Death Not Good Enough Reason To Get Paroled In Alabama
Back in January, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole denied a pardon to Leola Harris, a 71-year-old woman who is in a wheelchair, unable to go to the bathroom by herself, on dialysis three days a week and in the end stages of renal failure, and hasn't had a violation of any kind in 12 years. The parole board determined that she was just too much of a threat to society to be let out to live her final days in a nursing home. Harris had served 19 years of a 35-year sentence for the killing of an unhoused man who was in her home (a crime she has maintained she did not commit) and will likely not make it to her next parole hearing in 2028.
Her release had been opposed by a group called Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) and the state attorney general’s office.
“If these folks are upset about the number of inmates paroled, they should come every day and listen to the horrible crimes they committed,” stated Janette Grantham, VOCAL’s executive director, according to AP News. “They would understand why these violent offenders should serve their sentence.”
You might think it couldn't possibly get any more ridiculous than that, but you would be very wrong — because in February the board denied parole to Fredrick Bishop, an incarcerated man at Easterling Correctional Facility ... 10 days after his death.
The board maintains that they didn't know Bishop was dead when they denied him parole, but some might consider that a bit of a problem in and of itself. Perhaps even a problem with the fact that prisoners are not allowed to attend their own parole hearings in Alabama, and those advocating on their behalf only have six minutes to make their case (though they are limited to two minutes per person).
Bishop was one of 13 incarcerated men to die in state custody this February.
“We’re not surprised that the parole board was unaware of Mr. Bishop’s death, given that ADOC does not consistently inform Alabama families when their incarcerated loved ones pass away,” Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said in a statement to Alabama Political Reporter. “They try to hide the steady loss of life that’s occurring in government custody from everyone, even fellow state agencies, apparently.”
Over the last year, the Alabama Parole Board has denied parole to 90 percent of those who apply, which is very, very high. Journalist Beth Shelburne, who has been tracking this situation, reported on Twitter last night that so far this month, only five of the 150 up for parole were actually paroled. Is this for public safety? No, not so much! Seventy-four of those people were so low risk that they actually work, unsupervised, outside of the prison.
On Substack, Shelburne wrote:
The grossest part in this parole meltdown is the high denial rate of people in minimum-security work release and work centers, slaving away in grunt jobs while the state gets a big cut. Those gigs are designed to be short term, but this parole board has turned minimum-security facilities into labor camps in perpetuity. But you won't see that fact in any press releases from the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. Their focus is on rehabilitation and re-entry, which are fine areas to focus on, as long as you have more than a handful of people leaving prison to receive those services.
Alabama, notably, is one of six states where it is legal to not pay prisoners anything for their labor, giving the state a pretty good reason to not want to parole those low-risk enough to work, unsupervised, outside the prison. Why should the state let them out when they can profit off of their free labor? Just because the prisons are the most over-crowded in the nation, operating at 182 percent capacity doesn't mean they should start letting people leave them just because they are up for parole (or dead).
It will likely shock you to learn that there has been something of a racial discrepancy in who is getting paroled and who is getting denied.
"In 2019, 34 percent of Black applicants were granted parole and 36 percent of white applicants received it, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles," the Montgomery Advertiser reported. "In 2020, just 16 percent of Black applicants received parole, while 29 percent of white applicants did so. In 2021, the number of Black applicants getting parole fell to eight percent."
There are, of course, other reasons for why the state won't release those on parole, one of which is the fact that a man who was released by the board in 2017 and determined by the Ohio Risk Assessment guidelines to have had a low-to-moderate risk of reoffending, went and killed three people in 2018. It is understandable that people were upset by that, but one case really shouldn't mean that no one else gets out on parole, ever. Especially since it's probably not exactly a good thing for people in prison to lose all hope of getting out early.
Lyn Head, the former chair of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, told VICE that in 2018, after the murders, Governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall basically came to the board and told them to stop letting people out. Rather than go along with that, Head ultimately resigned from her post.
“There is no one capable of predicting with any accuracy what a human being is going to do. So you have to rely on those tools,” Head told VICE, referring to the Ohio Risk Assessment. “Just because of that incident doesn’t mean that those guidelines were wrong. It's a horrible tragedy, just like it would have been if he had committed it and had not been incarcerated beforehand.”
Another reason why they're not letting people out is because the state has spent $400 million of their COVID money, plus hundreds of millions of its own, to build two new mega-prisons, and they're going to need people to fill them up.
Hell, why bother release anyone at this point when the state can just keep building more and more prisons?
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse