Despite Justice Reform, Inmates Serving Life Rising

About 203,000 Americans are currently set to die behind bars. In 1970, there were less than 200,000 people in America's entire prison system.

Video Transcript

RENALDO HUDSON: We're going to kill you through incarceration. We're going to kill you by sucking the very life out of you. That's what life without the possibility of parole says.

JAMAL ANDRESS: As the inmate population has exploded in the US, so too has the number of people facing life imprisonment. According to a new study by the Sentencing Project, one in seven US prisoners is serving a life sentence or virtual life sentence, meaning more than 50 years. If you narrow that some Black inmates, the number jumps to one in five. In total about 203,000 Americans are set to die behind bars.

In 1970, there were less than 200,000 people in America's entire prison system. Renaldo Hudson has had a whirlwind of a life, experiencing the highest highs and the lowest lows the criminal justice system has to offer. Hudson was sentenced to death for a crime he fully admits to committing.

He confessed to robbing, stabbing and ultimately killing a neighbor in his apartment complex nearly 40 years ago. Hudson turned his life around after a stint in solitary confinement. He said all he had to listen to was a Walkman tape player.

RENALDO HUDSON: On this tape he was talking about, who are you good for or are you good for nothing? Can anybody trust you? If you were to die today, would anyone care?

JAMAL ANDRESS: After that point, Hudson got his GED, then a bachelor's degree in Christian studies. He severed ties with gangs in the prison and went on to create his own mentorship program called Building Blocks, that boasts nearly 500 members.

RENALDO HUDSON: My change wasn't predicated on me looking to be set free. It was completely motivated by me saying, I will not die with the world saying, he was the most deserving of death.

JAMAL ANDRESS: In 2003, with just two days left in office, former Illinois governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 160 inmates on death row to life without parole. Fast forward 17 years, the current governor, JB Pritzker granted Hudson's clemency petition, making him a free man for the first time in nearly four decades.

RENALDO HUDSON: When I walked outside of that prison I breathed for the first time in 37 years.

JAMAL ANDRESS: As one of very few who has received not one, but two governor's commutations from the most severe punishments America has to offer, Hudson says the two sentences aren't that different.

RENALDO HUDSON: People don't like telling the truth about the death penalty, which they will say, we will pay for the poison to actually kill you. Life without the possibility of parole says, we're going to kill you and we'll just release you once you die.

JAMAL ANDRESS: While public support for the death penalty has steadily fallen over the past 25 years, 60% of Americans support life imprisonment as a preferred alternative and the number of people serving life without parole has jumped 66% since 2003. But advocates and many experts say that harsh sentences like life imprisonment don't actually serve as a deterrent to crime. For Hudson's part, he says he is living proof. No one is irredeemable.

RENALDO HUDSON: So, I can't even act like I don't understand how society fear us, but we're more than that. We're also your brothers, and your cousins, and your uncles, and your fathers. And we've-- many of us have come to a place to say, hey, listen, I'm sorry that I wasn't a better person, but I have the potential to be better.

JAMAL ANDRESS: Jamal Andress, Newsy, Chicago.