Letters to a Lifer: the Boy “Never to be Released” by Cindy Sanford, with a foreword by Jeanne Bishop, is a powerful and touching narrative that illustrates the folly of life sentences for juvenile offenders. The memoir chronicles the relationship between the author—a registered nurse, wife, and mother of three boys—and an inmate named Ken who was fifteen when his role in a double homicide near Sanford’s home in Pennsylvania led to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Sanford does an excellent job of tracking the emotional response she has to Ken as she learns of his history of childhood neglect and abuse and his attempts, through his artwork and care for birds in the prison, to demonstrate to the world the ways he has changed, and she does so in a way that had a huge impact on my own perspective. It is easy to assume that someone who has been convicted of a heinous crime should be locked away for life and to not think too deeply about the life and the humanity that is forever changed by the verdict.
As I reader, I shared Sanford’s initial suspicion of Ken’s motives and kind letters to and interactions with her, but, much in the same way that she experienced, over the course of the memoir I abandoned all suspicion of Ken and began to marvel at the strength of his character. While Sanford’s relationship with Ken (and his with her) is deeply touching, the book is also deeply sad. As I grew further enamored with Ken, it was easy to forget that he is serving a life sentence. Many times throughout the book, I wanted so badly for it to end with Ken’s release and his chance for redemption in society – but Pennsylvania does not allow for that.
In the end, Letters to a Lifer really hammers home that life sentences for juvenile offenders should be reconsidered by courts retroactively.
It would be impossible to finish this book and not believe—as Sanford so powerfully expresses at the book’s conclusion—that Ken deserves a chance to be free:
It is our fervent hope that sharing our story will spark a national conversation about the tragedy and consequences of sentencing children to die in prison. However that issue is decided, we leave our testimony that Ken is proof young people can be rehabilitated. We are convinced that imposing such harsh sentences on minors, particularly those who were victims of violence and abuse themselves, demeans us as a nation and people.
*Photos of Ken Sanford’s “New Life” and “Afternoon Swim” appear courtesy of the Sanford family.*