By Harlan Richardts
Back in the 1980s a person with a life sentence (lifer) would serve on average 13-15 years before release on parole. In the 1970s it was much shorter because Wisconsin's governors routinely granted clemency to lifers by commuting their sentences to 50 years or less. This allowed lifers to receive parole hearings far in advance of the statutorily mandated 11 years, 3 months (one lifer had his sentence commuted to “time served” after only 5 years).
It was so rare for a lifer to spend more than 20 consecutive years in prison that in 1980 there were only two prisoners with that distinction. In 1990, it was a newsworthy item when Steve Urban died in prison after serving 47 years on a life sentence. He was released on parole in the early 1970s but by that time he had become institutionalized and quickly demanded that he be allowed to return to prison. When he died, he no longer had any family to claim his body, which was buried in a pauper's grave outside of Waupun. The Waupun Correctional Institution Lifers Group took up a collection and bought a headstone for his grave.
Times have changed. The constant drum beat of vengeance, retribution and punishment has changed the political landscape. Newly convicted lifers no longer automatically become eligible for parole after 11 years, 3 months. The judge sets the length of time to eligibility and it is not uncommon for lifers to have to serve 30 or more years to their first parole hearing.
Fast forward to 2009, and those same lifers who could have been paroled in 13-15 years are now hoping for release after serving twice that amount of time. In the 1980s, release on parole was virtually assured based on past practice. While there are a few lifers still being released on parole after an average of 30 years, it has become the exception rather than the rule.
From only 2 lifers with 20 or more consecutive years served in 1980, there are now 255. The number is increasing every year. One of those lifers who had already served 20 years in 1980 is still in prison. Garold Rheinschmidt has now served 49 years. He is not alone. There are 6 lifers who have served over 40 years and an additional 37 lifers who have served over 30 years. There were none in 1980.
When data on lifers is evaluated based on year of admission, the critical year is currently 1979. That is the first year for which there are more lifers still in prison than have been released. The percentage of lifers incarcerated increases until 1989; none of the lifers who entered prison that year have been released.
Curiously, there are some anomalies. Two women came to prison in 1992 and were paroled relatively early. Lashonda Mayhall was released in 2005 after 12.5 years and Mary Leggate. One wonders why these two women were released in such a relatively short period of time while all other lifers spend years, or decades more.
To the lay person, it may seem right that “life means life”; that regardless of what was done in the 1980s and before, murderers belong in prison forever. It may seem that murderers are only now getting their just desserts. Perhaps that is true. Ex-governor Tommy Thompson made being “tough on crime” his mantra and served multiple terms as governor. The prison population was just 3,980 in 1980, grew to 7,362 in 1990 and hit 21,110 in 2005. Thompson made the warehousing of prisoners an established policy and became infamous among prisoners for his 1994 letter where he stated: “The policy of this Administration is to keep violent offenders in prison as long as possible under the law.”
The data reflect this change in attitude as most of the growth in time served to release occurred in the late 1990s and beyond. Dierdra Morgan, chairperson of the parole commission in 2001-02, is the only chairperson with the distinction of having gone an entire calendar year without paroling a single lifer (2002). In 2001, she paroled one lifer. He was housed in maximum security at the time and that generally means he was either paroled to a in prison or was released because he was terminally ill.
Jerry Smith, Ms. Morgan's predecessor, was not much better. He released only 2 lifers in each of the two years he was chairman.
Lenard Wells was Governor Doyle's first chairman. He started out slowly but once he gained confidence he began paroling many lifers. In 2005, he released 18 lifers. But he was forced to resign in 2006 due to the public outcry when he paroled two “cop killers.” The news media never did tell the whole story, prefering sensationalism to fair and accurate reporting. Robert Prihoda and LaVern Rogers were convicted in the 1975 shooting death of an off-duty police officer during a tavern robbery. They were both young men who made poor choices and paid the price of over 30 years in prison. Now approaching middle age, they no longer pose a threat to anyone and were appropriately released on parole. Neither one has been involved in any further criminal activity although they have now been free for years.
But Governor Doyle, ever the weather vane of public opinion, was spooked by the press coverage and replaced Wells with someone he could be sure would never make him look bad in the media again. Political expediency took precedence over fair paroling policies. The outcome of the 2010 gubernatorial election is more important than letting rehabilitated prisoners return to society. After all, nobody wants ta be "Willie Hortoned" in an election.
Governor Doyle's adoption of Thompson's warehousing policy seems very puzzling considering who Doyle's father was. Honorable James E. Doyle, Sr., was a federal judge in the Western District of Wisconsin and was instrumental in bringing Wisconsin's prison system out of the dark ages in the 1960s and 1970s. Gone are the days of bread and water diets, the silent system and a raft of draconian restrictions prison administrators once claimed were necessary to running a prison. It was so-called activist judges like Doyle who brought the cleansing light of judicial scrutiny to a medieval prison system. How ironic that decades later it is his son who is behind the erosion of those principles of justice and fair play upon which Judge Doyle's legacy stands.
One of the basic constitutional protections our founding fathers guaranteed us was the right to be free from ex post facto laws. This includes not being subjected to increased punish-ment for a crime previously committed. It seems only fair that this principle be respected in our country. Still, many oppose such a basic guarantee.
The problem is that when the constitution was written it only proscribed actual changes in laws, not reinterpretation of existing laws. Although the spirit of the ex post facto Clause would prohibit doubling a prisoner's time in prison after the fact,
the devil is in the details. In other words, our judges have chosen to rely on a strict literal interpretation rather than a more equitable analysis based on the intent of the constitution.
Many people listen to the controversy over judicial appointments to the federal bench with a yawn. For most citizens it does not matter who becomes a judge because they will never see the inside of a federal courthouse. But for those on the fringes of society - the prisoners and other social outcasts - federal courts are their only hope for justice. After decades of conservative judicial appointments, few judges remain who are willig to stand up for society's most oppressed people.
Wisconsin's lifers are trapped in a system which exists solely to perpetuate itself. In 1990, Thompson funded a study which called for the prison population to reach 20,000 by 2000. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The growing population of lifers has contributed to that growth. Those 255 lifers with more than 20 years served have cost taxpayers millions of dollars over the decades of their captivity. The annual cost to house a prisoner in fiscal year 2005 was $44,118. It is easy for Governor Doyle to blame our $6 billion budget shortfall on a bad economy. Much of it, however, appears to be the direct result of ill-considered corrections policies over the last 25 years.
There are hundreds of lifers still in prison under the old sentencing laws who could be safely released on parole. Jesse Derickson is 85 years old, serving double life for shooting 2 men and trying to make it look like they shot each other. Jesse has spent 26 years in prison and is now a doddering old man, wasting away in a prison cell. Wayne Lowe is 81 years old and has spent 21 years in prison on a life sentence for killing his wife's boyfriend. Wayne weighs about 90 pounds and can best be described as frail. These men have spent decades in prison, are near the end of their lives and no longer pose a threat to anyone. Who would you rather see in a prison cell? One of the many aging, now harmless, lifers or the young gun toting gang member selling crack on a street corner near you? Which one do you have the most to fear from?
The time for vengeance is over. What Wisconsin needs is restorative justice: A system which heals the victim, the community and the offender. Now is the time to restore sanity to the correctional system. The Department of Corrections has numerous programs to help prisoners learn to be good citizens. When prisoners change their thoughts, beliefs and actions, it should be acknowledged and they should be permitted to return to being productive members of society.
Parole decisions should be based on suitability for release rather than the next gubernatorial election. Our elected officials are squandering tens of millions of dollars on misguided corrections policies while children go hungry and schools are
under funded. Isn't it time that Wisconsin's citizens speak out on this issue?
About the author:
Harlan Richartds is serving a life sentence for stabbing another man in a fight. He has served 24 years in prison. In April 2008, after 2 1/2 years at a work release center and 19 months on work release, Alfonso Graham increased the length of Richards’ parole defer which resulted in Richards’ transfer back to a prison for additional years of warehousing. Richards is a self-taught jailhouse lawyer who has litigated prison rights issues extensively during his incarceration. He earned a bachelors degree in business administration from UW Platteville in 1997, graduating summa cum laude. He is currently housed in Oakhill Correctional Institution.
Lifer Data Sources:
May 18, 2000 response to open records request made to the Department of Corrections regarding lifers in prison between 1980 and 1990. Response was based on data culled from CIPIS database Y2K and pre-1991 monthly report.
April 2009 response to open records request made to the Department of Corrections.
Notes on Statistics:
All of the data used in the graphs presented in the article were obtained through open records law or were based on the personal knowledge of the author. Lifers who were serving a period of revocation were excluded from the calculations. It was assumed for purposes of creating the graphs, that any lifer who served less than ten years was incarcerated for revocation.
All calculations and tabulations were done by hand using pencil, paper and a hand held calculator. The author welcomes any corrections, comments, or questions on the methedology or results of his data processing. All raw data and calculations may be found at: WisconsinLifers.blogspot.com