A Call to the United Nations to Abolish Death by Incarceration

The following piece was written by Kempis “Ghani” Songster as a speech he planned to deliver to the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent.

Only select speakers are allowed two minutes to share their words before the permanent forum, and Ghani was ultimately not allowed the time to share this speech in person. In reflection of the day, Ghani wrote this in a post on the Center for Constitutional Rights that highlighted the shortened speech to fit in the time slot:

The United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, which held a session in New York City from May 30th to June 2nd, was as proper a platform as any, or so we initially thought. After all, Death By Incarceration (DBI) disproportionately afflicts communities of African descent. But the day ended with me being one of a very long list of people who did not get a chance to speak. Many had traveled much farther than I had, even from other countries, in hopes of speaking for a meager two minutes. What we experienced was not a mismanagement of time, but a very typical disregard for regular people’s sacrifices, grievances, and lives. We watched in frustration as governmental talking heads burned up the majority of the people’s time. Many people went home unheard. We realize, however, that it’s important to see value in the anticlimactic outcomes in our struggle. Romanticizing our efforts won’t help us accomplish our mission. So, we take the bitter with the sweet. And the sweet of it all for me was getting to work with comrades. Salutes to the Center for Constitutional Rights and to our DBI International Advocacy Team.”

Below is the full, uncut speech that Ghani had originally written:

I would not be standing before this distinguished body of human beings today if the nations of the world had not resoundingly and unanimously denounced the distinctly American practice of condemning children to die in prison. I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, or death by incarceration (DBI), at the age of 15. The only reason I’m here is because forces of goodwill from around the world as well as right here have been leading crying out against legal condemnation. I am blessed to be counted among the hundreds who have been released over the past five years.  But, hundreds of thousands still are dying slow deaths in American dungeons. 

Be it by noose, electric chair, lethal injection, and other horrific acute forms of state-sanctioned murder, or by regulation and legal condemnation, execution has been a characteristic of communities of African descent. The legacy of institutionalized condemnation is long and deep, from plantation to prison, from George Stinney to George Floyd. DBI is a continuation of the ongoing trauma that has defined the experience of African descendants in this country since the advent of slavery.

The examples are unconscionable.  Joseph Ligon, for instance, was sentenced to death by incarceration at the age of 15 in 1953, two years before the Vietnam war began and almost 50 years after the war ended. He served almost 70 years of his DBI sentence. He was released almost 10 years after the US Supreme Courts ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to mandatory life without parole. Like the rest of us, Joe avoided dying behind prison walls only by grace and grit. Many were not as lucky. Sharon “Peachie” Wiggins was perhaps the most accomplished imprisoned person of any agenda. She was the longest imprisoned female when she died 45 years into her DBI sentence. More people die serving DBI sentences than on Death Row. I would argue that DBI is more fatal than the “death penalty.”

When people condemned to DBI succumb to that form of death sentencing, the language often used is that they died of natural causes behind prison walls. I would caution us away from that language and misperception. No death as a result of DBI can be called a “natural” death because the circumstances and conditions surrounding it are unnatural. Such a death is a toxic death. People who die in prison or serving a DBI sentence did not die of natural causes. Theirs are not passive deaths; it’s being done to them by the state very slowly, which is why we emphatically say that DBI is torture.

Our complaint to the United Nations that Death By Incarceration is Torture presents unconscionable facts for the global community to see. We are well aware that the U.S. has had more human beings in prison than any other nation in the world. It is now common knowledge that 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population exists in the U.S. But, we might not all be aware that 15 percent of the total prison population, or 203,865 people, are serving life or virtual life sentences. More than two-thirds of the human beings serving LWOP/DBI in the United States are people of color. While in 2020 only 12.4 percent of the US population was Black, 46 percent of all of those serving LWOP/DBI sentences nationwide were Black.  I believe this sentence sends a clear message to already marginalized communities, that those communities are less redeemable than other communities. Not to mention how DBI helps to destabilize and cripple Black families and communities for generations to come. Forty eight percent of everyone condemned to DBI in PA, the state in which I reside, for instance, are aged 50 or older.  Elders as sources of wisdom in families and communities all over the world are decreasing in Black communities, as they remain condemned to DBI. Millions of children who have a parent so situated are now seven times or 85 percent more likely to be imprisoned themselves, if no positive intervention is made in their lives.

Thirteen of my 30 years of imprisonment was spent on a cell block with four father-son pairs, eight individuals, serving death by incarceration sentences. I could only imagine what it has been like for a parent to—after being condemned to never see their child in the free world again—to see their child brought into prison similarly condemned to die in prison. All eight of those people, those fathers and sons, were African descendants.

The racial particularization of this sentence is why we also say that DBI is genocide.

Some might argue that DBI is necessary for people who’ve caused irreparable harm. Among many things the nations of the world are in harmony about is the human capacity for atonement and redemption after the commission of causing harm. It is the human ability, with the right guidance and support, to become better and learn to make contributions towards making their communities and the world better. Five years after my release, I am a husband, a father, a homeowner, and a servant of my community. Countless others deserve an opportunity to show their communities the same capacity even more than me.

I urge everyone in this room to think about what it means to die in prison.  Can you even imagine it? Do you have a family member in prison? A harrowing reality is continuously taking shape, seeking to make it so that no person in the U.S. doesn’t have or know someone who is in prison, maybe for the rest of their lives.  

Consistent with U.N. treaty bodies’ previous pronouncements calling for the abolition of policies that disproportionately subject racial and ethnic minorities to some of the worst consequences of the criminal legal system, such as the death penalty and juvenile life without parole, our complaint asks the Special Procedures mandates to call for the abolition of all DBI sentences in the United States. Thank you for this precious opportunity to stand before you to make this plea to the global community on behalf of my community who continues to reel from the onslaught of Death By Incarceration sentencing.

Kempis Songster (“Ghani”)

Ghani returned home from his death by incarceration sentence in 2017 and now works as the Program Manager for the Healing Futures restorative justice diversion program at the Youth Arts Self Empowerment Project (YASP).

The featured image is Robert Saleem Holbrook, the executive director of Straight Ahead (left), Kempis “Ghani” Songster (right), and Ghani’s child (center) at the 2022 Decarcerate and Chill community event.

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