America Magazine – Valerie Schultz
A parolee readies for life beyond prison.
The thing I remember best about Louie is that he said he hadn’t had a peach in 30 years. Louie (not his real name) was a lifer; he was in his 50s and had been in prison for over three decades. On the day he told me this, as he was hanging out in the library where I work, a couple of landscape workers were ripping out two trees in the chapel courtyard. The trees in question had grown from saplings and had turned out to be fruit trees, suspected peach trees, and so had to be removed from the prison grounds before they bore any fruit. This is because fruit can be fermented into alcohol by inventive inmates. Which explains why Louie had not had a peach in 30 years.
Louie had recently been found suitable for parole at his hearing with the parole board, a ritual that inmates with life sentences endure every so many years. A typical board hearing used to end in an almost certain denial, but because of a sea change in public attitude from a preference for punishment to an interest in rehabilitation, along with a federal court order to reduce the state prison population, now prisoners are sometimes emerging from their hearings with a dazed look and a piece of paper that reads “Parole granted.” A waiting period of 120 days follows the board’s decision, to allow for review. For a murder conviction—not all life sentences are for murder—an additional 30 days are tacked on, during which time the governor can reverse the board’s decision. Past governors had almost always taken this route. More and more, however, the governor has been upholding the board’s suitability findings.
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