Prisoners’ Rights: An Oxymoron?

prisonMore than 100 people of all races and all ages traveled to Watts from several California counties on Saturday May 30, sharing a single desire: Bring our loved ones homes. They weren’t talking about family members serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. These are the families torn apart when someone is sent to prison with an indeterminate sentence that can keep a prisoner behind bars for life.

“Lifer.” I know that sounds like someone who’s one of the “worst of the worst.” But I also have a friend who is facing a life sentence and who I know is not a violent person. And because of the way the charges were written, besides a life sentence he received two strikes—for an incident in which no one was hurt. He is one of approximately 30,000 lifers in California housed at a cost of about $48,000 per prisoner per year. His arrest as a teenager was the first time he’d ever been in trouble with the law. He could not afford an attorney. I can hardly believe his situation is unique and therefore—given the well documented deficiencies in our criminal justice system, what really is the likelihood that he’s the only lifer who isn’t a “monster”?

I knew nothing about the prison system—and didn’t want to know—until my friend was locked up. I knew nothing about the parole system until his hearing was scheduled. And so I’ve come to this meeting at the Bernice Watkins Vision Center to learn more. What I already know is that much of what’s wrong with the system can be explained by the simple fact that most citizens—much like myself—know little or nothing about what happens behind the walls.

A woman from San Bernardino tells us her husband has been incarcerated for 28 years. He’s now disabled, has had 35 surgeries at State expense. “If he were out, he’d have VA benefits,” she says, “and he’d be on my insurance from my job.” Her husband is blind, he uses a wheelchair, and he’s been denied parole.

Most sentences in California are now determinate, or fixed, but life sentences are still indeterminate. Taking many factors into account, a person may be sentenced to, for example, 7 years-to-life, or 15-to-life, or – as in the case of even nonviolent Third Strikers, 25-to-life. Under the law, there is a presumption that the prisoner will be rehabilitated and ready for release after serving the lower number of years. That’s the theory. In practice? After a hearing in front of the commissioner and a deputy commission of the parole board, there’s a recommendation for release in only about 5% of cases. Those cases are then reviewed by the entire board and must be approved by the Governor. The Governor doesn’t like to let anyone go. In the end, 85% of the small number of people found suitable for parole remain in prison.

Martina Olea, for example, has served 22 years on a 15-to-life sentence. If released, she’d immediately be deported to Mexico where her family is eager to receive her. The board has found her suitable for parole five times. Each time the Governor has blocked her release.

Susan Burton who runs A New Way of Life Reentry Project tells about visiting a women’s prison and telling one inmate she’d be welcome to the halfway house. But this woman—who stole two sweatsuits—doesn’t expect she’ll ever get out. Third strike. “That could have been me,” Burton says. “Part of getting sober is that…” She trails off. The bad judgment people show before they get off alcohol and drugs can now mean a life sentence.

Dorsey Nunn is one of the few lifers to make it to the gate. As soon as he finished serving his time, he began to serve his community ever since, starting a drug and alcohol rehab center and working with Legal Service for Prisoners with Children. Like Susan, he is one of the organizers of this Town Hall which follows a similar meeting in San Francisco and will be replicated around the state. “We wouldn’t be calling a meeting if we thought we could individually get our loved ones out of prison. It’s going to take a new kind of voice and a stronger voice. The voice of the families.”

I heard some of those voices:

“They took away our family visits. When I visit him, I have to decide which of our children to take and which ones to leave behind. They won’t let us go in together.”

“I drove more than 3 hours to see my husband with the baby who just had surgery. I’d called ahead to be sure we’d be allowed to see him, and when we got there, we were turned away.”

“The parole board says you need education and vocational training and self-help certificates. But they keep asking for things that aren’t available where my husband is locked up. Why can’t parole requirements match the programs that are actually available?”

“How do we break the cycle of incarceration? We know what happens to children when their parents are sent away.” Flozelle Woodmore knows only too well. A domestic violence victim who killed her abuser, Woodmore served 20 years of a 15-to-life sentence and has now been free for two years but “my son went into prison at 16 just as I was getting out.”

Attorney Keith Wattley of Uncommon Law in Oakland may know more about parole hearings than any other lawyer in the state. It’s an area, he points out, that is rarely taught or even mentioned in law school. His private firm can take relatively few pro bono cases, so he volunteers his time in educating and organizing prisoners’ families. His website includes resources anyone can access explaining the process and giving tips on writing effective letters of support.

He goes over the results of recent litigation. Parole may be denied, he explains, on the grounds that the prisoner “lacks insight.” But how is this determined? Too often through an assessment made by a prison psychologist with little or no contact with the person. This makes me wonder if prison psychologists have—or should have—a code of ethics. “How many of you know about Marsy’s Law, Prop 9?” Wattley asks. Before Prop 9 passed in November, he explains, prisoners denied parole by the board or subsequently by the governor got another chance in one or two years. Now the standard wait is 15 years. The board can choose to set an earlier date for a new hearing, but a wait of at least three years is mandated. A denial today is more devastating than ever.

I have to wonder if voters would have approved the initiative if its provisions had truly been made clear. Marsy’s Law was presented as a victims rights initiative—something most Californians will of course support. I am not in any way denying the pain of victims and their families or the fear they may still live with or to excuse the horrendous acts some prisoners have committed. But the initiative created a system in which not only victims but their “representatives” can speak at parole hearings. The result has been a platform for tough-on-crime lobbyists who now appear before the board to oppose the release of prisoners they don’t know and have no connection with. Under the mandated procedure, their statements (and misstatements) cannot be questioned, challenged, or refuted by the prisoner’s attorney. They are free to make claims without offering any evidence and without the prisoner having any opportunity for rebuttal. The prisoners’ families, friends, prospective employers have no such rights. They are barred from even attending the hearings.

Board members are appointed by the governor, Wattley explains, and within a year of appointment must be confirmed by the legislature. Families must have a lobby, he says. The tough-on-crime lobby is always there to support the confirmation of members who routinely deny parole on the flimsiest grounds. We have to hold the parole board commissioners accountable when their decisions are unfair.

Rarely have I been in a room with so many people so entirely focused and attentive. After Wattley’s presentation, we’re asked “Would you all like to take a break? Or more information?” And more than 100 people in one voice call out “More!”

Attorney Rich Pfeiffer recalls an 8-year period during which not a single prisoner got out. Not one. He worries that many people give up and don’t prepare for their hearings. You still need to get vocational certificates, as much education as you can, he says, participate in as many programs. “If it doesn’t matter, why should I try? Because you want to get it into the record.” Today, most prisoners who do walk out the doors do so through a writ of habeas corpus, successfully challenging the legality of the board or the governor’s action. But it’s an expensive and time consuming suit and few prisoners have the resources to take the governor to court. “Email me,” says Pfeiffer. “Ask me for a sample writ at highenergylaw@aol.com.” He urges prisoners and their families to file the first writ on their own. “Once it gets to Appellate Court, you can ask for an appointed attorney and I want to represent you then. They have to give you one.”

Donald Miller who earned a law degree while in prison points out that the refusal to allow family members at parole hearings is policy, not law, and suggests that families write formal letters to the board with their requests to appear and make personal statements.

Manuel La Fontaine who works with All of Us or None remembers when he was in prison, “still a knucklehead, wanting to be a shot-caller, and lifers came to me and talked sense to me. They saw potential in me, gave me books.”

“We need to act in a civilized, coordinated, strategic way,” Dorsey Nunn concludes. “And we need to organize across all types of lines.” Every race, every class, everyone has to join together. And if racial lines still prevail in California prisons, the message of unity “needs to be carried from the outside to the inside in a real way.”

Some people think “prisoners rights” is an oxymoron, but as I looked around the room, it was clear to me that prisoners from our communities aren’t Them, they are Us. We all need to think carefully when families are torn apart as a group of people is routinely denied basic due process.

To families of lifers who may be reading this, I wish you strength. Organizations that might be helpful to you include (in Los Angeles) Families Against California’s Three Strikes, 213.746.4844 and (in San Francisco) Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (a website with links to other organizations as well).

To other readers, I ask you to add your voices in the name of justice. Let your state representatives know that supporting fairness and reason and holding board members and prison psychologists accountable does not make them “soft on crime.”

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Some prisoners don’t even have the possibility of gaining their freedom someday and so I also urge support of SB 399 – The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act – which would end the practice of sentencing children to life without parole.

As I hear from families, I will be sharing their stories to put a human face on prisoners, their spouses, their parents, their children and to hold our public servants up to scrutiny.

Diane Lefer


Published by the LA Progressive on June 2, 2009
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About Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal; the crime novel Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as "sifting the ashes of America's endless class warfare" and, most recently, her historical novel The Fiery Alphabet, which tells a woman's adventurous life-story against the backdrop of the 18th-century tension between Enlightenment values and religious faith.
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