Joe Coleman died in prison on Thursday — for what?
Life sentences reject the possibility of rehabilitation, leading to the mass incarceration of elderly people, who now account for 20% of Illinois’ prison population.
Joe Coleman died on Thursday night, succumbing to protracted battle with prostate cancer.
Joe was the beloved father to six children, and a doting grandfather to nine.
Joe was a decorated Vietnam veteran. He was awarded a Campaign Medal, Service Medal, Cross of Gallantry, Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal and a Special Forces Crest. He was a master parachutist, a Ranger and a morse code specialist.
Joe was awarded four purple hearts for injuries during his service.
Despite his adoring children and grandchildren, and his exemplary service to his country, most people never got to know Joe because he was sentenced to die in prison nearly 40 years ago.
In 1981, Joe robbed a gas station attendant in Downstate Murphysboro of $640. At his trial, the attendant testified that Joe had an orange weapon; perhaps a gun — as one was found in his car days later — but perhaps a can of mace. Whatever it was, Joe did not use the weapon, and the attendant was not hurt. But Joe had been convicted of robbery before, and so the Jackson County state’s attorney prosecuted him as a habitual offender, which required the judge to impose a life sentence.
It mattered not that Joe had six children, a wife, or a home. His years of military service, college degree, and pursuit of his master’s degree were also irrelevant. Despite a lifetime of service, Joe Coleman was deemed irredeemable.
In 1985, shortly after Joe entered prison, 219 people were serving life sentences in Illinois. Today, that number has exploded to more than 1,650 people, with another 2,750 serving sentences greater than 50 years.
Despite his sentence, Joe did not waste his time in prison. He became active with Lifers Incorporated, a group of incarcerated lifers determined to contribute to society. As the president of Lifers Inc., Joe ran a tight business, raising money through selling food and beverages during prison visits. Earnings were donated to the prison for improvements, and thousands of dollars were given to local charities.
Joe was repeatedly honored by the warden of Menard for his contributions to the prison, but he found more satisfaction in helping those serving life sentences find purpose.
“Through the group we try to instill self-worth and self-confidence,” Joe told and reporter in 1996. “We want to show the youngsters coming in that no matter how dismal life looks, there is always hope.”
“Promoting positive change in offender behavior” is central to our Department of Correction’s mission, and many lifers improve themselves in prison. But life and virtual life sentences explicitly reject the possibility of rehabilitation, while necessarily leading to the mass incarceration of elderly people, who now account for 20% of Illinois’ prison population.
With a recidivism rate of about 3%, long-incarcerated elderly people are the least likely people to offend again, but are the costliest to incarcerate, thanks to their declining health and medical needs. But without parole or a meaningful commutation process, even the sick and elderly remain behind bars. In Illinois, one in seven people in prison will die there.
Joe died after a long and expensive struggle with cancer. He died behind bars, though as a 81-year-old cancer patient, he posed no risk to public safety. He died alone in a prison bed, though he had children across Illinois eager to care for him in his final days. He died receiving care from the Illinois Department of Correction’s overburdened and underfunded medical system, despite being entitled to full medical benefits from the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
We have failed Joe and the thousands of others sentenced to die behind bars. But perhaps Joe’s death will serve as a wake up call to prosecutors who seek life sentences, to legislators who oppose parole reform, to the governor’s staff charged with reviewing requests for compassionate release.
Perhaps Joe’s death will not be in vain, but will be a call to action.
In Joe’s words, “No matter how dismal life looks, there is always hope.”
Jennifer Soble is executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, which works for a smaller, more sensible, and more humane prison system in Illinois.
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