Steve Gordon:Chasing the Rabbit

This was the front page story of Graterfriends
May 2005, published by The Pennsylvania Prison Society:

Chasing the Rabbit
By Steven Gordon
For most rational thinking inmates, there is a very clear understanding that there is no "right" to parole. Parole has to be earned. We get that! But we are also aware that parole isn't likely the first time up no matter what. This is because that is what the unit managers and counselors tell us and it is a trend. We get that too, but we don't understand it.
Many states, as well as the federal prison system, have provisions for earned good time credit. Pennsylvania, however, isn't that progressive and here we rely solely on the objectivity of our Parole Board.
Our great Commonwealth is a very distinct and dubious first in the U.S. for the average length of confinement per inmate at 69 months. Texas stands a very solid second but nearly 14 months behind us at 55.2 months. That is like Secretariat winning a Triple Crown race by some 23 lengths only in a negative way. Third place is Wisconsin at 35 months.
To emphasize and solidify the statistics, we are neck and neck with the Lone Star state in the average length of sentence leading at 97.2 months to 96 months. When you add in that Texas is first in percentage of population of 20 plus years to life sentences at 35.2% to Pennsylvania's 13.2%, that 69 months is magnified. The figures came from the Correction Yearbook via The Pennsylvania Prison Society.
The question of why begs to be asked. Likewise Pennsylvania taxpayers looking at budget overruns should be questioning the annual cost approaching $1.5 billion for corrections. Does Pennsylvania fail in attempting rehabilitation or are there other reasons?
The DOC puts out the "rabbit" in front of inmates and the choice is given to chase it or not. If you do not, parole is virtually unattainable. Conversely, if you participate in and complete programs and keep a clean record, etc., it gets you prison support for parole and ...
Huh? Denied? Then you are given the 'green sheet' telling you that it is in your best interest that you not be paroled at this time. It seemingly is as simple as that even though each parole review is supposed to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
It leaves everyone scratching their heads in wonder. What exactly does the Parole Board want? An inmate who has a good record, outside community support, and has complied with everything and more that has been asked of him or her, has a difficult time understanding it and explaining it to his family.
What seems to come down on the 'green sheet' is a lack of remorse and some unspecified problems with the required written version of the "nature and circumstances of the offense(s)." Also appearing on the 'green sheet' could be "recommendations of the prosecuting attorney."
William DiMascio, executive director of The Pennsylvania Prison Society, wrote a piece recently about the Pardons Board which seems to operate like the PBPP. In the article he wrote, "The code for too many prosecutors is relentless, unyielding, devoid of compassion and mercy. What a sorrowful existence is theirs who sustain themselves in a sea of retribution." This likely is a prosecutor who has little or no idea of what you have been doing in prison and who may be irritated by some legal filings that have crossed his or her desk that maybe he or she took exception to at being challenged. The point here is the parole board members and examiner don't know much more about you outside of a stack of files and an all too brief "interview" filled mostly with nervous tension in what could be best described as a hostile environment.
Now as to the written version everyone is told to produce, there are no guidelines for this whatsoever. How can an inmate of average intelligence know what to write beyond taking it literally? Thus, there can be, and are, any number of reasons why a version is unacceptable and illiterate alike. It is almost a "can't win" situation for the inmate and a "can't lose" situation for the Parole Board.
Counseling staff here many times throw up their hands and roll their eyes and are without a reasonable explanation. They have a term for many of the things written on the 'green sheets'. They call them "hollow words." All they can advise is for you to continue doing what you are doing (if you have been doing the right things). Program group leaders have been heard to question, "What do they think is going to change in a year?"
There was a memo from Jeffrey Beard, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Corrections, on April 8, 2003 to all superintendents recommending and processing inmates for parole and it was leaked to inmates. I assume the superintendents took it to their staff who are the people who see and deal with the inmates every day and are the ones who know them best.
Bringing this to a close, I offer this question. Why doesn't the word of the prison staff have more weight? The housing officers, work bosses, group leaders, etc. know the inmates, work with them, and it seems their input is minimized where it should be maximized. It is no wonder many inmates feel their fate is decided before they ever have their parole hearing.
Please don't put the "rabbit" out there unless there is a fair chance to catch it. Inmates are running around in circles like greyhounds with no real end in sight, chasing a rabbit that cannot be caught. But the implications reach further than that; new inmates coming in see what is happening and that there is no incentive for them to try to better themselves or to work to make parole. The issue of parole has to be more of a team effort and not the seemingly autocratic process currently being practiced.
One final thought to ponder here is if the current system is so good, why are there so many people on the weekly busses coming back as parole violators, again and again? No system is perfect, nor will it ever be, but we can never stagnate in pursuing perfection and betterment of things.
It is time for a change. It's time to let the "rabbit" be caught by the ones who work for it.
Author's note: A lot has gone by since 2005 when this was written and published but the basics of the problem still exist. When the article appeared some staff saw it and told me I was right on with my points and they were glad I said what they could not say (publically). The article was written after my first parole denial when I was 100% program compliant, had prison support, had good to excellent work and housing reports, had no misconducts, and had an approved place to live (a 'home plan') by the Parole Board. I was frustrated and confused but not without a perspective. Since then I have received four more parole denials and I will complete my 5-10 year sentence in May 2010 (there is an unresolved time credit issue on the exact day that I have been unable to legally correct even with hard evidence of a police report.) I think you will see from the following articles I have written that little has changed.

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