Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn charted the depths of degregation within the Soviet prison system in his landmark book The Gulag Archipelago. In the preface to the book's first volume, he wrote, "I have absorbed into myself my own eleven years there not as something shameful nor as a nightmare to be cursed." With his unshakable commitment to write about it, to honor those who suffered and perished, he could even speak of a sense of love for the "monstrous world" from which he had emerged.
At age 24, Kenneth Young has already been imprisoned for nearly as long as Solzhenitsyn. When he was 14, on the mean streets of Tampa, Kenneth was forced into helping his mother's drug dealer commit a string of armed robberies. The 25-year-old drug dealer threatened to harm Kenneth's mom, 16-year-old sister, and even the sister's baby if Kenneth did not participate in the robberies. Kenneth and the dealer were caught, and a prosecutor charged Kenneth as an adult. Then a judge who now says he didn't understand the law sentenced Kenneth to life in prison without parole.
Last Friday, Nightline broadcast a segment on Kenneth's story. Terry Moran travelled to the maximum-security prison in Claremont, Florida, to interview Kenneth, who is one of more than 100 people around the country who are serving sentences of life without parole for crimes not involving homicide that were committed when they were under 18. Following a Supreme Court ruling earlier this month, people in this group may now have a chance to be considered for release.
Kenneth Young's quiet dignity during his interview with Moran was remarkable. What must it be like to wake up every morning in prison knowing you have been sentenced to die there for succumbing to threats issused by your mother's drug dealer at age 14? It could be soul-destroying. Yet like Solzhenitsyn before him, Kenneth has clearly gone inward and "absorbed into himself" the entire experience of being given such a monstrous sentence. He prays daily, has a learned a trade (barbering), and longs to become a positive mentor for his young nephew.
At the time Kenneth Young was charged as an adult, the prosecution claimed he was a "menace to society." But Kenneth did not have a single prior conviction before he was sentenced to life without parole. The judge who sentenced him, J. Rogers Padgett, has admitted he did not understand Florida's frequently-changed sentencing law at time he imposed the sentence. Judge Padgett has submitted an affidavit stating, "It was not my intent that Mr. Young never be considered for release."
When told by Terry Moran that Judge Padgett had (at least partially) recanted, Kenneth Young took the news with the perspective that only transformative suffering can bring. His sentence was a death sentence, he said - no matter what the judge calls it now, or what he thought the parole board would do.