Yusef Qualls-El sat and stared at his poetry. He slipped the poems into a manila envelope, along with a typewritten letter, and licked the adhesive strip. He sent the letter to me from his home, a restrictive cell at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, Michigan, where he has been since the age of 16; he is now 38. What landed him there: Two counts of first-degree premeditated murder, assault with intent to murder, first-degree home invasion, and a felony firearm possession. But he was not the shooter; he was the driver.
Or, as he tells it, he was "hanging around the wrong element."
Sentenced to life without parole in October of 1996 in Wayne County, Qualls was offered a plea deal for 22 years but declined. In 1998, he appealed the life sentence on the grounds that he was wrongly tried and convicted as an adult. While the ruling stood despite the fact that it has been proven his involvement was not as the shooter, a flurry of recent high court rulings have led to a new opportunity that would offer Qualls an early release.
In the only country worldwide to sentence minors to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Michigan has the second-highest number of juvenile lifers in the nation.
With two landmark rulings in 2015, the United States Supreme Court made it clear that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional, meaning that more than 360 juvenile lifers in Michigan were eligible for sentencing and a second chance. At the heart of these landmark decisions is the Eighth Amendment principle of "proportionate punishment" and the recognition that children have diminished culpability by virtue of their child status.
That hope quickly faded. Michigan prosecutors filed motions to uphold life-without-parole in 229 of the 363 cases, or roughly 63 percent. Now, more than two years later, less than 10 percent of the juvenile lifers have come home. The number, while low, could be blamed on a slow justice system. Civil rights activists say the state is to blame. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Michigan continue a fight that would uphold Qualls' convictions rather than grant him parole. To Qualls, it feels like another life sentence.
"I think what we've seen as a national trend is moving away from these sentences all together," says Jody Kent Lavy, the executive director of Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a non-profit aimed at eradicating life without parole for juveniles. "We know that the brain is still developing well into an individual's 20s and we know the vast majority of kids age-out of criminality."
With few support networks inside prisons, juvenile lifers are seeking to forge their own education and marketable hobbies from an eight-by-11-foot cell. For Qualls, that means writing. In his poetry, he describes a life lost, but one he's worked hard to reclaim, in part through his writing. His work has appeared on Michigan Radio, and in the Washington Square Review, and his poem "See" was read by his father at the Detroit Institute of Arts in February of 2015, a moment that marks a high through a life spent behind bars. It reads:
Do you see that I lost my son
Even with his hands up?
Being inside means you have certain inalienable rights: three hot meals and a cot. Everything else—phone calls, access to email, even education—is a privilege that juvenile lifers rarely get a chance to earn.
Often, there's little to no access to education. Because they are serving life sentences, the Department of Corrections would not allow juvenile lifers to participate in traditional rehabilitation and educational programs. Nationwide, there are more than 2,000 individuals imprisoned as teenagers and who will serve out those sentences to death.
While Qualls participates in a program sponsored by the Hamtramck Free School—a group of community volunteers who teach inside prisons—that has provided editorial guidance and workshops that have allowed his artwork and poetry to be published, he receives little in the way of state-funded education. Juvenile lifers have not been endowed with traditional education resources available to other inmates. Those who are scheduled for release at some point in their lives get some form of education, like home economics for felons: They learn to navigate paperwork for government documents and are taught how to properly format a resume. Such skills are never granted to lifers.
Qualls, like the other lifers in his pod, embodies the question of whether juvenile lifers are getting a second chance.
"Who did it serve to educate me when I was serving a slow death sentence?" Qualls wrote to me in one of our letter exchanges. "That is all a life sentence is, only really slow."
Many advocates and civil rights lawyers say that education and opportunity inside is a major factor in combating recidivism rates and one that should be extended to lifers.
"Re-entry begins inside the prison," says Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, the nation's oldest public interest law firm for children. "Having communities across the country absorbing and finding effective ways to reintegrate individuals convicted of homicide there's not much of a blueprint. It's a remarkable moment where we're seeing a country addicted to long if not lifetime sentences releasing individuals back into the community. It turns out its hard work."
For those left inside without the possibility of parole, many must take their education into their own hands. And often, people like Qualls are seen as the leaders in a prison community: the eldest and most experienced. Their own programming and access to education would trickle down and assist others who have the opportunity to parole their sentences.
Considered a low-level offender for his lifer status, Qualls participates in an inmate-organized program called The Writer's Block, offered by the Hamtramck Free School, where inmates critique and share their poems or writing in a group setting. (It benefits inmates through community outreach and practical skill development, but lacks the funding to support full-time curriculums and any accreditation that might be viewed as substantial to a future employer.) It is but one program that aims to ingratiate some lifers with an education. Similar programs abound in prisons across the country, as in San Quentin, but rare are they afforded to juvenile lifers.
Qualls was also able to take classes toward his general education degree (GED), which is now no longer offered to lifers, he told me.
"I had to fight to get my GED because I was lifer, but they let me get it," he wrote. "They are really hard on that now and I don't know if it'll change anytime soon."
The advanced classes once provided by the prison were too expensive for Qualls to afford.
Something of a Catch-22 in his educational programing was that, in order to ever be considered for parole, even after the Supreme Court rulings, Qualls would need to prove that he took every available opportunity to advance his learning toward a healthy life once released, like an offender program, traditionally not made available to lifers.
"Even people who are supposed to be re-sentenced—they're not providing them programs," Michigan defense attorney Deb LaBelle tells me. Of Quall's case, she says: "Macomb county is seeking life without parole for failure to do their due diligence." Labelle recently filed federal court pleadings in order to get educational programs for lifers and is waiting on a judgment.
Meanwhile, Qualls has spent a majority of his time fighting with the prosecution to get his sentenced reduced and himself freed. He writes poetry in the time afforded him:
The universe isn't conspirin' against me
Preventin' my movement
Or keepin' track of what I'm doin'
To use as a weapon for my demise
It is not makin' the chip on my shoulder
Into a boulder like Atlas
Makin' me carry the world as penance
My sentence was to prison
Life is what's happenin' outside
While I am in it
When I asked him whether he feels there is hope for other Michigan lifers, he told me that, while he tries to remain optimistic, their futures—like his—seem bleak.
"They treat incarcerated people as if they are things to be governed," Qualls wrote. "Not as people."