At the age of 13, Ishmael and his friends began sniffing “brown-brown”—a mix of cocaine and gunpowder—and wielding AK-47s. By the age of 16, Ishmael had killed “too many people to count” by his own admission. “All I knew was how to fight and loot,” recalled Ishmael.
If Ishmael had committed such atrocities in the United States, he would be sitting in a dank prison serving a life sentence without any possibility of parole. Or, if the young African man had committed his crimes in a place like Texas and his victims were white, he would probably be on death row waiting for a date with the electric chair. However, Ishmael’s violent past occurred in Sierre Leone. The young man is none other than 29-year-old Ishmael Beah, the former child soldier and acclaimed author of A Long Way Gone.
Beah’s story is one of the most powerful testimonials to the fact that nobody—especially not a child—is beyond redemption. Eventually released by the Sierra Leone government army, Beah was sent to a UNICEF rehabilitation center and slowly regained his humanity. Beah attended the United Nations International School in New York City and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004. At the age of 26, he worked for Human Rights Watch on children’s rights issues. Since publishing his memoir, Beah has spoken before the UN, the Council on Foreign Relations, and myriad NGOs on the contagious effect of violence on children. Beah recently denounced the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. “I’ve been very troubled by this issue,” he said. “We’re only willing to forgive people if they hurt people who are far way from us. But if they hurt one of us—an American—then we cannot forgive.” He continued, “Yet, we cannot have this double standard. A child here is the same as a child anywhere.”
Children’s Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, Jo Becker, agrees with Beah and says there are startling contradictions in the way the United States treats young offenders. “Millions of dollars are poured into rehabilitation programs abroad [for child soldiers] yet . . . our juvenile justice system is one of the most punitive in the world.”
The U.S. has the dubious distinction of standing alone in condemning thousands of juveniles to life without parole. There are currently over 2,500 prisoners serving such sentences for crimes they committed as teenagers. Half of the prisoners serving juvenile life without parole are first-time offenders; over 100 prisoners received the sentence for non-homicide crimes; and, at least 74 cases involve defendants who were 14 years old or younger when they committed their crimes. With no hope of ever leaving prison, the term “life without parole” is really a euphemism for a living death sentence.
Beah now helps rehabilitate children formerly involved in armed conflict. “Children who have gone through violence can be the ones who prevent more violence because they know the impact of violence on the individual and community as well as the circumstances that lead to violence,” said Beah.
Four years ago, the Supreme Court decided in Roper v. Simmons that—under the “evolving standards of decency” test—executing a person who was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime was cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that juveniles have an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” that leads to “impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions,” as well as being “more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure.”
Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch note that indefinitely detaining children is just as cruel and unusual as executing them. The torture of capital punishment begins when conscious human beings are condemned to death; similarly, the torture of life without parole begins when a young person suddenly realizes that no dream beyond the prison walls is worth nurturing. These NGOs have also provided reliable statistics about recidivism, deterrence, racial disparity, and poorly trained public defenders that belie both the alleged benefits and assumed fairness of not only capital punishment but also life without parole.
The Supreme Court is finally reconsidering whether it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to lifetime prison terms without the possibility of parole. Beah has joined actor Charles Dutton, former U.S. Senator (R-Wyoming) Alan K. Simpson, and others in filing an amicus brief on behalf of juveniles condemned to a slow death in prison. “There are people in this country who are serving life sentences for crimes that are much less terrible than what I did,” said Beah who acknowledges that the nexus between poverty, childhood abuse and neglect; social and emotional dysfunction; alcohol and drug abuse; and, crime is often very tight in the lives of many juvenile offenders. “If somebody gives a person an opportunity, they no longer become a threat to society.”
Deena Guzder has reported on human rights issues from Bangkok, Tehran, Mumbai, and beyond. She is the author of a forthcoming book on progressive religious radicals for social justice, currently scheduled for release by Chicago Review Press in 2010. Please visit her website: www.DeenaGuzder.com