May 23, 2022

More Verstehen: What it’s Like to be a Juvenile Offender Sentenced to LWOP

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

One of the central guiding principles that I follow as a sociologist (and a human) is Max Weber’s notion of verstehen, which is German for understanding. Weber encourages us to apply the tools of sociology to do our best to understand experiences that might be different from our own.

It’s probably safe to presume that most people reading this post have not had the experience of shooting someone in the face at the age of thirteen during a robbery, then being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) at fourteen and spending 26 years in prison; 18 of them in solitary confinement.

Hearing about Ian Manuel’s past, described above, might yield little sympathy, and for some even resistance to understanding. It was a horrible act, which Manuel readily admits in his memoir, My Time Will Come: A Memoir of Crime, Punishment, Hope, and Redemption. It’s tempting to avoid any attempt at understanding Manuel’s experiences, especially if we confuse understanding with justification, which is not the goal of verstehen. We might reflect on Manuel’s experiences to better understand:

1) Why juveniles—or anyone, for that matter, commit violent acts;

2) What might be done to prevent such crimes in the future;

3) How experiences in prison might traumatize people and encourage them to become more violent;

4) How public policies like LWOP for juveniles—now unconstitutional for nonhomicide offenses —might have appealed to the public eager to punish, but his experiences help us understand why the U.S. Supreme Court deemed LWOP for minors a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Through Manuel’s memoir, we get to understand what these experiences were like, including his upbringing in a dangerous public housing project with a mother who often expressed her wish that he never had been born, and an older brother who molested him. He had successes in school, particularly in the Catholic school his grandmother paid for him to attend; when she died a few years later, he was placed back in the local underperforming local public school. He sought work at the YMCA and was taken under the wing of a mentor who sought to provide kids from the housing project with a source of support and a chance to earn money doing chores, as they were too young to go on the payroll.

Manuel does not make excuses for his behavior, nor does he paint himself as a saint simply in a bad situation. He is open about his mistakes, including a description of an argument he had with his grandmother when he was a child. He lost his temper and hit her, for which he is still deeply ashamed. He describes how extreme poverty made stealing somewhat normal, particularly with other neighborhood kids, which led him to shoot a woman during a botched robbery attempt.

His detailed account of his experiences in prison—mostly solitary confinement due to his age and to punish him for behavioral infractions—help us understand how prison itself can serve as a source of additional abuse and trauma rather than rehabilitation.

As Manuel describes in an NPR interview:

I was transferred to adult prison at 14 and given all the responsibilities of an adult. In prison - their way they punish you is to put you in solitary confinement. So I accumulated disciplinary reports for walking into grass, for being in an unauthorized area, being somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. The officers would yell at me - I'd yell back. And I found myself at age 15 placed in long-term solitary confinement, a place I would stay for 18 consecutive years.

The book takes us into prison life, giving us a first-hand account of the physical abuse prisoners often experienced from the guards, as well as having privileges dangled before him only to be snatched away with often arbitrary infractions. Even if a skeptical reader considered his account one-sided and was unsympathetic, most people would acknowledge that he had no access to education and was not being rehabilitated.

For more on his experiences, see this interview with Ian Manuel:

Sometimes he would lash out verbally at the guards, something he knew was a mistake but felt as though words were his only source of control. This would yield a return to solitary confinement, and further mental decompensation. He began cutting himself as a coping mechanism, which may be hard to for readers to understand who haven’t had experience with self-harm.

We can see how after decades behind bars, with little hope—and no possibility of parole—an inmate would have little motivation to comply with the rules and would feel a wellspring of frustration and rage.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), spearheaded by Bryan Stevenson (author of Just Mercy), took on Manuel’s case in 2006. EJI had previously focused on death penalty cases but following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, which ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles, EJI began advocating for juveniles who were given LWOP sentences. Manuel’s LWOP sentence for a non homicide crime was indeed unusual, and in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that for most crimes juveniles could not receive LWOP. EJI won Manuel’s release in 2016.

A remarkable aspect of his case is how his victim, Debby Baigrie, very publicly forgave Manuel after years of correspondence. Manuel had called her from prison soon after his sentence to apologize and ask for forgiveness. The process of forgiveness took a while, but Baigrie would eventually advocate for his release and was there when he was freed.

While a memoir is not the same as a scientific study, nor a work of sociological analysis, Manuel’s experiences can help us achieve Weber’s call for  verstehen.

Comments

In short, if the sinner repents, he will still be forgiven. But with the crime of killing so many people, I still don't feel secure when they are released

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