by Barbara Hanson Treen (NYS Parole Commissioner for 12 years)
We’ve heard for years that all the cells in our bodies regenerate every seven to ten years. Can we assume then, that our moral and emotional compasses are also capable of transforming over time? Not according to parole commissioners who keep large numbers of aging long-termers warehoused in prison, based only on what individuals did years ago, rather than who they are now.
In New York State, people of conscience are watching to see how six recent appointees to the Board of Parole will make release decisions. Will they respect transformation? It is too late for John MacKenzie, a model prisoner who died by suicide at the age of 70 after 40 years incarcerated and ten repeated parole denials. Tragically, John Mackenzie is the human sacrifice that underscores the broken parole system.
As a NYS Parole Commissioner for 12 years some time ago, it was unusual for me to meet a parole candidate over the age of 50. Last year, of 52,344 women and men in the state’s correctional facilities, 10,140 (19%) were 50 and older, despite the decline in the overall prison population. The number of elderly incarcerated has increased 98% since 2000, at least partially reflecting the board’s unwillingness to release in spite of parole applicants having met their minimum allowable sentence. Life on the back of a sentence appears to give a pass to the Commissioners, who have been unwilling to accept transformation in human behavior and are too politically motivated to practice their job, risk assessment. Thus we have prison hospitals and infirmaries filled with long-termers languishing through the years even though their risk of reoffending is 1%. And the health care costs for the prisons have increased 20 percent from three years ago to $380 million dollars today—an increase of $64.5 million.
If the parole board doesn’t trust in people’s transformation—supported by their proof of advanced education, program involvement, clean disciplinary records and so on—perhaps they’ll believe in new evidence that is also coming of age from a field of science through brain scan research: neuroplasticity. Simply stated, it is a scientific development that shows that the brain has the ability to change and heal as it is subjected to new experiences. Much is coming to light in the medical community about this study with implications of change for ADD and Parkinson’s Disease.
But as important in our criminal justice community is the possibility that people can become entirely different in their behaviors. This change occurs in the brain on its own physically with exposure to life’s surrounding stimulus over time. I would guess that 80% of 77,000 interviews I participated in as a commissioner were with people who suffered early life traumas such as sex abuse, violence, and concussions. Our older imprisoned have gained maturity, non-violent adaptive behaviors and more often the punishing effect of their crimes on them and their families, leading them to introspection over time. They become different people by demonstrating different responses.
The repeat parole hearings of candidates echo the retelling of the crimes that brought them to these places, crimes that are most often horrendous. And while the penalties for these crimes can never satisfy the need to restore a victim or render survivors of crime whole, the court-sanctioned sentence is our accepted legal calibration for punishment.
Can continuing denials amounting to 30 or 33 years beyond a sentence change the crime? Can 10, 13, 17 times before the board expressing redemption and remorse make a person any more prepared to face the community? No, it makes them older and sicker and some don’t even recall why they are there.
These aged are mostly invisible people. On paper, we don’t see their limps, their dementia, their physical impairments, their addled senses, their diminished capacities. They bring with them all the hope it takes to describe their transformation and regret to the parole board, although it will probably result in the same denial based on the “nature of the crime.” And the category of those aging, the women and men aged 50 and older, grows.
Perhaps the Parole Board can examine the possibility of the growth of their own hearts and brains among their new colleagues.