Behind the Fight to Reinstate Parole in Illinois
Male Speaker: We see by your file, you have served 20 years of a life sentence.
Ellis Boyd Redding: Yes, sir.
Male Speaker: You feel you've been rehabilitated?
Ellis Boyd Redding: Oh, yes sir. Absolutely, sir. I learned my lesson, I can honestly say that I'm a changed man. No longer danger to society. That's God's honest truth.
Tanzina Vega: In the Shawshank redemption, Ellis Boyd Redding, played by Morgan Freeman, has a chance after 20 years to plead his case to the Parole Board, but this is a fictional tale, a feel good movie, very little resemblance to the experiences of incarcerated people in many states. 16 states have no form of discretionary parole at all. Since the 1970s, Illinois has been one of those states, but a movement started by a former Illinois prison debate team is trying to change the system.
In 2018, a group of incarcerated men detained at Illinois Stateville Correctional Center argued the merits of reinstating parole in front of a group of state lawmakers. Afterwards, they formed a group called Parole Illinois and with the help of lawmakers and organizers, their years of work led to Senate Bill 2333, which would entitle prisoners who have served at least 20 years in the state to a parole review.
The bill was introduced in the Illinois State Senate earlier this year and has gotten support from high-profile names, including Chicago natives Chance The Rapper and Common.
Common: We talk about our country being a country where we are a country of second chances and redemption. When are we going to live up to that?
Male Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:01:52]
Common: We say God bless America. That means God needs to bless the people incarcerated too.
Tanzina Vega: Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad and journalist Ben Austen co-host the podcast Some of my Best Friends Are. They took time on their show to analyze systems of parole in and outside of the United States. When I spoke with them, Ben started out by explaining more about the role the Stateville debate team played in the Illinois parole reform efforts.
Ben Austen: In 2018, 14 guys at a maximum security prison in Illinois at Stateville prison, they formed a debate team with a coach who was a volunteer coach. They decided that what they wanted to argue was to reinstate parole in Illinois, which had abolished parole in 1978. Few people even know that. Like parole seemed so commonsensical to like all of our sensibilities; religious, practical, all of those.
In front of politicians and many others, they made this argument that their lives were at stake. They were all serving long sentences and they wanted at least the chance to come before a Parole Board again.
Tanzina Vega: Just one more beat on this. Who were they debating? Had they divided up and were debating one another? Were there other incarcerated teams that they were debating or were they debating teams of individuals who were not incarcerated?
Ben Austen: They broke into two teams and they did it in a very clever way in the same way that you wouldn't debate say two sides of global warming, and there's not a counterside to it any longer. They were both arguing for reinstating parole and they argued amongst themselves what was the best way to do it. They both were making the strong case to those present. It was in a way a performance an argument in front of the politicians who were there to do this.
Tanzina Vega: Khalil, walk us through this a bit. I think Ben's point about the idea that that many people just aren't even keeping up with the question of parole and when it's available and how it's available and in what state. Maybe just talk a bit about that patchwork nationally. What's the current state of parole and where does that leave us?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: It leaves us with about almost 50 years of tough on crime sentencing around the nation. Beginning in the mid 1970s, we saw state after state after state passing legislation, in many cases, starting with the elimination of parole. This was a way of simply saying that people who committed crimes and frankly of all kinds not simply murder and the high profile things that people really stay up late at night about, they could not ever be released.
You think about sentencing reform as the first step of mass incarceration. It begins with essentially making sure that people who had already gotten very long sentences, we're talking concurrent sentences of 30 or 40 years, we're you're talking about additive sentences that could equal the equivalent of life in prison.
People facing 50 years or more now currently 200,000 across the nation are dying in prison and because we now "know more" which is always a little bit debatable as to how much we really learned this recently.
Nevertheless, we have so much research that points to the fact that not only are we not solving for future offending because people simply at a certain age, usually by their thirties are just much less likely to engage in criminal activity of any kind and most especially the violence, for example, that got them "in trouble" in the first place. Here we are now with a bloated system, it's the worst in the world. Most states are still engaging in this use of life without parole and states are starting slowly to reverse course.
Tanzina Vega: Ben, I'm going to go back to the two sides of the debate. Is one side more making the argument around the cost? The fiscal realities that the state faces by keeping people incarcerated for so long and there's another side looking at the human cost. I'm just wanting to get some of the arguments on the table.
Ben Austen: The two sides that argued, one side is saying we should reinstate parole and the Parole Board should look at each case individually and that every person needs to be seen and evaluated. The other side says that there should be an algorithm that automatically releases many people who no longer pose a threat by any statistical measure. In a way, they're arguing effectively the same thing like people need to be evaluated at some point in these long sentences and they need a chance at release.
The mechanisms is what they're arguing that the process in which that's going to come about. In that way, they can look at other states beyond Illinois who have done some of this work, who are already allowing people serving very long sentences to get a second chance.
Tanzina Vega: Now, Khalil, explain to me how Senate Bill 2333, which the debate team inspired and worked towards-- not just inspired, but actually put effort towards, how would it work and how could it chip away at the system of mass incarceration?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Well, people would be subjected after serving 20 years to a parole review. Parole is not that complicated as a mechanism of release. Once you hit 20 years, you would be scheduled for a meeting with the Parole Board at which case, they would evaluate your circumstances and make a decision. It's also a very discretionary process and the simple fact is there's no guarantee that people will be released as a function of being able to make an argument about rehabilitation.
People are often denied for a simple reason that victims come to these parole hearings, sometimes members of law enforcement to push back against releasing a person say, who's been convicted on a violent crime. What's ironic in a way is that reinstating parole doesn't reinstate release of massive numbers of people. It simply allows for a process to unfold that people could have another proverbial day in court.
Tanzina Vega: Khalil, when you use the language of rehabilitation, it just leads me to ask even part of what we make a claim that prison is doing?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: It may sound ridiculous in a way but the biblical notions of accountability, of remorse, of pentance, of rehabilitation are saturating our criminal justice system. In some ways, we're no further along in this notion of using science of behavior to understand that people are products of the society. A violent society helps to encourage violence as a mechanism for conflict resolution.
The very notion that somehow people are to pretend as if their lives weren't complicated in the first place means that people are performing these rituals of rehabilitation. Some people do genuinely experience a change of heart and mind, but a lot of people recognize that the circumstances that they found themselves in were a little bit of like life and death. Like this false notion between victim and perpetrator is a Calvinistic puritanical notion that we still carry with us in terms of judging people behind bars.
Tanzina Vega: If in order to get parole, I have to say, "It's my fault I did it and I'm sorry about it," does that also mean that I am unable to ever make an argument either to the Parole Board, to legislators, or to society at large that I did it, I'm sorry about it, but also by the way, I was living in a context of intergenerational poverty, sent to schools that left me illiterate in the seventh grade, whatever the other set of structures are.
I'm wondering if it actually constrains our ability to make structural arguments when parole requires the individual to take the responsibility for any given crime.
Ben Austen: I'm actually writing a book about parole and it's fascinating in the ways that you're saying, because it is so narrative. It's storytelling. It's storytelling about oneself and one's personal journey, but it could also be about those structural issues that you said. That can be both a powerful narrative, but it could also be one that doesn't resonate with people or can feel like an excuse. If I say that there were extenuating circumstances, does the Parole Board then not hear that? It's a really fascinating venue for these larger societal discussions, because it is exactly, as you're saying.
We're hearing all those sides and we're hearing a body of people try to make sense of them and to make this Solomonic decision about who goes free and who doesn't, and how to read somebody's heart, how to read what's going on. Now, that's probably too great a thing to decide. Most people simply age out of crime. That the 18-year-old is very different than the 40-year-old.
I would say that probably the most powerful thing about this debate was just seeing these individuals who actually didn't have an incentive to rehabilitate themselves because they had no release dates. All 14 of them were either serving life sentences or sentences so long that they were essentially going to die in prison. You watch the debate, you hear their arguments, and you can't deny their humanity, you can't deny their intelligence.
They're willing to participate in a larger social discussion that clearly marks them as contributors to society. I think the legislators who were there felt that. We need to take this bill up because we're looking at these human beings who are thinking people, and they may have done horrible things 20 years ago, 30 years ago, but that doesn't stamp them for the rest of their lives.
Then it asked that bigger question like, "Then, what are we doing? What's the point of all this if these guys are still in here? Who is it serving? Is it serving the victim still? Is it keeping us safe?" Clearly, that's not the issue, these people are no longer a threat. Those are the big questions that were raised by this debate and also by the whole notion of parole.
Tanzina Vega: Khalil, let me ask a political question. How much is the very fact that we've seen such a curtailment of parole everywhere in the country? I'm wondering how much that is a simple matter of the politics, particularly of state executives. Governors in particular who worry about the one time that there could be someone paroled under their watch, who then committed a high profile, violent act? In other words, I'm wondering how much this is all caused by the political weaponization of Willie Horton.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: That's a good question. Willie Horton having been a convicted rapist released by Michael Dukakis in his term in the 1980s when was eventually running against George Herbert Walker Bush in a very significant presidential election is ultimately released on furlough, re-offends commits another act of rape and ultimately his story becomes emblematic of the need to incapacitate the most dangerous often Black male figures in our society, that Willie Horton?
Tanzina Vega: That would be Willie Horton.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Yes. Here's the thing, Ben and I both visited European prison systems. He went to Finland and Norway, to Scandinavian nations. I visited Germany. On my trip, we talked about this very issue. We talked about the fact that in Germany, they have fewer than 100 people serving sentences that range longer than 15 years. It's a amazing thing to watch US prison officials.
We had four of them on our trip, one from Nevada, Connecticut, Arizona, and Washington state. When they were presented with this evidence, they literally said, "What happens if you're letting all these people out say, after four years, people who have been convicted of murder, terrible things." They said, "What happens if one of them re-offends?" The German officials essentially said, "Well, they come back and we work on them some more." What does that mean?
The whole system is set up to collaborate, to be part of a team to make sure that people, whatever the circumstances of their individual life choices, are mitigated while they're there so that they can go back and not re-offend. The system itself is not criminogenic, but when those US Prison Officials asked this question, they were told that, "We don't allow the public to express its appetite for vengeance as the basis for how we do punishment here.
Society and the structure of our society depends on what we do here, improving the outcomes of society. If we are simply just warehousing people and they're not getting better, then we're not doing our jobs." There was absolute disbelief amongst these US prison officials. They couldn't believe that the sensational way in which a Willie Horton could happen in another country. They do have foreign people of color in Germany, so it's not a one-to-one, but there are people there who are the out-group.
They simply said, "We just don't understand that because we'd never get away with such a thing." There are ways to think differently about the responsibility of the state when it has a person who is being held accountable for what you do with that person in your custody and the obligations you have to help them not come back.
Tanzina Vega: Khalil Muhammad and Ben Austen co-host of the podcast, Some of My Best Friends Are. Thank you both for joining us today.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Thanks for having us.
Ben Austen: [inaudible 00:15:52] .
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