On the subject of parole

By · Saturday, March 29th, 2008

I recently received a wonderful letter from a young college student who is studying criminal justice in Michigan. He was assigned to read one of the books I wrote, and he asked a few questions that I thought readers of my Blog might have an interest in. Accordingly, I am posting his insightful questions along with my responses for all to read.

How would your sentence differ if you had the eligibility for parole?

The U.S. Congress abolished parole for all federal offenses committed after November 1, 1987. My criminal conduct precedes that date, but because of my having been convicted of the Kingpin statute, I have a sentence that is only partially eligible for parole. Specifically, I have 43-years of a non-paroleable sentence which is followed with a consecutive two-year sentence; I am eligible for parole on that two-year sentence. Essentially, that means I must serve the 43-year sentence. With reductions I am earning for abiding by all prison rules (good time provisions), I expect to complete the requirements of that 43-year sentence in December of 2011. With good time, I am required to serve a bit longer than 24 years on that sentence. After I complete those 24 years, then I must serve another eight months of the two-year sentence before I can be eligible for parole.

I know the sentence sounds confusing. The good time and parole eligibility complicates it and only people who live through the system understand it. But if I did not have those sentences that preclude me from access to parole, I would have been eligible for release long ago.

Although parole was discontinued for new-law offenders (after 11/01/87), when parole existed, offenders were required to serve one-third of the sentence in prison, and the remaining two-thirds in the community on parole. It meant that offenders on parole were required to work, maintain stability, and adhere to conditions as set by the court and the parole officer. Offenders with sentences in excess of 30 years (even if they had life), became eligible for parole after the service of 10 years. So, theoretically, if I did not have the type of offense that limited my access to parole, I would have been eligible for release in 1997, when I had completed 10 years. By then I had earned both an undergraduate and a graduate degree, had clean disciplinary conduct and a record of contributions. I think those distinctions would have made me a good candidate for release on parole. Yet because of my convictions, I expect to serve between three and five more years in prison, despite my already having completed nearly 21 years in prison.

Despite the lengthy period of time that I am serving, I feel grateful for the opportunities I have had to grow. That may sound crazy, and I recognize that others may think me “institutionalized.” I am eager to resume my life in the world, though I feel fortunate for the blessings I have received.

Do you think all prisoners should have a chance of parole?

Yes, I think our enlightened society would benefit much more if it encouraged offenders to earn their way to freedom. A parole system would make that possible. As the system currently stands, administrators focus on warehousing individuals. This system measures justice by the turning of calendar pages. Yet recidivism rates show that long sentences do not necessarily make society safer. Instead, we ought to use all of our limited resources with wisdom. And long-term imprisonment without incentive does not prepare individuals to live as contributing, law-abiding citizens.

With a parole system that offered prisoners an objective way to earn freedom through merit, administrators could instill hope and encourage prisoners to empower themselves. I am a firm believer in earning freedom, though this system offers no mechanism through which an individual can distinguish himself in a formal, positive way. That is a tragedy, one that makes for bad public policy. In fact, I refer you to the Pew Report, which shows the influence of this no-parole system. Our country now incarcerates more than 1 in 100 Americans, and that is an appalling statistic.

Could you please ask other prisoners about their interactions with parole officers?

As I mentioned above, the federal prison system does not offer parole to individuals who were convicted of offenses after 11/01/87. I currently am incarcerated at the Federal Prison Camp in Taft, California and we do not have any offenders here who are eligible for parole. In fact, no one in this prison has served as many years I have served. Thus I cannot speak with anyone here about parole because that system is not available to anyone here. Although I assure you, every prisoner here wishes he had access to relief through parole.

What programs are most successful to people on parole?

Although parole is not currently available in the federal prison system, many state prison systems make use of parole. The most successful programs would be those that prepare offenders for satisfying employment. When an offender has the qualifications for fulfilling work, he develops a vested interest in remaining in society as a contributing citizen. I have interviewed and written about people who returned to prison after a failed release on parole, and the overwhelming reason cited was that they could not find a place for themselves in society. For parole to operate effectively, individuals must buy-in to our American way of life. Accordingly, the parole system should offer programs that encourage that buy-in. In addition to employment preparation, effective programs ought to help individuals conquer their substance abuse problems. Further, I am convinced that the parole system ought to work closely with prison administrators in encouraging prisoners to build and nurture community ties. Too many people leave these boundaries with unstable or unreliable networks of support, and after decades in prison, that would not bode well for success.

Why do long-term prisoners prefer to stay incarcerated?

Other than those who are unstable mentally, or those who have served so much time that they no longer have any ties to society, I think that most prisoners want to be released. The problem is that once long-term prisoners are released, many find that they are no longer capable of functioning in society. They learned to live in prison, and while doing so, they learned to fail in society.

When an individual serves 20 years or longer inside prison, he becomes accustomed to the routine. That individual builds personal relationships and settles into a routine that becomes a part of existence. Upon release, that routine would not be available. He would have to provide for his own shelter, and maintain his own affairs. These people frequently have reached an advanced age and they lack the skills to function. They have no money, no friends, no real prospects for viable employment. Whereas they had a degree of stability in prison, and a social circle that related to them, in society they are alone and rejected. Those individuals sometimes find it preferable to return to prison.

I am nearly complete with 21 years of prison, and as I wrote above, I expect to serve between three and five more years. Because I knew that I would serve a long term, I have worked hard to prepare myself for release. Despite the decades I have served, I feel confident that I am well prepared to overcome the obstacles and challenges that will follow my release. The work on my Web site describes all of the preparations that I have made, and I assure that my efforts continue.

I appreciate this opportunity to respond to your questions. Should any more questions follow, be sure that I will respond with openness.

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