MARCH 20, 2020 

Adding Fuel to the Fire: Life Without Parole, our Elders and COVID-19 

CALIFORNIA–California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) and The DROP LWOP Coalition join with public health officials, families of incarcerated people, incarcerated people, and community advocates in demanding that Governor Newsom and the state legislature take immediate action to execute their legal responsibility to protect vulnerable people in prisons, especially older and sick people, including those serving Life Without Parole sentences (LWOP), by commuting their sentences and/or expediting their release.  

To learn more about the inhumanity of Life Without Parole sentences, read the DROP LWOP Campaign Fact Sheet. 

We endorse the demands made by the Justice Collaborative Letter to Governor Newsom, especially those highlighting the impact COVID-19 will have on aging prison populations. However, for far too long, people sentenced to Life Without Parole remain wrongly excluded from considerations of Elder Parole. Our coalition believes we must be bold and more inclusive in our state’s protection of the most vulnerable among us (our incarcerated elders), and the most invisible (those serving LWOP), especially during this time of national crisis.

People serving LWOP must be included in Elder Parole and immediately considered for sentence commutation during this health emergency. 

Between 1992–2017, the population of people serving LWOP in the U.S. grew by 400%. Over 5,200 people are now serving LWOP sentences in California state prisons, one of the largest populations in the country. As the result of extreme sentencing practices like LWOP, our state’s prison population is growing older in facilities that were already public health disasters before the advent of COVID-19, with advocates and the press reporting a wide range of troubling issues plaguing the facilities: refusal to provide emergency medical care by custody and medical staff; incredibly long wait times to have medical needs met; botched surgeries; and extreme medical indifference to people suffering from chronic illnesses. 

Elders in prison are trying to survive this existing medical neglect, in addition to overcrowding and deteriorating conditions of care. They often lack the basic tools for personal hygiene, including regular soap. After decades of advocacy, preventable deaths in California prisons persist at alarming rates. 

People in prison serving Life Without Parole have virtually no way to avoid this new health threat, with the exception of one rare valve of release: a commutation by the Governor. Former Governor Jerry Brown was applauded by criminal justice advocates for the historic commutation of 147 people with LWOP sentences. As of February 2020, Governor Newsom has granted only seven.  The threat of COVID-19 means that Governor Newsom must accelerate LWOP commutations, to meet and surpass that of his predecessor.

Newsom announced that seniors are among the three most vulnerable groups at risk from the novel coronavirus in the state, alongside the unhoused and those with chronic conditions. Protecting the health of elderly people in prison, including those who currently have limited possibility of release, must be immediately prioritized

Many studies have shown that people in prison have statistically higher occurrences of complex medical issues than those in the general population, effectively causing prisoners to age more quickly, creating a disparity between their numerical age and physiological age. Thus, a 50 year old person serving LWOP in a California state prison may have a level of health more comparable to a 70 year old person in the general population. 

Additionally, the increased occurrence of underlying medical issues (and their frequent comorbidity) for people in prisons creates a uniquely vulnerable elder population, especially within the LWOP community, who are often invisibilized. They are likely to experience serious harm if they remain imprisoned during this health crisis. Aging and sick people who are imprisoned are creating unbearable strains on an already inadequate prison healthcare system. 

For our elders and infirmed serving any length of sentence, including LWOP, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, CURB and the DROP LWOP Coalition echo the existing demands of criminal legal experts that call on our representatives to enact vast and sensible decarceration from prisons, jails and detention centers in California, as well as a dramatic investment in community-based systems of care, especially those that center reentry, housing and healthcare. In the interest of California’s public health, we demand: 

  1. The commutation of the sentences of all people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP), allowing them to be considered for release, prioritizing those who are 50 years or older or with underlying medical issues. They are in life-threatening danger from COVID-19.
  2. A commitment from the Governor’s Office and the parole board to immediately review existing individual Elder Parole or LWOP commutation requests, especially those submitted by people in prison who face increased medical danger as a result of the COVID-19 threat. 
  3. Support for public policy as outlined in CURB’s Elder Parole recommendations that identifies the consideration of release for elderly prisoners (defined as age 50+) as necessary to decarcerate meaningfully, and also advocates for the legal expansion of Elder Parole to include release opportunities for people serving LWOP. While this should already be the case, it is now imperative with the advent of COVID-19. 
  4. Complete transparency from CDCR regarding their policies on preventing the spread of COVID-19, as well as immediately providing the basic necessities for people in prison to be proactive in their own care, at no cost to incarcerated people and their families, including but not limited to: soap, warm water, and bleach (or approved cleaning solution that meets with the CDC’s standard of effectiveness against the virus). 

The recidivism rate for people released from a life sentence is 0.5%, the lowest among all people who are paroled. There is every reason to expect the same success from elders leaving prison, as well as people from the LWOP community. It is well documented that people both “age out” of crime and become significantly more expensive to incarcerate as they grow older and their medical needs increase. The costs of incarcerating people over age 50 are exorbitant. Releasing aging people, including people serving LWOP, who have significant health problems creates virtually no risk to public safety. 

Incarcerated elders are at the greatest risk for COVID-19, yet pose the least risk to our communities. There is a moral, fiscal and public health imperative to release the incarcerated elder population, including people serving LWOP, who–against the threat of  COVID-19–face de facto death sentences. 

Here is a link to the Prison Policy Institute report, which names releasing medically fragile and older adults as an immediate, #1 priority. The Justice Collaborative has collected a great list of criminal legal resources for the COVID-19 pandemic. Please read the press release and quotes gathered by Releasing Aging People in Prison from public health professionals, attorneys and advocates in support of elder release. 

In Community, 

California Coalition for Women Prisoners

Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) 

The DROP LWOP Coalition 


Join our statewide campaign to DROP LWOP and secure sentence commutations for all people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California.


Thank you for supporting efforts to eliminate the Life Without Parole sentence! The Drop LWOP coalition is excited to announce that we are having a Rally at the State Capital in Sacramento on Monday, March 9th. Come to tell the Governor and Legislators to #DROPLWOP!

The Drop LWOP Spring 2020 Rally will bring together family members, friends and advocates to insist that Gavin Newsom accelerate the pace of commutations for people with Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences.  We will also be educating legislators about the urgent need to reform the laws that have caused the incarceration of 5,200+ people with LWOP sentences in California. We will be giving voice to those behind the walls that are living with this silent death sentence.

People serving LWOP call their sentence death by incarceration. The overwhelming majority of people with LWOP sentences are people of color and youth. They are sent to prison for the rest of their life and do not have a chance to demonstrate their growth or change. They are labeled irredeemable and they are stripped of hope. 

Governor Brown granted commutations to 147 people with LWOP sentences.So far Governor Newsom has only granted 7. We call on Governor Newsom to commute all 5,200 people with LWOP to parole-eligible sentences.

If you are unable to come to the rally your organization can voice support by signing on our open letter to Governor Newsom and by reposting social media posts about the campaign. More information to come! 



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NEWS: Learn more about the 2019 Drop LWOP Strategy Convening here


Over 5000 people are serving Life without Parole, or LWOP, sentences in California prisons. People of color are disproportionately sentenced to LWOP and of the nearly 200 people serving LWOP in CA women’s prisons, the overwhelming majority are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence, and sex trafficking.  

Learn more about DROP LWOP here.

While commuting a sentence does not guarantee release from prison, it does guarantee that each person will have the right to see the parole board in their lifetime, rather than being sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison under a “living death penalty.” 

We celebrate the commutation of each and every person, and call for the commutation of all people with LWOP sentences in California prisons.

Drop LWOP Strategy Convening

Sept 14-15, 2019 Los Angeles


On the weekend of September 14-15, over 125 people gathered at the beautiful Community Coalition building in South L.A. to strategize about how to end Life Without Parole and all extreme sentencing in California. The convening was initiated by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), the Felony Murder Elimination Project (FMEP), and Familes United to End LWOP (FUEL) and over a dozen other organizations were part of the planning process. 

A team of moderators including Amber-Rose Howard from CURB, Candace Chavez-Wilson and Sutina Green from FUEL,  and Linda Evans from CCWP welcomed people from all over California, as well as representatives of organizations in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC. They began by asking people to stand if they previously had LWOP sentences, if they were formerly incarcerated, or were family members of those sentenced to  LWOP and other extreme sentences. Few people remained seated,indicating that the majority of people at the convening had been directly impacted by the violent system of incarceration that we have been working to change.

The moderators then invited everyone to contribute pictures and mementos for an altar dedicated to the many people impacted by prisons who had transitioned. They pointed out the notebook was shared around including over a hundred pages of testimony and suggestions written specifically for the Convening from people with LWOP sentences . 

Moving into an 8 hour day of movement building, moderators  reviewed important group agreements meant to ensure a mutually respectful workspace in all regards. Participants were provided an overview of the two day agenda, which included three informational panels; presentations, slideshows and videos to bring the voices and ideas of people imprisoned into the Convening, and working group break out sessions to brainstorm and prioritize concrete next steps for the campaign to Drop LWOP.  Lessons from the panels and outcomes from the workgroups are summarized in the full report here.

For additional ways to help with the campaign, click here.

Women serving LWOP sentences at California Institution for Women