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Monday, July 28, 2014

Newly Appointed Parole Board, Same Old Rejection Letters?

Sic Semper Captivas? (So be it ever to prisoners?)
"He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners... to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:18b-19  

Virginia's Parole grant rate has been at under 4% for years, one of the lowest in the nation. Some of us had hoped that with the governor's appointment of an entirely new board this year (except for the chair) deserving state inmates would finally get a better break.

However, from all I've heard from those inside the system, little if anything has changed. A few of the men with whom I correspond have virtually given up hope for parole release. This includes people who have been model prisoners for many years, have managed to remain free of prison-related offenses for decades, have taken virtually every class and taken part in every rehab program available (in some cases have taken college classes and even earned college degrees), have learned work skills that make them invaluable assets to their respective institutions, and whose prison counselors are actively advocating for them. Yet none of this seems to be making any difference, not even the fact that many parole eligible inmates (those incarcerated before 1995) are in declining health and are eligible for geriatric release.

According to Virginia C.U.R.E., there are currently over 700 inmates in Virginia prisons who are 60 years of age or older, more than half of whom are African-American. Of the above (749),  74 are over 70, and one is 90 years of age. With the recidivism risk for offenders over 60 being at less than 1%, one wonders what purpose is being served by Virginia citizens paying for their incarceration and geriatric care? Try multiplying 700 times the annual cost of keeping older prisoners incarcerated (well over $50,000 a year when medical costs are included) and see what our state could save in a financially challenging time.

Yet the answer is almost always the same. No. After years of going before an official parole board interviewer (prisoners typically do not get to meet with an actual member of the board) the rejection letter they receive typically includes the following:

"... the Virginia Parole Board's decision to not grant parole on (date) is based primarily on the following reasons:

• Release at this time would diminish the seriousness of the crime

• The Board considers you a risk to the community

• Serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s)

• The Board concludes that you should serve more of your sentence prior to release on parole

"While this may not be the answer you hoped for, please continue your hard work. The Parole Board made every effort to balance your rehabilitation needs with the public safety consideration on behalf of the citizens of Virginia."

All of this is stated in what is essentially a form letter signed mechanically with the name of the Board's chair.

How can a decades-long record of exemplary behavior in a state prison, one of the most crime-ridden communities imaginable, be interpreted as a sign that a person will pursue a life of crime upon his or her release? And as to the issue of the "seriousness of the crime", there is of course nothing any inmate can do to change anything about his or her past offenses. The appropriate issue to be considered for parole are how the inmate has done since--i.e., is the so called "correctional system" "correcting" the individual--not whether he or she has been sufficiently punished.

So this is my appeal to members of the Board. Please recognize that when you deny incarcerated citizens any reasonable hope for release who have consistently demonstrated a changed life, you are not speaking on behalf of this "citizen of Virginia". And you are affecting morale inside prison in a decidedly negative way.

As a taxpayer and concerned citizen, I am disheartened and dismayed.

Virginia Parole Board
6900 Atmore Drive
Richmond, VA 23225
(804) 674-3081 

Current members:
- Ms. Karen Brown, chair (former vice chair)
- The Reverend Doctor A. Lincoln James (pastor of Trinity Church in Richmond)
- Mr. Sherman R. Lea (Roanoke City Council member, former VDOC head, Western District)
- Mr. Minor F. Stone (25 years in law enforcement)
- Mr. Algie T. Howell, Jr. (House of Delegates, District 90)
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