I was in prison twice this week. The two visits proved to me, once again, just how difficult the system makes it for someone to walk out of there. My first visit was to participate in a Public Hearing, conducted by the Michigan Parole Board, to determine whether an inmate should be granted a parole. The second visit was a strategy session to make some legal plans.’
The cases are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Case number one involves an indigent, Hispanic prisoner guilty of his crime. Case number two involves a middle-class white man who is completely innocent.
I was the only person to testify in the Public Hearing for Mr. A. After being in prison for nearly 39 years, friends and family are gone. His wife and mother died years ago. I’ve participated in enough Public Hearings to know that this was going to be an uphill effort. I felt that I should be there for him.
Here’s the thing I don’t understand. The Parole Board members, but more specifically the Assistant Attorney General, spent one hour and 45 minutes trying to get this man to clearly and succinctly state why, at the young age of 18 and completely drunk, his hormones raged out of control and he committed a heinous crime. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find the right words to please them. And then, after battering him for nearly two hours, they spent less than five minutes to cover the fact this uneducated young Latino made it his business not only to get his GED but also to go on and take college courses. He enrolled in all necessary programs, and his prison record is really quite good for 39 years behind bars. In other words, the prison system’s goals seemed to have worked with Mr. A. But I can feel it in my bones. They’re not going to let this poor dude out for a second chance. 40 years isn’t enough! Someday he'll learn his lesson.
Now let’s move on to case number two. Mr. B’s attorney screwed up in the trial. He didn’t sufficiently challenge the junk science used by the Prosecutor to obtain a conviction. As a result, all appeals have been exhausted, and after 15 years this innocent man remains behind bars. I was part of a team of four, including two businessmen and a retired judge, trying to figure out how we can help this well-educated, well-spoken white man get back into society where he belongs. The frustrating thing is, it’s just not easy. Never mind that the man had no priors, never mind that two polygraph tests couldn’t trip him up, never mind that shady junk science was used to put this man behind bars. The truth be damned. Nothing has worked so far!
My experiences this week provide just a little window into a system that badly needs repair and revision.
When all else failed, my friend Maurice Carter, who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, used to say, “We’ll have to leave it in God’s hands.”
And that’s exactly where I am today after these two experiences.