimes like mine.
In the beginning, I didn’t want to do school, treatment, or anything else that might make me a better person. I was sunk in a deep pit with no sight of the sky, no light at all, just limitless blackness all around me, with no escape except for death. Many of the people I would later become friends with kept me at arm’s length while they sized me up. Those who did try to make a connection with me were those who sensed that I was a deeply lonely and troubled kid. Some, realizing that I was desperate to please, took advantage of my trusting nature by getting me to buy them little things from the commissary or get books or games sent in. Staff and older youth noticed this and confronted me, telling me I was falling back into patterns that had landed me in there in the first place. I felt angry and ashamed, but all was not in vain.
Eventually, I got out of this deep, dark pit of self-pity and depression with the help of my peers. The same kids who had also been thrown in this hole showed me I wasn’t alone. Some showed me the joys of learning for learning’s sake. Others helped me see how a good deal of the pain I was feeling was shame in its many forms, be it from the crime I had committed or the trauma I had suffered as a child. These other children who had also been labeled garbage by society would show me the strength to be found in community. I learned later than I should have what you probably already know: that it is strength not weakness to lean on somebody when you feel vulnerable and defeated and let them help you.
In a group for kids who had committed violent offenses, I heard my friends tell their stories in their own words, not the sensationalized versions that frequently appear in the media. I had been living with my intense shame for years at this point, and it was only with the help of others like me that I was able to make progress. I came to understand the true impact of my crime and that I can never fully redress that harm. I stopped pitying myself so much and became more empathetic. This was a new kind of pain for me, but one that wasn’t selfishly focused on my own suffering. I shifted my focus to doing what I can to try to repair the damage I’ve caused any way I can.
By the time I left the youth correctional system and entered the adult one at the age of 25, I had changed dramatically. I had grown from a lonely, naive, vulnerable child to a caring, self-assured, and confident man. I’ll save the story of the transition into adult prison for another time, but it was rough. Adult prison is a different experience. A lot of men in here are serving mandatory minimums, so there’s no incentive to better yourself to get a reduction on your sentence. Many are just doing their time and waiting to get out. Funnily enough, some of the most thoughtful men in here are the lifers. Men who have committed terrible crimes want to gain a deeper understanding of themselves to make sure nothing like that will ever happen again.
The community of lifers and other long-timers in this prison hold each other up. We keep each other accountable. The most helpful aspect of the community in here is the sense of hope that we foster in each other. In the dark times when I sink back into deep feelings of shame, depression, and hopelessness, my friends notice my change in mood and help to pull me out of it. I do the same for them. My family supports me as well, but unfortunately I am unable to talk to them very often because of my situation.
In the last two years, I have had the chance to show how I’ve grown and changed to people outside my prison community. Lawmakers in my state wanted to hear from me and others in my position while they were considering reforms to our youth justice system. They were looking at ending life without parole for children and giving people sentenced as kids to long sentences a chance to prove they could rehabilitate and maybe one day leave prison. I was no longer a child, and not just an inmate. I had a voice that mattered. I helped the politicians see another side of people like me who are now a long way away from the children we were who made terrible errors.
When the bill passed the final vote needed to become law, I was elated. I saw some of my friends crying in the dayroom in front of everyone. We believed this could be the chance we had been clinging to that we might one day leave prison. I called my family and shared the joyful news that there might be a way I could earn my freedom. Finally, it seemed like there was a reason to feel hopeful about my future.
That hope was dashed when lawmakers passed a second bill, limiting the first, intended to make sure no changes under the new law would help anyone who had already been convicted and sentenced. The reforms would only apply to new cases. I then had to make one of the most difficult phone calls I have ever made. I had to call my family and tell them the news I had given them weeks earlier was no longer true. My chance to earn my freedom had been snatched away. Luckily for me, I have a terrific mother. Without missing a beat, she reassured me. She helped pull me away from despair and pointed me toward the future. And in the following months my small community of lifers in here have done the same for each other. We will continue to support each other and try to make each other better people.
As of now, no more kids will have to face the despair of being sentenced to die in prison as I did. Yet, at least five of us juvenile lifers in Oregon continue to serve life without parole. More than 100 have lengthy sentences with years left to run. The law still says it is just fine for me and others to die in prison for what we did as children. I am thankful that we are no longer doing that to today’s kids. I know no one is beyond redemption. I have seen it with my own eyes. We shouldn’t be left behind.
Seth Koch is serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He resides at Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Oregon. This column was edited by Alice Lundell, director of communication for the Oregon Justice Resource Center.