for newyorker.com, | November 24, 2021

The Dehumanizing Theatre of the Parole Process

In “The Interview,' directed by Jon Miller and Zach Russo, formerly incarcerated people describe what it’s like trying to convince a group of strangers that they are more than the worst thing they ever did.

Read at newyorker.com

[filmstrip clicking]

[somber music]

Nobody wants to talk about the worst thing they ever did,

all right?

Nobody wants to talk about that.

I tried to go in there and just be honest,

just be honest.

That's that's all, that's all, that's all you can do.

I was hopeful that I was gonna be able to go home,

and be with my son and my mom.

[somber music]

You're being asked to relive a moment

that you probably struggled with for a very long time.

To be very frank, I was like, scared.

I figured it would be hostile.

You sit down and, you know, think about, you know,

what could you say? What would you say?

My worst period of my life would not forever define me.

[somber music]

As a child, my dreams and aspirations were

I wanted to be an accountant.

Numbers fascinated me at one point, and being able

to get paid to take care of other people's money

just was very appealing.

My fiance and I had plans of kind of doing like,

the happily ever after thing.

We were kind of like twins, so to speak, you know.

I thought at that time, you know,

growing up in the 60's, that I would become

the next great Puerto Rican baseball player,

but you know, that dream just kept getting

dimmer and dimmer, until it faded into nothing.

I was convicted of second degree murder,

and my sentence that was 15 years.

18 years.

20 Years.

25 Years.

25 years to life

[somber music]

A patrol car, they actually stumbled on us,

and a gun battle ensued, and the police sergeant took

a shotgun blast in his face,

and he was, he lost his eye, basically.

Did a robbery, and in the course of the robbery,

the two people did get shot,

and two people died, because of my reckless behavior.

I got arrested, because my then boyfriend and I,

both of us were crack cocaine addicts.

We ended the life of my grandmother to fuel our addiction.

And I made a commitment then that that would be it.

I would never hurt another human being.

[somber music]

In '96, when I first went to the parole board,

I felt that I was ready.

I'm anxious.

I'm super nervous, but I'm hopeful,

because reading the guidelines for what can possibly get you

out, or grant you parole.

I was asked to one, do anger management,

two, substance abuse treatment, three, do a vocation,

learn a skill, and four, my time,

the first three of which I completed

before my first five years.

I had a master's degree. I'm a published poet.

I was a published poet by that time.

I had multiple job offers. I was ready to go.

It was around Christmas time, and I said,

I may show up on my wife doorstep for Christmas.

When I first got my denial letter, I was disappointed.

The second time I got a denial letter,

I was disappointed, and I was hurt.

The third time I got a denial letter, I was disappointed,

I was hurt, I was angry.

Went back in 2002, denial again, two years, 2004, 2006,

2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 15.

What could I say? What could I do?

2009, 2011, 2013, with no other justification

than the nature of the crime.

[Anthony] The nature of your crime,

the one issue that you can never change.

Don't matter if you look at this crime 10 years, 20 years,

a hundred years from now, it's going to be the same.

It's gonna be ugly. It's gonna be the same.

[Dave] For the interview, it's impersonal.

They sit you in a room.

There's a big television in front of you.

Three commissioners sitting there,

and you're talking to a television.

And each time right out the gate,

we had a discussion about the instant offense.

Tell me, how do you take the life of somebody

who was always there for you?

Make me understand how it was just so easy

for you to end her life.

My jaw dropped. The tears started flowing.

I couldn't get control of myself.

I couldn't answer his question,

because I was so overwrought with guilt.

At that time, I was with an abusive boyfriend,

so anything he told me to do, pretty much I did.

When he decided he wanted to get more money,

he went into my grandmother's room,

and began to suffocate her.

I walked in to see him doing this,

and was threatened with, if I don't help, my son was next,

who was laying in the bed right next to her.

I spent most of my time crying.

I didn't feel comfortable talking to them, you know?

Most of my hearings just focused on the crime.

We did all that in court.

The judge saw and heard everything

that could possibly be said or heard about it.

That was part of his considerations

when he sentenced me to the minimum.

I had a commissioner named Ferguson twice.

He's a former prosecutor,

and he will conduct the hearing

like he's interrogating somebody.

This guy's doing your hearing, that's very disturbing.

You've come to prison because you were not acting

like a human being on the outside.

Now you're inside. We want you to act like a human being.

Ferguson was a pit bull.

He told you straight up that he didn't like you.

He didn't like what you were in jail for, and if he,

you know, he was straight to the point.

You have some individuals who are very cunning,

who can sit there and BS you for 10 minutes, for 20 minutes,

and tell you everything you want to hear,

and if you don't have the experience,

if you don't have the chops to assess someone

who has perhaps dedicated their life to criminal activity,

someone else may get raped or murdered,

and that's your responsibility.

I look at their demeanor.

I listen to the sound of their crackling voice.

I see, perhaps, tears in their eyes.

Some are true tears. Some aren't.

I asked another commissioner, have you considered the fact

that during my incarceration, I've done X, Y, and Z?

And the commissioner picks up my file, and goes,

Oh yeah, we read all that.

Just flips through it like a phone book.

Like, Yeah, we read all that,

drops it back down to the table,

and looks at me like, okay, now what?

In prison, some of us focus on changing who we are.

You know, we're consumed with helping others make

this same transformation.

And for it not to have any value when you go

to a parole board, no value whatsoever,

that's, it almost enrages you,

that they could be so callous.

[somber music]

You're in on a term of from six months to 10 years

for assault with a deadly weapon?

Yes sir.

[Anthony] The whole parole scheme was first invented

in New York state.

[Questioner] Why is it that you didn't learn

from your first incarceration?

So this is the epicenter for the system,

and yet it's one of the worst now.

[somber music]

I remember a time that parole was a fair system

back in the 80's, but somewhere along the line,

it got into the punishment era.

Nice to see ya. Nice to see ya.

Wanna shake things up here. How are you?

George Pataki practically rode into office

on the backs of guys like me.

[crowd applauding]

I will be putting before the legislature measures

to eliminate parole for violent felons,

violent felons belong in jail.

[applause]

Basically started like, blatantly, just across the board,

denying parole for guys like myself.

[somber music]

During the Pataki administration,

the release rates completely flip-flopped.

If you had, let's say three out of four who came

before the board getting out,

three out of four under Pataki stayed in.

He did an absolutely brilliant job.

The justice system cannot survive the hug-a-thug mentality,

meaning you've had a bad childhood.

Let me give you a hug. Now you can go free.

[somber music]

My kids, they just didn't think

they was ever going to see me out.

Seeing me in prison was it.

There were times when I thought

that I was never going to get released.

I personally know men who are being hit by the parole board,

and they were in their seventies.

If you've been in prison for 20, 30 years,

people are not a high risk to commit murder again,

or to commit arson again.

The research is so clear on this, and has been for years,

What you might've been as an 18-year-old, or a 17-year-old,

or even a 20-year-old is not the person sitting before you

today as a 50-year-old, a 60-year-old, or a 70-year-old.

And we are running geriatric institutions in America

right now, because we're not releasing people.

So people might say,

Oh, you know, you have to let them out.

You have to let 'em out.

That's the only thing that matters. No, it's not.

I have members of the public who feel that

the component of retribution has not been satisfied.

All I could think about what's being able to see my son,

my grandchildren, at least live some semblance of a life,

'cause I grew up in prison.

After the first few boards, I stopped telling my wife

I was going, because it was just messing her up.

You know, she'd get all excited, and get ready

for you to come home, and then you get denied.

After about six boards, I stopped telling anybody

I was going to board. I would just go.

When you open up regularly, and you're denied,

it's kind of bulky, because there's an appeal paper

in there as well, so when I, when I picked it up,

I said, this is light. This is not bulky.

I'm looking in the envelope. I'm trying to feel around.

Make sure, well, is this real? There's no appeal?

There's no appeal papers? No appeal papers?

I look, and it says parole granted,

but when I went to go look at my name, I couldn't read it.

I was so in disbelief

that this could not be happening to me.

I have been waiting for this

for so long, that I had to go ask somebody else,

Do me a favor.

Tell me whose name is on this piece of paper.

Was this real? Was it real?

I felt such a rush come through my body,

like all oxygen left my feet.

[somber music]

In the end, I appeared at 10 parole hearings.

I ended up doing like, double the minimum sentence.

My eligible release date was 1996,

and I was released in 2018.

I had just turned 28 when I was arrested,

and when I was released, I was 66 years old.

[Interviewer] Why do you think

you were eventually released?

I think the determining factor

for me being released was the fact that

a new commissioner was the lead interviewer in my case.

[somber music]

Jose spent his life organizing in prison

to help other people.

Nowhere else believes that you shouldn't be forgiven,

and that you don't have the right to move on

just because you did something heinous

at one fixed point in your life.

[somber music]

I left a lot of good men in prison,

and some passed away, so you know,

this is personal for me.

[somber music]

I have four grandsons.

My biggest thing is I, when I see them,

I hug them for a really, really long time,

and they get to the point where they're like,

Grandma, grandma.

I'm like, Okay, wait a minute, wait a minute. [chuckles]

I think the best part of being out is

I get to be me boldly,

'cause before you be you too boldly, if it's,

even if it's positive,

there's a possibility you could get locked up.

I think the best part of probably being released,

you don't, you know, you're not,

people not telling you to lock in, lock out, you know?

Not telling you when you could eat, you know?

When you could sleep.

Most people don't even know I was incarcerated.

Unless you, unless you tell them,

they don't know you were,

so they treat you like a regular person.

So, you know, I act like I always wanted to be.

I'm the person I always wanted to be.

I'm only better, and I'm getting better every day.

[somber music]