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Trapped Part One: Cruel and Indefinite Punishment

California wastes tens of millions of dollars a year keeping people in prison long after they've been rehabilitated — denying parole for arbitrary reasons and destroying lives in the process.

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The room that morning was freezing and looked like a small classroom. Jenkins, in a blue prison uniform, sat next to Wattley, his attorney, on one side of a table directly across from Commissioner Michele Minor and Deputy Commissioner Stewart Gardner, who each had desktop computers in front of them. A deputy district attorney from Los Angeles conferenced in by video. Two correctional officers stood guard throughout the hearing. And Express photographer Bert Johnson and I sat in a corner of the room, ten feet or so away from Jenkins.

This hearing, technically Jenkins' second, was particularly high-pressure for him given the debacle of his first encounter with the board. In 2008, two years before he was eligible for release, Jenkins' state-appointed attorney told him that he should delay his first parole hearing by one year because ongoing litigation would yield a change in the law that would benefit lifers. But, as he and Wattley explained during the recent hearing, Jenkins unknowingly signed a seven-year "stipulation" — an unnecessarily long delay for someone who was ready to be considered for parole. That meant that 2015, more than two decades after his arrest, was his first legitimate shot at freedom.

At parole hearings, commissioners conduct lengthy interrogations about the inmates' childhoods and circumstances prior to the crime, the crime itself, accomplishments and discipline behind bars, and post-parole plans. District attorneys then question the inmate, the inmate's attorney can question him or her as well, and all three of them can make closing statements. The commissioners deliberate on the spot and offer an immediate decision.

During an interview after his parole denial, Antoine Jenkins asked me, "When is this nightmare going to end?" - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • During an interview after his parole denial, Antoine Jenkins asked me, "When is this nightmare going to end?"

Not long after the hearing began, Jenkins broke down in sobs while discussing his late grandparents who had raised him and, as he described it, had given him a good childhood. "I let them down so much," he said. "It hurts just to think about it."

He broke down again when recalling a time that he thought his cousin had been shot. Jenkins repeatedly described to the commissioners how his greed and selfishness led him to commit the criminal and violent acts that landed him in prison.

When Commissioner Minor delivered her decision, at 11:45 a.m., three hours after the hearing began and after 36 minutes of deliberations, she offered a lot of praise for Jenkins: He has clearly accepted responsibility for the crime, he presents a reduced risk of recidivism at age 47, he has marketable skills and realistic parole plans, and he has not had a violent rule violation behind bars since 2000. She also noted that, according to the California Supreme Court, the board cannot consider the offense, prior criminality, or unstable social history as indications that he currently presents a risk of danger. But, she argued, various nonviolent rule infractions in recent years show he poses a continued threat to society. He was caught with tobacco in 2008. He was caught with a cellphone in 2012. And in July 2015, he was caught inappropriately grabbing his fiancée in the visiting hall, apparently briefly rubbing up against her. "That was a very selfish thing to do — same thing you were doing at the time of the crime," Minor scolded, as Jenkins sat stoic, staring forward. "It is disrespectful to your visitor."

At 11:59 a.m., the hearing was over: Minor and Gardner had refused to grant Jenkins parole and issued a five-year denial. He can petition the board to get an earlier hearing, but if that fails, his next chance at freedom won't come until 2020.

"When is this nightmare going to end?" Jenkins asked me by phone a few weeks later. "I'm ready — now. You know what I mean? ... I know for a fact that I would never come back to prison. ... There is no way in hell I would commit another crime."

His fiancée, Jennifer Chacon, said she was devastated by the denial — especially knowing that her alleged horseplay with Jenkins played a part in it. The idea that he had mistreated her in any way that day was absurd, she said, after I had mentioned to her that officials in the hearing characterized the touching as a sexual violation of her. "It is so ridiculous. If that were the case, why would I stay there? If I felt disrespected, I would've left."

More broadly, she said it's obvious that Jenkins is a completely different man today than he was decades earlier. "He was 22 when all this happened. ... Now, Antoine is almost fifty years old, and you don't think he's changed?" she said. "I really want him to be home with me."

The parole denial echoed the rejection of Demian Johnson, the other UnCommon Law client who failed to get parole in 2015 after he was accused of putting his arm around his fiancée on Valentine's Day. According to the transcript of the July 2015 hearing, the commissioner in that case, Terri Turner, said of the incident, "It just, to me, demonstrates a pattern of behavior, where you have yet to recognize the boundary lines."

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