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US Parole Activists Aim to Overhaul a Failing System

"Prisoner" (Image Courtesy of Ade McOren-Campbell / Flickr

The United States has the shameful reputation of being the world’s largest jailer, and as the Prison Policy Initiative reported in March, 2017, 2.3 million people are currently locked up in prisons and jails. This mass incarceration continues in spite of the fact that a Brennan Center for Justice report shows that crime is down and rates remain near historic lows.

Furthermore, our punishment system extends beyond the prison walls and includes destructive parole policies. “Max Out,” a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts report, details that over the past three decades, those sent to prison have been serving longer sentences. They are less likely to earn parole, the opportunity to finish one’s sentence in the community. This occurs in spite of the fact that research shows that longer sentences do not make us safer and do not prevent people from returning to prison, even as they cost more.

But here’s the good news: Activists across the county are seeking remedies for people impacted by this failing parole system, and in some cases, changing the system itself.

How Is Parole Failing?

Parole is often portrayed as “a free pass,” but this is far from the truth in a system dominated by punishment. Support for those on parole can be nonexistent, while supervision is often harshly levied. Topeka Sam, a founding member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, recently wrote about parole for Open Society Voices. Sam wrote, “The system has also created an additional layer of law enforcement control, intrusion, and surveillance — especially in communities of color, which are heavily policed already.”

In some states, even the slightest technical violation, such as a failure to call one’s parole officer on time, can result in a return to prison. Parole boards are notoriously staffed by those with law enforcement backgrounds, and tend to overemphasize the risk that those they release will reoffend. As Beth Schwartzapfel wrote in the Marshall Project in 2015, “Parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible.” Marc Morjé Howard, director of Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative, explained in a 2017 article in The Atlantic that the process is highly politicized. He said, “There are direct consequences for political officials if — heaven forbid, but it will happen — there is a mistake and a person gets out who commits another crime. The mentality becomes: “Why take that chance? Let’s just keep everybody locked up.”

As I wrote for Truthout in February 2017, incarcerated people who have been sentenced to “life” but are eligible for parole are serving particularly excessive sentences. The Sentencing Project found that “lifers admitted to prison in 1991 could expect to serve an average of 21.2 years, but that lifers admitted in 1997 served an average of 29 years, reflecting a 37 percent increase in time served.” “Max Out” reveals that over the past three decades, state policy choices have not only led to longer sentences, but to those behind bars serving higher proportions of their sentences. In some cases, this is due to “truth-in-sentencing” laws, i.e. policies or legislation that aim to abolish or curb parole, insisting that prisoners serve the period to which they have been sentenced. In other instances, limits on release eligibility or the outright elimination of parole in some states are the culprits. In 2009, sentences were an average of nine months longer than those 20 years earlier. This also goes hand in hand with an 119 percent increase in unsupervised releases between 1990 and 2012, a practice shown to produce more recidivism and higher costs.

Because parole is defined and practiced differently in states across the country, Truthout talked to activists working on this issue in four different states, focusing on their struggles and successes in helping people gain access to parole.

New York Steps It Up

In New York, legislators, formerly incarcerated people and community groups joined forces to take action on parole this year, according to the Albany Times Union. The coalition addressed what the New York Times called the “scourge of racial bias” and the inhumanity of New York’s incarceration system.

Mujahid Farid, lead organizer for the New York grassroots group Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), has been fighting to instigate a parole commissioner replacement strategy since 1999. In a telephone interview, Farid told Truthout, “People behind the walls said a replacement strategy was needed.” In 2015 alone, New York parole commissioners denied release to 80 percent of the more than 12,000 applicants interviewed, wrote the Times Union. Farid said the basis for these decisions was too heavily focused on the nature of the original crimes, instead of on other factors that the law requires parole boards to consider, such as participation in rehabilitative programs, release plans and the risk of recidivism. Farid himself saw the parole board 10 times before he was released from prison in 2011. He points to another applicant, John Mackenzie, who committed suicide in 2016 after having his parole denied for the 10th time.

RAPP has worked on many fronts to remove New York Board of Parole commissioners who are failing to release people. Members have worked legislatively, penned articles in the press, organized rallies, and built coalitions alongside formerly incarcerated people and more than 60 grassroots organizations. Together, these coalitions have ousted three commissioners, garnered a resignation and brought negative attention to the two commissioners who were reappointed. They also stopped a law from passing that would have mandated that people convicted of the most serious crimes wait five years to reapply after a denial by the board (currently in New York, they must wait two years).

RAPP’s blog details how they also were able to prevail upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint six new commissioners who reflect the diversity of the areas they each represent. “Most importantly,” the blog post concludes, “we profoundly shaped the confirmation process of new commissioners, exposed the many injustices and cronyism inherent in the process, educated our legislators about the impact of parole on our loved ones, and for the first time, garnered serious opposition on the Senate floor.”

Maryland’s Uphill Battle

Some gains in parole may seem small in one state but quite large in another. Such is the case in Maryland, where Walter Lomax, who heads the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, advocates for humane sentencing policies for prisoners serving long sentences. Lomax himself was a “model prisoner” — he taught himself to read and write in solitary, earned his GED behind bars and an associate degree in business, excelled at his work-release job, wrote and edited a prison newsletter, and earned many certificates of achievement. Yet he was refused parole four times, and “served 40 years behind bars before a Baltimore judge reopened his case and suspended his life sentence in 2006,” states the Open Society Institute’s website.

In a phone interview, Lomax detailed some of Maryland’s grueling parole policies. Maryland’s outdated lifer parole policy, which mirrors only two other states in the country, California and Oklahoma, requires the governor to approve all grants by the parole board. In California, this process has improved since Gov. Jerry Brown was elected. By 2016, he had approved 82 percent of 1,590 grants for life-sentenced prisoners that came before him, detailed Prison Legal News. But in Maryland, it is a very different story.

Beginning in 1995, Maryland’s then-Gov. Parris Glendening declared, “Life means Life,” officially ending the possibility of parole for anyone serving a life sentence. This included “hundreds who had been eligible for it after decades in prison,” reported the Baltimore Sun. Glendening told the Sun in 2011 that he regretted that move, being motivated “more by politics than by hard evidence that it would make the public safer.” But by then, hundreds of lives had been affected.

This political approach to the parole process is not uncommon, wrote Schwartzapfel in 2015: “At least 18 states have one or more former elected officials on the Board. In 44 states, the Board is wholly appointed by the governor, and the well-paid positions can become gifts for former aides and political allies.”

After Glendening, the following three Maryland governors’ parole grant rates were slim, according to the Baltimore Sun, leaving Maryland in 2017 with 2,500 prisoners serving life sentences with parole eligibility — an increasingly elderly group.

Working with the Justice Policy Institute, Lomax and his organization went to work to totally remove the governor from the process for people sentenced to life. They initiated a public education strategy to educate people on the difference between a life sentence with parole and one without it, so they could do away with the outmoded legacy of “Life means Life.” To this end, they produced the film Blocking the Exit, which features stories of people behind bars, their victims and families. According to Lomax, they showed the short but powerful film to many people across the state — and made sure as many as possible saw it at the Maryland State House.

In 2011, state legislators introduced bills in both the House and Senate to ensure the governor would no longer be able to veto someone’s parole once that person had received a grant by the Board. Lomax said, “While we did not get the result we sought, removing the governor from the parole process, we did get a new law that gives him 180 days to review each recommendation. If he does not act within that time period, then parole will be granted and the person will be released.”

Lomax said they are hard at work on another documentary and continue to fight to keep parole decisions in the hands of the Parole Board.

Wisconsin’s Story Strategy

Sometimes activists must recognize small wins as successes in order to stay charged for the long fight. Such is the case in Wisconsin, where David Liners said in a phone interview that only 4 to 5 percent of paroles for life-sentenced prisoners are granted. Liners is the executive director of a group of faith leaders and activists known as WISDOM.

In Wisconsin, Liners said, truth-in-sentencing laws eliminated the possibility of parole for anyone whose crime occurred on or after December 31, 1999. As reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “All prisoners must serve every day of the sentence imposed by a judge. Unlike many other states, which reserve truth in sentencing for serious offenses, Wisconsin’s law applies to all crimes, not just violent ones.” That means that the only prisoners eligible for parole are those who were sentenced before 1999. Of those 3,000 who are currently eligible, approximately 160 are released yearly into the community.

“Nobody understands who these people are,” Liners said. “We have to educate them.” The group testifies, holds rallies, gets as much press as possible, and also puts out a book of letters in which incarcerated people tell their own stories, “to get the word out there.”

“We want to be sure legislators understand the issues and hopefully, at some point, all this will create public pressure,” Liners said. “The more people know, the more pressure there is to change the practice.”

Mixed in with the booklet of letters that illustrate the humanity of those who want parole (and often have been denied parole) are tributes to the ways in which they’ve changed, from a variety of sources, including judges. Also included are news clips about parole policies, and comments by legislators of why laws should be changed. Every legislator in Wisconsin has now received this booklet from WISDOM, said Liners, who wrote the introduction to the packet. He said, “When fair-minded people read the words of parole-eligible prisoners, they will demand of our state government that it immediately review its procedures and offer a fair chance for these men and women to gain their freedom, to be able to get on with the rest of their lives.”

While WISDOM is working on impacting the parole process for those behind bars, the group has also established a group of loved ones and family members of parole-eligible prisoners who meet regularly by conference call and once a year in person.

Organizing Against “Exceptions” in Tennessee

Tennessee is home to another hub of activism around parole. Truthout talked with Rev. Jeannie Alexander, who is executive director of No Exceptions, a Tennessee-based organization which has a litigation, legislative, education and organizing approach to effect change. In a phone interview, Alexander said, “The name itself comes from the idea that mass incarceration is simply a continuation of slavery. There should be no exceptions to the abolition of slavery, and there should be no exceptions to individuals having the chance to rejoin their families and communities.”

No Exceptions began behind bars, and members include people who are currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, as well as family members of those incarcerated. Alexander said they began to work legislatively three years ago to change Tennessee’s policy for life sentences, under which eligibility for parole begins after 51 years. Alexander said, “Common wisdom was everyone hated this sentence and they believed conversation around sentencing laws had shifted even in a red state like Tennessee.”

Recognizing the power of litigation, No Exceptions currently was instrumental in filing a lawsuit challenging the 51 years policy, based on 8th Amendment rights. Jacob Davis, who has served 17 years since he was sentenced as an adult at age 18, asserts that he should be eligible for parole after serving 25 years of his life sentence. His contention is that 51 years does not meaningfully differ from a life without parole sentence. If Davis wins, this would change parole possibilities for Tennessee prisoners.

The Tennesseean reported that a ruling in favor of prisoners in this case could save taxpayers “more than $100 million in incarceration costs over time.”

The Way Forward

Speaking in front of the New York State Senate in 2017, Sen. Gustavo Rivera said, “If you have a vision that certain crimes deserve no mercy and no forgiveness, then certainly we can’t have a conversation.” He went on to say that individuals who do everything in their power to accept responsibility and atone for their mistakes deserve a second chance. However, mercy doesn’t come easily in a political climate that still veers toward “tough on crime.” The activists who stand up for those behind bars certainly understand it often “takes a village” to secure that second chance.