Lifers, Lab Rats and the Mandatory Minimums Experiment

June 6, 2022

In the 1950s, John’s Hopkins University Professor Curt Richter ran a series of experiments on rats that involved placing them in glass tanks filled with water and measuring how long it took them to give up and drown. A few of the first rats dove straight to the bottom, did not surface, and died within minutes. But the majority swam until they succumbed to exhaustion, even though there was nowhere to go. Some swam for several days.

Through further experiments, Richter observed that out of all the stressors at play, the two that accounted for some rats dying more quickly than others were their reactions to being physically restrained by their captors, and then to being confined in the water, “further eliminating all chance of escape.” Once the rats believed that they were trapped with no way out, they essentially died of a physical response to hopelessness. But, if led to believe there was still hope, they would continue to swim.

“After elimination of the hopelessness,” Richter wrote, “the rats do not die.”

If a rat that looked to be a minute or two from drowning was briefly lifted from the water, it regained strength almost immediately. Richter was impressed by the rats’ “remarkable speed of recovery,” considering how little reprieve they’d been given. Curious, he experimented with his subjects by repeatedly exposing them to hope. What was the longest possible time they could swim?

Each year, a very lucky few of the pre-’95 lifers are inexplicably reconsidered early, and granted parole.

When I entered Georgia Department of Corrections custody in 1991, people convicted of a violent felony and sentenced to life in prison were eligible for parole after seven years. Staff and older lifers told me seven years would be a blessing, and to expect parole in nine to 12 years. If I acted a fool, 15 years.

By the time I’d served seven years, the average time someone with a violent felony conviction served before parole was almost 14 years. By the time I’d served 14 years, it was more than 20 years. Today, it’s 27.07 years. More than 10 percent of all GDC lifers have been incarcerated for more than 30 years.

What changed? Mandatory minimums. Since I began my sentence, the state of Georgia has twice made statutory changes to the parole eligibility for lifers with violent convictions. In 1995, the mandatory minimum for us became 14 years. In 2006, it became 30 years.

Mandatory minimums are supported by the untrue but nonetheless popular premise that the threat of increased punishment deters crime. Because of this, the raised minimums are supposed to apply only to people convicted on charges that took place after ’95, or ’06, on the grounds that they might have acted differently had they known they could go to prison for so long. In practice, they’ve been applied to lifers who were already in prison, myself included.

When most of us who’d been in since before ’95 came up for that first parole consideration, we received denials—and the shocking notice that our next consideration date was eight years away.

Subsequent reviews resulted in more denials, but fewer years until yet another reconsideration. Each year, a very lucky few of the pre-’95 lifers are inexplicably reconsidered ahead of time, and granted parole.

Reconsiderations and occasional releases supply just enough hope to keep the pre-’95 lab rats swimming.

In 2019, a GDC lifer who’d begun his sentence several years before I did received a letter from the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. It informed him that, due to his being classified as a recidivist, he was now ineligible for parole. Someone in the bowels of the Parole Board office had read the 1998 Georgia Supreme Court ruling on Moore vs. Ray and determined that prior out-of-state felony convictions could be interpreted this way. Perhaps they wanted to observe the effects of removing hope, by further eliminating all chance of escape. There would be no appeal.

The man would have bled to death had his cellmate not slipped on the pool of blood and began yelling for help. That is what removing hope can do to a human being.

Before the ’06 change, 80 of the 6,087 lifers GDC was warehousing had been here more than 30 years. As of March 2022, 799 lifers have been here more than 30 years, out of 7,544 total.

What exactly does GDC plan to do with all of us? How will it care for a vast population of prisoners as they lose the hope that kept them on “good behavior”? As their medical needs become increasingly expensive with age?

Reconsiderations and occasional releases supply just enough hope to keep the pre-’95 lab rats swimming. No previous generation of prisoners has been in the tank this long.



Photograph via Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Jimmy Iakovos

Jimmy Iakovos is a pseudonym for a writer who is incarcerated in Georgia. It is illegal in some Southern states to earn a living while under a sentence of penal servitude. Writing has enabled Jimmy to endure over 30 years of continuous imprisonment.

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