The Catholic University of America




Behind Bars, Real People: Students Hear Letters from Prison


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At the age of 17, in 2004, Terrance Graham learned that his fate was to die in prison. Under Florida law at the time, juvenile offenders could be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. Graham had been convicted of armed burglary and attempted armed robbery as an adult. While he initially received a sentence of three years probation, the state found that he had violated the terms of his probation and imposed the maximum sentence under law – life without parole.  

Graham and his legal team fought back. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no state could sentence a juvenile to life in prison for a non-homicide offense.
Graham was resentenced to 25 years, and is serving out the balance of his sentence in a Perry, Florida correctional facility.
Professor Cara Drinan has been corresponding with Graham for several years, although she does not legally represent him. His replies were the focal point of a thoughtful discussion that Drinan conducted with interested students on Oct. 20.
During “Letters from Terrance: Juvenile Life without Parole, Inmate Correspondence, and the Quest for Human Dignity,” Drinan read excerpts of letters sent to her from Graham, as well as selections from other letters she gets regularly from incarcerated individuals around the country.
“I receive a steady stream of correspondence. For me, it’s a blessing,” said Drinan, who has long been involved in the issue of criminal justice reform. “I’m not an apologist for all of these kids, they’re not all angels. But I’ve yet to come across any of these kids who had anything close to a normal, healthy childhood.”
Graham is a case in point. Born in Jacksonville in 1987 to a crack-addicted mother, by the age of four, Graham was living, at least in stretches, on the street fending for himself.
“The saddest thing I’ve learned from these letters is that all of these people were victims first, before they victimized anyone else,” Drinan told her audience.
More than two million minors are arrested each year in the United States. About 10 percent of them are charged in adult courts, with the vast majority of those pleading guilty because it often seems the most expeditious thing to do.
Even though life without parole is no longer a sentencing option in many juvenile cases, youth convicted of a crime can still face extreme term-of-years sentences. Juveniles in prison have the highest rate of physical and sexual assault, as well as the highest rate of suicide.
In her correspondence with Graham and other prisoners, Drinan will often simply send along news of the outside world, such as sports scores, to which most inmates do not have easy access.  
For their part, Drinan says the tone of the correspondence she receives indicates a “tremendous resilience” on the part of prisoners who continue their legal battles for justice, and also “tremendous gratitude” that they are remembered, acknowledged, and treated like a human being by someone on the outside.
Her talk was a part of the law school’s “Faith in Action: a Series on Faith, Justice, and Service.”