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Trapped Part Two: The Vicious Cycle of Trauma

California prisons fail to help abuse victims and the mentally ill rehabilitate behind bars — and refuse to grant them parole so they can turn their lives around with loved ones on the outside.

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These legislative reforms are giving many lifers a fresh chance at freedom. But Wattley and other advocates said the prisons now need to provide meaningful programming and services for this population, so that when they get the opportunity to participate in specialized hearings, they are truly prepared for reentry.

More broadly, if prisons increasingly prioritize rehabilitation and release more inmates earlier in their sentences, lifers would be able to continue their recovery on the outside — with community-based programs and with the support of loved ones. The positive impacts of this shift would be widespread, advocates said. That's because a continued reduction in the prison population could enable the state to better invest in mental health treatment and other services for incarcerated people. That kind of reinvestment could create more humane prisons for the people who committed violent crimes and, regardless of ongoing criminal justice reforms, will be spending many years of their lives behind bars.


Michael Flemming said that when he was a youth, he was sexually assaulted — an incident that contributed to his alcoholism and the drunken-driving crash that killed a police officer. - COURTESY OF BRETT FLEMMING
  • Courtesy of Brett Flemming
  • Michael Flemming said that when he was a youth, he was sexually assaulted — an incident that contributed to his alcoholism and the drunken-driving crash that killed a police officer.

On some level, Michael Flemming believes he will never go home. For starters, his victim was a police officer. Larry Bentley, the brother of Deputy Michael Bentley, who Flemming killed in the crash, has repeatedly spoken at the inmate's hearings, arguing passionately against parole and offering a personal reflection on the person his family and community lost when Flemming drove drunk three decades ago. In an email sent to me through prosecutor Danville, Larry Bentley said that every time he learns that Flemming will have another hearing, it causes him the worst stress of his life. He plans to attend all future hearings.

Beyond the tragic nature of the crime and the hurt he caused Bentley's family — factors Flemming can never change — Flemming said he fears that he won't get a parole date due to the fact that he remains petrified of screwing up at his hearing. He told me that the pain and anxiety associated with hearings has been the hardest part of his incarceration — worse than witnessing violence and death behind bars. "Not once have I ever felt the fear that I felt or that I feel when I sit before the board," he said. But he tries to stay positive by thinking about the loved ones he will be able to hug on the other side, he said. "I never stop fighting. I always have hope."

Advocates and prison officials acknowledge that hope is not an insignificant force for lifers. As the parole process has become somewhat fairer over time, and as lifers have started to learn that they may actually go home one day, they've become more engaged in programming and self improvement, Wattley said. He argued that violence and other criminal activity in prisons decreases when lifers view their parole hearings as legitimate opportunities to get a second chance.

Shaffer, the board's executive officer, said that a number of reforms in recent years have clearly incentivized lifers to make positive changes and meaningfully prep for life on the outside. "We've been able to see how powerful hope can be," she said.

Even if Flemming has little faith in the process, his family motivates him to keep trying. His brother, Brett Flemming, 54, has arranged uniquely secure post-release plans for Michael. Brett runs a bicycle tool manufacturing business and told me he would train and hire his brother to work for him full-time. "I'm a businessman. I would invest in him immediately. He could be gainfully employed in California the day he is released," said Brett, who began to weep when describing how eager he is to see his brother get a second chance. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a financial stakeholder in this company. ... He won't have time to get into trouble."

Instead of costing California nearly $64,000 a year for his incarceration, Michael would be a wage earner and taxpayer, Brett said, noting that he would help his brother get started with rent and buy him a car, if needed.

Everything is in place. Michael Flemming just needs to convince the parole board he's ready.


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