Too many people in Pennsylvania are serving long prison terms that don’t make communities safer. There are plenty of people locked up like Terrell Carter, who do not pose a risk to public safety yet languish in prison for decades because Pennsylvania’s laws don’t give them a second chance.
“The idea of redemption saved me. It saved me from this narrowly defined existence of ‘us versus them,’ of vengeance masquerading as justice. The right to redeem oneself has become as precious to me as the right to live free, because the idea of redemption has awakened in me this incredible sensitivity to a harm that, without my actions, could not exist in the world. It has awakened in me this burning desire to right my wrongs and to give back to the community that I so selfishly have taken so much from.” – Terrell Carter, Northwestern University Law Review
Terrell “Rell” Carter, a loving father and grandfather, is a published poet of three books, including Guilty Reflections and Incarceration of Tears: A Journey of Transformation and Redemption. He is a co-founder of Right 2 Redemption, which advocates sentencing reform for people serving life without parole sentences and offers support to people in prison and returning citizens. Earlier this year, he co-authored an article in the Northwestern University Law Review, about what redemption means for someone sentenced to die in prison.
For Rell, the theme of redemption is very personal: He’s currently serving life without parole himself. Nearly 30 years ago, 22 years old and fighting addiction, Rell shot and killed someone. He was convicted of second-degree murder.
Early in his incarceration, he turned to writing for healing and relief at the advice of his father. The shift in thinking that followed has meant that his years behind bars have been filled with personal accountability and deep reflection.
“One day, I just picked up a pen and started writing,” Rell said. “I felt like it was something I liked to do. It was extremely cathartic. It allowed me to get stuff out of me that was buried deep.”
Rachel Lopez, professor of law at Drexel’s Kline School of Law and co-author of the article Rell helped write, described him as an insightful, caring man who could do a lot of good on the outside if he was afforded a second chance. “He just has such an innate sense of understanding,” she said. “He follows through with everything he says that he is going to do.”
Through it all, Rell said, he remained stoic, hiding his emotions to maintain his image. It wasn’t until he was outside the courtroom and away from his family that he allowed himself to cry.
Recently, she spoke with Rell, and he told her that he started a writing group on his cell block to try to lift the spirits of the other incarcerated people because morale has been quite low after more than a year of lockdowns and restrictions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Rell’s journey to redemption did not come easy. Early in his life he wanted to be the tough guy, the “thug” who wasn’t pushed around. He explained that he wore figurative masks to hide any vulnerability as a defense mechanism.
In his poem “Incarceration of Tears,” Rell describes trying to maintain that tough exterior while being sentenced to life without parole. The poem describes Rell standing in the courtroom, listening to the judge hand down his sentence and hearing his mother and family wail in agony as the weight of the sentence crashed on them. Through it all, Rell said, he remained stoic, hiding his emotions to maintain his image. It wasn’t until he was outside the courtroom and away from his family that he allowed himself to cry.
“The sheriff nudged me forward again, and the tears that I had been holding prisoner finally broke free,” he wrote. “I couldn’t incarcerate them anymore. Liberated, they covered my face with signs of their escape.”
Rell said part of his journey has been reflecting on wisdom and lessons from his father, who passed away before Rell could truly come to terms with being truly comfortable in his own skin by opening up and showing his vulnerability.
As a young man he would dismiss his father’s advice, as many young people do. Earlier this year, however, he began rereading all the letters his father wrote him during his incarceration and was shocked to realize how much he had truly absorbed.
Describing himself now, he says, “Terrell Carter is a man who is sensitive and extremely passionate about what’s right. He’s a man who’s dedicated to atoning for the wrong he’s done. That’s who he is.”
Thousands of others have similarly matured and changed during lengthy prison sentences. Yet, Pennsylvania laws do not give them a meaningful chance to have their sentences reconsidered and, if appropriate, reduced or modified. If Pennsylvania wants its criminal justice system to be fair, use taxpayer dollars wisely, and make the public safer, it must give people like Rell the opportunity for a second chance — in Rell’s case, in the form of geriatric parole, clemency, or other sentencing relief.
We need your help to fight for Rell and other incarcerated people in Pennsylvania. Here’s how.