from the Boston Herald
There is always heartbreak in parole hearings for lifers. Tragic deaths and tragic long sentences behind bars. As I wrote in Boston Magazine in 2011 about petitions before the full Parole Board, the Natick hearing room “looks like a converted warehouse,” where “seven men and women sit behind a long table.” Rows of chairs are set up facing the Board, a seven member panel.There’s an aisle down the middle, and both families—that of the murderer and the one belonging to the deceased— sit apart, each with their own grief.
The Board has always seemed to have a sense of the loss suffered by the families. Since Charlene Bonner took over the as Chair, there has also been more understanding of the parolee expressed, and sometimes sympathy (Note: I have attended 19 of the 24 lifer hearings so far, out of 63). All of the lifers have been male, and they sit in front of the Board in cuffs, leg irons, and a waist chain. The plea for parole is always the same. The question the Board has is the same too: Will the petitioner be a good candidate for parole?
But from the start of the July 30, 2015 hearing, this was not exactly the case of Patrick Nerette, now forty-three years old, who has served twenty-five years behind bars.
When Nerette appeared before the Board, he said that as a young men he was “angry at the world.” He talked of how he came from Haiti, spoke no English, was bullied, and with problems at home, slipped into crime. Guns were part of his lifestyle; he gave his co-defendent the gun that killed Jean Stranberg, a Dorchester store clerk. He knew her; she used to give him candy because he had no money, and he said he didn’t expect her to be in the store that day. Although he was not the shooter, he was part of the crime, and he was convicted of felony murder.
Nerette turned down a plea bargain when he was a teen because he could not imagine being convicted of a life sentence with no parole. How could any teenager imagine that? And he also said he did not fully understand “joint venture,” the idea that he might be as equally guilty as the boy who pulled the trigger. How shocked he must have been when he heard that the shooter, who took a plea bargain, was released a couple of years ago. Nerette was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life without parole.
In 2012, he found new hope. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision, Miller v. Alabama. Miller said science had proven juveniles were different from adults; they needed a judge’s thorough consideration, case by case, and could not automatically be sentenced to life without a meaningful chance at parole.Then in 2013, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) went further in its interpretation of Miller with the Diatchenko v. District Attorney decision. The SJC struck down all sentences of life without parole eligibility for juveniles. Nerette is one of the sixty-three in Massachusetts’s prisons who, because of retroactivity, are now eligible for parole hearings.
But because of the place where he has been held, a prison where he was sent by the Department of Corrections, Nerette has had little access to programming and to the kind of growth experiences that he needs in order to relearn how to live in the free world. This is in some part because of the DOC. He was not permitted to stay in Massachusetts and sent to a prison that his attorney said made Cedar Junction look like “a day at the beach.”
At the hearing, it was clear that his lawyer knew Nerette didn’t really have a chance of going home to Haiti (even if the Boston Herald reported Nerette “begged” for it in their story above). His life behind bars had been so brutal that his description of a boy who never had a chance evoked an episode of Oz . In that long-running TV show, young men were pulverized if they did not fight back: they were in Nerette’s own words, “marks.” After a violent episode at Walpole, where he knifed another prisoner, he was punished, said his attorney, and sent to the Western Correctional Institution of Maryland in Cumberland, Maryland, near Baltimore. The attorney felt this was a deliberate act by DOC to get him out of Massachusetts because of his behavior.
Board member Lucy Soto Abbe told Nerette he should have “used his words” instead of using a knife. But who is to tell a young man how to survive in a maximum security prison filled with adults? And for that, we have to ask why we send kids to such places at all? What do we expect? The surprise is when children manage to grow into undamaged men and women with hopes and dreams. How can we expect someone so easily to learn to use their words?
Maryland prisons have been written up for their violence by Prisoner Legal News (PLN). In March, 2015, the magazine wrote an article entitled: “Murders in Maryland Continue Despite Reforms.” From PLN: “Prison officials reported that while the number of serious assaults on prisoners dropped 47% from 2006 through 2012, and serious assaults on prison staff fell 65% during the same time period, the number of homicides in 2012 jumped to six – a three-year high – and additional murders occurred in 2013 and 2014.”
Nerette said he can’t live in Massachusetts prisons because “there is a hit out on me.” In Maryland, he has little access to programming because there are not programs available to him, in particular the kinds of programs the Board looks for like Emotional Awareness and Alternatives to Violence. The attorney asked the Board to help Nerette get to another prison that could actually provide him with programs, keep him safe, and reinforce change.
Will he get a second chance this time around? Not in my opinion. Although, no decision has been rendered yet. But was he ever directed and guided and helped? Or was he just sentenced to a place where he had to fend for himself, once again a Haitian defending his territory in a place that divides the world so it can control its charges?
Yes, Patrick Nerette committed a crime, but the way we house people, the places we put them, the kind of expectations we have of change…as the masterful writer Toni Morrison wrote in her latest book, “God help the child.”