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  February 23, 2016

Rattling the Bars: The Purgatory of Prison, Life With(out) the Possibility of Parole

In this Episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway examines the history and politics behind Maryland's parole system.
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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: In Maryland, 2,100 inmates are serving life with the possibility of parole, over 30 of which were convicted when they were 17 or younger. After 15 years, inmates are eligible for parole, and while this possibility is supposed to promote good behavior, for the past two decades, in Maryland, not a single person has been granted parole, even when approved by the parole review board. On this episode of Rattling The Bars, we want to find out why those parole-eligible inmates remain in the purgatory of prison.

When a judge hands down a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, it's supposed to serve as an incentive for the prisoner to reform. Most prisoners receive a parole date, unless the parole board deemed them an unreasonable risk to society.

Over the past two decades, life, in Maryland, with the possibility of parole, might as well have been a life sentence. But there was a time when Maryland governors approved parole for lifers. The years from 1987 to 1995, Maryland governors approved the parole of almost 100 lifers.

That all changed in 1993, after Rodney Stokes, a convicted murderer from Maryland, killed his girlfriend, and then himself, while in the pre-release work program. Governor Parris Glendening, a Democrat, responded by saying that life is life. Those serving a life term were not getting out. Opposition and victims' rights advocates say that those lifers who get out on parole would just commit crimes again.

Other industrial nations have a fairer and more equitable sentencing process for people with capital offences. Nations such as Norway, Amsterdam, Germany, they put their prisoners in prison for shorter lengths of time. They rehabilitate them and return them back to the community, as opposed to putting people in prison like they do in America, and letting them die of old age.

NICOLE PORTER, DIRECTOR OF ADVOCACY, THE SENTENCING PROJECT: We're guided by the evidence here, and we know that for a person sentenced to life, that recidivism rates are very low. And that is reinforced by several studies that have followed the trajectories of people sentenced for serious offences, including homicide.

CONWAY: Norway, in particular, just had I case in which there was a mass murder, where 77 people were killed. The perpetrator was found guilty and convicted, and received 18 months for each case of murder, and was eligible for parole in 20 years.

HERCULES WILLIAMS, SERVED 42 YEARS: I'm from Baltimore, East Baltimore. I guess it's East Baltimore, since after 42 years the whole city didn't change. But my name is Hercules Williams, and I'm from East Baltimore, Ashland Avenue.

CONWAY: This means many, like Hercules Williams, sat in jail for more than two decades, even after being recommended for release. He finally got out in 2013, only because of a court ruling in a separate case.

You have been going back and forth out in the community, you have been working on a job out in the community, you have been recommended for parole three different times.


CONWAY: The governor didn't sign your papers, even though the court had exonerated you from the murder charge.

Now, why did it take so long for you to get out? Why did it take another 22 years before you got released?

WILLIAMS: Parris Glendening, he was the governor at the time, and he said, "As far as I'm concerned, life means life, and I'm not gonna let no lifers, murderers and rapists out."

And even though I didn't have a murder charge, I had conspiracy to a murder.

CONWAY: Glendening's move was challenged in court, but in 1999, the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld the governor's power to reject recommendations for parole for lifers.

WILLIAMS: And what makes it so ironic, later on in the years that passed, Glendening changed up and said he was wrong. He admitted he was wrong to the whole public. He should have did something other than that. Because a whole lot of lifers qualify today, including myself, because I did everything the system had to offer.

CONWAY: We spoke with another form of prisoner, Weusi Ashanti. Ashanti was in prison from 1969 to 2015, and has been recommended for parole twice during the period, both of which were blocked.

So, you know anything about the Willie Horton issue, the case that caused Governor Dukakis in Massachusetts to lose his presidential bid?

1988 TV AD: Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes; Dukakis on crime.

WEUSI ASHANTI, PAROLED LIFER: It caused, like you said, it caused him to lose his whole president-- election.

CONWAY: And that's an influence of a governor and of the states--

ASHANTI: Not to give up parole.

CONWAY: Not to give up parole.

ASHANTI: Not to give up parole.

CONWAY: And I mean, are all of those other people in the prison system that's got parole to life sentences, are they gonna die because of the politics of Willie Horton?

ASHANTI: Basically, to be truthful about it, the majority of them will. The majority of them will.


ASHANTI: Unless there's something being done about their parole system.

CONWAY: That's why activists have been pushing for a new law in Annapolis that would cut the governor out of the process.

PORTER: Well, there's three states that require the governor to sign off on parole board recommendations following the approval of parole for life sentence prisoners. Those states include California, Oklahoma and Maryland.

DEL. JILL CARTER, D-BALTIMORE: If I were governor, I would not want a decision that I made, to release someone, to backfire in my face to the extent that that person went out and committed a heinous crime, then everyone is saying, "So, it's the governor's fault. The governor shouldn't have allowed the parole."

So really, it should be a blessing to the governor that we would take it out of the governor's hands and take that burden off of the governor. The governor appoints a parole commission, let the parole commission do what the parole commission is designed to do. And taking it out of the governor's hands, really just makes a lot of sense.

CONWAY: On top of that, keeping those eligible for parole behind bars also costs taxpayers an arm and a leg. Maryland spends upward to $38,000 per year to incarcerate prisoners. If the state had freed all those recommended by the parole commission, Maryland would have saved $5.4 million for fiscal year 2014. Meanwhile, it costs far less to supervise a parolee, only about $1,400.

Maryland spends over $288 million to incarcerate its citizens, and over one third of those citizens come from Baltimore city. In those Baltimore communities, residents experience a disproportionate amount of unemployment, truancy, drug addiction, and reliance on public assistance. The majority of these resources have been put in place to lock up black bodies.

PORTER: And overall, because it's such a normative experience in those areas, that affects public safety overall. It leads people to not trust and not have faith in the system in a way that can resolve conflict.

CONWAY: But what would real justice look like for those undeserved communities? Some say money saved by reducing the prison population should fund social programs. That could keep people from returning to jail.

CARTER: I think, again, real reform looks like judging people on an individual basis, not categorizing people based on the nature of the charges or the nature of the crime. I think, actually, that has way too much influence. I think that, also, we care about victims and victims' rights. But to a certain extent, the victims weighing in, or sometimes decisions are made based on the prominence, or lack thereof, of the victims.

CONWAY: How would these reforms stand up to public scrutiny? Let's see. Does it save money? Check. Reduce crime? Check. Make prisons in the community safer? Check. Check. So why are we not pursuing this policy? What it perhaps most clearly comes down to is politics. And unless the politics is removed from the process, the fate of most lifers with the possibility of parole will turn into a life sentence.

I'm Eddie Conway and this is Rattling The Bars.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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