Imagine Becoming A Shadow

A Letter to the United Nations

In an effort to secure international support for the movement to end Death by Incarceration (DBI) sentences in the United States, the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Drop LWOP Coalition, and the California Coalition of Women Prisoners collaborated with the University of California Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic and Drexel University Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic to submit a letter to the United Nations experts on September 15, 2022. The letter called upon the United Nations to condemn the use of DBI sentences, also known as Life Without Parole (LWOP), as violations of the international prohibitions on racism, torture, and arbitrary detention.

Enclosed with the letter were several testimonies from people currently serving DBI sentences in Pennsylvania. You can read the full submission to the United Nations, including all of the testimonies from people directly impacted by Death by Incarceration here. The following piece is one of the testimonies submitted to the United Nations, written by Rose Marie Dinkins, currently incarcerated at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Muncy.

My name is Rose Marie Dinkins. I am a 74-year-old lifer who has been incarcerated for 50 years, a term that exceeds minimum life sentences in most states by 30 years.

Photo of Rose Marie Dinkins, provided by the Women’s Lifer Resume Project.

My accomplishments are many. I have been dedicated to pursuing my education since I arrived at SCI Muncy in 1972. In 1974, I earned my GED. I then matriculated into the cosmetology program, earning my license at Empire Beauty School in 1976. I took my practical with members of the Wilkes Barre community.

I went on to complete courses through Bloomsburg University, Penn State, Bucknell, and Pennsylvania Business Institute. I earned an Associate’s degree and became a certified paralegal. I am also certified in Automotive Mechanics. 

I have taken advantage of the opportunities available to me to make my time as productive as possible. While completing educational and character development courses, I have maintained consistent employment in several positions—dental assistant, infirmary worker, tutor, kitchen worker, sewing factory worker (1994-2019), activities department detail, and maintenance detail. I possess many marketable skills.

I have had time to reflect on my decisions and the circumstances that led to my incarceration. I’ve learned a great deal about myself and grown tremendously. I have worked to uplift and counsel my peers. I have maintained open lines of communication with my family through phone calls, letter, and visits I have remained positive through this experience, grounded in my faith, and encouraged by my supporters. 

I believe laws should be passed to abolish DBI sentences because it implies that people are not capable of change. It diminished our relationships with family. When I was arrested, my four children were toddlers. Now they are in their 50s with children and grandchildren of their own. I have great-grandchildren I have never seen. DBI sentences condemn individuals for life based on one mistake, one exercise of poor judgment, one horrible day that seals their fate no matter how many certificates or degrees they earn. DBI sentences make us strangers to our families, no matter how hard we try to stay in touch. These sentences provide no relief for reformed individuals. The justice system is meant to deter crime, to rehabilitate violent individuals, to prevent subsequent offenses, but there has to be some room for mercy.

I would implore the members of the United Nations to imagine becoming a shadow, a memory while still alive. I would ask them to imagine seeing an empty space in every family photo where they should have been.

When someone violates traffic rules and receives a citation, we pay a fee, take a class, and drive again. The American justice system values some lives more than others. Police Officers are held in such high esteem that their deaths nearly always result in a DBI sentence. Why do manslaughter, self-defense, and even 3rdderee murder fall out of consideration when the victim is wearing a blue uniform? Yet officers who kill are put on desk duty and rarely prosecuted. The whole world rioted for justice for George Floyd, and Derrick Chauvin still avoided a DBI sentence with his lengthy record of police misconduct. Because he took an oath to protect and serve, he will have a chance to be paroled even though he knelt on a handcuffed man’s neck for over 8 minutes. Statistics show that people of color serving DBI sentences far outnumber their white counterparts with similar crimes. These discriminatory sentencing practices have gone on for far too long. No one deserves to die in prison who has made the effort to change for the better. 

I would implore the members of the United Nations to imagine becoming a shadow, a memory while still alive. I would ask them to imagine seeing an empty space in every family photo where they should have been. I would ask them how many photo albums are enough. I have been missing from family celebrations for over 50 years. I have paid my debt to society with interest, and I want nothing more than to reunite with my loved ones.

Granted freedom, I would become an advocate for other women serving life sentences and fight to eliminate DBI sentences. I would spend my twilight years with my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Hopefully, the esteemed members of the United Nations can put a face on mercy. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration and your interest in my experience.

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