My understanding of the process was that it was a rubber stamp formality. The whole thing just a big show put on by the prison administration to give the appearance that they were actually doing something important and substantial. These impressions had been forged from conversations with dozens of inmates over the years who were nearing their release date. I readily admit that my ideas had also been heavily informed by own cynicism. I now know that it was even a bigger joke than I could’ve ever imagined.
MSR. Mandatory Supervised Release. This is not parole. Judges, attorneys, employees of and representatives for the Department of Corrections, even prison inmates—everyone uses the terms as interchangeable. It isn’t accurate or appropriate. There hasn’t been a formal parole system in this state since 1977.
Anyone who has ever seen the film Shawshank Redemption, or about a thousand other pop-culture examples, has a basic understanding of the formal parole system. The convict goes before a panel of individuals, The Parole Review Board, and states their case as to why they are a good candidate to be released on parole. This hearing only happens after they have served a certain portion of their sentence. If the individual is deemed unfit or not ready for parole then he remains in prison for a period until he gets another chance before the board. If the person is released, it’s a type of conditional discharge, meaning that there will be certain conditions or rules he must abide by. Things like not leaving the state, not breaking the law, securing a proper residence and job, reporting to a parole officer, submitting to random drug tests. This parole system allowed for some latitude and provided an avenue through which an inmate could, ostensibly, prove his ability and willingness to make positive changes in his or her life and mindset. These positive changes could then serve as reasons for releasing an inmate on parole.
Mandatory Supervised Release is a whole different animal. MSR is another type of conditional discharge so the actual restrictions or rules put in place for the individual once he or she is released from the penitentiary are essentially the same as under the parole system. The big and undeniable difference is what occurs prior to the inmate’s release. MSR requires that each inmate to serve the entirety of the term to which their judge sentenced them. This is then followed by what is essentially a second sentence, a set period of years required to be served on the conditional release of MSR. With the lack of rehabilitative programs and the rise of truth in sentencing laws, for many, there is no avenue by which an inmate can demonstrate that they are rehabilitated, nor is there incentive to do so. Let me explain.
In this scenario there are four hypothetical offenders who are all given a ten-year sentence. One is sentenced at 50 percent, one at 75, one at 85, and the last is to be served at 100 percent. These percentages are mandated by the type and severity of the crime for which a person is incarcerated. The person sentenced at ten years at fifty percent would serve a five-year prison term, but would be eligible to earn reductions for involvement in educational and rehabilitative programs. The remaining three must serve seven and a half, eight and half, and ten years respectively. Beyond the rare occasion of a legal technicality or loophole, there’s no way they will serve one single day less than these percentages. A person serving a sentence at 75 or 85 percent could be made to serve up to the entire ten years if he or she were to do something extreme like assaulting a staff member, possessing a weapon or drugs, trying to escape.
The Real Truth In Sentencing
As long as the inmate only breaks the minor rules they can stay in trouble their entire time behind prison walls, thereby demonstrating their inability or unwillingness to abide by the constraints of authority, and still be released after serving the mandated percentage of their sentence. On the reverse, an inmate could stay out of trouble, spending his or her time earning every single certificate or degree, taking all available classes to change their felonious ways of thinking, and perhaps even learn a skill or trade they can use in the future to secure gainful employment.
None of it matters.
The quality of life for these hypothetical inmates would be drastically different, but their behavior, whether good or bad, wouldn’t alter their release date or the number of years they’d have to abide by the restrictions that the conditional release known as MSR will put on them. Therefore, the onus for seeking out a rehabilitative activity or mindset falls squarely on the inmate. These men and women are expected to change their entire way of thinking and being with little to no encouragement or opportunity. Furthermore, for even for those who want to take advantage access to school is denied or delayed for years because class space is very limited and priority is given to those inmates who are eligible to earn good time credit off their sentence. I had managed to earn enough college credits for an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. I also took a number of other classes and received certificates of excellence. These mattered to me, but when I went before the Prisoner Review Board, I found out just how little goodwill all my hard work had engendered in them.
Prisoner Review Board
Since the instituting of MSR, the Parole Review Board became largely obsolete. It was rebranded as the Prisoner Review Board and their function became mostly ornamental. The decision-making process removed the human element and turned it into a mathematical equation. Both rehabilitative behavior and minor disciplinary issues during my incarceration were inconsequential. I had committed a violent crime, so certain specific restrictions would be placed on me as conditions of my release. X + Y = Z. I knew all of this as I sat and waited for my name to be called, yet adrenalized nerves still jangled within me as I rehearsed in my head the statement I had prepared about what I’d done with my time in prison and how I changed as proof of my rehabilitation. I was determined to say my piece, whether or not it had any effect.
As I walked toward the officer who had called my name I glanced at the clock high on the wall and saw that the minute hand was suspended between 9:55 and 9:56. I was directed to a seat across the table from an elderly man whose surprisingly smooth brown skin reminded me of a highly polished and much loved piece of antique furniture. Without looking up he asked my name then shuffled through the papers in front of him to locate mine. He was tiny, frail. If he had stood up I doubt he would’ve achieved a height much past five feet. An unadorned cane leaned against the table next to him, which he would’ve had to use if he were to stand. His head was large, round, gleaming bald and seemed out of proportion to the rest of his body. He was slouching carefully in the chair as if his spine would no longer hold his torso upright. The button up shirt he wore seemed to billow around him, and small round spectacles finished the ensemble. The overall impression was of an old, wizened cartoon turtle.
Reading from the report, he asked me to confirm certain facts. My name, my crime, my sentence. He never looked up from the piece of paper as he addressed me. He never asked if I’d done anything positive or worthwhile with my time. He did ask if I’d ever been to segregation, which is the standard punishment for moderate to serious rule breakers. I explained that I had, but that all charges had been expunged. It was the opening for which I’d been waiting. I segued into the violations of my freedom of speech when the warden discovered I’d been writing essays which chronicled instances that occurred inside his prison and having them posted on this website. The other PRB member at the table to my left was waiting for her next appointment. She overheard my claims and turned to look, reacting with wide-eyed shock. The turtle man in front of me didn’t react at all. I shamelessly plugged this website, but from there the words withered on my tongue. I felt like I was calling into a chasm and nothing was returned, not even my own echo. All that I had prepared to say seemed mute, entirely pointless. His demeanor was obviously uncaring, bored, dismissive.
He read to me the specific conditions I’d have to adhere to during my three years of MSR, all of which were based on the circumstances of my crime. The intervening sixteen years of incarceration, and my behavior during that time, had no bearing whatsoever. He had me sign the report at the bottom, told me I’d receive a copy of it in the mail, and I was dismissed. During the entirety of my time with him he had never once raised his head to look me in the eye. As I left, I checked the clock—10:00 on the nose. The whole ordeal hadn’t taken more than four minutes.
They could’ve simply mailed the report and skipped the face to face since nothing I said or did had any effect. However, doing it this way they could claim I had a hearing with the Prisoner Review Board and make it sound like something with gravitas rather than what it was; nothing but window dressing to provide a pretense that there is a thoughtful and measured consideration of each individual about to reenter society, when in fact there is no such consideration. It was a joke and an absolute waste of time, money, and resources. All symptoms of a broken system in much need of reform.