By Tanvi Acharya
When Lorenzo Brooks went for his first parole hearing, he was nervous, but prepared. He didn’t have a lot of the paper work, which people choose to bring as proof of support system outside the prison. He didn’t think he needed it.
“I didn’t go there with a parole release plan, or letters of support, just stood on my record,” Brooks said. “I thought my record was good. The college programs, the credits, my disciplinary record, showed them I was ready to go home.”
But the Parole Board did not see it that way. They denied Brooks parole that day. He attended five more hearings after that, and with each one, he learned more about what the board of parole required of him. And after 10 years, one hearing in every two years, he was granted parole. Though he still doesn’t know what went right in the last hearing.
Preparing for parole hearings is tough for inmates, especially since they don’t know what the board is asking for, parole experts said. But even if someone is as prepared as one can be, they still might not make it, which experts point to as the central structural flaw of the board of parole.
Parolees are left to contend with a system that offers no real clear guidelines for what to do to successfully negotiate the inchoate and politically fraught parole process.
And despite various attempts to improve the system such as the merging of Department Of Corrections and Division of Parole, the Executive Budget Law of 2011, creation of a scientific tool COMPAS, the number of people given parole has still been decreasing over the years.
This chart shows a division of how the crime nature is creating a glass ceiling for inmates seeking parole. The more violent the crime, the less likely they are to be paroled.
In the 1990s, two out of three people who appeared in front of the parole board in New York were granted parole. Now, one in five people get parole, according to a 2016 State of the State report: a trend passed on by Governor George Pataki, who was in office from 1995 to 2005.
In 2009, one out of 10 inmates who were imprisoned for life sentences for first or second-degree murder got parole as compared to three out 10 former drug dealers.
The law dictates that the board look at various factors before deciding whether the inmate is released on parole. That includes the nature of the crime, but it is not limited to it. It also includes factors such as the inmate’s behavior over the years, and their participation in educational and community programs.
But the parole commissioners mainly focus on the crime and speed through the programs they participated in and their community work, parolees say. It’s up to the inmates to bring up their good behavior and the efforts they have made to change themselves since they’ve been locked up.
“It took me six parole hearings to really know what they are doing and what they are asking of me, ” said Brooks.
When the commissioners questioned him during the first hearing, all he could say was “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” He thought they were straight-forward questions.
This is a mistake that many inmates make and it is due to lack of resources for preparation, said Sara Bennett, who helped various inmates get parole over her 12 years as a legal aid.
Bennett emphasizes on the importance of preparation before going in front of the board because it helps the inmate answer questions about their crime clearly and move the discussion to show how they have changed.
But the inmates can’t do this themselves, she said. While there are many peer-led programs, Bennett believes they should have a lawyer who can help them get their point across in the right manner.
That is someone Brooks could have used.
“I didn’t know they were asking me certain questions to get certain responses,” said Brooks. “I didn’t know, but a professional would have known this.”
For instance, when the commissioner asked him if he was on drugs when he committed the crime, he did not know it was actually a veiled question about what he had done about his drug problem while he was incarcerated, he said.
“’I see when you committed this crime, you were high on drugs,’ they asked me this and I said, ‘yes sir I was,’” said Brooks.
But now, Brooks says, having learned the parole board code, he would have replied differently.
“I would have said, ‘yes I did, it was a very foolish mistake because of what drugs do to you and you see what they made me do,’ and convince them that I would never touch drugs again because what I know about drugs today,” he said.
Preparation is the main reason why Bennett thinks lawyers will be helpful to the inmates seeking a successful hearing before the parole board.
“I really believe it is the most important thing since their trial, because it’s about their freedom,” she said. “The last time they got to talk about their freedom was in the court room. And none of those things are done without proper representation and I feel parole is kind of the same,” she said.
Former board of parole chair, Robert Dennison, doesn’t think providing lawyers will change the fact the commissioners give parole to such few people every year.
According to him, the main reason behind the low number of releases is that the commissioners are political appointees, who make their decisions keeping the politicians in mind. Since the board doesn’t have to answer to anyone other than the politicians who appoint them.
If everyone was appointed for a straight-term of six to eight years, he believes it would lead to better decisions from the board.
“A lot of times, they think the Governor might like if I did this, he might not like this,” said Dennison. “They have nothing in it politically to release the person.”
So even preparation can be pointless at times because the board sometimes just looks at the files and has made up its mind, he said.
And that’s what Reginald Goldsmith said he felt took place in his failed hearings before the board. Goldsmith was denied parole six times, despite participating and felicitating in programs meant to help inmates prepare for parole. He finally got parole after one of his worst hearings.
After his first hearing, Goldsmith took classes and then taught on how to prepare for the parole board. He advised other inmates on how to prepare their package, the letters of support they should collect and even the type of body language they should display.
Goldsmith believes the inmates need to be able to talk about the crime they committed, show remorse, tell the board how they’ve changed and speak from their heart, and that’s what he taught.
“The parole board has all the cons, we try to give them the pros,” he said.
Goldsmith said the commissioners often commented on how well other inmates spoke of his program, but every time, when parolees would appear before the board it would interrogate him on the nature of his crime.
Brooks’ last hearing was the longest one he had, around 45-50 minutes while Goldsmith’s was the shortest, lasting between 15-20 minutes. In fact, in that short time, Goldsmith even managed to almost get into an argument with the parole commissioner, forgetting what he had taught his peers.
He said people often asked him why bother preparing if the commissioners have already decided what they are going to do. He said they had to make sure their ducks were lined up in a row, that they were as ready as can be and did not give the board to chance to use something against them.
Dennison admitted there was luck involved in this, and even if the board had made up its mind, the inmate had to prepare because they didn’t know which commissioner they were going to get.
When Goldsmith received the envelope that contained the hearing’s decision, he simply threw it aside. He thought it was heavy, and that meant he didn’t make it, again. So he didn’t look at it for three-four hours.
Once he opened it, he didn’t see the usual appeal paper that should have been on the top. So he thought it must have fallen down somewhere. He kept the envelope aside, and started looking for a piece of paper that wasn’t in the envelope to begin with.
Disappointed that he couldn’t find it, he went back to the envelope again to see how the board had rejected him this time. Only to realize that all the paper work looked different.
“I kept hitting myself, this has got to be a dream, I know this ain’t real. Not after what I just went through,” Goldsmith said. “It was so overwhelming, that was the worst parole hearing with the exception to my first one.”
He said it took me three-four days to accept it. He kept thinking he was experiencing the longest dream of his life.
“When you’ve been indoctrinated in prison for a long time, it’s hard to believe that something good can happen to you,” he said. “Because you’ve been around so much bad, not matter what’ve done it feels like nothing still goes your way.”
Goldsmith said he is relieved to finally be free again. He said he is grateful he has a chance to redeem himself, but he still doesn’t understand why the board took twelve years to see that he had changed.
“There is no consistency with the board’s decisions,” he said. “They let out some people after two hearings, some people who haven’t taken part in any programs.”