Bob Rigler is serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. He sent these reflections on the injustice of Pennsylvania’s ban on parole for lifers, and on other corrupt policies in our criminal justice system.
Public funds for programs like education and services for homeless persons are being used to build and run more prisons. For what – to keep lifers in prison who have become political prisoners? You hear it all the time from political candidates: “Elect me and I’ll keep lifers in prison.”
In 1974, second-degree murder carried 10 to 20 years, usually for a murder during a felony, or for a co-conspirator, someone who did not do an actual murder. The District Attorney usually wanted a death sentence for all convicts, even though that sentence was supposed to be for premeditated murder. So many juries would come back with second-degree because they did not want to argue the death sentence. The DA asked the legislators for another piece of the cake, and eventually got a law that second-degree murder would carry the sentence of life without parole – the same sentence for premeditated murder.
In 1977 there were seven prisons and 300 lifers in Pennsylvania. Today there are over 5,000 lifers and 32 prisons. It costs $37,000 on average to keep a prisoner per year, and $67,000 for prisoners over 50. The average time served before commutation by the governor was 14 to 17 years up to 1977. Now it’s 35 or more years before consideration, and then usually you have to have some political support. Lifers could be on house arrest after 15 years then back to work. I know I could live at home as most lifers could for about $10,000 a year.
A lot of lifers are veterans who suffered PTSD – but courts would not even consider this at a trial in the 1970s. Vets like me with an honorable discharge and good conduct medal in the 82nd airborne division actually had our military records used against us. In the words of the D.A., “People of the jury, he is a trained killer.” In reality, I didn’t even kill anybody in my case, as many lifers haven’t. Also, I have come to find out that for most vets doing life, it is their first-ever conviction and in my case, my only conviction. Most like me have no record as a kid, either.
How many homeless people and how many school kids would benefit by just changing some laws, like let there be parole eligibility for lifers? Eligibility, not just indiscriminately letting people out. So many of us were in our 20s at the time of our conviction, and are now in our 50s and 60s. We have skills to work and start our own business. We could turn some of these prisons into places for the homeless and schools, or use the millions saved to help.
I can’t understand how voters let these politicians get away with closing schools and not helping the homeless – while keeping so many in prison. I would call them thieves of the voters’ tax money.
Your best bet: free a vet.