When someone is sentenced to life in prison in Pennsylvania, as things currently stand, there is very little chance of stepping outside again.
“Right now, life means life in prison,” says Joshua Vaughn, creator of the What Is Life? podcast.
“It means you, for the most part, will not get out. One of the only options to get out of life in prison is a commutation.”
John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, has made some strong efforts to re-start the commutation process moving again after a 30-year period of being stagnant, Vaughn says, but it’s still a small step: of the 5,400 people currently serving life in prison in Pennsylvania, some 40-50 people in the past two years have been released.
The number of people facing life sentences in the state has ballooned since the 1970s, from around 700 people to more than 5,000, Vaughn says. “That is as many people as we had serving any time in prison in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
The What Is Life? podcast, a “passion project” for Vaughn, involves asking some of these men and women to respond to a short writing prompt: What is life?
“None of the stories have to answer that directly and most don’t incorporate that directly into their story,” he says. “I just wanted to give them the opportunity to tell their story. One gentleman talked about his experience in the courtroom when he was sentenced. One man wrote an open letter to his wife on the outside. One wrote about what his day is like. Some people have written about COVID. A woman wrote poetry about her life leading up to her crime and getting sentenced and coming to a reckoning for what she’d done.”
He notes that while the people facing a life sentence are involved in serious crimes, not all murder charges stem from the same kind of incident.
“We have this perception of what the crime is when someone is convicted of murder, but there’s a broad range of what has happened,” he says. “Some people who did some horrible things when they were younger, they directly took a life and it’s talking to them about how they’ve grown and changed.”
Others were convicted for a murder that occurred during a robbery: Someone had a gun, there was a struggle, someone was killed, or someone dies of a heart attack during the incident. “One man was out with his friends. He says he did not know they were planning to rob a restaurant. They went in, a friend pulled a gun. He says he ran out; a patron says he tried to stop the robbery but all five of them were sentenced to life under this doctrine of felony murder,” Vaughn says. “It’s the same sentence, it’s a mandatory minimum sentence.”
Each episode of the podcast is about 15 minutes long and is recorded through prison phone calls. “One of the things we do as a society is we take people, put them away and we put them out of sight and out of mind. That is one of the ways we are able to do some of the harsh and very draconian things we do to people. We say you did this awful thing, you’re a monster. … These are human beings. They are capable of growth, they are capable of redemption.”
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell talks with Joshua Vaughn, a senior multimedia reporter for The Appeal and creator of the What Is Life? podcast. Vaughn describes the podcast as a “passion project” that features conversations with people sentenced to life in prison in who are unlikely to be released. Listen to What Is Life? on iTunes, Spotify, or GooglePlay.