I spent eight hours with our state’s parole board yesterday.  I sat in on two “Murder Review” hearings, the stated purpose of which is to:  “determine whether or not the inmate is likely to be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time so that the offender’s sentence may be converted to life with the possibility of parole, post-prison supervision, or work release.” 

The individuals in both of these cases were charged with aggravated murder; for both of them the question was whether they could prove themselves “rehabilitatable” so that they might have the possibility of parole at a future date.  One has at least 9 more years to serve on the mandatory part of his sentence before he can even be considered for release; the other is nearly 70 years old and is hoping for a chance to re-connect with family on the outside rather than die in prison.

The circumstance of the cases were quite different, and so were the hearings.  I’ll focus on the first, though, because it raises some difficult moral, ethical, and behavioral questions.  The first man presented over 100 pages of records, proof, and testimony that he has worked hard in his 20-years in prison to change and grow.  He has “programmed” persistently and thoroughly, participating in many educational and cognitive courses and experiences over the years.  His crime was a truly horrifying case of domestic violence – there really is no excuse for that crime and no making up for it, and the man acknowledges that.  Members of the victim’s family came to testify at the hearing, and their grief and pain was readily apparent.  They fear his possible release 10 or more years in the future, and they hope that he will serve natural life in prison.   The district attorney who attended the hearing called this man “a monster” and also asked that he be found “not likely to be rehabilitated in a reasonable amount of time.”

I was very impressed with the members of the parole board.  They had clearly done their homework in preparing for the hearings, and they patiently listened to testimony and took notes for the 8+ hours of these hearings, not even taking a break for lunch.  After the testimony of the inmates and their attorneys, they asked careful, thoughtful, and very probing questions, pushing the inmates to look deeper within themselves to answer the difficult questions.  Being a member of the parole board must be a thankless job – I doubt they get much credit for giving second (or third, or fourth) chances, but they undoubtedly face a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism should a release decision turn out badly.

The decisions will come later after the parole board has time to review and reflect on the evidence presented.  But here is the question: how can and should we judge change?  Even if an inmate has turned his life around in prison, does he deserve another chance at life in the community?  He can’t change the circumstances of his crime, but if he really has changed himself, is that enough?  Should it be?  How much weight should the victims’ fear, grief, and pain hold in parole decisions?  Can we ever really know if an inmate is “rehabilitated” enough or if he is just a master manipulator as the victims and prosecutors believe and claim?  Is it worth the risk to grant even the possibility of parole?

Big questions.  I don’t have any clear answers at this point, but I definitely came away from the hearings with a lot to think about…

home 021Here’s a short and, I think, uplifting story about some of the good work coming out of prisons.  Inmates in the Oregon State Penitentiary just donated $1000 to HOME Youth and Resource Center, a day shelter and drop-in center for homeless and at-risk youth in Salem.  That’s $1000 directly from inmates’ personal funds, where an average inmate may make $50 per month working in the prison.

Nearly a year ago, my Inside-Out class at the penitentiary chose to work as a group to sponsor a hygiene drive for HOME, in hopes of helping homeless teens and ultimately keeping them out of prison.  We were all amazed at the generosity of the inmate population as they donated brand new bottles of shampoo, toothbrushes, deodorant, razors, and socks from their own scarce supply.  As I wrote about in an earlier post,  we were able to deliver more than a dozen boxes of hygiene supplies and OSU tee-shirts to the shelter.  It was a great day.

The Statesman-Journal published an editorial that described our project like this:

Inderbitzin also challenged the 31 participants to “develop a small-scale, doable prevention project that we could put into action before the quarter was over…They came through in a big way,” she said. “There are a number of aspects to their project, but their main focus was to help homeless teenagers in the Salem area.”

OSU students updated a resource guide for homeless teens. These “outside” students also collected new hygiene products from inmates, prison staff members and even the OSU football team. The “inside” students collected a dozen boxes of products from the inmates and prison staffers. The “outside” students delivered the items to a Salem outreach program lastweekend.

Reflecting on the project, one “inside” student said: “Our group took this challenge to heart, and although not every individual agreed on the focus, every individual gave it their best effort. I watched the effect it had, within our class and in the prison, and I’m not ashamed to admit I had misty eyes when I saw the amount of donated goods that poured in from the prisoners. With only 700 jobs — and most with a monthly salary of $50 — these men gave a big chunk of their pay to kids they don’t even know.”

I’m glad to see the guys in OSP kept working all year to help the homeless kids in Salem.  It’s nice to be reminded that some good really can come out of prison.

(photo is an actual picture of the HOME center, where youth proclaim in the window that “HOME Rocks”)

On May 19th, California will hold a special election on several propositions related to the budget (the propositions, among other things, increase some taxes for a short period and divert money from early childhood and school programs to reduce the budget shortfall). Every poll suggests the propositions will fail. In order to increase support for the propositions, Governor Schwarzenegger is releasing his budget early in two versions — one if the props pass, another if they do not. Included in the latter is reportedly a plan to release 38,000 inmates from prison early. This will be the third time the Governor has suggested early release for some inmates — it failed miserably the first two times, largely for political reasons.

It begs the question — how far will the politics of fear get you? Will people vote for higher taxes in order to avoid releasing inmates? Will the voters choose to lay off teachers or release inmates? While these choices needn’t be pitted against one another, the press and the Governor are framing the choices this way.

Several reports also have the Governor proposing to sell San Quentin. Putting aside the apparent contradiction of why we would sell one prison while simultaneously building many more, I can’t help but wonder… do the inmates come with that?

today’s “modern love” column in the new york times is written by a former inmate who, by his own admission, had “eight felonies, and at least twice that many misdemeanors…(had) been to prison five times, all for nonviolent drug and drug-related offenses.”  while the column is about the development of a particular relationship, what i found interesting was the author’s discussion of trying to build any kind of romantic relationship in light of his rocky past.  matthew parker writes:

When I got out of prison in 2002, I was narcotics-free for the first time since I was a teenager, and achingly lonely. Yet I had never had a normal relationship, and I was clueless about how to get myself into one. My 11 years of forced celibacy in prison and decades of drug use had left me inept when it came to women. I sometimes had junkie girlfriends, but junkies rarely find love because their love is the narcotic. Everything else is secondary.

I experimented with various forms of dating, including online, but remained lonesome because most of the women I managed to meet could not come to terms with my past.

this struck me as a piece of the reentry puzzle that may deserve more attention.  i don’t know what the answer is, but i can well imagine the frustration of trying to build relationships after a long incarceration.  if inmates who complete their sentences have “paid” for their crimes, do they deserve a second (or third, or fourth) chance at life and love?  would you be okay with your sister or daughter — or brother or son — dating a former felon?

january will bring new challenges. i will be taking 8 or 9 oregon state university students (all female) into our state’s primary girls’ correctional facility to share class once a week with 8 female inmates. i’ve taught a number of inside-out classes with adult males in the maximum-security penitentiary, and my dissertation research was with violent males in an end-of-the-line juvenile facility, but working with young females will be a whole new experience.

i chose/volunteered to do this for many good reasons, and i am hopeful that we will have a positive outcome for all involved. this facility just reopened in february to house the majority of the females committed to close custody by the oregon youth authority. oya is planning to implement gender-specific programming in the facility, and i am hoping to build strong connections and to get my students involved from the beginning.

the latest news, however, is that eight girls in the facility assaulted and injured three staff members in a premeditated escape attempt. apparently, they staged a fake fight and then attacked the staff members with homemade weapons. the girls ranged in age from 13-17. all three male staff members needed medical attention; one had a head wound that required 32 staples to close it.

i’m not sure what to think of this. strange as it may sound, i feel completely safe in the maximum-security men’s prison, but somehow these teenage girls seem more volatile and more of a risk to work with. it may have something to do with the numbers. i have 15 students in the penitentiary at any given time out of approximately 2300 inmates. the girls’ facility only holds about 70, so to have eight involved in an aggressive escape attempt is to have more than 10% of the population plotting against the staff. i’ll have eight girls in my class, but my girls/young women will presumably be a different eight than those involved in the escape attempt, and it’s likely that most of them will be 18 or older (oregon youth authority can hold young people up to age 25).

it’s a lot to think about before our first class session in january. if anyone has any thoughts or advice for working with this population, i’d love to hear it.

my inside-out class at the oregon state penitentiary this fall was an exercise in engaging in public criminology from the classroom. of course, i would argue that holding the class in a maximum-security prison already makes it a form of public criminology, but this quarter we took our efforts several steps further. along with reading two books, writing several essays, and getting to know students from the other side of the wall (inmates from the penitentiary and college students from oregon state university), the class developed a community service project and wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers.

the focus of the class was on delinquency prevention. i challenged the 31 students to work together to come up with group projects that they could implement in less than 10 weeks. it was a difficult process at times, but they ultimately did a great job. the most visible aspect of the project was a hygiene drive to collect new products (shampoo, toothbrushes, tooth paste, razors, deodorant, gloves, socks, etc.) for at risk and homeless teens. perhaps most impressive given their relative resources, inmates in the penitentiary donated nine boxes of new items they purchased at the prison canteen. we added more donations from prison staff, sociology faculty, and the osu football team; we also bought several more bags of products with money raised by the outside students. 10 of the outside students (in the photo) and i had a great time dropping off the donations at the HOME youth & resource center in salem.

along with the hygiene drive, students went through and painstakingly updated a resource guide for homeless teens. inmates from the class wrote anonymous letters to the at-risk youth, offering their stories and testimonials and encouraging the youth to make the best possible choices in their own lives. the class also created “truth and consequences” templates for table tents that offer facts about crime and sentencing, personal examples, and encouragement to young people; they sent the templates to local high schools in case they choose to use them in their lunchrooms.

finally, this sunday the salem statesman journal devoted most of the space on its opinion pages to our inside-out class, publishing an editorial about the class and our project; excerpts from eight inmates’ letters to the editor; and excerpts from four outside students’ letters to the editor. if you get a chance, check them out. you might be surprised what the guys inside have to add to a conversation about preventing delinquency or the impact of mandatory-minimum sentences.

all in all, i think it was a pretty successful quarter and a good example of bringing public criminology into — or, more accurately, out of — the classroom.

OJ Simpson was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison today for armed robbery, kidnapping, burglary, and assorted other charges. He would become eligible for parole in nine years. The judge specifically said that the sentence did not account for past events, most likely a reference to Simpson’s 1995 acquittal in the death of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. I wondered how his sentence compares to others…

At first glance, data from the US Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on State Court Processing suggests that OJ’s sentence is a long one. For those with a most serious conviction offense of robbery, the mean maximum sentence length ranges from a little less than six years to a little more than eight years, far less than the 15 years OJ was given. OJ’s sentence also seems long in light of his short criminal history, err conviction record. As far as I know, his only prior conviction is a no contest plea in a domestic violence case involving Nicole Brown Simpson and some tax evasion judgments.

OJ also appears to have paid the price for not pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. Convicted robbers who go to trial are sentenced to an average fourteen years in prison while those who plead guilty are sentenced to just over seven years.

Much of the roughly seven year gap in OJ’s sentence relative to the average convicted robber is likely due to the included kidnapping and burglary charges. BJS data doesn’t include information on average sentences for kidnapping but I suspect they are not short but not overly long either (other sources suggest about 3-5 years in most cases) nor does it allow for separation of armed robberies from others. Burglary will get you almost five years in prison on its own. And, being a black male robber as opposed to a white male robber will get you a year more in prison.

Still, I’d bet burglary and robbery often go together and OJ’s sentence is more than double those whose most serious offense was robbery AND had convictions of at least three or more felonies surrounding the same criminal event.

OJ’s sentence doesn’t appear to be improperly long but he certainly wasn’t given any breaks by the court nor did his relatively short criminal record earn him any reductions. In any case, I doubt he’ll have many supporters this time around to suggest that the court treated him unfairly.

this one is personal for me.  philip scott cannon is one of the men i have been working with in my inside-out classes at the oregon state penitentiary.  last week, it was exactly 10 years since his arrest for three murders that took place on a stormy november night in oregon.  scott was convicted based on circumstantial evidence and ballistic evidence that since has been widely discredited (proclaimed “bad science”).  he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  scott has proclaimed his innocence all along; during his incarceration, he has become a thoughtful and influential leader in the penitentiary.  he is an invaluable asset to my inside-out courses, but i would much rather see him out in the community.

in the years after his trial and conviction, a lot has happened.  as reporter thom jensen explains:

Then there is the prosecution’s key witness, Bimla Boyd.

Boyd owned the property where the murders occurred. Two of the victims, Kinser and Osborne, were her personal caretakers.

Since the 1998 murders, two more people have died at Boyd’s home under suspicious circumstances. In 2001, her estranged husband, Charles Boyd, died from a drug overdose.Weeks later, Boyd turned up in a Marion County court with Charles Boyd’s Last Will and Testament, a document that awarded Bimla Boyd everything. The will was witnessed and signed by Boyd’s new caretaker, 54-year-old Robert Daniel Spencer.

In 2002, Spencer died in Boyd’s home from a single gunshot to the head. Boyd was arrested for the murder and pleaded guilty to manslaughter after convincing prosecutors she killed Spencer because he was molesting her 14-year-old daughter. Boyd could be released from prison as early as April 2009.

there’s more to the story, including a witness who casts doubt on bimla boyd’s story but who was never questioned by detectives and never had the opportunity to testify at the trial.  with this additional evidence and renewed attention on the case, scott is hoping for another chance.  as jensen reports:

Right now Scott Cannon is asking for what is called Post Conviction Relief. If the court grants his request, it could overturn his life sentence for a lack of evidence.

But for now, Oregon attorney general spokesman Jake Weigler said his office is sticking to the case against Scott Cannon.

“Before you let somebody out of jail, you want to make sure that they didn’t do it,” Weigler said.

Scott Cannon says he thought you were supposed to prove someone is guilty before you put them in prison.

please follow this link to read or watch the whole story for yourself.  and then let’s all hope for justice.

i’ve been spending a lot of time in the oregon state penitentiary lately. i’m currently teaching my fifth inside-out class and it continues to be an inspiring, rejuvenating experience. it’s amazing how much good will can be generated in a tiny room on the fifth floor of a maximum-security prison where 15 oregon state university students come together with 15 (or so) inmates in order to learn and work together. the inmates in the group are men who are working hard to change their lives and to make their time behind bars meaningful. of the approximately 2300 men in the penitentiary, i’ve selected about 60 to participate in inside-out classes; as such, i’m well aware that i’ve worked with a skewed sample of the best citizens in the prison. we’ve received good press for the program and i’ve been singled out for some honors for my part in the process, but what i appreciate most is knowing that these classes have offered hope and motivation in a place where both can be very hard to find.

this quarter, we’re focusing again on the topic of preventing delinquency, and i’ve challenged the class try to figure out what action(s) they can take to make a difference. they’re trying to come up with small-scale projects that can be implemented relatively quickly and with no budget. a challenge, to be sure.

and so, i’ll offer my own small-scale project as an example. i applied for a “literacy grant” from a national program last year and did not get it. because i thought the idea was a good one, i pitched it to administrators at the penitentiary and they agreed to fund a pilot program (two inmate clubs are also providing funding). it’s a simple enough idea, but it just might make a difference: incarcerated fathers will have a chance to sign up to read the same books as their children. with help from the lifer’s club (and others), we’ll start with a volunteer group of fathers and their children. with help from local librarians and bookstores, i’ll choose age-appropriate, interesting books and give one to the father and one to the kid. reading the same book(s) will hopefully give them another chance to connect, another topic to discuss, whether it’s in person, on the phone, or via mail. the fathers are enthusiastic about the idea; presumably the kids who agree to participate will get on board if we choose good books.

simple, small-scale, do-able. i’m hoping this little program succeeds and grows. i don’t know if it will make a difference, but at least we’re trying to do good and we’re working to translate our good intentions into action.

if anyone has suggestions for the program, for projects for the inside-out students, or recommendations for interesting kid/teen books, i would love to hear them.

California’s prison system is the most over-crowded (170,000 in a system designed for 100,000) and its inmates have the highest recidivism rate (70%) in the country. Why? A public that favors longer sentences, mistrusts corrections officials to make good public safety decisions, and increasing politicization of crime that results in politicians who advocate sentencing reform at their peril.

These constraints have, in part, been taken out of the hands of the public and political system in CA. As a result of class action suits, the prison system here is increasingly in the hands of third parties. Health care of inmates was transferred to a receiver because of widespread problems. In an historic decision, CA awaits the recommendations of a panel of federal judges regarding prison over-crowding.

How might the state respond to orders from the judicial system to change its practices and reduce overcrowding?

Reduce the number of people sent to prison. The options for sending fewer people to prison are limited. As a result of the common use of ballot propositions in CA, some sentencing policies are unavailable to legislative manipulation. Most notably, overturning the well-known Three-Strikes law would require a 2/3 vote by the state legislature – unlikely to occur when almost 70% of Californians voted for it. Policies not hampered by propositions get little traction.

Release inmates early. Governor Schwarzenegger lobbied this but the idea fell by the wayside about 24 hours before his latest budget proposal was released. Opinions differ but I suspect it also has to do with political viability – even if crime doesn’t go up overall with the release of 22,000 low-risk inmates, there is the nagging political (and public safety) problem of the one guy who does something horrible.

Build more prisons. A ($7.8 billion) reform bill that includes substantial funds to build more prisons has been passed but progress has stalled over implementation and budget difficulties.

Supervise parolees differently. The debate now is, quietly, over this remedy. Some of the increase in the prison population is due to an increased likelihood of parolees being returned to prison for technical violations. CA supervises the vast majority of released inmates – by watching them for a shorter period, they will notice less crime. By declining to send parolees back to prison, they reduce the prison population.

I’ll be watching closely – the sociologist in me says that (federal) judges will have a difficult time imposing sentencing reform on a public and political climate that does not want it. On the other hand, it is intriguing to watch a state struggle with these issues when the influence of public zeal for punitive punishment is substantially reduced and a budget crisis is forcing the state to make very real choices between more prison beds and laying off public elementary school teachers. Stay tuned.