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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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Turner added: "If you can't follow the rules and regulations in prison, then it's difficult to believe that you'd get out of prison and follow the rules of society." She further criticized Johnson for not taking full responsibility for the incident and seemingly trying to minimize the seriousness of the offense when questioned during the hearing.

But when I recently met Demian Johnson's mother, Ann Johnson, of Oakland, she provided me with documents showing that her son had every reason to be defensive. Months after his denial, Demian had successfully appealed the Valentine's Day write-up and had it removed from his file; a sergeant admitted the alleged conduct merited only a verbal warning. The sergeant further wrote: "Mr. Johnson has displayed exemplary behavior and conducted himself respectably and with decency, never disregarding boundaries or the sanctity of the visiting room."

Hilda Wade, his fiancée, told me she had absolutely no memory of him even putting his arm around her that day.

"It's like a kick in the gut when you get denied," Demian told me by phone. "You're kind of just like, 'Wow. I can't win.' But I realize I can't think like that. I can't be depressed. ... I feel like I'm fighting the good fight ... and in the process I'm also growing and developing. Whatever time I have left, I'm using."

Jennifer Shaffer, executive officer of the parole board, said she couldn't discuss specific cases, and CDCR officials also declined to comment on the individual inmates in this story. In a lengthy phone interview, however, Shaffer defended the commissioners, arguing that they make very deliberate, careful decisions that are always based on a wide variety of factors and their obligations under the law. Shaffer, who became executive officer in 2011 and has made increased transparency a priority during her tenure, noted that the state has dramatically expanded training for commissioners in recent years.

"These are very, very difficult decisions made by human beings," said Shaffer. "These decisions can be very emotional. It's an extremely meaningful decision. You have somebody's liberty at stake, and you have victims who have been significantly traumatized, and they're very afraid. ... If you really focus on the law, it gives you a clearer path to a decision. ... It's the only way to really have fair and unbiased hearings."

Shaffer also said the board has specific guidelines for state-appointed attorneys, which outline the basic expectations for the tasks they should complete when representing lifers at hearings. But, she said, the board is fairly limited in its communication with and oversight of lawyers. "These people are all certified, licensed professionals, and they know what their ethical duties are to their clients," she said, noting that inmates can file complaints if they believe their representation was inadequate.

Bernard Toller said Wattley helped him come to terms with some dark truths about his past and his offense. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Bernard Toller said Wattley helped him come to terms with some dark truths about his past and his offense.

But advocates said that better pay and stricter requirements for state-appointed parole attorneys — mandatory in-person meetings, for example — could go along way toward helping inmates defend themselves against denials over petty rule violations. Brosgart, one of the state-appointed attorneys, told me that when she privately represents lifers, she typically charges $4,000 — ten times the state's rate. "You can have a very different relationship," she said. "You can work together, give homework assignments, establish excellent parole plans."

When attorneys have time to closely review case files and discuss with inmates potential flaws in their record, the lawyer and prisoner are both in a much better position to respond to various charges of commissioners and prosecutors, said Wattley.

More broadly, if California had parole commissioners from more diverse backgrounds — with expertise and experience beyond prison and law enforcement careers — inmates would be less likely to face denials for frivolous reasons, Wattley said. And if commissioners were to receive better training about the fact that many types of minor rule infractions have minimal connections to current dangerousness, then the board likely would send more inmates home.

Wattley and Brosgart also said that if lifers received long-term case management from dedicated, in-house social workers, prisoners would be much more prepared to face the board — and better equipped to ultimately return to society. Instead of relying on lawyers like Wattley to help them coordinate their programming behind bars and their post-parole reentry plans, inmates could move toward true rehabilitation in a more holistic way. Upfront investments in prisoners' recovery could translate to major savings when they get earlier parole dates. And inmates could have more years to reconnect with loved ones on the other side.

Ann Johnson, Demian's 72-year-old mother, told me that the arbitrariness and cruelty of the parole process has deeply affected her. "It's taken a toll on me physically and emotionally. It's heartbreaking. You try not to cry everyday."

Driving to prison regularly is exhausting for her, and she spends hundreds of dollars a month talking to him on the phone. "It doesn't get any easier," she said.

The July parole denial took his family by shock. "I expected him to get a date," Ann said. "It seems extremely unfair. ... He's a danger to society because he doesn't follow the rules? I can't make sense of it."

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