Rattling the Bars: The Unconstitutional Practice of Life Without Parole
Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Legal Activists and Family members of incarcerated persons advocating for policy that would take the power of parole out of the Governor’s jurisdiction and allow parole boards to make the ultimate decision.
EDDIE CONWAY: I’m Eddie Conway here in Annapolis, at the State House for The Real News.
This is a special edition of Rattling the Bars. We’re here to see what will happen to a bill that’s been put in on behalf of juveniles.
SONIA KUMAR: There are more than 2,000 people whose life with parole sentences, have been turned into life without parole sentences, by virtue of Maryland’s policies. No lifer has been paroled in the last 20 years.
TONI HOLNESS: We are here working on HB-723. It’s a bill that would remove the Governor from the parole process, for people who have been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
SONIA KUMAR: For the last 20 years, Maryland’s lifers have not had a meaningful opportunity for parole. And that’s because Maryland is one of only three states in the country, in which the very last step before someone can be released, is a political step requiring the Governor to approve parole.
TONI HOLNESS: And the result is, that it’s an incredibly politicized process. And so, for almost a quarter of a century, no one who has been recommended by the Parole Commission for parole has actually been paroled, because, as you know, our governors typically have national aspirations, and so, they’re really concerned about allowing someone to be released, and sort of the implications that might follow from that.
EDDIE CONWAY: Is there a point where there’s too much incarceration, and the benefits are lost. And then people become a burden to society, instead of an asset?
MARC SCHINDLER: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. So, I think overall, we incarcerate far too many people, if the goal is public safety.
CURTIS ANDERSON: No governor has done the right thing, in terms of listening to the recommendations of his own parole board, okay? The people who are on the parole boards are some of the most conservative folks of 25 governors. And if they make a decision about a person being on parole, that perhaps he should step down in his security, and perhaps even be released, why wouldn’t we listen to them?
TONI HOLNESS: Maryland’s current practice is actually unconstitutional. And that’s because, the result in practice, our system in which the Governor has to sign off, works out so that someone who’s sentenced to life, with the possibility of parole, such as several folks who were sentenced as juveniles. They’re effectively sentenced life without parole, and that’s unconstitutional.
ETTA MYERS: I was incarcerated for 39 years, eight months, five hours, 24 minutes. You forget the seconds after a while. We are people who thrive on life. We want to progress in life. We want to become successful.
And Etta how many times were you recommended for parole?
ETTTA MYERS: I was recommended for parole a total of six times. I went up for parole a total of nine times.
SONIA KUMAR:: Thank you.
MARC SCHINDLER: And essentially, what we’re doing in Maryland, unfortunately, is our prisons are operating as nursing homes, right? And so what is the point of that? We could care for these individuals so much better, so much more effectively, and so much more efficiently and less costly, in the community. And we should do that.
MICHAEL MILLEMANN: They cost over $60,000 a year because of medical problems, and they pose no danger if they’re released. The recidivism rate — the repeat offence rate for a lifer who’s 25, 30 years in — is very low, to be almost non-existent.
EDDIE CONWAY: One of the things that happened through my decades of being inside is, I worked with a lot of these young people, and they work to mentor the younger people coming into the prison system.
The younger people would listen to them; with respect to what they say, and would maybe get their life together. And that’s really the only kind of rehabilitation program that was going on in the jail system. And do you think those same people can work with young people outside, and reach them and communicate with them?
CARL MARINE: I think the whole thing, in a nutshell, is that we have to have men like yourself, and myself, that’s willing to sacrifice, to bring about that change. If it be to take them to a job appointment, go in the community, mentor those guys, see if they have any family issues that we might help solve that issue. Maybe find them some piecemeal employment. Get him in some educational type programs that’s a benefit to them.
Work with the family structure. There’s a broken family structure that needs help, as well. Then we have the mothers and sisters who’re struggling on their own, they even need some assistance.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, I know you have worked with hundreds of lifers that have gotten out, because of your efforts. Have you seen any benefits from helping to release those people?
MICHAEL MILLEMANN: I think, first of all, the Public Defenders office has been a leader on this. And we’ve been working in partnership with them, and a lot of other folks, and there are enormous benefits. There are obvious benefits to the person who’s released, and his or her family, but a number of these lifers have become counsellors, particularly with youth. They’re working in re-entry programs.
They’re teachers, and advising, they come into schools and they talk to kids about the path they took, and why kids shouldn’t take that path. But many of them have had very useful productive lives that have really benefited the communities in which they live. You are an example what I’m talking about.
And, I’ll say this, when a lot of the lifers who are coming out who went in as young guys, and you were already there, and they were 16, 17, 18, they said basically, they turned to you, and you provided guidance and basically got them on the right path. Now you are a force for positive work with young inmates in prison. So, I respect you for that.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Thank you. Okay now, Sharon, you are at all of these events, at least all the ones that I have been to around the juvenile lifer situation, why are you here?
SHARON MCMAHAN: I’m here in support of my brother Sean Blount. He’s been in prison for 33 years. He’s been locked in here since he was the age of 16. So, he’s done everything. So, we expect for them to do something for him now, when he go up for parole.
So, I’m here to support the bill, because we need the Governor out, so when they do parole him, so he can come home. So, that’s why we here. We gonna stay here until we find out something. We gonna keep going at, it until we get the Governor out.