As anyone who’s sat for a job interview knows, it’s easy to stress about the little things: saying “like” too many times, crossing your arms, inadvertently sounding too assertive, or not assertive enough. That you could get a job, or not, on the basis of a hundred seemingly innocuous details could make anyone’s palms sweat. But for inmates before the parole board, what’s at stake is their very freedom.
These stakes are made clear to prisoners in Ohio attending one of a series of workshops hosted by the state’s parole board. The workshops, recommended by a Corrections Department working group in 2013, were designed to educate eligible inmates about the parole hearing process. Over the course of several hours, parole-eligible inmates learn skills like “coping in stressful situations” and “positive interviewing techniques.”
The techniques include:
“Grooming — hair combed, teeth brushed, etc.”
“Sit up straight, arms at sides” — note “what crossed arms say about attitude.”
Avoid “repeating phrases like ‘you know what I’m saying.’”
Inmates are advised to wear “clean clothes, appropriate to the temperature” and the group is directed to “discuss what to do about tattoos.” Attendees also learn to make a “sales presentation,” and practice by “selling” an everyday item, like a dry erase marker, to the group.
But the curriculum — remarkably detailed and transparent — makes one thing perfectly clear: No matter how well you clean up, parole is still a longshot. And the board spares few details in explaining why.
The lesson called “Dealing with Disappointment” addresses “the realistic probability that the offender will be denied parole.” Participants role play calling a loved one to tell them their parole was denied. (“What is the best way to comfort someone who has received bad news?”) Of the parole hearings held before the Ohio board in 2015, 7 percent resulted in release, according to recent unpublished data analyzed by Mariel Alper at the Robina Institute’s Parole Release and Revocation Project; that’s down from 22 percent in 2010.
The module on “Public Safety Concerns” provides a window into why this is so.
This lesson aims to help participants “understand their release decision in the context of public safety and public perception of violent crime.” Inmates view a local news report about Dameon Wesley, charged with murdering his girlfriend’s 13-year-old daughter while out on parole in 2013. In the news report, county prosecutor Mathias Heck takes the parole board to task. “It’s shameful,” he says. “They should take the responsibility for their decision and their poor judgment.”
William Ridenour, who has served 43 years of a life sentence for first-degree murder, attended the training in August of last year. “The parole board members at the lecture seemed visibly upset about the media report and the apparent threat of losing their jobs,” Ridenour wrote me in a message. “Much of the discussion after the video involved the untenable position of the parole board when making decisions to parole someone and having that decision blowup in their face. The parole board seems to be paralyzed with fear in making another parole mistake such as the one portrayed in the video example.”
The curriculum notes that “Parole Board members are accountable as public servants for the decisions they make.” As such, one course activity is to consider “why the public would be afraid of prison inmates.” Part of the activity involves reading “comments left on news organization websites reacting to released criminals.”
In response to questions, the parole board spokeswoman, JoEllen Smith, emphasized the importance of the “seventeen release consideration factors” the board uses to guide its decision-making. Participants study these factors as part of the course. Dictated by law and listed in the Parole Board Handbook, they include the inmate’s prior record, any recommendations made by the sentencing judge, the inmate’s “family status,” occupational skills, and other such factors.
Nowhere on that list is “posture, dress, language and grooming” — or public opinion.
The handbook stresses that “information and factors that are empirically demonstrated to be linked to risk and to the likelihood of reoffending are considered at every hearing.” Those who study parole boards say that no empirical research has demonstrated a link between whether someone interviews well and whether he is likely to commit another crime on parole.
In fact, “You could imagine that the people best able to learn the techniques are the more sophisticated criminals that are not sincere,” says Stanford criminologist Joan Petersilia, who studies parole boards. “The people who are the most well-spoken, the most well educated, will in fact be quite able to learn all of this. Whereas people with learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and mental health disabilities, due to no fault of their own, will be less able.”