By Steven Gordon
I am in Pennsylvania's overcrowded prison system. I have been waiting for a letter from the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (PBPP) telling me it was going to send me home on supervised parole for the last four months of my sentence. This of course would be to alleviate the prison overcrowding and open up bed space in a system that is somewhere around 8,000 prisoners (about 15%) over capacity. The Department of Corrections (DOC) needs my bed here for somebody else and I am just taking up space.
The letter hasn't arrived yet. Maybe the mailroom is behind sorting all the mail to all of us? I don't know, what else could it be?
Last year I filed a legal challenge against the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. I don't think they (the PBPP) like that -being questioned and all. I did it because I don't accept the reasons for their decisions to deny my parole over and over and this is a democratic society based on checks and balances, or so I thought.
It isn't the first time and I have never been successful as I keep looking for a different approach to the autocratic power the PBPP has. You'd think I would learn but a hard head is.. .well, there is the logical and common sense approach to things and a lot of this doesn't add up to me. I suspect my actions have been used against me as an unwritten retaliatory reason for denial of parole except of course we all know retaliation isn't practiced nor proper use of power (or legal?).
I don't know how parole works in other states but after a parole moratorium here in Pennsylvania last year (triggered by a parolee who killed a police officer in Philadelphia) seemingly little has changed. A study done during the moratorium concluded that our parole system is one of the best in the country and that other states come here to study our system. That isn't too self-serving.
Learning of that finding inmates, as well as some DOC staff, just looked blankly at each other and scratched our heads. Being part of the system and seeing what happens we just don't see how that conclusion was arrived at. But of course we are here and don't know how other states are more dysfunctional.
We go through a process and are evaluated by DOC staff before we have our parole interview. Don't get me going on that process. Some parole decisions, usually the denials, come back quick in weeks. Others can be several months coming back and they still could be a denial. All decisions are final and at the sole discretion of the Parole Board as per Pennsylvania's Parole Act. No decision is open for administrative review by the Parole Board or anyone nor is there any other recourse like a judicial review.
Here is the kicker in this. In the Pennsylvania Constitution in Article V (The Judiciary), Section 9 (Right of Appeal) it is written in part:
"There shall be a right of appeal in all cases to a court of record from a court not of record; and there shall also be a right of appeal from a court of record or from an administrative agency to a court of record of to an appellate court... "
The problem here is you can't get past the Commonwealth Court as it relies on the precedent of Rogers vs PBPP, 724 A.2d, 319 (Pa. 1999) set by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As such any petitions for review from inmates challenging the PBPP and asking for a judicial review on appeal of parole decisions are dismissed Per Curium.
Barack Obama ran on a platform of change. I won't get political but I am pretty sure he was speaking about all kinds of reform. In one of his eloquent speeches he was quoted as saying, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we 've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. " , ,; So where do we go and what is our recourse? Who will help? Who cares?
Recent figures show the number of parole approvals here is upwards of 60%. What the public doesn't know (and what the statistics don't show) is that many of these are still in the prisons. To be paroled you must have a PBPP approved 'home plan' to go to or you are put on a list for a bed in a CCC center (halfway house).
The concept used to be that from the center you can get a home plan and in 90 days or so be on your way and thus make room for someone else. Getting to a center is step one of course but the problem now is that the centers are filled and open beds aren't plentiful. There just aren't enough centers and then there are restrictions for certain offenders. Additionally the centers aren't very evenly located throughout the state and you could be sent to one not near your home area.
So as you drive down the road to parole after you get approved here comes a couple new speed bumps. One is a trend in that approval of home plans is seemingly becoming stricter than before. Thus people are paroled but have no place to go. As far as getting a bed at a center, the new deal is that you have to have a home plan to be on the waiting list. It's a — nice little loophole that keeps people in prison and promotes the business of prisons.
I have a cellie (in his 60's like me) who was reparoled and on a waiting list for a center. He was waiting patiently for a date and then... he was removed from the waiting list and told to get a home plan. He isn't alone and the DOC and PBPP point fingers at each other with no resolution forthcoming to date. A group out of Pittsburgh has written and has plans to file a class action against the PBPP and the DOC on this.1
The thing about home plans is if you have someone who has been in prison for say 10 years and is older and who may have little or no family or outside contacts and possibly no resources (or any combination of those things) exactly how is an approved home plan going to be obtained? Even for a younger person it isn't easy to do from within prison.
These people are now in a position of being approved for parole by the PBPP but they are facing the likelihood of not being released on parole and instead they will max out their sentences. This backs up the prisons of course. Then when the release (max) date comes the DOC and PBPP washes their hands of that prisoner setting him up for failure and/or to be a further burden on society.
Let me go back to and hit on the reasons for parole denials. The reasons are like randomly hitting the Fl, F2, F3, etc. key on the computer keyboard. That is the joke among inmates. You get my drift here? Plain and simple, some of the reasons for parole denials just plain don't make sense. It is such a subjective process and we have covered the angle of challenging parole decisions by the PBPP (and possible retaliation).
Briefly on the retaliation aspect, why else would an interviewer at a parole review ask a prisoner why he has challenged the decisions of the PBPP in the past? Is that a new requirement for parole - to sit back and accept what you don't understand? Is parole supposed to be about being a good soldier and following the rules or does it now include a negative connotation for standing up for yourself and the right to challenge decisions of the PBPP?
Consider the ambiguous "Reports, Assessments and Evaluations" that indicate your being "a danger to the interest of the Commonwealth," as they say. Never have those reports been seen or proved to even be in existence and most DOC counselors will tell inmates that they...well, they don't believe they exist either. Who did these assessments? Where did they come from? One has to question them as being a falsification an official state document, but the court wouldn't hear it because of Rogers.
In a Commonwealth Court decision in Reynolds vs PBPP. 809, A.2d 423, 433 (Pa. Cmwlth 2009) the Parole Board submitted an affidavit that it has guidelines it used to determine a prisoners parole. In that same affidavit the PBPP said in part:
"Nonetheless, the Board avers that it is not bound to follow any recommendations regarding the grant or denial of parole that might appear on the guidelines form, and it adheres to no formal guidelines in making parole decisions. "
So take the case of someone who falls within all the positives of those guidelines. Say a prisoner has completed all his programs, had all good to excellent housing reports, had full institutional support for each parole review, had no misconducts, is the lowest rating level on a new violent offender assessment (OVRT) put in place after the moratorium, had a PBPP approved home plan and had done every program available beyond the required prescribed programs. What does he say to his family when parole is denied?
There was a case written about in the June 2009 Graterfriends (a newsletter published by The Pennsylvania Prison Society) in which an individual came to prison in 2004 on a misdemeanor and he was on parole. He made a mistake and had a drink at home and openly admitted to it to his AA sponsor and said it felt good to be open and honest. When he told his parole officer the article said he was handcuffed and taken away in front of his 11-year-old daughter who was "screaming and crying." The Parole Board gave him 12 months back in prison for that. Is this the attitude we want and are these the kind of people we need to be taking up space in our overcrowded prisons?
"I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice. "
There is a Republican state representative from Philadelphia, John Perzel, who last year proposed that all violent offenders never be paroled. Given the generalization in the classification of what a violent offense is that covers a large portion of prisoners in Pennsylvania. This kind of draconian thinking needs to be eradicated or the building of new prisons will never cease. Is that what the taxpayers want?
It brings up a more dangerous option however. Is it safer and does it present less of a danger to the community to release someone from prison without any supervision or should all prisoners be required to spend some time in a center or on home supervised parole before being totally freed? Of course that brings back the problem of not having home plans approved and the lack of space in halfway houses.
Gov. Swartzenager of California recently said he wanted to spend more money on education that on incarceration. It is a lofty and noble goal because education trumps a lot of things. You know what? I have never heard anyone answer the question of why the United ! i .> i < ; • - - - -• States has more people in prison, by a large margin, than any other country in the world yet we still have crime and the crime rates don't really vary that much. I want to conclude with one last position. There are the outside factors of objections to a prisoner's parole. Why should a judge or a prosecutor have this loophole? They had you in court to exact punishment. In a case I know of a particular ADA objected to parole for five years. In the 'what goes around comes around' category he (and a number of other prosecutors in Bucks County, Pennsylvania) was fired in December, 2009 by the DA-elect, former president judge David Heckler, after 21 years in the DA's office. The new DA told him that he wanted to go in a different direction. 1 will complete my sentence and be released without supervision after 10 years in prison. Without going into my offense, I am not a danger to society. I made those points to the PBPP and the DOC is on my side on this. It fell on deaf ears. The PBPP responds to letters not with answers but form letters. It will say something like "your letter will be put on file and become part of your permanent record." It also asserts that it has sole discretion on all parole decisions and all decisions are final. Nice attitude! Being one to generally say what is on my mind and to take a jab here at things and there I wrote a letter last summer to T. Gary Gambardella in Bucks County, my prosecuting attorney who continually objected to my parole. I thanked him for subverting the parole system and allowing me to go home unsupervised. Then when I saw a newspaper article saying that he was fired at the end of the year I also sent him a congratulations card. It was for his moving on to a new career of course. As for my letter from the PBPP, I don't think it is coming.
footnote:1 Community Justice Project, Don Driscoll, Esq., 429 Forbes Ave., Suite 1705,
Pittsburgh, PA 15219.