“’The Shawshank Redemption’ is such a popular movie. Do Americans really believe in forgiveness and redemption?”

“Yes, for me, but not for thee.”

By 2005, I had been a reporter and columnist for 32 years, and I had written numerous stories about crime and covered criminal trials. I had written some stories about prisons and corrections. But it was not until I got into the challenges that ex-offenders face when they come out of prison that I fully appreciated how the whole system works, and works poorly and often unfairly.

I have by now written dozens of stories about ex-offenders trying to find jobs and adjust to life after prison. I have spoken to hundreds of men and women in that tough predicament. I have also written numerous stories about the parole system in Maryland and how three Democratic governors managed to undercut the foundational concept of parole.

Still, as much as I write about the parole system, some people just don’t seem to understand that we have one, and why.

We have a parole system to give criminals a second chance at living in freedom and within the law.

We do this even for killers and rapists.

Judges sentence men and women to serve time in prison, sometimes “for life,” but, unless the judges specify “without parole,” Maryland’s prisoners are eligible to seek it. They can earn time off their sentences for good behavior, for being remorseful, and for just getting old. Older inmates are far less likely to commit crimes again than younger inmates who earn early release or serve shorter sentences — and that has been borne out by a study of a cohort of inmates who were released under the so-called Unger ruling by the state’s highest court.

I wrote in my Sun column the other day about inmates in their 80s, and wondered why the Maryland prison system still felt a need to keep men of that vintage, three of whom had committed crimes of violence more than 50 years ago — one of them in 1953! —  behind the walls. 

And, as the Justice Policy Institute pointed out in a report released the same day my column appeared, Maryland imprisons 3,000 people over age 50, and nearly 1,000 individuals who are 60 or older.

Trust me: I understand the concept of punishment. I am not a “thug hugger,” a term used by critics of my interest in getting ex-offenders jobs after prison. I understand victim impact. I have interviewed families of victims and listened to their pleas during trials and parole hearings. I understand and appreciate that, given the right to make the decision, most kin of victims would either order the state executions of killers or keep them in prison until they died there.

But that’s not the system we have. We have a parole system. It’s a society’s way of stating a belief in human redemption. Wikipedia: Redemption is an essential concept in many religions, including Judaism and Christianity. The word  means “repurchase” or “buy back.” Another definition for redemption is the act of being saved from sin, error, or evil.

We have parole because we believe men and women — not all, but probably most — can redeem themselves. They pay the price. They go to prison, some of them for decades. Then they appeal to the Maryland Parole Commission for release from their sentences. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they remain in prison even though the commission has recommended they be released. That has happened to dozens of men serving life sentences because Maryland is one of only three states where the governor is given final say on parole. Democratic governors were particularly hard-nosed when inmates serving life sentences were recommended for release during the last 30 years.

As a result, we had dozens of aging prisoners — men in their 60s and 70s — who could not get out because a governor said no. That struck me as wholly unfair and political. What’s the point of having a parole commission if a governor, a politician facing re-election and worried about being labeled soft on crime, is going to step in and say no?

My columns about Calvin Ash pretty much demonstrate how screwed-up that part of the system is. Had Calvin Ash been able to get out of prison when the parole commission said he was ready, he might have been able to land a job and support himself. Now, approaching 70, he’s on public assistance. I’ll be writing a followup about him soon.

Let me bottom line this for you: We have a parole system. If you don’t want a parole system — if you want to return to the days of “life means life” — then petition your legislators to abolish it. And then be prepared to create a geriatric prison where we keep able-bodied men long past their prime work years, long past the time when they might have posed a further threat to public safety. And you can forget about redemption and the ideal of second chances.

I understand that prisons are for punishment. But I believe they should be radically changed to prepare inmates for release from the moment they arrive behind the walls. And if the criminal shows that he can change, that he can come out and contribute to this society and abide by our laws, we should release him and help him adjust to living among the rest of us. Otherwise, we are a vengeful society, and asking for more trouble in the future.

One thought on “Real-life Shawshank: Aging inmates, punishment and redemption

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