Lifer Parole in Mass=NOT

Image courtesy of Social Engagement

It’s time to say it. The paroling rate for lifers in Massachusetts is appalling and not promoting public safety.

Parole is not a free pass. It must be earned, but it is a cornerstone of public policy across the country. It provides the opportunity to serve the rest of one’s sentence in the community. It reunites families, allows returning citizens to be responsible citizens, and helps us to safely integrate prisoners back into society.

The National Institute of Justice has called a healthy parole rate “key” to enhancing public safety, and a policy statement revised by the Massachusetts Parole Board in 2012 made this point: “The most dangerous population in the Commonwealth are the ex-offenders who leave the prison setting from high levels of security without any form of post-release supervision and support.” Additionally, not giving people a chance for parole adds to overcrowded prisons, more dangerous conditions for officers, more despair for the prison population as a whole, and more expense for the taxpayer.

But guess what…Massachusetts’ lifer paroling rate seems built for political reasons and not for what’s best for the Commonwealth, and certainly not for giving people second chances. Why else would a 5 percent lifer paroling rate be in effect in Massachusetts in 2016? This is worse than in 2013, when the Board had a lifer release rate of 18 percent, according to research from a 2013 White Paper on parole, and significantly worse than in 2006 when 40 percent of lifers received positive votes.

I have written about the problems of the Massachusetts Parole Board several times. And every time I have tried to explain why letting out fewer people does NOT make us safer. And why it costs us so much (an estimate of annual recurring costs to keep Massachusetts lifers in prison is now more than $53,000 a year and as prisoners age, it costs even more to house those ill and dying, close to 2 to 3 times that cost says Prisoners’ Legal Services.)

When Governor Deval Patrick was in office, I called him out in 2011 after a police officer was killed by a career criminal who was out on parole, and Patrick caved to public outcry instead of launching a thorough investigation of the case. He forced the exit of five Parole Board members. Additionally, he failed to admit that any man-made system is subject to error. That might have been an unpopular position but it would have been the truth, and while there is no evidence to say that his political future was on the Governor’s mind with this move, it certainly seemed like a political decision.

Then again, when we needed new blood on the Board in 2012, along with many others, I strongly suggested  Massachusetts should diversify its Board and add more psychologists and substance abuse specialists—or how about a former parolee instead of a former prosecutor? How about someone from social work or education or sociology? Nope, it didn’t happen. Same old same old. Today we have Chairman Paul Treseler, a 20-year former  prosecutor; Ina Howard-Hogan, another former prosecutor; Lucy Soto-Abbe, a victim’s rights advocate; Shiela Dupree from the Department of Correction, Tina Hurley from Parole; and attorney Tonomey Coleman. Only one Parole Board member has experience in forensic psychology and that is Dr. Charlene Bonner.

In 2013, I wrote why Governor Patrick’s attempts to reform parole had only made it worse when I wrote Why Massachusetts’ Parole System Still Requires Reform. Not only have we not diversified the Board, but we are still paying no attention to what other states have found effective.

As I wrote in that article about Michigan, California, and New York: “The best case for parole actually comes from those who have committed some of the worst crimes. According to a 2009 study by the Michigan-based Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, parolees originally convicted of homicide reoffended the least of all groups of ex-prisoners. Of 2,558 homicide parolees in that state, only 2.7 percent were returned to prison for any new crime, and only 0.5 percent were returned for another homicide. Other states have observed similar trends. A California report conducted in 2006 to 2007 showed that 51.5 percent of non-lifers on parole received new convictions, whereas only 4.8 percent of lifers did. In New York, just 2.6 percent of 1,480 murderers paroled from 1986 to 2006 were returned to prison for committing new crimes.”

However, it’s a little like screaming into a megaphone that’s on mute.

Here we are in 2016, with a new governor and a new chairman of the Board. Former Suffolk County ADA Paul Treseler was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker as Chairman in September, 2015. It is hard to imagine, I say to myself, that things could have gotten worse, especially if paroling lifers makes us safer. Yes, there is always some risk. However a 5 percent paroling rate for lifers surely implies that someone really really doesn’t want to take any chances— even if that means ignoring that those behind bars who have changed are still doing time for the person they WERE rather than the person they HAVE BECOME (a brilliant way of saying it, courtesy of Dr. Robert Kinscherff, a forensic psychologist who has examined some these lifers as kids and again tested them as adults.)

Since Treseler has been Chair, the Board has issued at least 40 lifer decisions as of May 12, 2016. There have been only two positive votes for parole from those 40 hearings, resulting in the current lifer paroling rate of  approximately 5 percent. Ten of those 40 hearings were juvenile first degree lifer hearings. In other words, those were hearings after Miller v. Alabama.  and Diatchenko v. District Attorney.  They were hearings after the Supreme Court declared that a child is capable of change even if he commits the most heinous of crimes; they were after significant advancements in brain research that has compelled us to consider that many grow out of crime. Not one of the juvenile lifers in the past eight months has received a positive vote for parole. This is in spite of the fact that recidivism among this cohort, when released on parole with supervision and support, is extremely low.

So what to do? First off, we need to educate ourselves on how to talk about the parole problem so we can speak out when openings on the Board arise. Then we need to push for change. Lifer parole hearings are open to the public. Hold the Parole Board accountable. If they continue with a 5 percent paroling rate, you can bet it has nothing to do with what’s best for Massachusetts.

A Letter that Touched Me

I vividly remember going to school the day of the stabbing and being floored by the rumors. I remember going home that night to be completely consumed by the news, calling friends and hearing the rumors. At the age of sixteen, having another 16 year old killed by one of my “friends” was about the most traumatic experiences I’d ever had. The next day at school, the somber atmosphere within our small group of friends was extremely dark.

I’m friends with a lot of people who were at Dartmouth High the day of the event. A lot of them are on my friends list on Facebook, and each April all those friends remind me of the tragedy when they all switch their profile photos to that of Jason. Each April I have been reminded of how much I hated Gator and Karter.

Then, I saw someone posting about your book on my feed. It was extremely negative feedback, asking for a boycott. Then, about a third of my friends list jumped on the bandwagon. However, your book piqued my curiosity for many reasons. I hadn’t Googled Karter in years, so I didn’t know he was released nor did I know he was up for parole. I didn’t know anything about him. I assumed he was gone forever, an old memory.

I bought your book 3 days ago, and finished it about 15 minutes ago. Your book brought back memories that I didn’t even know I had. Your book gave a voice to a person who has been a monster in my mind for 20 years. Your book was absolutely amazingly well written, and what you have done for Karter is absolutely incredible. I haven’t read a book that caused me to feel sick, and caused me to cry both out of sadness and happiness, ever. While I don’t agree with the timing of your book release, I wouldn’t have discovered it without that decision.

I have no way of contacting Karter, and he probably wouldn’t remember me if even I had stood face to face with him. But, if you could let him know that I wrote to you let him know that there are some souls from New Bedford that believe everyone can change, and that I’m extraordinarily proud of him and his progress to become an example for the thousands of others who made a earth-shattering mistake as a child.

Anonymous”

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                       photo by Emily Breitbart from reading at Porter Square Books                                   

Boy With A Knife Debuts

 

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Last week I posted the first radio interview on my new book and Karter Reed was kind enough to join me and talk about the pain and hope he lives with every day. The tragedy of Jason Robinson’s murder never subsides but Karter’s dedication to building a new life in honor of the families he harmed is ever-present. You can listen to him below in my last post.

This week some excitement for me begins on Tuesday, April 12, with the #twitter launch of Boy With A Knife. After seven years! Join me 8:30-11:30 am or pm to ask a question about my book or make a comment of justice for juveniles.  I take to heart James Baldwin’s famous words:”For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” Use the hashtag #BWAK and I’m at @justicewithjean.

Also, Amazon will have a low price that day if you want to buy my book–no proceeds go to anyone involved in the crime.

I had a very important interview about the book with Bentley professor Marc Stern on April 10. A history prof, he asked important questions and had read the book with intense interest. You can listen to “Room With A View” here at WMBR, April 10, about 30 minutes in, and the HTML5 link worked perfectly for me. From that interview, my favorite question was when Marc asked to to explain what I meant by “justice” in the book title.

Caroline Leavitt’s very cool blog will feature her cool brand of Q&A about Boy With a Knife on Monday, April 11th.

Also incarcerated writer Christopher Zoukis is reviewing my book on Huffington Post this week. How, you ask, does that happen from prison? He writes it behind bars and send it to someone who submits it to him. One of the most dedicated prisoner writers I know.

This week I’m talking to students about BWAK at Merrimack College and at Wheelock College, and have my first reading at the Andover Book Store!

 

Joining Karter Reed on Radio Boston

I hope you’ll take time to listen to Deb Becker of WBUR interview Karter Reed, and also talk to me about my new book Boy With A Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. Karter, who was sentenced as a juvenile to an adult prison for a murder he committed in 1993, is a story of success “in spite of” prison and parole issues in Massachusetts. He says himself “I am not unique.” And yet, at the same time, he is remarkable. He demonstrates, among many things, why it is necessary to stop sentencing juveniles as adults. From Radio Boston:

AN AMERICAN RADICAL and MARIPOSA AND THE SAINT

 

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mariposa and the saint

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last summer I read Susan Rosenberg’s book, An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country, and had every intention of writing about it, but now, I am glad I waited. Recently, as I watched protests against Donald Trump’s hate speech, Rosenberg’s book seems more important than ever.

On the one hand An American Radical is a story of a young woman who at age 29 was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. She admits some of her methods to get what she believed in were not effective. She was a young woman, as she says years later, that “could not see the long distance [she] had traveled from [her] commitment to justice and equality to stockpiling guns and dynamite. Seeing that would take years.”

But the passion behind her desire to change what is wrong in our country, and in particular, to overhaul our prison system, is apparent. Her book is also an important story of a system in the U.S. where Rosenberg was degraded and demeaned but still managed to help other women in spite of the dehumanization she experienced. She kept her head above the fray, managed to stand up to the hate, and served 16 years before she was pardoned by President Bill Clinton as he left office in 2001.

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Photo by Rohan Quinby from Rethinking Prisons

After her release, Rosenberg became the communications director for the American Jewish World Service, an international development and human rights organization,
Today she teaches in New York and continues her anti-prison activism. When I ran into her last summer at a Free Her conference at Harvard Law School, I reminded her how much the review she wrote of my first book had meant to me. At the time, she had recently been released from prison. I had seen the barbaric tapes of her and other women underground in a prison within a prison. They had managed to campaign for a return to general population.

We had never met, but it was like meeting an old friend. Rosenberg’s insights were still as profound as ever. She said about prison, “Every reform is a direct result of the suffering of every formerly incarcerated person.”

Susan Rosenberg

Sometimes it takes a radical shift to see the truth and engage us in that truth.

Julia Steele Allen is another progressive thinker, a dynamo actress/writer who has the vision to help people rethink the brutalization in prisons. She is one of the forces behind the stunning production of Mariposa and the Saint, a play through letters about solitary confinement, Written in collaboration with a woman who calls herself Mariposa, a prisoner in the notorious SHU in a California prison for women, the play takes the audience through a grueling reenactment of solitary confinement. The play is currently touring, according to Steele’s website, to eight states with active legislation or statewide campaigns to limit or end long-term solitary confinement. The states are: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, and California.

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Photo by Azikiwe Mohammed (Julia playing Mariposa).

Some of the most touching moments in this short powerful piece take the viewer inside the mind of someone withstanding the insanity—that one cannot help but descend into. Mariposa fights against the injustice of her situation. “You can’t put me in a box cuz I won’t fit,” she says. Mariposa is the Spanish word for “butterfly” and indeed a butterfly cannot be so easily contained.

Mariposa or Sara Fonseca, was originally put in solitary for “an unauthorized weapon” which was, in fact, a tweezers. The craziness of our prison policies continue to come full force after Mariposa gets four more years for throwing a glass of water at a male nurse. Not just more time, but four more years in solitary.

While the play is a bit disjointed and not always easy to follow, it packs a punch as the audience learns of Mariposa’s children she is not allowed to contact while in solitary, and the innumerable losses she endures; she mourns the smell of her baby son’s toes; she aches for a car that will come onstage and drive her away; this she says, in a letter to Julia, is the way the play should end. But it doesn’t end that way. Mariposa remains in prison, now in a mental health unit. It is a brutal and devastatingly sad truth.

The hope in Mariposa and the Saint comes from the activism the play, her letters to Julia, and Mariposa herself has inspired. At one point in the play, Mariposa calls her time in solitary “the struggle to keep her spirit alive.” While the inhumanity of solitary has been written about, seeing it enacted underscores the importance of stopping this practice. In Massachusetts, activist organizations such as Prisoners’ Legal Services, the Coalition for Effective Public Safety, Ending Mass Incarceration Together (EMIT), Amnesty International, the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, and others are aiming to pass legislation to stop long term solitary, as our current policies put us out of touch with the rest of the county.

Mariposa would not exist if it weren’t for the trauma she has suffered. As Susan Rosenberg so profoundly reminded her audience at Free Her, the work of changing prisons firmly stands on the backs of those who are still behind bars.