Walter Lomax was wrongfully imprisoned in the state of Maryland for 39 years until he eventually had his conviction vacated by a judge in 2006. While he was incarcerated and fighting for his freedom, Lomax worked with other inmates on the long process of lobbying for a bill in the state legislature that would end Maryland’s designation as one of only three states—along with California and Oklahoma—that granted the governor the power to veto parole recommendations made by the parole commission. In December of 2021, that fight finally ended and the Maryland legislature stripped the governor’s power to overturn parole decisions for inmates serving life sentences.
In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway and cohost-in-training Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, speak with Walter Lomax about his incarceration and the long fight to change Maryland’s parole system. After being fully exonerated in 2014, Walter Lomax became the face of the effort to fix the state’s compensation system for wrongfully convicted and imprisoned Marylanders, culminating in the passage of “The Walter Lomax Act” in 2021. He is also the founder and executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that advocates for humane and sensible criminal justice and sentencing policies for those incarcerated long term in Maryland prisons.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling The Bars. For the past 27 years a fight has been waged by a noble comrade to get the governor out of the parole process in the state of Maryland. Walter Lomax started fighting the governor about the lifer parole situation while he was in prison, in jail. He continued once he got out and after 27 years, he has finally won the victory that he was seeking. So Walter Lomax, thanks for joining me.
Walter Lomax: Well, thanks for the invitation, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: Joining me also is my guest co-host Mansa Musa, who’s going to conduct most of this interview. You could say he’s co-host in training. So, Mansa Musa, thank you also for joining me.
Charles Hopkins: Thank you for having me, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: Lomax, can you give us just a small capsule of what the issue really is? Like three governors in the United States of America that still won’t allow – Well now two, thanks to you – That still won’t allow prisoners to be released without their signature. And so Maryland was the third governor, but how did this come about? Can you talk a little bit about Willie Horton and the politics of what happened to you and us?
Walter Lomax: Well nationally, Willie Horton really set the stage for it, that’s to be sure, but people that was… The programs that were still in existence even after Willie Horton continued to exist. Once they got shut down they weren’t reinstituted. I guess the nail in the coffin he had [inaudible] was Rodney Stokes when he committed the murder-suicide that brought us back in that day in ’93. But it had become so political that no – With the exception of Jerry Brown out in California. He allowed individuals to be released, Oklahoma and California. And this is why when we got the legislation passed in 2011, the 180-day rule, they were basing it on California’s system, thinking that since Jerry Brown was letting people be released that maybe that would happen here in Maryland.
In fact, I have a little something I can tell you all now since everything is over with. They had offered us 90 days when the 180-day statute was passed, but we had brought the heat so fierce that we actually thought that we were going to get that legislation passed. Senator McFadden had assured us that he could bring the votes, and what O’Malley did, well, they offered us 90 days. They said we will give you all 90 days, and they called me in, and since I couldn’t call you all on the phone I couldn’t contact any of you all to get a consensus.
I just made an executive call and said, no, we’re not taking it. Because we actually thought we could get it passed, and he went back and said, well, I will accept 180 days. And so that’s how we got the 180 days. So I’m telling you all this now so, y’all can’t come at me because it’s all been done with, right?
Eddie Conway: Yeah.
Walter Lomax: But it was so political and as you know that as soon as the [180-day] rule came effective, O’Malley denied all the 57 cases that were there beforehand, he denied each and every one of them, right?
Charles Hopkins: Well, I want you to… Eddie started at 27 years, but I want you to take us back, as briefly as you can, to when they removed everybody from the camp system and brought you all into the main prison system and ultimately gave birth to your perspective of trying to get a political resolution for our plight. Can you briefly go back to that?
Walter Lomax: As best I can. It took us a moment because when we were first removed in 1993 we actually thought that it was just going to be a momentary process. They were going to reevaluate, take a look at the system and then put us back into the pre-release system. And so it took a period before we actually realized that that was not going to happen. And then when there was a change in administrations, when the Governor Schaefer went out of office and Governor Glenn Dennis came into office, and we didn’t really, I guess, clearly understand what was happening until Glenn Dennis actually made that statement down in front of Maryland House Correction, that he was ordering the parole commission not to send any recommendations to his desk and that to him life meant life. And so from that point, I think – And this was in 1995 – I think we fully understood that we were going to be in a fight, that this was going to be a battle.
And so we first looked at legal and as the cases were being moved through the court. Well, let me digress for just a second. When I was coming home on my [family leave], a delegate, Clarence “Tiger” Davis lived down the street from my dad where I spent my weekends at, and he and I used to talk about this issue, or at least some forms of it, and why the politics should be removed from the process that if an individual see the recommendation, they should be allowed to be released. And we didn’t actually talk then about introducing legislation but it was a part of a general conversation that something needs to be done. And so, because he and I had had those conversations while I was on my weekends, when we were removed back and then realized that there was not going to be a change, we started to seriously think about having legislation introduced. And so he introduced the first piece of legislation for us.
I think it was maybe the General Assembly session for 1996. And he was the only person that sponsored, he didn’t have any co-sponsors, and it really didn’t go anywhere. And so we decided that we were going to use the, I guess, Malcolm, Dr. King approach. They didn’t like Malcolm at all, and the only reason why they accepted King because, not that he was an alternative, but because they felt a little more comfortable with him. And so we launched the legal and the legislative initiative. And once we organized the prisoners, that was the most major thing that we needed to do. In fact, Eddie was in the cut and I was up in Hagerstown and they were somewhat talking about this lifers coalition. And at the time I had an opportunity to be released, to be quite honest, [Fran Cassidy] was representing us, and she said that she could get some of us out. I was one of those people because we had established a liberty interest.
We were in the work release family leave program. We were paying taxes. We were doing everything that a regular citizen should do with the exception of actually being free. But when I looked at that, I encouraged the guys not to try to go that route because there were only 14 of us that were in the work release and family leave program and everybody behind us wouldn’t be able to meet those standards. They wouldn’t be able to reach that bar, in other words. And if they had allowed us to be released for established liberty interest, everybody behind us would’ve been essentially locked in.
So since we could make the best case, legally that is, I encourage them not to go that route. And that’s when the brothers in the Maryland House of Correction began to start to organize and I mean, really, really organize. And we was able to put together lifer coordinators in each institution all around the system, that was back during that time, we were still able to correspond with each other so –
Charles Hopkins: Right.
Walter Lomax: …We had those channels available to us. You were going to say something?
Charles Hopkins: Yeah, no, I want you to, that’s a nice opportunity to segue into what gave you the confidence, though, because I’m in your space with you, we’re doing some organizing up the new jail and we are meeting on the regular about this, but what gave you the confidence to continue along the political process in a state that we know is like, was ultra-conservative, the legislature was ultra-conservative around this issue. What gave you the confidence to pursue it? And even though we know, like you said earlier it’s a collective effort, but everybody put your face on it because you were the most persistent in terms of advocacy. So what gave you the confidence? This is about what gave you the confidence to pursue it?
Walter Lomax: You mean early on or just [inaudible] years?
Charles Hopkins: Overall, because you know, you got out and you took up the mantra before you left. You were instrumental in organizing, but once you got out you took up the mantra and really became like an ipso facto lobbyist for us in Annapolis. So what gave you the confidence to stay focused on this process?
Walter Lomax: I think part of my driving force is that I was one of the seven people that he stood out in front of the Maryland House of Correction. When he made that statement, I was one of the seven people that he denied parole. And I think I realized that we had pretty much done everything humanly possible to be released. And this policy was effectively saying that our sentence has become life without parole. Yeah, that really gave me a lot of incentive to continue with that.
But see now be mindful that I’m still battling two fronts. One is I’m innocent and I can’t get out, and the people that are guilty that have earned the right to get out can’t get out either. And I think along the way it was such a learning process, part of it, you say, what gave me the confidence. When we started to launch our legislative initiative and we realized how many people we could actually mobilize.
And we started talking in terms of proxy voting, things of that nature, where we would have our family members and friends vote for the individual, vote for the candidate that would most support our issue. When we realized how many votes we could actually put together and then exercise our proxy vote initiative, because we started reaching outside of people that were just having the letter. We started also bringing the people that had these suspended life sentences in, and then those people that had what was called virtual life sentences, 50 years or more, whatever the case might be. And we realized, specifically when we looked at the numbers that was involved when Glenn Dennis won the first election, actually, most of us felt that he stole that election from [Ellen Salisbury] during that period, and we realized that we could probably put together, mobilize 10, 15, 20,000 votes.
And if we were to vote as a collective, that’s why the proxy vote initiative became so important. We just realized that in a general election such as that, we could actually determine the outcome. It was a little difficult at that point to really organize our family members and friends because we didn’t really have, we had people on the outside that were doing things, but they didn’t have the wherewithal to actually bring all of our family members and friends together. Salima Marriott was pretty good in bringing them, getting other folk to recognize that they weren’t alone, because she used to host a meeting. But that was still limited.
Eddie Conway: Talk about what this means to those people that are still held behind the bars right now with life sentences that’ve been turned down for parole numerous times. The exception is obviously the [Unger] cases, but the cases that are not Unger cases, what does this victory mean for them and future people that’s going in there with parole or life.
Walter Lomax: Well, and this was a sticking point for me personally, because as you and I know that in 1972, when they instituted the diminution credits toward the first parole here, a person was eligible after 11 and a half years. When we first came in it was 15 years, and then with the diminution credits to 11 and a half years. And so even though nobody was basically being released within that period, they were basically serving well over 15, close to 20 years. So what this means for me is that it added five years to that. Now that wouldn’t affect any of the people that’s already in the system right now, they will still be governed under the previous statute, but everybody that’s coming into the system after that fact, they would have to do 20 years. Where they’ll still be able to earn diminution credits toward the first parole hearing. So that would mean 17 or something like that.
But I had reservations about adding something to that. But the only way we were able to convince legislators to vote for this legislation is by them feeling that, well, we increased the time before they actually become eligible for parole so they had spent a little more time in prison. But what it would mean for people that’s in the system is that all of those people, man, that have been able to get a recommendation that weren’t under Unger have a meaningful opportunity to be released. It’s not a get out of jail free card that’s for sure. You basically would have to do the things that we did while we were in there because the courts obviously wouldn’t have let us go had we not done what we’ve done.
When they looked at the totality of our record they realized that we had actually earned the right to be released. Well, at least a meaningful opportunity to be so, and if the Parole Commission gives that recommendation for somebody who does that it really means a hell of a lot. Now we still have a little bit of work to do. For one the risk assessment is still a problematic and then two, people that will be released on parole will be on a lifetime parole so we are looking at trying to get that maybe to maybe five years or something more reasonable, because we still got people that was released back during the Mandel, Hughes, and Schaefer administration. They’re still on parole. I talked to a guy, Aggy Long’s brother, Porter, this guy had been on parole for over 30 some years, so that’s really unconscionable.
So we have little basic work. And then also see if we can work around getting those folk back in work release and family programs and things of that nature. I personally know the benefits of having that because I was in the program and I had a chance to reacclimate back out before I was actually physically just cast back out into society. In fact, we had a lot of issues, a lot of problems that we had to deal with when the people that were being released under Unger because they were in maximum security institutions one day and we found out that they’re going to be released in a week or two weeks. And then they just throw right out into society. It’s like a culture shock to be quite honest. Now a lot of them would admit that they had issues or problems, but it’s a lot of trauma, man.
I’m just looking at the two of y’all, as I’ve said we… Well, Jack Adam said it was the belly of the beast, but we were in the intestines of the beast, right? So, we know what we went through. And so even though, we’re functioning and but the fact of it is we experienced a lot of trauma in there, man, a hell of a lot of trauma –
Charles Hopkins: Yeah. I agree with that.
Walter Lomax: …But some stuff we may never be able to get rid of, but we may be able to manage it, such as we have.
Charles Hopkins: I just want to say that, we call this Rattling The Bars, and this is a perfect example of rattling the bars. We know when we were in south wing, we were just buying to get the post’s attention about conditions and here, you rattle the bars. You shook the bars, you got people’s attention and then rattle the bars. You got all the people to come aboard and rattle the bars.
So in rattling these bars, we have managed to have an earthquake-type result and the result is that more people are going to get out and more people have hope. And this was the one thing that was lacking when I left out of prison, what was lacking when I left out was it was becoming a hopeless environment. So, when we look back on this here, we can say that hope has been restored, and this is something that’s going to go a long way in terms of the paradigm shift in prison. So rattle the bars.
Eddie Conway: So Lomax, thanks for joining us.
Walter Lomax: It was really, really, really my pleasure. As we were talking, I was thinking to myself, I was saying, this is like we’re standing down on the flat. So we’re down on two yard, having a conversation about, okay, what do we strategize today? What’s going on today? What is it that we need to do? Who do we need to pull?
Eddie Conway: Yeah.
Walter Lomax: This is great, man. It was really great.
Charles Hopkins: A flash, a flash west way.
Walter Lomax: Yeah, yeah.
Eddie Conway: Okay. So thank both of you all. Thanks for joining me for this. Okay.
Walter Lomax: No doubt. No doubt, Eddie.
Charles Hopkins: Thank you.
Eddie Conway: All right. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.