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  • Doug Tjapkes

On why Michigan prisons are too full

A warden came to me one day and asked that I try to help get a man out of prison! Say what? Yep, it’s true. Some six years ago I was asked to do my best to help an ailing, 74-year-old inmate to get a parole. He had been locked up for 47 years on a murder charge. He had died at least once, and was revived by prison medical personnel. He had had a spiritual conversion. He was now helping other prisoners with their legal problems in the law library. It was costing the state a fortune to keep him there, and the warden felt there was every reason for him to be granted a parole. So, when Bert’s Parole Board review came up in 2015, I was at his side. The Parole Board member’s first request was that he describe his crime as he remembered it. He quietly explained that he could describe the crime as it was written in a police report, but that he could remember nothing, because he was an alcoholic, and the crime had occurred during a “blackout.” Within minutes, he was reduced to sobbing as she refused that answer, calling it a cop-out, and saying he either described the crime based on his memory, or no parole. He refused to lie, so his opportunity for parole was rejected. His next review would come in five years. I was incensed, and so was the warden, but there was nothing we could do about it. It’s 2020 now, and Bert came up for review again. He’s now 79 years of age, has now served 52 years, is in terrible health but in good spirits. This time Matt participated in the PB review, by telephone because of COVID restrictions. We just got the word. They flopped him again! Next review, 2025! Maddening! What could possibly be the reason? I’m convinced that it’s the nature of the crime, something that should not even be influencing the decision, according to Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. It was a brutal murder, even if he was drunk, and 52 years is not enough! One Stanford University study of 860 murderers paroled in California found only five returned to prison for new felonies, and none for murder. This is especially true for older prisoners. Recidivism rates drop steadily with age. And older prisoners are more expensive: The average annual cost per prisoner doubles at age 55 and continues to climb thereafter. Just when I think things are improving with this Parole Board, something stupid like this decision reminds me that we’ve got a long road ahead of us. This is not the last chapter of Bert’s story.

A warden came to me one day and asked that I try to help get a man out of prison! Say what? Yep, it’s true. Some six years ago I was asked to do my best to help an ailing, 74-year-old inmate to get a parole. He had been locked up for 47 years on a murder charge. He had died at least once, and was revived by prison medical personnel. He had had a spiritual conversion. He was now helping other prisoners with their legal problems in the law library. It was costing the state a fortune to keep him there, and the warden felt there was every reason for him to be granted a parole. So, when Bert’s Parole Board review came up in 2015, I was at his side. The Parole Board member’s first request was that he describe his crime as he remembered it. He quietly explained that he could describe the crime as it was written in a police report, but that he could remember nothing, because he was an alcoholic, and the crime had occurred during a “blackout.” Within minutes, he was reduced to sobbing as she refused that answer, calling it a cop-out, and saying he either described the crime based on his memory, or no parole. He refused to lie, so his opportunity for parole was rejected. His next review would come in five years. I was incensed, and so was the warden, but there was nothing we could do about it. It’s 2020 now, and Bert came up for review again. He’s now 79 years of age, has now served 52 years, is in terrible health but in good spirits. This time Matt participated in the PB review, by telephone because of COVID restrictions. We just got the word. They flopped him again! Next review, 2025! Maddening! What could possibly be the reason? I’m convinced that it’s the nature of the crime, something that should not even be influencing the decision, according to Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. It was a brutal murder, even if he was drunk, and 52 years is not enough! One Stanford University study of 860 murderers paroled in California found only five returned to prison for new felonies, and none for murder. This is especially true for older prisoners. Recidivism rates drop steadily with age. And older prisoners are more expensive: The average annual cost per prisoner doubles at age 55 and continues to climb thereafter. Just when I think things are improving with this Parole Board, something stupid like this decision reminds me that we’ve got a long road ahead of us. This is not the last chapter of Bert’s story.

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