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Reformed But Ineligible

Written by: David Colin Heupel

12/27/23


There is much talk of prison reform on the lips of politicians: Yet, the first order of business is to bring back the electric-chair and form a firing-squad. These agents of death were already deemed inhumane, but our politicians are ready to bring them back to clear out death row—not that this will alleviate the overcrowded prison population.

If these same politicians were truly serious about prison reform, they would look at the high percentage of people with life-sentences here in South Carolina. These long-term men and women are the backbone of any reform taking place in the prison system today. These individuals know what it means to lose everything and almost everyone.

Take a moment to think of anything more torturous or inhumane than slowly stripping an individual of dignity and hope for a future. Every man and woman sentenced to life after 1996 wakes up every day to eat slop and suffer indignity while being worked like a slave. When this day is over, tomorrow will be the same. Just continue to push “repeat” until the individual human no longer exists. A Lifer’s future seems bleak at best.

Nevertheless, God is still in the reform business. I know a man that has served twenty years of a life sentence but has managed to find purpose. He has been in the worst prisons South Carolina has to offer, enduring violence we rarely see. Yet, he spends his days working hard, mentoring others who will one day get out, so that they don’t return to prison.

In 2006, this man saved the life of a nurse at Lieber Correctional Institution by catching her as she lost balance and fell while suffering a grand mal seizure. He carried her into the triage-room of the infirmary and placed her on oxygen. He stood guard over the incapacitated woman, in this most violent men’s prison, until help arrived.

In 2009, the same man was chosen to go to college through Columbia International University. He was diligent, applying himself to the required discipline, and two years later he graduated with an Associate of Arts Degree in Biblical Studies. His GPA at graduation was 3.8.

In 2014, he helped initiate and facilitate the Malachi Dad’s program at Broad River Correctional Institution. This unique ministry reunites incarcerated fathers with their children in an effort to break the cycle of generational incarceration. He spent large amounts of his own money to provide tennis shoes, book bags, school supplies, and coats for the fathers to give their children. He helped to ensure this ministry’s success while helping to reshape the culture of one of the state’s most violent prisons.

This man is also connected to a core group of men from Riverland Hills Baptist Church. He is supported by this organization as he teaches and facilitates both tiers of Men’s Fraternity, a program designed to reach young men from diverse backgrounds and unite them in God’s design of Biblical manhood. He professes that it is an honor to mentor these young men. He’s done this for over ten years.

In 2020 and 2021 this man intervened when correctional officers were being attacked and assaulted by mental patients in Gilliam Psychiatric Hospital where he worked (without pay). He managed to save both from serious physical harm. His actions have received no commendation or recognition of any type, but he presses on to live a life that validates what his lips profess, that he is a Christian.

You see, I know this man because I am this man. My name is David Colin Heupel, and I am serving life without the opportunity for parole. My sentence will be complete when the coroner places a toe-tag on my dead body.

I did not write this to laud myself. In fact, I was hesitant to write at all. However, I am using my story as an example to protest the injustice of LWOP (Life Without Parole) sentences. There are many brothers and sisters who the legislature has deemed ineligible of returning to society, who are living and building true community in the darkness of prison. They must be given the hope to live their lives in the free world again—anything less is inhumane and cruel.

To reform means to make better by removing faults and defects, to correct that which is wrong. As our legislators continue speaking about prison reform, please understand that we hold the position that nothing should simply be given to anyone. Rather, we plead for an avenue whereby those who truly apply themselves to the work of rehabilitation and reform can earn a chance to be included in the parole program. We want our legislators to know that we, the ineligible, are doing our part in prison reform while we anxiously await them to follow through on their campaign promises of prison reform. As a new legislative session is on the horizon, it is my prayer that their actions and votes validate what their lips have professed to their constituents and make true reform of South Carolina’s prison system take place.


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