For more than 4,200 of us in Florida prisons, the bright hope of parole is like a sweet carrot dangling in front of the cart we are endlessly pulling: We keep moving towards it but we will never quite reach it.
Like many of my fellow inmates, I feel like I have done all that I possibly can to make myself parole-ready. I’ve taken and facilitated class after self-improvement class, worked inside the prison and lined up a post-parole job and a place to live after my parole. But at my last hearing I still wasn’t good enough for the freedom that is a rare reward for capital offenders here in the sunshine state.
That is because the state of Florida has all but obliterated parole for capital crimes. Only those of us who were sentenced for capital crimes committed before October 1, 1995, and who have completed the 25-year mandatory portion of our sentences are eligible for parole — those who came after us are completely out of luck. And of the 4,200 or so of us who currently qualify (out of roughly 95,000 prisoners), only about 15 to 20 are paroled in any year, according to Department of Corrections data. In fiscal year 2017-18, the commission made 1,499 parole determinations and granted parole to 14 inmates. Thirty years ago, the state was paroling almost 4,000 prisoners a year.
Doing the math, that means that fewer than half of one percent of all prisoners are eligible for parole and any one of them only has a 0.004 percent chance of being paroled.
I am surrounded by people who have a decade or more without any disciplinary problems, have completed nearly every program available to them, and have made dramatic changes in their thinking and behavior, but see no clear path to parole.
“The parole process dehumanizes the inmate, not giving them a chance,” said Emily, a South Florida University criminal justice graduate student who completed an internship at the Sumter Correctional Institution Lifers Program. “Parole can only be successful if the procedures undergo repair.”
Here is how the system works — or, more appropriately, fails to work. Once a prisoner becomes eligible for parole, the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR) sets a Presumptive Parole Release Date (PPRD).
Three FCOR commissioners make the ultimate decisions, but they never personally speak to the prisoner. Instead, a parole examiner reviews the prisoner’s pre- or post-sentence report to understand the details of the crime(s) and the classification file compiled by prison officials. The prisoner’s entire prison record is scrutinized, including disciplinary record (DRs), programs attended and completed, educational or vocational achievements, and job assignments.
The examiner interviews the prisoner for about 20 minutes and then makes a non-binding recommendation to the commissioners. Notably, the interviewer does not speak to housing guards or work supervisors about the prisoner. The questions asked of the prisoner vary, but they typically include the prisoner’s view on their crime and what they would say to the commissioners if given the opportunity.
At the interview, the prisoner can submit a parole plan. A good plan includes several options for housing, a resume, a goal outline, a letter to the commissioners, and an outline of program participation and other achievements.
Within 90 days of the interview, FCOR holds a hearing. Among prisoners, it is well known that if you have opposition at your parole hearing, your chances of parole are slim to none. I have heard of at least one case where a judge submitted a judicial objection to parole stating she had no knowledge of the case but opposed parole in all murder cases. Under current rules, that’s enough to halt the parole review.
The prisoner’s supporters have 10 minutes total to speak. The victims or a victim’s advocate and the state attorney are also given an opportunity to speak. The commissioners then render their decision and the prisoner is sent the decision by mail.
Typically, two, three or more decades have passed since the crime occurred, there are few people who can honestly speak to the impact of the crime. Those who have attended hearings report they have seen victim opposition come from family members who were not even alive when the crime was committed. Assistant state attorneys often fresh out of law school attend to speak of the atrocity of the crime and the prisoner’s unsuitability for parole despite having no knowledge of the prisoner’s prison record.
I was sentenced to life with eligibility for parole after 25 years for an offense of first-degree murder that was committed on July 20, 1988.
At my first parole hearing in January 2013, I was recommended to the Lifers Program, a program to assist people with a life sentence. My next interview was scheduled for September 2019 and my next presumptive parole date was set at July 20, 2031. My sister and father, who attended the hearing, said the commissioners had their heads down and were writing as they spoke. My relatives said they felt as though the outcome was predetermined and that nothing they said had any impact on the commissioners.
I completed the two-year Lifers Program, facilitated the corrective class on criminal personality for six years, worked in the prison print shop doing graphic design for six years, and earned 36 certificates for self-improvement classes or for job-related certifications.
At my September 2019 interview, my parole packet included a job offer and three transitional housing options. In December 2019, the Florida Commission on Offender Review cited the certificates as support to reduce my expected parole date by three years, which put it at July 20, 2028, and scheduled the next interview for July 2024.
Prisoners like myself who get a “parolable” date (that is, a date not so far in the future that there is no realistic hope of actual parole) and are sent to a program, getting a small reduction in time and a half-decade set-off is discouraging. You can’t help but wonder if you’re hanging onto false hope.
Reform is a common refrain for those who have attended FCOR hearings or who are subject to its jurisdiction. Emily, the USF intern who attending a hearing and had months of personal interaction with prisoners, suggested more interviews with prisoners as well as with the staff members who interact with them such as a job supervisor because “no knows their threat to society better than those who currently surround them.”
Statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Corrections and the Bureau of Justice Statistics show Florida’s parole-eligible prisoners have the lowest chance of recommitting crime. Their age, amount of time served, and offenses categories put them in the lowest recidivist percentiles. When failures do occur, a technical violation is the most common reason.
Meanwhile most of us do feel remorse. We complete program after program after program, but have no serious hope of probation. As a fellow inmate said, “Being a better person is for me and my family. Parole is like hitting the lottery.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.