Thursday, February 6, 2020

Action Gets the Goods! Notes from February 5 Parole Commission Hearing.

Twenty-seven people from around Wisconsin came out early on a Wednesday morning to support fundamental changes on the parole commission. After the meeting, we held a small debrief and then rally (only a dozen or so people stuck around braving the below freezing weather). We plan on returning to attend the next meeting on Wednesday March 4. Next time we will have our rally immediately after the hearing goes to closed session, however unpredictable that may be. This month, we learned that public examination and demonstrations of support is an effective way to speed the change we need. Hope to see more people on March 4!

The meeting.

It took the DOC 20 minutes to arrange a larger room in the training center for us. There we waited another ten for commissioners LaCost and Drankiewicz to join us. Tate said they all left the small meeting room together, but the others were inexplicably delayed.

The room was chilly. It reminded formerly incarcerated attendees of the prison housing units the DOC keeps uncomfortably cold to keep people from being able to think straight. While we waited for the commissioners to make it into the room, we asked Chairman Tate to turn up the temperature. He apologized and said “us being here will warm it up,” then added, joking “you all brought the heat.”

Then he offered to let organizational leaders speak up and represent their groups, since we were waiting anyway. People from ExPO, FFUP, MOSES, James Reed Unitarian Church, MICAH, Supporters of Incarcerated People (SIP), and the ACLU turned up, as well as others.

Once everyone was together, six people represented the Parole Commission: Chairman John Tate II, Commissioner Danielle LaCost, Commissioner Doug Drankiewicz, and three “Offender Records Associates” Caitlin Hendricks, Sarah, and Oliver.

Agenda item 1: draft memo on expectations.

Our work exposing LaCost and the DOC’s undermining of parole releases appeared to had an impact even before we packed the room. Tate started the meeting with a draft memorandum that outlined his expectations for how the Bureau of Classification and Management (BOCM), the Program Review Committee (PRC), DOC and the Parole Commission will conduct themselves.

Highlights he pulled out include:
  • PRC should have people as ready for release as possible, as soon as possible. “Don’t wait for parole to ask, get people enrolled, so they are ready when the hearing happens.”
  • BOCM should move people to lower custody levels “as makes sense” without waiting for Parole to recommend or request it. If someone hasn’t had serious conduct reports for a year or more, they should be moved back down to lower security, instead of waiting 2, 3, 4 years.
  • Commissioners should also endorse for a reduction in custody based on conduct reports, and efforts to not disrupt their environment, not their sentence structure.
  • Commissioners should not defer without endorsing for programming.
  • Anger management, domestic violence programming not only prepares people for release, it also improves unit safety and stability in the prisons, so BOCM should provide that to parolees as soon as they can.
  • BOCM should wait to provide SOT and SUD programming until someone is closer to release.
  • BOCM should stop using old interpretation of deferrals. Tate provided a guide in the memo. As a draft memo, it is not yet available to the public, so we will have to request it when it becomes public so incarcerated people can see if BOCM and Commissioners are following the guidelines or not.
  • The Commission is looking for three phases: Protection of the Public, Risk Reduction, Release Planning.
  • Phase 1: Protection of the public means institutional adjustment, cooperation with BOCM and Parole’s expectations, and really severe convictions “like triple homicides”. These are the only circumstances where deferrals in excess of 18 months are only appropriate.
  • Phase 2: risk reduction. Program engagement and movement to better prepare for release, is what 12-18 month deferrals are for.
  • Phase 3: release planning. Getting people to lowest level of custody, release planning, building funds, and lining up for any lacking programming to be addressed in the community.
  • The primary importance is maintaining safety, and also victim sensitivity, but at the end of the day, “if we can expedite processes for people earning their freedom, we want to do that.”

He said the DOC was very receptive and will align with them. After finalizing the memo, it will be disseminated to all the institutions, so: y’all inside, keep an eye out for it and send FFUP a copy if you can!

Agenda item 2: new hire.

Jackie Height, a senior social worker at Racine Correctional accepted the job offer. She is John Tate’s former mentor when he was doing social work there. How the interview process went: Tate set the criteria for hires, 57 people applied, 32 made it through the initial screening by two DCC staff (he described this phase as “absolutely hands-off” he didn’t even know who was doing the screening). He chose to interview the top 10, which ended up being 19, because three were tied for 10th, and six more were added to address equal opportunity to make sure there was a diverse pool.

First round of interviews narrowed down to four applicants, then chose based on them talking about things like motivational interviewing, understanding trauma, the need to schedule their own days, identifying need for external communications regarding release to include communities and families, rather than just judges and DAs.

Training and timeline- Height will attend hearings with the existing commissioners to learn how things are done. Tate spoke highly of her ability to make assessments and do the job. Drankiewicz emphasized the importance of preparation with the person’s file. Some old law prisoners have explained how this preparation with the file process is relatively new. The files are mostly prepared by the DOC and focus on people’s original offense.

On March first Danielle LaCost will be gone, so Tate and Drankiewicz will split up her hearings starting then, until Height is competent to start handling hearings on her own. Tate will also sit in on Height’s first hearings to make sure of this.

At previous meetings Tate spoke about hoping to hire 2 new commissioners, but because LaCost delayed her resignation until March 1, he cannot hire a second one from the current pool, by statute. Also, statutory changes during Walker’s administration are why the commission is limited to only 4 people (Tate and 3 commissioners) at a time. LaCost is currently handing Stanley, Jackson, New Lisbon, Oakhill, Green Bay, John Burke, Sanger Powers, McNaughton, Thompson, Oregon, Dodge, Columbia and Portage, as well as hearings for people out of state. Anyone in those facilities with a March hearing should expect their hearings to be bumped to the latter half of March, and possibly delayed.

Agenda 3: office issues.

The one year backlog on correspondence mentioned at the last meeting was for correspondence from incarcerated people to the Parole Commission- mostly complaints. Correspondence and support letters from outside were never that far behind, and the new office staff has caught that up with the exception of a few letters that require more complex responses that staff would like Tate to review before sending. FFUP’s questions about Executive Directive 31 (a rule allowing consideration for extraordinary circumstances, like deteriorating health and unusually long sentences that was never promogulated) is likely one of those responses, so we will hopefully get an answer to that soon.

They will now move on to catching up with letters from inside, ensuring that everyone at least gets an acknowledgment of receipt or form letter, if not a full response. Hopefully this will be a crash course for the new staff in what’s been going on with the commission previously.

Tate spoke highly of the new staff, recognizing Sarah’s discipline as a former marine, and spreadsheets Oliver created to organize correspondence and manage work flow. Tate requested that commissioners write reports more carefully regarding information sources for redaction processes. He requested that commissioners indicate where information in reports are coming from, specifically distinguishing between whether information came from a person’s PSU file or the person’s statements in the hearing itself.

Off Agenda: future steps.

The meeting wrapped up after that, but we were able to talk informally with Tate for a while as the room cleared out. Some people delivered support letters directly to him. We also discussed the issue of his senate confirmation, which is still being held up by Senator Fitzgerald and other leaders. Tate shrugged off the delay and restated that not being confirmed wasn’t impacting his approach.

The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, led by Van Wanggaard of Racine County strongly supported Tate’s confirmation, but Scott Fitgerald hasn’t allowed it to come up for a vote. Instead, his party appears to be on a "tougher on crime" mission that will further overcrowd Wisconsin prisons, amplifying the human rights crisis occurring in our state.

Tate also talked about the process of updating administrative code rules. There will be a public hearing scheduled for this, where people can testify and speak in support of changing criteria to increase releases. After that hearing, Tate intends to assemble an advisory committee to help him write new rules, this committee would include prosecutors, Judges, formerly incarcerated people, community organizers and victim’s advocates.

FFUP has already drafted and proposed new rules with the active participation of people incarcerated under the old law. We even proposed those changes under statute 227.12, a process by which regular people can propose rules changes. We delivered this proposal again, along with a support petition signed by 600 people. Forming another advisory body will also delay a reform process that is urgently necessary and could happen much faster. To quote from a recent letter we received from Harlan Richards, who was sentenced under the old law:
“There are fewer and fewer old law prisoners every year. It would be a waste of time and resources to rewrite the administrative code under these circumstances. It would be cheaper, easier and quicker to just reinstate the old rules [from prior to act 28] with one modification. It would solve the biggest problem which is the commission's unbridled discretion and require actual objective facts to deny parole rather than the current subjective decision making which has kept us warehoused for decades.”

In the time spent gathering advisers and recommendations to build the perfect hearings process, Tate could release most, if not all of the remaining old law prisoners. We need a parole commission chair who is committed to making their own job obsolete until Truth in Sentencing is repealed and Wisconsin returns to a system of indeterminate sentencing, anything short of that is a prolongation of grave injustices.

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