The Parole Board review has been a touchy subject for me. Michigan prisoners serving life sentences come up for review every 5 years, and for parolable lifers it offers a glimmer of hope. It’s an opportunity to face a member of the Parole Board, one on one. For many inmates it has not been a pleasant experience.
We can tell you about some doozies!
I’ve personally witnessed a Parole Board member first verbally abuse a woman accused of killing her husband, then refuse to hear her side of the story, and finally send her back to prison weeping.
The mother of a convicted sex offer, at her son’s side for his Parole Board review, was horrified when the woman representing the Parole Board---in discussing his alleged crime---bluntly asked the inmate why he didn’t just --- (have sex with) the family dog instead!
Prison staff members specifically asked me to represent a lifer in his 70s whose critical health issues nearly resulted in his death, whose medical costs were skyrocketing, and who had experienced a life-changing conversion near the end of his 40 years behind bars. A stubborn Parole Board member refused to give him the time of day because his crime had occurred during an alcoholic black-out, and he couldn’t give specific details. He readily confessed, he just couldn’t come up with the specifics. She shut him down and flopped him, refusing to consider the rest of the issues. He left in tears.
But today, Michigan Parole Board member Brian Shipman proved something: The lifer review can be effectively conducted with civility! I witnessed it first-hand.
In this session, Mr. Shipman actually put the prisoner, an African American who has served over 40 years behind bars, at ease. “Please interrupt me and correct me if I make a mistake in reviewing your case.” What? “You don’t have to use a lot of words in showing remorse…I can see it with your tears.” What? “I’m not going to get hung up on just one misconduct ticket 5 years ago.” What? “If you are granted a Public Hearing, be sure to keep your cool when being interviewed by the Assistant Attorney General. He always recommends ‘no parole,’ but we grant many of them, anyway!” What? “Our time is limited. Before you leave, I want to make sure I have answered all of your questions.” What?
I was impressed by
-the lack of demeaning or derogatory comments
-the presence of actual eye contact
-the absence of even a hint of hostility
My friend James may not get the highly desired Public Hearing…the next step in this process. But he already received a gift from the Michigan Parole Board: civility. This experience proved to me that calm interaction can be effective, arguably more so than the combative manner used by some of the “old schoolers.”
Civility is elusive these days. Way back in Bible times the Apostle Peter encouraged those participating in serious discussions, to “…do this with gentleness and respect.” I’m not always very good at that, but a Parole Board member excelled at it today!
A tip of the HFP hat to the MDOC’s Brian Shipman.