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But there are ongoing challenges with access. For example, a 2014 report from a special master assigned to review the adequacy of CDCR's mental health care found that in one institution, patients on "maximum custody status" received minimal programming — even when there was no individual clinical reason to justify this treatment.
The lack of programs can hurt lifers in direct and indirect ways. In the 2014 parole hearing involving Flemming, the inmate convicted in the drunken-driving crash, Commissioner Montes criticized him for failing to consistently participate in Alcoholics Anonymous. But as he explained during the hearing and later to me in an interview, when Flemming was incarcerated at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Southern California, he was stuck for years on a waiting list for AA, because there were no open spots for the classes.
Even if inmates eventually get access to high-quality programs, the reality for some lifers is that there's just not enough individualized support to undo the psychological damage from spending years isolated in restrictive environments with total uncertainty about the future. Bell, the former UnCommon Law client, told me that the parole process itself took a major toll on her mental health. She endured both repeated denials and governor reversals before she was finally released in 2013 — and is still dealing with the emotional impacts of those rejections today. "Talk about PTSD," said Bell, who is now 51. "The mental anguish of it was a lot for me. ... I thought I was going to lose my mind."
In an interview at an Oakland coffee shop, Williams began to cry when recalling the extreme isolation he faced during periods of his imprisonment. It was particularly bad when he cut off contact with the people behind bars who might get him into trouble. "You break away from everybody and you walk alone," he said. "It is a lonely road, because you don't have friends. ... I remember in a ten-year period, there was maybe five people I could have a real conversation with."
Having few meaningful connections with people made Williams feel less human as the years went by, he said. And as his incarceration continued, it became clear to him that prison was not helping prepare him for life on the outside — and that if he wanted to get a parole grant, he would have to do the work on his own.
Despite the many factors that make prisons fundamentally poor settings for rehabilitation, lifers find ways to turn themselves around. As they get older, they may find religion, spirituality, art, work trades, leadership positions, hobbies, productive relationships, and other positive forces that help them become solid candidates for release. Convincing parole commissioners that they're ready, however, is a different battle — one that can seem divorced from their actual rehabilitation. This is especially true when it comes to an inmate's ability to articulate his or her progress and stay strong in the face of painful questions.
- Bert Johnson
- Michael Tyler said it was clear that his presentation and word choice at the parole board were critical to him being released.
Michael Tyler, a recently released lifer and former client of UnCommon Law, said it seemed clear that his presentation and word choice at the board were critical. "It's a friggin' stressful event," he said of the hearings. "You've got all this time you just did, and you've got this opportunity to face so much more time. ... I don't think anywhere in life do you feel that type of stress. It was really difficult to be calm and say the things that you need to say."
Tyler, now 36, is articulate and thoughtful — a fact that became obvious to me when I first saw him give a speech about parole at an UnCommon Law event at UC Berkeley. Other lifers, however, simply don't have the cognitive abilities, public-speaking skills, or vocabulary necessary to properly advocate for themselves. "The guys could be ready as anybody, but they might have a bad delivery, and then they don't get found suitable," Tyler explained.
Attorneys and advocates who have supported lifers in hearings shared with me a range of stories in which they felt commissioners were cruel in their questioning of vulnerable prisoners and then unfairly harsh in their subsequent denials. I also reviewed case transcripts for this story that included offensive interrogations by parole board commissioners about sexual trauma, insensitive remarks about the deaths of an inmate's loved ones, baseless determinations about a prisoner's psychological state, and unjust criticisms of a lifer's inability to describe remorse.
One female lifer in California — who was convicted of murder in the death of her husband — faced difficult questions about the prolonged abuse she said she experienced in her marriage. In a 2012 hearing, parole commissioner Cynthia Fritz asked the woman, then seventy years old, why she was assaulted by her husband. "Why did your husband rape and sodomize you?" Fritz asked at one point. The inmate responded: "Because that's what he wanted."
The commissioner also questioned the honesty of the inmate's statements about her feelings for her husband after the inmate explained that she resented him for the abuse, but also loved him at the time. In announcing the denial of parole, Fritz expressed doubt about the woman's recollections: "With so many horrific things going on in your life, throughout your life, it's hard to believe that you would get angry and then forget about it." (The Express has chosen not to name the female lifer in this case because we have been unable to reach her or her attorney.)