LIFERS IN A DYING SYSTEM



THE CHARACTERS WERE:

•    Parris N. Glendening, Governor of Maryland;

•    Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Lt. Governor of Maryland;

•    154 men serving life sentences within the Division of Correction (DOC), State of Maryland, who had achieved pre-release security status--me being one.

BACKGROUND:

    In the years prior to the Glendening/Townsend administration, men with life sentences (not to be confused with life without parole) served time with the hope and possibility of eventual freedom.  Regardless of how heinous their crimes may have been, each man had the opportunity to gradually progress through the system.  Many entered the Maryland Penitentiary as teenagers.  Those who survived maintained an exemplary disciplinary record and exhibited a significant effort toward self-rehabilitation, indeed achieved pre-release security status after having served nearly two decades of their sentences.  After functioning in that least restrictive level of security for a while, parole was a viable likelihood (a second opportunity to function in free society as a productive citizen).

    As of June 1, 1993, there were 154 men, so-called “lifers,” housed in pre-release facilities throughout the state.  These places were quite unlike the Penitentiary--not being surrounded by fences, razor wire, nor guard towers, there was a relative sense of freedom.  Of these 154 lifers, 54 had achieved work-release status and entered the mainstream of society each day, maintained full-time responsible employment, paid taxes plus an average of $100.00 per week from their pay as rent to the DOC, thus contributing to the cost of their imprisonment.  We also earned regular monthly leave privileges and began the process of reestablishing significant roots within communities of the general public.  A number married, fathered and supported children.

    The overwhelming majority of lifers having achieved THAT level of security were not committing infractions.  However, the actions of two lifers in April 1993 were used to rationalize policy changes that affected the 154 who had complied with and succeeded in the transition programs.  It also affected all others serving (or to serve) life sentences, including sentences of life with all but a designed number of years suspended.

THE INCIDENT:

    In April 1993, one Samuel Veeney, a lifer who had gotten to work-release status, failed to return from a weekend leave.  He was subsequently returned without incident.

    Several weeks later, another lifer, Rodney Stokes, did not report to his job assignment.  Instead, he obtained a firearm and proceeded to the workplace of his estranged girlfriend, killed her, then took his own life.

    As you may well be aware, society has adopted an “anti-crime” and “anti-criminal” position.  Virtually all politicians govern based upon society’s current desires and poll readings.  As one would expect, the murder-suicide committed by a lifer while on work release generated a great deal of publicity, and then-Governor William Donald Schaefer decided to arbitrarily return the lifers back into higher security facilities.

    The “check-in” mass movement was orchestrated and executed with Nazi-Gestapo efficiency.  The camps were simultaneously raided on Tuesday, June 2, 1993, whereby squads of DOC officers, with state troopers as backup, converged upon us.  At precisely 12:10 a.m., every lifer incarcerated in the pre-release system was rudely awakened to what would eventually become their ultimate nightmare!  Each found himself surrounded by guards clad in black, in full riot gear and equipped with handcuffs and shackles.  Each man was ordered out of his bed and manacled.  Our logical questions were met with cold silence.  We submitted and were marched out into the wet darkness and loaded into waiting vans without incident.  Virtually all of us were without shirts, most without pants, and some without shoes…many openly weeping.

    The lifers were then transported to various medium- and maximum-security institutions throughout the state.  Those of us taken to the Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI) were paired and placed in cells, cold and damp, under punitive disciplinary conditions.  For the next 36 hours, we remained on lock-down status without the benefit of personal hygiene items.  We were not allowed to gather any personal property when we were removed from camp and none was provided to us.  It would be a grave understatement to say that we were disappointed, and I believe I speak for all when I say that the 36-hour period was spent in shock.  We were disoriented, confused, angry, hurt.  We felt the loss of jobs, separation from and possible loss of families, and wondered what our overall fate would be.  We saw our lives flash before our condemned eyes!  Men who had survived the school of hard knocks and succeeded in the difficult task of achieving the status we had earned and enjoyed now wondered, “Was it all for nothing???”  We were all men convicted of serious offenses--the elite of Maryland’s convicted social deviants, regarded as tough and hardened convicts; yet this ordeal was overwhelming.  We felt such gut-wrenching pain and agony that the only sounds made in the dark cells were the sobs of men who had lost their recently acquired dignity.

    How does a man explain to his children why he wasn’t there to take them to the park that weekend?  “You were being good, weren’t you, Daddy?  If you didn’t do anything wrong, why did they take you away again?”  It’s very difficult to explain to sweet and innocent children something practically incomprehensible.

    Shortly thereafter, we were informed by the respective institutional administrations that the “check-ins” were “merely a temporary safeguard measure.”  It was also implied that after individual evaluations, we would return to our previously earned status.

    The 1994 gubernatorial election resulted in Parris N. Glendening (a mean-spirited man with misdirected political aspirations) and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (a neurotic, not-so-liberal Kennedy who has publicly compared all convicts to the likes of those who murdered her more famous relatives).  Along with them appeared an increasingly harsh attitude toward crime and punishment.  In response to the unresolved plight of the lifers still held in limbo, Glendening chose the new Maryland House of Correction Annex as a backdrop to announce his new and Draconian policy in September 1995, i.e., that no lifer would henceforth progress through the system beyond medium security, nor would he sign or authorize parole for any person with a life sentence!  He further decreed that “LIFE means life and that the Parole Commission need not even send the case file of anyone serving life to him--effectively changing parolable life sentences to life without parole (or death).

THE INJUSTICE:

    I shall not bore you with the laws and statutes that define the fundamental differences between sentences of death, natural life and life.  Suffice it to say that the law does allow the provision of parole to those serving a LIFE sentence, and judges sentenced us with that eligibility in mind.  Maryland governors have previously approved a conservative percentage of lifers’ parole recommendations, and such remains mandatory before parole would actually be granted.  As it stands now, however, the Parole Commission will only render administrative refusals (or set-offs that amount to the same) despite lawful eligibility, because it is understood by the commissioners that the Governor will not entertain recommendations for parole.  When Governor Glendening issued his decree, he condemned all persons sentenced to life sentences…to death!  Thus far, the courts have been petitioned on our behalf to no avail.  A bill was submitted in the state legislature which would have relieved the Governor of the responsibility of reviewing parole recommendations, but it fell on deaf ears.

THE CONSEQUENCES:

    There is a Christian cliché which states, “Where there is life, there is hope.”  For the 154 affected lifers and any other inmate sentenced to life, Mr. Glendening reversed that fundamental human belief.  He in essence declared that “where there is a life sentence, there is NO HOPE.”  It is quite a paradox that most of the 154 lifers having been convicted of some of the most heinous, violent crimes have been model prisoners since they were returned from pre-release security status.  Imagine the pain, disenchantment and emotional distress these men must feel…men who had been living a semi-normal life as long as 8 years…men who sensed a large degree of freedom…only to have it unjustly replaced with a lifelong diet of bitterness and despair.  I had been recently married before that nightmare began.  My new wife and I spent daily phone calls and weekly visits planning a belated honeymoon.  She endured the disappointment of my being returned to prison through no fault of my own for a while, but when Governor Glendening resentenced me to death, reality set in!  She left in despair, abandoning hope of ever being able to have a meaningful relationship of marriage with the man she loved.  She understandably believed she could not have much of a marriage if I would never be released from prison.

    I could convey 50 or more stories to you--stories of men who made mistakes when they were young--but the mistakes made during a few brief moments of irrational fear or rage in no way dispels their general character.  Notwithstanding their past, they followed the rules, educated themselves, paid their debts (and taxes) to the society in which they longed to be productive and permanent parts of…only to have their dreams quashed.  We are literally the walking dead!

POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES:

    It may interest you to know that many DOC officials have not been in agreement with the unjust and controversial policies of Glendening and Townsend.  Perhaps even society in general would be opposed to many if they realized the price and potential consequences.  We, the lifers, and many other interested persons hope that our dreams may once again find some vitality--praying that the current policies will change.  Between 1995, if not 1993, and now, many people have entered the DOC with life sentences and little to no hope, trying to accept the fact that even 20 or 30 years later they will not have any opportunity to progress through the “correctional” system.  Most seem to believe there is not only nothing to gain but nothing to lose.  Prison construction and costs have increased, and practically all related problems are escalating.  Such mismanagement may be related to an increasing number of young offenders being more prone to “hold court” in the streets.  When there is nothing to gain, not even self-esteem, there is nothing to lose.

CONCLUSION:

    Last but not least, I speak particularly for myself and others who were able to feel humane with pre-release status.  We reach out to you now with passion and reasoning for a reversal of the dead-end policies so carelessly and inhumanely imposed by the previous administration.  If you have any concerns or questions that may be answered realistically, rather than being glossed over by those with self-serving political aspirations, please take a close look at the digressions currently in practice and give due consideration to dramatic improvements, thus political accomplishments.  I would welcome any interviews or evaluations which you may deem appropriate.

© Copyright 2003 Charlie Hatfield

The Predator by Charles Hatfield

Lifers, should they get parole?

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