No Way Out

Steve Drown

Issue 59

Toward the end of 2006, two prisoners incarcerated at the California State Prison - Solano attempted suicide; one was successful, the other had to be airlifted to a special health-care facility due to the extent of his self-inflicted injuries. Both were life-term prisoners who had just completed or had pending parole consideration hearings before the then Board of Prison Terms (BPT), now known as the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH).

How common is this occurrence within the state's other prisons? And why?

At some point, the 'lifer' can reach the place of feeling hopeless, with no way out. The "Pine Box" syndrome comes to mind as one is repeatedly bombarded with the words, "The only way these lifers will ever get out of prison will be in a Pine Box. (Gov. Gray Davis) ringing in your head day in and day out. These feelings compound themselves until it becomes despair, generated by the belief that you have been deserted by all, your family, friends, the system. The questions most often asked by families are, “Why will they not grant you parole? Have you been lying to us all along?” Trust is gone due to these continuous denials….

He has experienced years and years of broken promises by trusted people in power, who told him "Stay clean and out of trouble, program and make something out of your life in a positive way, and when your time comes, you'll be free to rejoin society and your family.” In my case, having served over 40 years behind these walls, bars and electric fences, I'm still waiting for them to make good on their end.

The courts sentenced "lifers" to terms set by law, which the judges/juries felt were just punishment. Politicians, victims' rights groups, and the correctional officer's union have pushed their own special and separate agenda, which is in direct contrast to a court's action. At what expense to taxpayers?

When a "lifer" appears before the BPT, he is given specific guidelines that he is expected to complete in order to be considered suitable for parole. At the time these guidelines are made by the BPT members (who are appointed by the governor), the "lifer" is given the impression that if he successfully completes the requirements and develops a complete understanding of insight and remorse for the crime he committed,  he will be found suitable for parole, with an expected release forthcoming.

However, after the prisoner completes all the requirements asked of him, he is then either continually found unsuitable for parole or has his parole date revoked for reasons that can never be corrected or improved upon; "the crime." Remember, the facts of the crime can never be changed. There are no “do-overs," just a choice to make a personal change and maybe, someday, make a difference.

This is all part of the rehabilitative process. The desire or impulse within the "lifer" to improve is being taken away by the action(s) of the governor and the administration. Multiple governors over the years have said, “I'm going to let them (the members of the BPH) do their job." Yet, in a majority of instances, the suitability findings are reversed.

Whatever happened to justice or following the dictates of the law? Whatever happened to the aspect and function of rehabilitation within the system? Whatever happened to acknowledging successful self-rehabilitation and the completion of good deeds while incarcerated? Whatever happened to positive programming and working within the system to better yourself? These questions need to be considered while not minimizing the crime in any manner.

Statistics have continuously demonstrated that the rate for first time "murder offenders across the nation to reoffend after release is below 1%, while other violent crimes reoffend at a rate of approximately 85%. Their acts result in victims having to live with what's been done to them for the rest of their lives.

One can spend hours on the topic of corrections and the multiple problems within. However, that's not the reason for this missive. It is, rather, to ask a very important and implicating question: How many find themselves in this dilemma where the only way out is to take one's own life? And more importantly, Why?

Life, in and of itself, is much too short to end it so abruptly. Yet, it's long enough to recover from its many adversities, people have recovered from far worse than incarceration.

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