Book by GSSWSR Alum Barb Toews Explores Life Without Parole

June 21, 2022
Book cover for Still Doing Life

How do prisoners serving life sentences give their lives purpose and hold onto hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds? Some answers to that question can be found in Still Doing Life: 22 Lifers, 25 Years Later, a newly published book by Barb Toews, Ph.D. ’14, who earned her doctorate at Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, and Howard Zehr.

The book, a follow-up to Zehr’s 1996 volume, Doing Life, features portraits and interviews with 22 men and women serving life in Pennsylvania prisons without the possibility of parole. Zehr, a criminologist and restorative justice expert took the photographs (two of each lifer, 25 years apart) and carried out the interviews. Toews, who is an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington Tacoma, wrote the introduction and accompanying essays.

A traveling exhibit based on the book will be on display at the Free Library of Philadelphia from June 27-August 12, with an opening reception that Toews will attend (with Zehr joining virtually) taking place on Thursday, June 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. The event is free (RSVP here).

Barb on bench 2
Barb Toews, Ph.D. '14

For Toews, who knows some of the lifers in the book from earlier work with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, this was “not just an academic project,” but “a labor of love,” and a way to respect and honor the men and women she came to know through her practice work. Toews’ career started out in the area of victim-offender dialogue, moved into restorative justice work in prisons, and now focuses on environmental design and its relationship to restorative justice and trauma healing.

For the lifers in the book, “glimmers of hope” take many forms, Toews says. “Giving back is a huge theme—helping younger people when they come into prison, trying to keep people from coming back in.” Many, she says become involved in healing work—volunteering in hospice for example—inside the institution. Others connect with organizations on the outside that are doing social service or social justice work. Many, she says draw on their faith or spirituality. Most importantly, they don’t let their crime define them. They explore who they are as people, Toews says, and then strive to “live to their fullest self.”

The purpose of the book, Toews says, is to start a dialogue. “Howard and I certainly have our own opinions about life sentences, but we're not trying to foist an agenda on anyone.” Instead, they aim to humanize the people in the book and get readers thinking about what a life sentence means and whether it is achieving what we want in society. The authors hope policy makers will read the book, but also “just everyday people on the street,” Toews says, since thinking about these issues “influences how you vote, how you think about your community relationships.”

Some of the book’s more universal takeaways center around assuming responsibility for our actions. “We all hurt people in our daily life,” Toews says. “We just don't all do it in a way that’s fatal. What can we take away from this about our own need to step up and be accountable?”