In and Out

Photograph Source: Kenneth Anderson – CC BY 2.0

Working at Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) taught me that America imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world and that a substantial percentage of those arrests are just for non-violent violations of puritanical drug laws.

Easy outrage.

At that time, LEAP was represented by once fierce anti-drug warriors whose early drug busts had ruined the lives of countless folks but who had evolved into abolitionists, apologetic for their early sins.

My fascination with their transformation led me to Parole Watch, a volunteer group focused on prisoners trying to improve their lives by joining the 4,000,000 Americans currently on parole or probation—a substantial number of whom are thrown back in prison for activities that wouldn’t decimate their freedom, job, or housing prospects if they hadn’t been on parole. Such activities (“technical violations”) may include failing to pay the state for their supervision, smoking marijuana, failing to find work, drinking a glass of wine, and protesting outside a prison.

Easy outrage.

It is a well-worn comfort cushion for people of privilege that their youthful transgressions are not recorded with indelible ink. Especially drug-related ones. But the transgression in these parole hearings is second degree murder, and the applicants are not privileged.

The hearings reveal the challenging complexity of parole for very serious crimes committed a very long time ago.

And outrage is not so easy.

The suburban hearing room is a deceptively bland container for dramatic accusations, denials, and remorse—and above all, endless hurt. We surrender licenses, phones, shoes, and belts to pass through airport-grade metal detectors and are taken upstairs by guards who speak in code via walki-talkies. Supporters and opponents are shown to adjacent sections and monitored throughout. As an observer I am placed with supporters and scrutinize the guards for signs of disapproval, but they remain professionally polite. Passions quietly emerge as people comfort one another. Small talk and quiet crying. Typically, five of the seven Governor-appointed Board members take their place on a panel facing the room, some join remotely. The hearings and the videotape are public. The details of the crime are provided from police reports.

Supporters of the applicant for parole mill about casually while opponents are subdued, resentful. I catch the occasional glance our way and wonder how they feel about our support for the person who harmed their loved one. The hopeful, forward-looking world view that supporters carry into the hearing feels comfortably progressive. But displays of good cheer feel insensitive.

Applicants must convince a wary parole board that they accept full, remorseful responsibility for their actions (often as self-described “monsters”); that they have been fundamentally transformed by self-help and self-reflection; and that they are neither capable of violence, nor self-deluded. Indeed, as one applicant put it, “I don’t like the word rehabilitation because it means I’m still the same person.” In addition, they must present a comprehensive parole plan that ensures that their near perfect behavior inside will survive the temptations and triggers outside.

And then the hearing.

In 2001, the victim was found lying face down in the park where he and “Sandra” slept. They had been in a relationship she described as dysfunctional for 4 months. She recalled being awakened in the park and screaming, realizing that she had blood all over her hand. Cause of death was determined to be sharp force plus blunt force head trauma, the result of more than one blow. Sandra never claimed self-defense at or after her trial.

Two armed guards escort 58 year old Sandra, wearing the standard wrist, waist, and leg chains, to her chair, two volunteer law students by her side. One of six kids, she was abandoned by an abusive alcoholic father at age seven, dropped out of school as soon as she could and became involved with drugs, alcohol, and the police. She’s had 5 children, one by rape. That child died at birth, another has Down Syndrome, and in 1999 she lost custody of the others; lost her housing and wandered the streets, a black out drunk. In the last four years her mother died, as did her son and daughter, both 31, died of overdoses. Her other daughter is in a group home. Her last hospital stay, with Crone’s disease, lasted 3 weeks.

This was not Sandra’s first appearance, and she received sympathy from a panel member who acknowledged her troubled history.

Q: I believe you were an alcoholic before your first drink. I think it is a mental illness. Did your siblings care that you dropped out of school in 9th grade?

A: No

Q: Did your mother ever seek court help with you?

A: No. She had her hands full with the other kids and her jobs.

Q: You had no guidance for the first 37 years of your life?

A: I guess so.

Despite 115 Disciplinary Reports in her first years, her self improvement includes: AA, weekly spiritual advisory meetings, GED, and programs such as Restorative Justice, Victims of Violence, and Self Esteem. Her plan is to be paroled to minimum security then a half way house and then become a drug councilor while living with her sister. She has been sober for 20 years. There is no record of violence in the past 21 year, and she is on no medications

But just as people on parole are held to very high standards of conduct, so too, are applicants such as Sandra who may be asked the impossible.

Sandra has always maintained that she was blacked out at the time and has no memory of the deed. This frustrates the Board’s need to hear her accept responsibility without hesitation or mitigation. Hence, a set of going-through-the-motions questions like this:

Q: When you worked with the Innocence Project [which took and then dropped her case for lack of evidence] you didn’t believe you killed him. What do you say to them now?

A: It was a complete blackout, but I take full responsibility.

Q: Now do you have any doubt that it was you?

A: No.

Q: Do you believe you did it?

A: Yes

A sudden “recollection” of those drunken moments decades ago would not hurt her chances of release, and I suspect sympathetic board members quietly respect her for not making it easy for them to check that box. Just as I suspect the hard line members hold it against her.

The “good time” needed to get parole requires stoic, self-effacing passivity; hour by hour, year by year. And even with her edges smoothed, Sandra does not present as docile or beaten. Consider the following concerns about her Disciplinary Reports: the only ones in the past few years.

Q, Since the last hearing, you’ve had four new Disciplinary Reports, one for gambling, two for flaunting health restrictions, and one for being belligerent.

A: The gambling was just four of us playing cards, in full view of the guards and camera, as we always did. Someone just dropped a dime.

Q: Does that make it right?

A: No, it doesn’t. 

Q: In 2021 when you came back from the hospital you publically hugged a water cooler and said, Look at me, I’m hugging a water jug! 

A: I was kidding around. My Crohn’s neutralized my illness. The officer didn’t know I wasn’t contagious.

Q: In 2021 you came back from the hospital wearing a blue mask, but the prison had changed to white Covid masks.

A: I got the mask in the hospital and went through two levels of security at the prison and no one mentioned it. I didn’t know.

Q: Also, in 2021 you became publically belligerent to a guard.

A: I told the guard I had to go to the bathroom. He just wouldn’t let me. I had to just stand there in front of everybody, and I pissed myself and called him a piece of shit.

She is forced to say that playing cards is not “right,” a perfectly empty box-checking confession meant to fool no one. And clearly these violations are either trivial or provoked, so she appears to be on solid footing. But then:

Q: It’s the aggregation of all four reports that concern me. At your age, with all the programs, you still have no skills to refrain. If you can’t resolve conflict without being abusive, that’s not my idea of rehabilitation. You are not taking responsibility, even today.

She is being held to a standard that echoes the unrealistic purity imposed on people on parole. Every interaction with guard is a taut balancing act, and these hearings demand that she balance on a pencil thin high wire. The infractions aren’t serious, but that there are any is cause for concern.

And then a simple, innocent sounding question:

Q: How are you?

A strange thing to ask of someone begging for their freedom. Is there a correct answer? And, given her acerbic personality, “Oh, I’m fine, and you?” could easily yield: “Do you think this is all a joke?” Luckily for Sandra, she paused, mumbled something bland, and steadied her high wire.

Other obstacles included a local Assistant District Attorney (ADA) who pointed to discrepancies in Sandra’s statements and used quotes from a recorded jail house call to reveal calculating evil, not temporary insanity or intoxication; adding that she’s still not repentant and remains arrogant.

For the ADAs and the board, the largest obstacle to parole is the rare but real specter of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who famously killed while on parole; a specter that forever lurks.

But perhaps the largest obstacle in this case, and many like it, is the victim’s family. Families speaking in opposition relive the brutality of the act and warn the board not to be manipulated by apparent contrition. Parole reopens wounds; heightens their sense of injusticeand erases the victim:

“We suffer from various mental illnesses due to this. He was a beautiful generous soul, not a homeless bum at the local paper pictured him. She couldn’t reach his head unless he was lying down, defenseless. She didn’t choose to get clean. She was forced to. She wasn’t a kid when she did this. She killed two people on that day. He lived for 3 minutes after the stabbing. I relapsed upon hearing of her parole hearing. I can’t stand to look in the mirror because I look like him!”

Prisoners seeking parole engender a range of reactions: their childhood abusive is wrenching: their crimes are frightening; their prison journeys are inspiring; and their pleas to be released—to rejoin—are sometimes challenging. Some are old, stooped, and seemingly broken. And as they apologize for their distant crimes and emerging research reveals profound differences between the immature and the mature brain, I wonder what level of ongoing restraint our sense of justice requires.

Powerful loss requires powerful closure. But that may cut both ways. Family of the victim can’t be blamed for their rage, even if they are not helped by it. But how does society justify multi-decade imprisonment for crimes committed decades earlier, often in late adolescence: justice, or cold-blooded rage?

Even the most emotional hearings end in undramatic fashion, and the blandness of the building reasserts itself as we all file out. In the recent past, applicants would wait an indeterminate number of months, even the better part of a year, for a decision. Successful advocacy has limited and spelled out that waiting period. And put people other than politicians and law enforcers on the board. As drug warriors have become drug reformers, and hopeless people with hate-filled lives can be redeemed, parole—institutionalized forgiveness—can be transformed.

As we confront the hurt done to and by applicants like Sandra, may we find something in ourselves: not necessarily divine forgiveness; but something that moves us beyond punishment and towards redemption. Something that moves us beyond having the most people locked up or under supervision of any country in the world.

Bill Fried is the co-Author of The Uses of the American Prison. He is retired from the staff of Law Enforcement Action Partnership and is on the Somerville Task Force regarding Supervised Consumption Sites. His op-eds have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.