Editorial: Turn Up the Heat on the Parole Board

Across the country, family members, friends and community supporters are telling Parole Boards that the time has come to let go of the tens of thousands of prisoners eligible for parole. In California where the prison system holds over 20,000 prisoners with indeterminate life sentences, several court decisions in the past year have ruled in favor of the prisoner’s right to release. In many of these cases the courts have found that there is virtually no evidence that the prisoner would be a risk to society if released, confirming the opinions of prisoners who have consistently reported that the Board routinely hands out denials because of “unsuitability”. In some instances religious and community groups have filed amicus briefs supporting a prisoner’s case for release. And in a recent Superior Court hearing on Leslie Van Houten (CIW) who has been in prison 33 years, Judge Bob Krug said that the Parole Board did not offer Van Houten any reasons for denial of parole and no path towards eventual release. Yet only two prisoners with life sentences, Rose Ann Parker and Cheryl Sellers, have actually been granted parole under Davis’ administration and only one, Rose Parker, is actually out of prison.
The two women who have been granted parole were both in prison for killing their abusive partners. Mounting pressure from advocates has pushed the Board to approve parole for a number of incarcerated survivors of domestic violence. This is positive because it brings the promise of freedom to more battered women than ever before, even though Davis continues to overrule the Board’s decision in most of these cases. On the other hand, the Board arbitrarily decides which women qualify as victims of “Battered Women’s Syndrome” using a narrow definition of BWS and discounting the complexities of many abuse situations. Those women who are not identified as victims of BWS after the Board’s investigation are then accused of lying which becomes an additional basis for denying them parole. Instead of recognizing the need to release all those women who are in prison for resisting their abusers, the Board continues to use BWS in a divisive and punitive way.
While we fight for the release of incarcerated survivors, we also need to support parole for all the other women and men who should be released because they have served their time and are fully ready to become productive members of their communities. And once women are released on parole, the parole system should offer resources for helping them stay out. Women need housing, training, jobs, childcare, drug treatment programs, medical care and basic survival skills or else they simply cannot make it.
Now is the time to turn up the heat on the Parole Board and Davis. Circulate the enclosed letter to Governor Davis calling on him to release women prisoners who have resisted their abusers. Support SB 1497 sponsored by Senator Polanco which would establish special judicial panels, instead of the Parole Board, to preside over parole hearings for about 1,200 prisoners who have fulfilled their term requirements under the parole matrix. And continue to fight for fundamental changes in a parole system which is now set up to enforce the senseless warehousing of human beings.