Perspectives from Within
In 1978, the Supreme Court of Minnesota wrote, “An inmate who is denied parole suffers a grievous loss.” While most inmates today have determinate sentences and will never know that pain, I suffered my third such grievous loss in February of this year. Three times now, the Commissioner of Corrections has decided against moving my case further along the path to parole. Worse, the continuances between reviews keep getting longer and longer. One could be forgiven for assuming I have done something wrong, some dire disobedience warranting further incarceration. Honestly, I haven’t. Quite the opposite. Unlike an inmate serving a determinate sentence, I have not only had to do my time, but also work hard at demonstrable rehabilitation. The reasons for my parole denials remain obscured because the commissioner can blithely ignore rules without accountability—the first of three major problems with the lifer review process.
Minnesota statutes required the commissioner to create rules governing the review process for the release of inmates serving a life sentence. These rules stipulate the commissioner must explain in writing the reasons for his or her decision, whether parole or continuance. Neither of the two commissioners I have gone before has ever clearly stated why they chose not to grant me parole in the letters they sent me after my review, summarizing the event. Not only have I been left in the dark as to how I fell short of presenting a sufficient case for release and what concerns I need to address, but the lack of a written record shields the commissioner’s decision from scrutiny. There’s no way to investigate whether the decision might be arbitrary, erroneous, or flat-out illegal.
The commissioner must also state in writing actions the inmate can take to alter the date of their release or next review. While each of my letters from the commissioner lists a number of directives I must complete, actually doing so had no discernible positive effect. I was simply ordered to do them – even when the directive called for me to do a defunct or nonexistent program. Still, I have gone out of my way to comply. When told to do the “Criminogenic” class after it was shut down, I wrote a book report on Inside the Criminal Mind. When told to do a class on relationships that has never even been offered, I purchased a relationship workbook, filled it out, and turned it in. There has been no lack of effort on my part, I assure you. Yet at each review, my continuance is longer than the prior reviews. There is no oversight and no one I can appeal to. The willful shirking of rules and shortage of oversight tie into the second major problem—a complete lack of transparency.
The totality of the life sentence review process isn’t just hidden from the public, it’s hidden from the Lifer as well. Police, prosecutors, judges, and victims’ families all get to weigh in on whether a Lifer should be released, but their input is never shared. Since completing directives clearly doesn’t equate to moving forward, frustrated, I once asked what the commissioner really wanted from me. I was told to “figure it out.” In other words, if I was told what to do, I might fool them. The sad irony is that this mindset favors those few sociopathic Lifers who are skilled at manipulation – discerning and telling people exactly what they want to hear. The lack of transparency leaves Lifers like me confused and disheartened, asking ourselves what more can we possibly do?
The third problem is that exaggerated fears and elevated emotions are allowed to hijack rational thinking. Reviews always take place mere hours after the commissioner speaks with victims’ families. Is this a good and fair practice? It must be heartbreaking and take an emotional toll. How could someone remain unbiased in the face of such pain? Couldn’t the same purpose be accomplished with a week or a month between the review and meeting with the families? Wouldn’t a sufficient cooling-off period be prudent? Emotionally compromised, it was all too easy in my reviews to gloss over every positive thing I’ve accomplished in 30 long years, including earning my bachelor’s, completing treatment plus a full year of aftercare, and having a bona fide job offer upon release in a trade I learned in prison. All of the risk assessments compiled by the Department of Corrections put my highest risk of reoffending at less than 2 percent, but this fact was disregarded as was the fact my psychological evaluations have all concluded I’m at a low risk for future violence and there was no reason not to move me toward release. Instead, I was interrogated about what I meant by “soul-wrenching regret” for my crime and whether my release plan was overconfident because I hoped to get my Ph.D. in social psychology within six years of being released. Rather than focusing on rehabilitation and risk, the review was spent nitpicking minutiae.
“At this point, I feel the system itself is broken,” was my friend Quinn’s response. I agree. Unless Minnesotans are prepared to accept a system of “justice for some,” the “lifer” review process must be reformed. Existing rules must be enforced, and accountability established. Expectations must include a set of clearly stated, flexible criteria that can be individualized for each inmate, and a standard by which to judge whether those criteria have been met, such as “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “a strong likelihood.” Police, prosecutors, and judges should be barred from input – their job ended when the inmate was convicted. Finally, how victims’ families are involved needs to change. Rather than retraumatize them, the review process should empower them by allowing them input into selecting criteria for release. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful if they could require an accountability statement from the inmate or answers to lingering questions about the crime that may have haunted them?
The review needs to become part of a larger transitional process aimed at healing the inmate, the victim’s family, and the community as much as possible. A bill is before the Minnesota legislature right now that, if passed, will redirect the power to parole those serving life sentences from the Commissioner of Corrections to an Indeterminate Sentence Review Board. It seems likely this bill will soon become law. Would this be a positive first step? Yes. However, even if it passes, it does nothing to address any of the problems I have outlined here. More must be done and now. I ask you to urge lawmakers to repair and improve this broken system, restrict the “grievous loss” of being denied parole to those inmates who refuse to do the necessary work to change, and let “Justice for All” truly become our state’s guiding corrections philosophy.
J.S. Nemo is at Moose Lake, a medium-security facility.
This commentary was made possible through a partnership with Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
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