Marshan Allen, age 15 (1992) Credit: courtesy Marshan Allen

Marshan Allen emerged from prison in clothes unfit for the midwestern winter: a standard-issue gray hoodie and sweatpants, a pair of slippers. He boarded a van that drove him to the front parking lot of Stateville Correctional Center. It was December 2016, and 40 miles northeast rose the orange glow of Chicago. The van slowed to a stop. The door opened. From the huddled welcome party of family and friends and lawyers came a shout: “Hallelujah Jesus!”

His mother was first to embrace him. It was different from all those times she’d held him in shadowless visitation rooms. To her, it felt like giving birth again. “Let’s go,” Allen said as they walked to his mother’s minivan, “before they change their minds.”

Allen had spent years imagining this night, the unshackled ride beyond the gates into some new future, the tremendous scrutiny he would fix on the landscape scrolling past as if that alone could somehow accelerate experience and offset the quarter century he had lost. Instead, he spent his time craned over a smartphone. He swiped the screen. He made calls. I’m out, he told people. In 1994, he’d been given two sentences of mandatory life without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed at the age of 15. He’d been condemned to pass adolescence, adulthood, and old age in maximum-security prison. Death would be his liberation. Now here he was.

The small caravan departed Stateville and stopped at Allen’s new rental apartment. He checked in with his parole officer while his family cleaned and talked, and then they left. The landlord, an old friend, had put Allen’s utilities in order and furnished the bedroom and an office, but the place was otherwise empty.

Prison had been punishment by absence, and, besides family, it was simple pleasures that Allen had missed: fishing, driving, washing cars, sleeping in, mowing the lawn. He had missed baths, and had long envisioned a bubbly soak on his first night home. He filled the shallow tub, lowered himself in, and closed his eyes under the fluorescent light.

He couldn’t sleep after the bath, so he called his high school friend Simone Bowles and sat at a computer as they talked. He toured East Chatham, his old neighborhood, on Google Street View. He visited his grandmother’s house, not far from the scene of the crime, and then returned to the scene itself. He and Bowles wandered the past together. “The weirdest thing was, it all seemed normal,” he told me of that first night back. He’d expected to feel like an alien, adrift, or disoriented. But nothing about freedom was strange. “I felt like I went to sleep and woke up.”

In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five to four that capital punishment is unconstitutional for crimes committed before the age of 18. “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy. “The State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.”

Though the ruling hinged on a single vote, it provided the logical groundwork by which criminal justice advocates could chip away at the next-harshest punishments targeting youth. In 2010, the Supreme Court agreed that life without parole was impermissible for a juvenile convicted of any crime besides homicide. And in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, mandatory life without parole for juveniles was abolished.

Evan Miller was raised by an alcoholic and drug-addicted mother, an abusive father, and the foster care system. From an early age he was an addict. He first attempted suicide in kindergarten; three more attempts followed. Then, at the age of 14, he pummeled his mother’s drug supplier with a baseball bat and lit his trailer on fire. (The man died from his injuries and smoke inhalation.) Miller, who was drunk and high at the time of the crime, was tried as an adult, found guilty of murder, and sentenced, by statutory mandate, to life without parole.

The court, again in a five-to-four opinion, recognized universally “mitigating qualities of youth” in the details of Miller’s upbringing: kids are immature, reckless, and dependent on family, for better or worse. “Incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan in the majority opinion. State law could no longer mandate a life sentence for juveniles, as such “punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.” A 2016 decision made this retroactive. Suddenly eligible for a second chance were 2,200 adults sent as kids to die in prison.

When Allen was young and his Aunt Rosetta visited she would toss him the keys to her gold BMW. He would slip out of the house and sit in the car listening to the radio. During summers and on school days when he ditched class at Emil G. Hirsch Metropolitan High School, Allen helped a man named Doc repair cars behind his house. He rebuilt engines, installed brakes and transmissions, and sometimes sold drugs. He would also occasionally steal cars from his neighborhood, joyride for an hour, then ditch them nearby assuming word would get back to the owner—but not, he said, before washing the cars and filling them with gas. If he and his friends were well enough organized, they would make off in a convoy of stolen cars and play tag by tapping bumpers.

Allen grew up poor, but not unhappy. “I had no supervision, no curfew, I could come and go as I pleased, especially after I got my car,” he told me in one of several conversations. Allen bought a maroon 1984 Chevy Impala with an inheritance from his grandmother’s death. “No one would ask where I’d been. No one asked why I wasn’t at school, and the school didn’t call home. At the time I thought it was the coolest thing ever.” He now sees this as dysfunctional and has come to recognize greater strains from childhood—his uncles’ ascendance in the Gangster Disciples, his family’s legacy drug business and addictions. Allen sold drugs to his aunts and delivered them to his mother. He left his mom’s apartment, in South Chicago, at the start of high school and moved in with his grandmother, three miles away on 79th Street. This was near the rental apartment out of which his brother, James, ran a lucrative drug business, and for whom Allen ran errands, delivered packages, picked up buyers, and dropped them off.

According to court documents and testimony, on March 11, 1992, Allen drove to get Myron Gaston, a regular buyer, and two of Gaston’s friends. He took them back to his brother’s apartment, where they purchased $2,800 worth of cocaine, then pulled a gun and robbed James of money and an additional four ounces of cocaine. When the robbery was over, Allen obediently completed his duties as chauffeur, driving the men back to the corner where he’d picked them up, wondering whether they would let him live.

A few days later, after a string of failed negotiations with the robbers at a White Castle, James asked Allen to steal a Chevy Astro van and, the next morning, Allen climbed into the back seat with one of James’s acquaintances, Darnell Dixon. Behind the wheel was Eugene Langston, who set a sawed-off shotgun on the floor. The three men made their way to Gaston’s apartment, parked around the corner, and climbed a back stairwell. Langston handed Dixon a .45 caliber handgun, then knocked on the door.

To Allen, the stolen van, the ride-along with Dixon and Langston, even the weapons, all marked a campaign grounded in that fundamental if rough-cut Old Testament variety of fairness: steal back what’s stolen. “I don’t remember anyone talking about killing,” Allen told me.

Langston leveled the shotgun, fired twice, then kicked down the door. Allen heard more gunshots as he fled. He waited in the van until Dixon and Langston returned, then the three drove away and ditched the van. Dixon left to meet his girlfriend. Langston and Allen returned to James’s apartment, where Allen monitored his brother’s police scanner. Voices soon confirmed two dead.

Allen learned that the Gangster Disciples, the gang Gaston belong to, had spread word to kill him and his brother, so the two of them fled the city in a rented Lincoln. They looped around the southern shore of Lake Michigan, then sped east to Detroit, where they could sit out time with the family of James’s girlfriend.

One week into hiding, Allen turned 16. He walked down the block and bought a half gallon of strawberry ice cream at an Amoco gas station and enjoyed it by himself. In early April, he and James returned to Chicago. They never discussed the crime.

Allen was arrested on April 4. The cops came to his mother’s house, roused him from bed at midnight, and drove him to the District Five police station, where he was interrogated by detectives in a small room. By midmorning, he’d signed a statement drafted by the assistant state’s attorney, Henry Simmons, that outlined his crime. Allen was shuttled to juvenile detention to await trial, and 11 months later, on his 17th birthday, he was transferred to Cook County Jail. He remembers a stopover at the courthouse where an employee gave him a cupcake with a single lit candle, wished him happy birthday, and let him call his mother.

Allen’s first trial ended with a hung jury. One of the jurors found the mandated sentence of life without parole too severe. The prosecutors brought the case again in June 1994, imbuing Allen with the criminal motivation of vengeance. Because of Illinois’s law of accountability, it didn’t matter whether Allen had pulled a trigger or even possessed a gun. Accountability “is like a blanket that spreads out over the criminal activity,” the prosecutor explained in his closing statement. By stealing the van, Allen “placed himself under the blanket.” Nor, the prosecutor continued, should Allen’s youth overshadow or soften the viciousness of the murders. The judicial lines of reasoning that animated Miller v. Alabama were still years away. “Whether it is a 16-year-old, a criminal mind is a criminal mind nonetheless, and it acted like a criminal mind,” said the prosecutor. This time all the jurors agreed.

He was sent to the maximum security Pontiac Correctional Center. He sought refuge with the Gangster Disciples, who knew his uncles well and embraced him in their prison bureaucracy. This proved a comforting familiarity. Fresh in Allen’s mind was mess hall, where signs lined the walls (“Sit down when shots fired”) and a corrections officer surveyed the room while holding an M14.

Allen assumed a job on the bottom of the gang’s hierarchy as a “gallery coordinator.” He canvassed his caseload, collecting legal concerns, informal complaints, and formal grievances into a weekly report. He learned to research legal cases in the prison library and he tracked the progress of his own appeal, which was in the hands of a lawyer bankrolled by his brother.

Allen was 18, the enforcement of prison rules was lax, and James soon began to mail him packages of marijuana. He collected the drugs from another inmate at the law library or in the yard. Selling was easy, and he was soon rich with goods from commissary and other homespun crafts offered in exchange for the drugs.

In January 1997, Allen was transferred to Stateville Correctional Center. Six months later James was killed in a motorcycle crash on Chicago’s southwest side, at the sunken S-curve of Interstate 57 below the 107th Street overpass. Allen’s lawyer then dropped his case, guards caught him with marijuana, and he was sent to solitary for six months. As Allen grieved for his brother, he could feel himself slipping into a hole. He sat alone in his cell, the fixed anchor of his life sentence weighing even more heavily. Soon after his release back to the general population, he was transferred to X House.

X House, which had been home to inmates on death row when Illinois still practiced capital punishment, was intimate relative to other wings, housing 80 men rather than hundreds. Though raised Baptist, Allen had never read the Bible, which he’d grown up knowing as the white man’s book. But haunted by those the state had killed and in search of guidance, he shrugged off this preconception and enrolled in a class on Catholicism. He began to question the prayers for release he had long whispered to God. What interest did God have in letting him go, Allen thought, if he wasn’t living life as he should? And if he were somehow granted release, whether by divine or earthly intervention, would he even recognize what this looks like—living life as he “should”?

Shortly after this, Allen resigned from the Gangster Disciples, enrolled in a paralegal training course, and, in November of 2001, received his certificate. He enrolled next in a two-year curriculum on small business management. He pushed for transfer to a medium-security prison, where educational opportunities were comparatively bountiful. In 2007, the request was granted. At Western Illinois Correctional Center he started taking classes offered by Lake Land College.

Among several subjects, accounting proved most irresistible. He disappeared for hours in the subtle interpretation of numbers. Because the prison had no pencil sharpeners outside of the classroom, he carried two dozen presharpened pencils back to his unit and stayed up late at an empty table in the common area laboring over his homework. He tracked stocks, matching their rise and fall against his readings of Bloomberg Businessweek, the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. He underlined and dog-eared his copy of the Morningstar Complete Investor, and he devised a fictional portfolio that outperformed the 401(k) of his Lake Land professor, Ronald Frillman. Then he realized he could legally make his own investments, so he pulled together a few hundred options and pored over annual reports and SEC filings. He sought to model his decision-making on the inspired farsightedness of his new idol, Warren Buffett, whose self-exile from Manhattan and San Francisco to the quiet of Omaha resonated with Allen and his own involuntary exile.

Allen put $150—all he had—into CVS stock. He had never stepped foot inside of a store. But he knew that most of the company’s revenue came from its pharmacy, and this seemed like a stable bet. The fact that CVS had a smaller market share than Walgreens gave it greater room for growth, he reasoned. “Plus,” he said, “I’m a fan of the underdog.” Years after he’d purchased the stock, riding on a prison transfer bus passing through Champaign, Illinois, Allen saw a CVS through the mesh cage of the window. He nudged the man beside him and said he owned a brick or two of the store.

“Stop and think for a moment about the remarkable thing that occurred,” Frillman told me. “Here’s somebody who has been locked up since he was 16, without a high school education. He’s got a life without parole sentence and instead of ‘oh, woe is me,’ he thinks: How do I get my GED? How do I get my paralegal certificate? Can I get transferred to pick up more classes because they don’t offer them at this prison? Can I get an associate’s degree, a BA?” Frillman paused. “If he wanted, I’d adopt him.”

Meanwhile, the world of law, a strange cousin to accounting with its distinct vernacular and byzantine rules, became Allen’s second refuge. When he had first arrived at Pontiac, older prisoners taught him the basics of legal research. Once he no longer had legal representation, Allen spent long days at the library exploring the details of his case. In 2003, he secured a job as a law clerk in Stateville prison. Three years later, the Illinois State Bar Association recruited him to help write Post-Trial Remedies: A Handbook for Illinois Prisoners. He started filing for postconviction relief on the grounds that the initial police interrogation had violated his rights and that he’d not received effective assistance of counsel.

Allen’s appeals failed and failed and failed, and he continued to file. “He will not stop fighting,” a public defender, Crystal Carbellos, who represented him during his 2016 resentencing hearing, told me. “He is unwilling to stop fighting.” Nearly two decades after he was first arrested and jailed, the courts finally responded in Allen’s favor. When he wrote an article for the prison newspaper, Stateville Speaks, he titled it “The Sixteenth Time’s a Charm.”

As Allen’s individual disposition began to change, so too did the broader politics of juvenile punishment. He watched the Supreme Court in 2005 ban the death penalty for anyone under 18. He had come to understand that law changed incrementally, and that capital punishment was, by necessity, the first step in dismantling the next-harshest youth sanctions. Repealing mandatory life without parole for juveniles was not far down the list, and seven years later came Miller v. Alabama, which did just that.

In March 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that Miller would apply retroactively. Roughly 80 men and women across the state sentenced to mandatory life without parole as juveniles were eligible for a resentencing hearing. (Some states ruled Miller was not retroactive; the Supreme Court settled this state-by-state discrepancy in 2016.) Allen, by that time, had been transferred to Danville Correctional Center, where he was pursuing classes through the local community college.

That spring, Allen remembers the first truly nice day of the season, stepping into the prison yard and drifting to the solitude of its southeast corner. Beyond the chain-link fences and concertina wire was a small manmade lake. It was the first time Allen had seen a body of water since getting locked up. There were a few men seated in a flat-bottomed boat, chatting over the putter of the motor. Allen’s mother had instilled in him a love of fishing that, for years, he’d nurtured with subscriptions to Bassmaster Magazine, In-Fisherman, and Indiana Game & Fish. He sat out there in the calm and watched the men cast their lines, wait, talk, reel in, cast again.

In April 2015, Allen moved back to Cook County Jail to await his resentencing date. He worked as a tutor and showed 19- and 20-year-old inmates how to carry numbers when doing addition along with the basics of spelling and reading.

He was called to the courthouse in November 2016. Allen sat at a table with Carbellos, his appointed attorney. His family filed in behind him. The prosecutors argued he was not ready for release. Character witnesses on Allen’s behalf rose to take the stand and argue the contrary. Carbellos choked up while presenting her closing statement.

“Why? Because of the number of years Marshan lost,” she told me. “He should’ve grown up like other kids grow up. He should’ve finished high school. He should’ve gone to college, had a girlfriend and a wife and a family with kids. He lost 25 years of his life. And what’s amazing to me is that his experience has not jaundiced him toward people, toward life, even toward the judicial system.”

The judge sent Allen home with time served. “Would you like it in days, or years, or months?” Carbellos asked him when it came time for the formal sentencing. Days, said the judge. “9,008.” Allen sobbed, his head on the table, as his family cheered. And yet, as pure as the happiness should have been, it was not untainted by the sense that he was leaving men behind. He considered himself lucky—lucky that he was a juvenile at the time of the crime, lucky that his sentence was mandatory and not discretionary, and lucky that these two factors made him eligible to walk free when so many others remain in prison with no possibility of release.

This is the strange and muddy legacy left by the Supreme Court: only mandatory life without parole for a juvenile was deemed unconstitutional. It remains within a judge’s power to sentence juveniles to life without parole. Sentencing relief also applies only if the crime was committed before one’s 18th birthday; 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds are ineligible. States are struggling to answer a new question too: How many years qualifies as a “de facto” life sentence? Can a juvenile be sentenced to 100 mandatory years? What about 70? Judges and legislators are working through this morbid actuarial logic. An April 2019 ruling in Illinois drew the line at 40 years: below that is acceptable, above qualifies as a life sentence.

Before his release, Allen received a psychological evaluation at Cook County Jail. The psychologist noted that he had been sentenced to 49 years—under Illinois law, he owed half of this, which amounted to time served—and the psychologist wanted to make sure Allen didn’t harbor any suicidal thoughts. He told her he was in fact elated with the sentence because it meant he was going to be released. “And then the more I thought about it, the more it made me angry. I’d been locked up for 25 years and no one decided to give me a psych evaluation then,” Allen said. “Y’all never cared about me and how I was developing mentally, whether or not I’d been affected—never once gave me a psych evaluation. Now I’m on my way home and you want to give me a psych eval?”

On a Monday morning, he was ushered through the outtake process at Stateville; sometime in the evening he was pulled aside and told his release had been delayed. (A spokesperson from the Department of Corrections said the delay was “part of the offender’s master file and deemed confidential.”) His family had rented a party bus and waited in the lot with close friends and lawyers. Allen’s mother brought a sandwich and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Kit Kats, and potato chips. Allen never showed. The ride back was silent.

That night in his cell he tried to imagine what had gone wrong. “I felt cheated,” he said. “These people, they already took all these days and years and stuff from me, and now you just took another day. You just got another day from me. And it might not seem like a lot, but it was my day. It was mine. It was supposed to be mine. I wasn’t supposed to spend that night there. I was supposed to be at home with my family.”

Marshan Allen, age 42 (2018)
Marshan Allen, age 42 (2018)Credit: courtesy Marshan Allen/Tone Stockenstrom

In 2017, while working at Starbucks, Allen filled his spare time with spontaneous fishing trips. One day in early July, after the heavy morning rains suddenly quit, he packed three rods, a tackle box, and folding chairs into his trunk, then drove to buy bait and ice before heading to a nearby nature preserve. “Unexpected fishing trip goes perfectly right,” he said.

He had three lines out at once and on each line he’d attached a fishing bell. He said he knew what the bells sounded like when they rattled in the wind, and it was different from the sound of a small fish tugging the line, which was different still from the sound of a big fish hooked and starting to fight. Twice the bells rang for something big, and twice he reeled in catfish.

Allen is now two and a half years out and married. He lives south of the city, in Richton Park, with his wife. He is a program director at the Restore Justice Foundation, a Chicago-based criminal justice advocacy group. He works closely with Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, and has also enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University to finish his bachelor’s in criminal justice policy and advocacy. Allen is 43 years old, but is sometimes, briefly, animated by the spirit of adolescent Marshan, somehow preserved inside the man who was in prison. It occurs like a possession. A certain subject rises and Allen fills with self-doubt, vulnerability, even naivete.

Allen bears his personal story openly as both cautionary tale and evidence: though people tend to describe what he accomplished while in prison, and since, as exceptional, he views himself as an example. “Not the exception, the example,” he says. He sees thousands of people behind bars whose personal journeys to reform and remorse go unrecognized, people whose potential for creation rather than destruction goes squandered.

And amid everything sits an unsettling paradox not lost on Allen. As much as he despises the institution of prison in its current form—the violence and grimness and hopelessness and lack of opportunity, its manifestation of racism and intimations of slavery, all of that—it is something to which he also admits a troubling debt of gratitude. “The people I left behind, the people from the streets, and the people I’ve met and become friends with since, all of these people who are a part of my life now—it never would’ve happened if it weren’t for prison,” he said. “It kind of hurts to think about that.”

These days he spends his time researching possible changes to laws. He writes memos. He meets with state legislators to encourage them to realize a more lenient and restorative system of justice in Illinois. Not long ago, Allen was on his way home, entering the tunnel of Millennium Station, when his phone rang. It was Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. of the Illinois Supreme Court, who had become a mentor and performed his wedding rites, checking in. Allen stopped for a moment. He stared at the screen as strangers streamed by, his world frozen as he considered where he was and who was calling.   v