One of the most powerful forces is hope, oftentimes counterbalanced by despair. In the criminal justice system, nothing inspires more hope than the possibility of being granted and being released to parole supervision. On the other hand, nothing drops one so deeply into the depths of despair, having entertained that hope, than to be denied parole.
Having worked with the Coalition for Parole Restoration (CPR) since its inception, about 15 years, a nonprofit whose mission is to resuscitate the parole system in New York, to ensure fair, “nonpolitical” parole interviews for everyone serving an indeterminate sentence in prison, especially “long-termers,” and facilitating successful reentry.
Over the years I have met many remarkable people who have served and are serving long sentences in prison, mostly for murder which, when you don’t think about the television show Criminal Minds, is almost always a one-time crime, not to mention the fact that people convicted of murder, when released, have the lowest recidivism rate of all other people convicted of other crimes.
Through CPR I have received numerous letters from people serving long sentences looking for support letters for their parole applications, and I have written many. In these letters there is a common theme: young people, mostly teenagers when they committed crimes, have been in prison longer than they were free. Granted, they have been convicted of one of the most serious crimes. Nonetheless, having been sentenced to an indeterminate amount of time, e.g., 15 years to life, there is hope, and the possibility of parole. In fact, indeterminate sentences are based on theories of rehabilitation, i.e., that the minimum period of imprisonment (MPI), in the example above, 15 years, would serve the legitimate penological goals of punishment: isolation, deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. In fact, in New York, there’s a tenuous presumption in favor of parole when the MPI has been served, if there is evidence of rehabilitation. This all changed in 1995 when George Pataki became Governor of New York State.
Pataki ran on a campaign that he would restore the death penalty and eliminate parole. None of this, however, could be done Ex Post Facto, that is, people already sentenced prior to these new laws being enacted could not be re-sentenced and sentenced to death and executed or denied parole. The Solution – the “Pataki Rule”: parole commissioners given a directive by the Governor to deny parole to anyone convicted of a violent crime, despite the law, rehabilitation and readiness for parole. The Result – people with indeterminate sentences of 15 years to life have been repeatedly denied parole; some, on this 15-year MPI, have served 40 years and are still waiting to be granted and released to parole supervision.
In The Shawshank Redemption, a short story by Stephen King turned into a movie, there is the theme of hope running through the tall gray prison walls at Shawshank Prison. In fact, the book in which the story The Shawshank Redemption is included, is one of four stories, each falling under a season. Shawshank falls under Spring, as in “hope springs eternal.” People who have and are in prison would tell you that Hollywood got Shawshank right, depicting the hope and despair of people in prison serving long terms, and of course there’s that excellent scene where the Morgan Freeman character gives the parole board a piece of his mind — pure Hollywood!
There is nothing more powerful than hope. There is nothing more debilitating than despair.