Thomas “Tahaka” Gaither was out on parole when then-Gov. Glendening of Maryland revoked parole for all persons convicted of a life sentence. Since the late 1990s, Gaither has remained incarcerated—despite once having been deemed fit for release. His story is not unusual for those who’ve experienced Maryland’s parole system. Since 2015, barely half of 523 parole-eligible prisoners serving life sentences have had their cases reviewed, and just 76 have been released. A new study from the Justice Policy Institute, Safe at Home: Improving Maryland’s Parole Release Decision-Making, identifies the problems with the system and attempts to map solutions. Tara Gaither, daughter of Thomas Gaither, and Shekhinah Braveheart, of the Justice Policy Institute, join Rattling the Bars to discuss Maryland’s parole system.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa.
Parole, also known as provisional release or supervised release, is a form of early release of a prisoner where the prisoner agrees to abide by certain behavioral codes of conduct, including checking in with their designated parole officer, or else they may be rearrested and return to prison. This is what parole is in theory but parole looks very different in practice, and I’m speaking from experience.
How does a prisoner get parole? What are some of the barriers? Here to talk about the Maryland parole system is Shekhinah Braveheart from the Justice Policy Institute, who recently published a study entitled “Safe at Home: Improving Maryland Parole Release Decision-Making.” The report examines the Maryland parole system and how it decides to release or deny prisoners parole.
Also joining me in the studio is Ms. Tara Gaither, whose father is currently serving a paroleable life sentence and has been in prison for over 55 years. Thank you for joining me. So let’s start with you, Tara. How are you doing today, first of all?
Tara Gaither: I’m great and happy to be here.
Mansa Musa: Alright. Thank you for coming here on such short notice.
Tara Gaither: You’re very welcome.
Mansa Musa: But let’s talk about your father. Give us a little bit of information about your father before we go into his current state as it relates to parole.
Tara Gaither: My father is Thomas Gaither. He has been incarcerated since he was 19 years old. At the time he was incarcerated, I was barely one year old. I am now 54 years old, so that’ll tell you how long he’s been incarcerated. While incarcerated he obtained his bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Coppin University. He’s had lots of programs where he’s helped inmates learn how to read. He helped inmates learn how to play musical instruments. He was a part of the Family Day Organization, helping incarcerated people be able to see their children at least once a year, not behind the glass or not with a desktop separating them. So he’s done a lot of good things and I’m really proud of my dad.
Mansa Musa: Okay. As you should be. Now let’s talk about his progression because you mentioned some of the programmatics that he’s been involved with. And full disclosure, me and Thomas Gaither were locked up together. He’s commonly referred to by us as Tahaka. So me and Tahaka were locked up together and did a significant amount of time together prior to me getting out. But let’s talk about, at one point, was your father in work release and pre-release and working on the street during the course of his incarceration?
Tara Gaither: Absolutely. My father made it all the way to pre-release, work release. He was at JPRU for a good amount of time but he also rode on a truck, I believe it was through state-use industries, where he delivered furniture to different state office buildings. He did that for a long time.
Mansa Musa: The reason why he was sent back, I think it was ’97 or ’95, then-governor Glenn Denning had sent everyone back to serving a life sentence after someone had killed –
Tara Gaither: His girlfriend.
Mansa Musa: – His girlfriend while he was on pre-release. So he was sent back under Denning. He wasn’t sent back because he had violated any of the conditions of being in a less secure institution.
Tara Gaither: Oh, no. He was sent back basically due to the fact that someone else did something that they shouldn’t have done.
Mansa Musa: Right now, what’s his status in terms of parole? Walk us through that, as much as you know about where he’s at and how long he’s been waiting. If you can.
Tara Gaither: Basically, two years ago he went up in front of the parole board and was told to come back in two years. Then recently, within the last, I’m going to say, six months, he went back up and they did grant him parole but they told him that he needed to have a psychological evaluation. As far as I can tell, it’s been taking about two years, maybe two and a half years to get a psychological evaluation.
Mansa Musa: Okay. And to Shekhinah Braveheart, you heard Tara outline her father’s situation and it is not uncommon. I went up for parole. I had postponed my parole hearing one day. When they sent everybody back from camp, I had postponed mine all the way up until from ’95 to 2015. When I went up in 2015, the only thing they could say to me at that time was, don’t get any more tickets and the last ticket I had prior to that was in ’97. For the audience, restate what the report is and the name of it.
Shekhinah Braveheart: Okay. The name of the report is – This is our new report – And it is “Safe at Home: Improving Maryland’s Parole Release Decision-Making” and it’s based on about five years. JPI researched and analyzed about five years’ worth of data about the Maryland Parole Commission. The data were collected, prepared, and shared by DPSCS. For those who don’t know, that’s the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Also, in developing the recommendations to address the findings, and the findings were not good by the way, we reviewed the latest research, we examined best parole practices in other states, and we talked to a lot of people like the young lady, the family members, individuals who have experienced Maryland parole firsthand, as well as attorneys who assist individuals applying for parole. So no, her story is not surprising and it is sadly common. It is pretty much the norm.
In theory, parole should function as a system of incentives to help incarcerated people prepare for returning to their families, and returning to the community, and it should be a key component to successful reentry. But the study finds that the system conditions people for hopelessness, for despair. People look to the system for guidance in preparing for parole and what they find is more confusion and these arbitrary decisions. She described all the things that her father accomplished. So instead of recognizing how people have changed – They earned a diploma, a degree, did programming, contributed to the wellbeing of all the people around them, all these positive things – A person will get to a parole hearing and all the commissioners want to focus on is the original offense.
Mansa Musa: Right, and let me –
Shekhinah Braveheart: Which, in some cases, was decades old or an out-of-date risk assessment. So instead of parole being the release mechanism that it’s meant to be, it actually clogs the exit and it’s a driver of mass incarceration, as opposed to a mechanism for release.
Mansa Musa: – Now, you said that y’all have been doing this study for five years. Okay, so let’s look at what –
Shekhinah Braveheart: No, it was based on five years worth of information.
Mansa Musa: – Right, five years worth of information. But okay, let’s look at what has taken place once the study came out and what should have remedied this problem in and of itself. Because prior to a couple of years ago, we had successfully, under Walter Lomax’s advocacy, got parole taken out of the hands of the governor.
Shekhinah Braveheart: That’s correct.
Mansa Musa: Ultimately, at some juncture such as in your father’s case, whenever they were recommended for parole, the recommendation would have to be if the parole board said yes, then it would have to go to the governor, and the governor would normally sit on it for like two or three years. Braveheart, let’s examine the study and juxtapose it against Thomas Gaither’s case. Because as his daughter said, he is waiting to go to Patuxent Institute for a psychological evaluation.
Now, in y’all study, how does this play out in terms of when you look at what they have been accomplishing since they’ve been locked up? How does this play out in that regard? Does this take precedence over all the accomplishments that the individuals had, or is this something that’s utilized to validate why they should or shouldn’t get parole?
Shekhinah Braveheart: Okay. By law, the MPC decisions are rendered based on specific criteria. This required criteria. So it’s a number of things. It’s like you said, the risk assessment, drug or alcohol evaluation, victim impact, compliance with a case plan, any progress they made while incarcerated, meeting those educational benchmarks, physical, mental, and moral qualifications. There’s a whole list of things that are in the law.
The problem is, that the law does not specify how MPC should weigh these factors. Keep in mind that most commissioners are former law enforcement officers, so it’s no surprise when they use their discretion on how to consider these factors, they’re going weigh more on the offense than anything, and there’s nothing in the law saying that they can’t do that. So, unfortunately, that is what’s happening.
I want to point this out too, now that you mentioned that her father has been incarcerated for a really long time, and you were incarcerated for a long time. Although that law was passed in 2021 that eliminated the need for the governor’s approval for paroling people with life sentences, many people who were approved by parole are still incarcerated due to the objections of past governors. So of 215 people with life sentences the MPC did consider for parole since 2015. And that’s out of 523 total parole-eligible lifers. Only 76 were granted parole. Then when you think about that 76, then there’s that risk assessment problem, where people are waiting 2-3 years because there’s only one or two clinicians for the entire state of Maryland, so it causes severe delays.
Mansa Musa: Tara, me and you were speaking off camera. You spoke about that, as far as this evaluation. Talk about what you later became aware of about the person who was down there doing the evaluation.
Tara Gaither: There was a person who was doing the evaluations. They actually saw my father twice and declined my father twice but then they ended up being dismissed by the state of Maryland because they found out that he was incompetent.
Mansa Musa: Right. And that goes back to your point, Braveheart, that most of the people involved in this process have a stake in maintaining the status quo. I want to highlight something that you mentioned earlier about the criteria. Now, at one point when we went up for parole when they gave you a decision, your decision was pretty much three lines. Denied parole, come back, get job training.
And at one junction it was a case of Terrence Johnson and Terrence Johnson had 25 years. He had a celebrity case out of Prince George’s County. They were keeping him locked up no matter what he did. But in the end, when his attorneys filed habeas corpus to have him released, as opposed to rule on the habeas corpus, they released him. What came out of that was a sheet that they used for criteria and this is the sheet that they use for when you go up for parole, what they give you.
Going back to your point, Braveheart, this sheet gives you everything: You should do a hearing recommendation, special conditions after release, sex offender treatment, or administrative refuse. But in every category, it gives a reason why to either give you parole or deny your parole. And that came out of the code of Maryland regulations where the parole regulations are stating that you should be given a hearing and then what the hearing should consist of.
I noticed that y’all were showing that in the report how a lot of times the hearings that were being given, all the mechanisms that are supposed to go into account to help a person get parole, y’all had seen where in most cases, it was a lot of arbitrary and capricious factors would be taken into account. Can you speak on those things?
Shekhinah Braveheart: Yes. There were a number of problems. People are not really being adequately prepared because they don’t receive the proper notifications, in cases where they do receive notifications, there’s still no opportunity to prepare outside of a handful of volunteer organizations that go inside prisons that help people prepare for that interview process.
Commissioners the parole hearing officers, come in with a file, and I’m sure you’re familiar with that. They have everything in front of them and they have some things in front of them sometimes that people who are candidates for parole don’t even know about. They can throw stuff at people. The attorneys who have helped them, the individual who is applying for parole, have no way to refute anything that’s erroneous, or at least be prepared to answer those questions because it’s not in the file. It’s not visible to the actual potential parolee or the attorney. That’s deeply problematic. So there’s that preparation issue.
Even back to this risk assessment, their concerns about amplifying racial and ethnic disparities because it’s based on fixed benchmarks like was there a parental presence in your household growing up? How old were they when they got their first criminal offense? Things that have nothing to do with the present and things that people cannot change. You can’t change the way you were brought up. You can’t change what happened when you were 14 years old and you stole that gum out of the store and got a record. You can’t do anything about that. The only thing you could do is deal with the present and be the best person you can now.
That’s why in our best practice recommendations, one of the first things that we talk about is the decision should be based solely on objective factors related to the person’s current state and their future risk to the community. It shouldn’t be about anything else.
Tara Gaither: That’s correct. Actually, in my father’s last risk assessment, the person concentrated on a suspension from school when he was 12 years old.
Shekhinah Braveheart: That’s outrageous.
Tara Gaither: An interaction between him and the school principal.
Mansa Musa: And not only is it outrageous but this is another part that they don’t do right. Now we have this study that’s come out of the Supreme Court about the state of mind of a youth. They’re already saying that a young person doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand decision-making at a certain age. As a result of that, the Supreme Court then came out and said that because the person doesn’t have that informed intent, they have to take that into account when they are sentencing them or when they are trying them.
Now we have an administrative system that says that as opposed to recognizing that Thomas Gaither, Tahaka, has a BA degree and graduated from college, worked on the street – Mind you, for a number of years – Was in society, working on the street, paying taxes, albeit conditional. As opposed to recognizing that Thomas Gaither, Tahaka, has been incarcerated for 55 years, that he’s an accomplished musician, can write, read music, conduct, and all that. As opposed to recognizing any of that, we’re going to say that at the age of 12, he did something that a child did, therefore we’re going to take that and let that supersede these factors. That was going to make the informed decision as far as the criteria are concerned. Is he a safe risk to society? Yes, because he been working in society. Does he have a social network? Yes, he has a family. Is he qualified to return to society? Yes.
Braveheart talk about your recommendations. Talk about some of the recommendations that address some of these draconian dispositions of the Maryland Parole Commission.
Shekhinah Braveheart: Yes. Okay. I’m going to go through some of these best practice recommendations, but first I want to highlight one of the things you talked about that we also found in the report. That is that those individuals who served the most time, they serve more of their sentence than most people and they are over the age of 60. And the research says that crime is a young person’s endeavor. At the age of 40, the likelihood of re-offending drops. 50, it drops. 60 is almost at 0%. No one would re-offend. So her father wouldn’t be a risk to society, to public safety.
But according to our report, those are the people who are denied the most; They have a 28% grant rate which is lower than young adults at 37%, middle-aged at 31-35 years old, that’s 43%, and once you get older it drops. That is the opposite of what the research tells us. The research tells us that those are the people that should be released and those are exactly the people that MPC does not release.
So among our best practice recommendations are, like I mentioned, making parole decisions based solely on objective factors, using a race-neutral structured decision-making tool that incorporates a validated risk needs assessment tool, adopting more transparent parole procedures, and documenting the reasons for denial. And they should be appealable. Really appealable. Now, they’ll claim that it’s appealable but it really is not.
And make it transparent. In that form that you showed, they write one sentence at the bottom of why they deny but it really doesn’t give a legitimate, clear reason why and something to back it up. Also, establishing inclusive standards for parole board member eligibility. As I said, currently most commissioners are former law enforcement or prosecutors.
Mansa Musa: And appointees.
Shekhinah Braveheart: And they’re appointed by the governor and supported by the legislature as well.
Mansa Musa: And Tara, answer this question. First of all, how’s your father’s health?
Tara Gaither: My father had… He’s over 70 years old.
Mansa Musa: Goodness, yeah.
Tara Gaither: He’s got high blood pressure and he’s had a couple of surgeries since he’s been incarcerated. He has the health of a –
Mansa Musa: Of a 70-year-old man that’s been locked up 50-some odd years.
Tara Gaither: – That’s right. He’s sharp as a tack.
Mansa Musa: Oh, we already know that.
Tara Gaither: Sharp as a tack. He loves his family and takes care of his family.
Mansa Musa: Let me ask you this, because you spoke on your age when he was locked up, and this is a part that the parole board doesn’t ever take into account: What role did your father play in your life since he’d been incarcerated?
Tara Gaither: My relationship with my father is solely… I give everything to my grandmother because at the time, if I didn’t have my grandmother willing to come pick me up every weekend and take me to the Maryland State Penitentiary to see my father, then I would not have been blessed as I am to know my father. My father and I have never not had a relationship.
But that is not common. That is not common. The one thing that the state of Maryland does not take into consideration when they do this over-incarceration is that a lot of these men have children. Then what happens to the children? The children end up incarcerated, too. If you are not going to examine the full picture, then you’re doing an injustice to the public. I don’t know what type of person I would have turned out to be, I would not be the successful person that I am without the input of my father, without the family days, without the functions, and without the visits on Sundays.
But there are a lot of people that are in the same situation that I am that were not lucky enough. And my dad has lost his mother. My grandmother is gone. But thank God for my grandmother. There are so many other people out here, women my age, that are incarcerated right now because their mother was incarcerated or their father was incarcerated and they did not have the opportunity to have that relationship. I thank God every day for my grandmother and for the fact that my mother wasn’t the type of mother who said you ain’t going to see him, he ain’t no good, blah, blah, blah. You know what I’m saying?
Mansa Musa: Let me ask you to say – And I’m going to get back to you, Braveheart – I know you would be biased otherwise but do you feel as though, based on what your father has been doing since he’d been incarcerated and based on the person that you know him to be, your father would be a good candidate to be released from prison and be an asset to society, as opposed to a detriment?
Tara Gaither: My father should have been released a long time ago. Even as an old man, he still has a lot to contribute. I have two grandsons who would love to have their grandfather be a part of their life. Even at 70 years old, he’s lived a lot longer than he has left, but we still want him home. We have a whole community. My father has friends that he left on the street who are looking forward to him coming home. My father has lost a lot of friends. He has lost a lot of relatives, brothers, and his mother.
Mansa Musa: I know.
Tara Gaither: When you are a person that is incarcerated, that takes a lot out of you. At the same time, he has strong family values, and we are right there with him, and we are going to fight. I’m not going to allow my father to die in prison.
Mansa Musa: We know that.
Tara Gaither: So with whatever I have to do, we have to fight. Somebody needs to take a bigger look at the full picture and know that when you incarcerate one person, let them be punished and let them do their time, and then let them come home because you’ve incarcerated a whole family. I have two brothers. I have one brother who unfortunately has been incarcerated and I know that if my father had been there a little bit sooner, things would be a whole lot different. I was a teenage mother. That wouldn’t have ever happened if my dad had been there.
Mansa Musa: Braveheart, when you looked at this study, did any of these social factors come into play that she outlined? Because this should be the genesis of everything.
Shekhinah Braveheart: Absolutely.
Mansa Musa: Was any of these things coming into play? They got the relationship with the community, and they got a list of criteria, but based on what Tara was saying, it’s self-evident that these things are not taken into account. Because right now Thomas Gaither is waiting on the part of the parole system that sends them somewhere to be evaluated, and that’s been going on forever. Then to have to wait another amount of time for that decision to come back before they say, oh yeah, instead of going straight home, go over here in this program and progress your way out. Were any of these things from y’all study, did y’all see any of these things taken into account prior to y’all highlighting the fact that they weren’t being looked at?
Shekhinah Braveheart: Yes, absolutely. Both things. We recognize that the destabilization of our communities, our Black communities, is due to mass incarceration. And the same public officials who would talk about all this “get tough on crime.” We only have a choice between mass incarceration and high crime where parole offers alternatives that they haven’t even considered.
They should prioritize comprehensive parole reform to help people who’ve paid their debt to society return home. They’re fully functioning members of society, they lead more effective lives. As she said, her father is a positive role model. I know, Mansa Musa, I know a lot of people. You probably know a lot of people. It increases public safety. We have higher levels of public safety because those same people come home as returning citizens and they dedicate their lives to being mentors and violence interrupters. So we need them.
So Tara, yes, you need your father but we need your father. Our communities need your father. And that’s not what these elected officials really think about when they say “tough on crime.” More than 95% of people who go to prison are going to return to the community, so we should be doing everything we can to help them succeed when they come home and not unnecessarily prolong the process because it’s not healthy for us and it’s at a great personal expense to the individual, to their families, and to taxpayers. It’s expensive, it’s a waste of money, and it’s to no public safety benefit whatsoever.
Before I forget, Tara, I want to say that there’s a medical geriatric parole bill for 2024. It’s called Compassionate Release, and that covers geriatric parole and medical parole, under the geriatric provision, people over 60 years of age would have a parole hearing automatically at 60, and it would be every three years. But it looks really promising this year.
Then of course there is the medical component, which thank God your father doesn’t need, but hence fourth, if this bill passes in 2024 and goes into effect in October of 2024, people like your dad won’t be sitting there languishing with nonsense parole decisions like come back in four years, five years, two years, whatever, or wait for this risk assessment. It’s based on their age and if they have served at least, I’m not sure if it’s 20 or 15 years inside.
It’s long overdue. The number of parole-eligible people over 60 has tripled since 2015. Tripled. So they make up 8% of the newly parole-eligible population.
Mansa Musa: Tara, as we close out, what do you want to tell us about your father? Like I said, full disclosure, me and your father served time together. Me and your father were involved with a lot of activity together. So to say I’m biased, yes I am, in regard to not only him but the men that I served time with and the women that I knew that are still incarcerated. But what do you want people to know about your father? How they can support your father’s effort to expedite his release so he can come home with his family and give you a big hug?
Tara Gaither: I want everybody to know, my dad, he’s a good person. He’s a good man. He’s strong, he’s capable. He can do a whole lot more out here than he can in there. He’s got a lot of support and he’s not a person that anybody would ever have to worry about re-offending or doing anything like that.
The thing is that there’s a big picture and I hope everybody will, especially people in the government, take time to look at the big picture because a lot of times people wonder what’s going on in the street. Why are all these kids in trouble? Why are they doing that, doing this? Find out how the percentage of those children, how many of their fathers are incarcerated, and how many of their mothers are incarcerated. That is a big part of the picture. If my dad couldn’t take care of me, I had somebody that was out there that could but all kids don’t.
We should concentrate on letting people out that need to come out. Some people maybe do need to be there but the big picture is that when you’re incarcerating this one person and you’re keeping them for 55 years and they have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and people out here that love them, it is a waste of money and it’s a waste of time. Ensure that it is time to think about what we’re doing as a whole and not only think halfway.
Mansa Musa: Okay. And Braveheart, what do you have to say? You’ve got the last word.
Shekhinah Braveheart: I’ll concur with her that it is a waste of time, it’s a waste of money, but most of all it’s a tragic waste of human capital, valuable lives that contribute greatly to society. People who have wisened over time who could contribute so much sitting there. I would encourage anybody who is listening to this, or watching this, to connect with either a grassroots advocacy organization or even a larger national advocacy organization like the Justice Policy Institute. Come to Annapolis and tell your stories before these people who are making the laws and who may not have the firsthand experience that you have. They don’t know.
And it’s one thing for me to go there, for my colleagues to go there with all of our numbers and all of our statistics, but it’s more impactful when you come and you marry that with the human experience, that this is what it looks like when you don’t pass these laws. This is how it affects a human being. This is how it affects a family. This is how it affects an entire community, and this is how it affects society at large. No one is immune. No one is unaffected by this.
Mansa Musa: There you go.
Shekhinah Braveheart: So please come and encourage. JusticePolicy.org.
Mansa Musa: There you have it, the real news. Y’all rattled them bars today. Now, we want to focus on what Tara said. We want to focus on the big picture. What is the big picture? We oftentimes hear about a lot of crime and a lot of things going on but what is the big picture?
This is the big picture. When the Unger case came out and I was released, this was the big picture. Prior to them releasing us, they said 250 murderers and rapists were going to have a plague on society. Since we’ve been released, only two people have returned to prison that came out with that Unger class. Two people. What is the big picture? The big picture is that Thomas Gaither, Tahaka, was working in society. Why is that not being taken into account if we’re looking at the big picture? If we look at the big picture, we have a system that’s broken.
Now, the study Justice Policy Institute showed us that it is safer at home, that the decision-making of the parole system is draconian and outdated, and we have to look at the big picture. What is the big picture? The big picture is Tara Gaither sitting here, asking us to support her father. Not only that but to support all men and women that are incarcerated.
And we ask you, as we close out, to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News because it’s only from Rattling the Bars and The Real News that you’re going to get a real conversation, a report, and then humanize the report by having a person whose family member is actually suffering as a result of the draconian parole policies that exist. If not for the Justice Policy Institute, we would not know these things. But for Tara, we would not really be able to understand them in the human context. Thank y’all, and continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News.