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Take a walk through the minefield,
but watch your step.
One false move can result
not only in lost life
or limb, but in lost freedom--
one’s right to self-determination.
Subtle traps are set,
lying dormantly in wait
for the unwitting—
for the weary, transformed traveler
who is faced with a lateral
and uphill battle.

The Minefield

The Minefield—Anthony Andrew Ferguson

Am I a threat to society?It probably depends on whom you ask.That is the million-dollar question. . . which the California Board of Prison Terms is tasked with answering during the parole suitability process. To that end, it is the very strict standards created by these members that determine who should be judged fit for release and when and where.

The Parole Board process was designed for, and has traditionally focused on, prisoners with indeterminate sentences (“x” or “y” years to life).Because I personally didn’t fall into that category, I had never really paid much attention, before now, to the rigors and the tightrope walk that characterize that rough and uncertain road to parole.

But due to the passage of Senate Bill 260 in 2013, which affords many offenders who committed crimes as juveniles (but were tried and convicted as adults), the opportunity for early release through youth offender parole hearings is now available.It is because of this that I have now joined the ranks of those who want to comply with the newly established requirements (accompanied by stringent standards) so that I too can be granted an early parole.

So, just what are the Parole Board’s standards for suitability for parole and what are its expectations for those of us who presently have the distinct and precious opportunity to meet its criteria to earn release?In short, what can one do to be considered safe for society?

The Board wants people to have proven they can stay out of trouble and demonstrate self-discipline while still incarcerated.Furthermore, it wants inmates to learn a viable trade or vocation of some sort that will serve them upon release.

Of great importance for prospective parolees is that they must have obtained insight into why they committed the crime in the first place.In addition, the Board wants to see evidence of remorse and personal growth.

Fair enough, but the Board’s judgement regarding whether an individual has met its criteria is often based solely on the applicant’s past actions--behaviors that do not necessarily reflect that person’s current progress, transformation, and quality of rehabilitation.

Take a walk through the minefield,
but watch your step. . .

For me, once I knew that I had to prepare to make a meaningful and honest show of whatever it is that I was expected to demonstrate, I set about the business of figuring out what was required of me in order to be found suitable for parole--followed by learning how I could go about meeting those requirements.Of course, staying out of trouble had to be at the top of my list of things to do before I could even consider working on other needed changes in my behavior and conduct.

Yet, a strange thing occurs when one is actively trying to stay out of trouble in prison.It seems like when you’re consciously trying to avoid trouble, situations in an environment like ours seem inevitably to crop up.Obstacles seem to present themselves to obstruct one’s path to reaching the ultimate goal.It is like traversing a minefield in which the most innocent-looking situations can sabotage all one’s efforts and lead to the most undesirable possible outcome for inmates committed to demonstrating their level of rehabilitation before reaching the Parole Board.

Should there be a write-up, even for the most minor infraction, the Parole Board looks askance upon the “unacceptable” action.The Board seems always to be looking for perfection so that when a minor offense is incurred, the Board judges the situation without looking at the nuances and subtleties of the issue.Something as simple as using a copy machine to provide interested inmates information on a current event could be an unapproved action which leads to the all unforgiving write-up which also has other repercussions, such as losing certain earned rewards or losing a coveted job (the work which earns the inmate some cash for buying necessities like toothpaste or a warm jacket for the winter—some inmates even send money home to family).One can also lose valuable points which can lead to more privileges and which help facilitate eventual qualification for parole.

In other words, the Board doesn’t seem to care about why the write-up occurred.There is no “self-defense,” no “the officer had it in for me and knew that I was going to the Board.”No.A write-up is a write-up and the way the Board sees it, either you had a write-up or you didn’t—not considering any shades of gray.

One false move can result
in lost freedom,
one’s right to self-determination.

A few years ago a guy left his cell in a hurry to get to work and unintentionally left his hot water pot plugged in, an unfortunate and unintended situation which caused a cell fire.In response, the Fire Marshal came and, under the guise that such pots posed a fire hazard, confiscated in every cell, every hot pot that had been altered for boiling.Upon confiscation, documentation was issued.That one particular man, who had spent years preparing for his parole hearing and whose prospects for being found suitable were good, was denied parole because of documentation in his central file which cited the altered hot pot incident and its confiscation from his cell.

The Board members stated that the man had demonstrated a continued tendency to disregard the rules by altering his hot pot for the purpose of boiling water (a common practice among inmates for cooking food).Never mind that the hot pot in question had been altered years before and had passed countless previous inspections.Never mind that the man in question hadn’t had a disciplinary infraction in many years.Never mind that the documentation noting the confiscation was not meant to be used for disciplinary purposes at all.The Parole Board members saw something that, to them, constituted a demonstration of a continued threat to society and, therefore, denied parole for this otherwise deserving man.

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Subtle traps are set
lying dormantly in wait

Another gentleman that I know hadn’t had a write-up in a decade and it was even longer since his last violent offense.One day while in the visiting room with his wife, the two were showing a little more affection toward one another than a particular guard found appropriate.Nothing outrageous—just the sort of close contact one would see displayed by the average loving couple in public.However, the guard found it necessary to write a 128-A counseling crono (the institutional equivalent of a citation) and had it placed in the gentleman’s central file (quite unbeknownst to him).

During his parole hearing, the Board members mentioned the citation—a statement which took him by surprise.The Board declared him unsuitable for parole, linking the incident (with his wife, mind you) to the infraction of “over-familiarity with staff” (how did “staff” figure into this?) and stating that the behavior demonstrated that the individual had “boundary issues.”

Ultimately, despite his demonstrating extensive insight into the causes of his criminal behavior, a longstanding clean record, various self-help and educational achievements, viable job offers, and plausible parole plans, the Board seemed to be looking for a reason to deny him his rightful parole and so it did!

for the unwitting,
the weary, transformed traveler

The landmines and pitfalls that prisoners face in their journeys toward rehabilitation and freedom are varied and much more numerous than the anecdotes mentioned above.In my own attempts to navigate the minefield of prison life on my way to obtaining the Parole Board’s perception of my suitability, I have not been without my fair share of close calls.More than once have I tread atop a mine which could have officially invalidated my nearly four years of active preparation for my hearing.Thankfully, I’ve been fortunate enough to have avoided such catastrophes—perhaps because of my serious commitment to achieving both my personal growth and

my parole goal.

For me, I have been successful so far, in good part, because of the support I have had and continue to have both inside and outside these all-engulfing walls.Completing the parole process requires years of active support-group participation (in which many, if not most, of the participants have personal experience with the issues addressed):self-analysis; advancing one’s education and completing extensive studies that require detailed written reports; participating in open, non-judgmental discussion groups; anger management; overcoming alcohol and/or drug abuse; dealing with physical, mental, and/or sexual abuse which occurred while growing up at home and in the neighborhood; getting at the root of the problems that paved the way for incarceration; learning how to accept what one has done; learning how to make amends; obtaining the skills to deal with obstacles that one will have to face at all times in life; acquiring a trade or even a degree for a future, meaningful career outside the walls that have confined the prisoner for so long.

So the journey is never-ending.Yet, despite my efforts, the truth is that the Parole Board can simply deny me parole for a seemingly arbitrary reason.

Sadly, I have repeatedly witnessed the effects that accrue for some people who are called to appear at their own parole hearing, people who can’t articulate well enough to be their own advocates—yet there they are.One parole applicant might be very nervous that day and unable to present the insights and signs of personal development that the Board is expecting.It cannot be understated just how nerve-wracking the entire process is.When a candidate has difficulty expressing himself well, the Board (not recognizing that issue) often deems the applicant to have a “lack of insight” into the causes and effects of the actions that condemned him to prison.The reality is that what those Board members are really witnessing is an inmate’s inability to express his ideas and history well enough to convince the Board of his suitability for parole.Such people are denied parole again and again even though they meet every requirement for that determination.For those who are denied (especially more than once), these inmates are left with little hope and can often give up on ever seeing their parole date set.Such people can easily relapse into a state that can only bring them (and others) grief.

who is faced with a lateral

and uphill battle.

The other day I spoke with a man who’s been incarcerated for over 30 years.He’s a native of Mexico and speaks mostly Spanish.He also has difficulty learning, a fact that became apparent to me after interacting with him a few times.Despite this, he makes every effort to satisfy the Parole Board’s requirements, attending self-help groups, staying out of trouble, and making attempts to attain his GED.However, the Board repeatedly denies him his parole, based primarily on past disciplinary write-ups.His last write-up was seven years ago.And for people like this man, who are consistently denied parole despite relatively benign prison records, the Board’s seemingly arbitrary and whimsical criteria for suitability seem particularly cruel when such men see parole granted (inexplicably) to other men with far worse records and more recent disciplinary history.

My observations of the parole process have led me to conclude that, even though the Parole Board’s reasoning often seems counter-intuitive and even unfair at times, there is much reward in the preparation process for that highly prized and coveted parole hearing.There is something very special in having worked so hard and diligently, even when frustrated and impatient, to meet the high expectations of those in charge.As a result of striving to meet the Boards’ criteria, I have acquired many great life skills that I did not have before and have also improved upon many other aspects of my life.

For example, the Board requires a person to understand one’s personal anger and relapse triggers.It is a fact that before actively following the guidelines of the Board, my knowledge of triggers was minimal.However, after studying myself and learning more about what makes me tick, my ability to recognize and monitor my own reactions as well as to understand and empathize with others has made me grow and become a wiser, more insightful person.

Thus, even if all of my preparation and attempts to meet the Parole Board’s requirements for suitability aren’t successful, at least my efforts have made me more effective at navigating and detecting traps in that ever-present, imposing, threatening, and challenging minefield which, if traversed well, has its own rewards.

Anthony Andrew Ferguson