With the recent passage of elderly parole reform and other similar provisions in the state of California, parole eligibility is now a fact of life for thousands of incarcerated people.
Thanks to these changes, many people, who were previously destined to serve decades more or potentially die behind bars, could now become free. However, whether they are adequately prepared to take advantage of the new policy is a different question.
Parole is a privilege that has to be earned. However, if the purpose of a Board of Parole hearing is to offer rehabilitated men and women a meaningful opportunity to be released, we must question the institution’s responsibility to prepare their wards for the process. We cannot move the goal post without any guidance and call it equitable.
No system is flawless, but it is our duty to audit the systems that govern our society and improve them, as needed, to better serve the populous.
In the conversations below, prisoners provide insight into the process and offer advice for how to prepare for one’s parole board hearing.
In the spirit of representation and accuracy, I sat down with men of differing ages, races, backgrounds, charges and sentences. These interviews, which appear in a two-part series, have been edited for length and clarity. You can read the second part of the series here.
Editor’s note: In the following interviews, PJP has chosen to use only first names to identify the conversation participants. Their full identities were shared by the writer and are known to us. But, because of the sensitivity of the parole-related subject matter, we have left out last names.
Mikhiel is a 43-year-old white male serving a 110-years-to-life sentence for murder.
Q: Have you been before the parole board yet? If so, can you briefly describe your experience?
M: I haven’t and I’m glad I haven’t yet. I thank God because if I had before, I probably wouldn’t have been ready. It took me a while to come to grips with my actions and sentence. I am preparing to go in 2036.
Q: Do you feel prepared for your parole board hearing?
M: I’m not ready yet. I know what it takes, and I’m not ready yet.
Q: Do you feel you were given adequate timing, resources and explanation of the process for your hearing?
M: I think that we are given a lot more than people previously were. Ultimately, it’s up to you to make sure that you are ready for you. You have to reach out and grab it if you really want it. I’m already reading “36 Strategies for Successful Parole.”
Q: What would you like to be provided with in preparation for your hearing that is not currently being offered?
M: A more comprehensive understanding of what your likelihood of parole is. The decision is made before you go to the board. They’ve already read your c-file [your central file contains all relevant information on an incarcerated person], so they know. It would be easier to communicate and answer questions when you know what they know.
Q: What advice would you give someone preparing for a parole board hearing?
M: Go to the Inmate Leisure Time Activity Group*. They will tell you what you need to know, and you can speak to others in your situation.
Q: Do you believe your board hearing will be fair?
M: It depends on the commissioner. I believe there’s a new rule where the commissioners can no longer come from a law enforcement background. If that’s the case, it’ll give me a lot more of a fair opportunity.**
*ILTAG are support and activity groups run by incarcerated people themselves in California.
** Editor’s note: Commissioners can still come from a law enforcement background according to the 2022 California penal code.
Ronald is a 39-year-old Black man serving a 26-year sentence for second-degree robbery and attempted carjacking.
Q: Have you been to your parole board hearing yet, and could you briefly describe your experience?
R: It was a scary situation. You’re prepared for what you think is a fair hearing for your freedom, but, for me, it was more of an attack on my past self. It’s a hard process to endure. I went before the board with six years and nine months of clean time, which is the length of time I’ve been clear of rules violations and support letters, plus prison rehabilitation program accomplishments. But they gave me a high score on the psychological evaluation [on my likelihood to reoffend], so I was given a three-year denial. It’s an unfair battle.
Q: Did you feel prepared for your parole board hearing?
R: I did feel prepared. I had job offers, support letters and over six years of clean time — the recommended minimum for the California parole board is five years. I also had educational accomplishments, vocational certification, numerous self-help certificates, etc. Yet my high psych evaluation killed my parole.
Q: What was most surprising or difficult about your parole board hearing?
R:The most surprising part was how the board members judged my past behaviors and actions and seemingly ignored all the work I had done to change. It was like my answering questions honestly in my psych evaluation was weaponized against me to make me into some type of monster or psycho.
It’s very difficult to hear people who don’t know you say: “Sorry, we feel you aren’t ready. Come back in three years.” The power over your freedom is determined by someone else’s feelings.
Q: Do you feel you were given adequate resources, training and explanation for your hearing?
R: I was not given an adequate amount of time to prepare for board. Everything was rushed into three and a half months or so. I was not happy with the assistance I received from my attorney. It felt like he was annoyed by my questions and requests for research.
Q: What would you like to be provided with in preparation for your next hearing?
R: I’d like to have more access to our actual c-files, or be given copies of it. I would also like better attorney representation and communication, as well as attorney visits, and better assistance from our corrections counselors in preparation for board.
Q: What advice would you give someone preparing for the parole board?
R:I would first say, focus on your psychological evaluation. Getting a moderate, medium or low finding is the goal. Get clean time — it’s a major factor. Most importantly, have a solid parole plan and know your triggers and how to combat them. This is critical.
Q: Do you believe your hearing was fair?
R: I don’t believe my hearing was fair. I don’t believe the reasons I was denied matched my current state of progress or achievements. My psych evaluation of high likelihood to reoffend was directly contradictory to my actions of six years nine months RVR [rule violations report] free and continuous participation in rehabilitative programs to become my best version of me.
Bart is a 47-year-old white male who has been incarcerated since 1998 for the crime of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 40-years-to-life.
Q: Have you been before the parole board yet and, if so, can you briefly describe your experience?
B: I have only been to my parole consultation so far. I go to the full board on Sept. 14, 2022.
Q: Do you feel prepared for the parole board?
B: At the moment, I do not feel prepared for board. However, in the back of my mind lingers the idea that I will never truly be prepared. I’ve taken the measures necessary to give myself the best chance possible at parole. I’m as prepared as I can be.
Q: What has been most surprising or difficult for you in this process?
B: It has to be the realization that it’s mostly on you to make yourself suitable. The corrections counselors and state-appointed attorneys are a hindrance at best. You have to be proactive and advocate for yourself.
Q: Do you feel you were given adequate resources, timing and explanation for your hearing?
B: I do not feel that I was given adequate resources or explanation of the parole process. Voluntary rehabilitative classes can only teach you so much. Counselors claim not to have knowledge of the process and offer only superficial advice, such as: “Don’t get any write-ups.” The answers are available, but you have to know where and how to find them. I did have plenty of time, however.
Q: What would you like to be provided with in preparation for parole board hearings that is not currently offered?
B: I would like to be offered clear and concise direction from correctional staff on what steps and requirements are necessary for a suitable finding at board. A precise “roadmap to freedom,” if you will.
Q: What advice would you give someone preparing for a parole board hearing?
B: Be proactive. You are your own best advocate. Do everything you can to get in school, vocation and groups. Get in the habit of learning. Take care of your physical and mental health.
Q: Do you believe your hearing will be fair?
B: I have little faith in finding much fairness at my initial parole hearing. But I do believe I will eventually find freedom at some future hearing. I suppose and assume fairness will come along with it at that time.
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.