What Life Is Like After a Life Sentence – Text by Samantha Michaels July/August 2017 issue


After 33 years behind bars, a man struggles with navigating the bus system, grasping the internet, and getting a job.

This story was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.

Holed up in a maximum-security prison, Ronald Elston felt a pang of regret: He’d missed the high school graduation of his daughter, Shamica. She’d been a young girl when Elston was sent to St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama’s Appalachian foothills, a lockup known for aggressive inmates who fashion knives from fan blades. About 14 years into his stay, Elston, a former soldier with a thin build and a soft, Southern drawl, was desperate to get out and see his family again. After leaving the military in his early 20s, he’d struggled with a heroin addiction and been convicted of robbery. A three-strikes law meant he was sentenced to life without parole. “I didn’t hurt or kill anyone,” he wrote to a lawmaker in 1997. “For thirteen years I told my daughter I would be there for her graduation…Please help me.”

Years later, Elston’s plea was finally answered. Alabama amended its three-strikes law in 2001, allowing lifers like Elston to retroactively file appeals for a reduced sentence of life with parole. Inmates rushed to take advantage of the change—about a third of prisoners in Alabama had been serving enhanced sentences under the three-strikes law during that time. But the state couldn’t keep up with the flood of petitions for reduced sentences, and eventually the Legislature repealed its amendment in 2014. Elston was one of the last three-strikes lifers to be released under the more lenient version of the law. “When I went to the telephone to call my mama and tell her, I couldn’t even dial the phone number,” he told photographer Jessica Earnshaw. “I was numb.”

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