The Math

In this post, Adam reflects on the personal experiences of a fellow inmate as he faced his time in prison and the many disappointments that came with each parole board hearing.

Years ago in Attica, a friendly old timer named Ralphie told me that I wasn’t yet doing time, that my bi would truly begin once I see my first parole board and get denied release for another two years. I didn’t understand him at the time, though Ralphie’s words have begun to bubble back up and repeat on me like a greasy, late-night meal. After serving twenty-five years, I will see a parole board in 2024.

He went away in 1965, before Vietnam was a household word, and is still hashing off years on a twenty-to-life sentence Fifty years in prison, and counting. How he handles that math, I have no idea, and hope I’ll never have to learn for myself. After appealing his tenth parole board’s decision, he was mistakenly sent pages for his file meant only for viewing by parole commissioners. The most damning: a letter on official stationery from the former mayor of a large city – who is friendly with the affluent family of victims – stating that Ralphie should never be released. Ralphie is an old man now, in failing health, and it seems this administrative fiat will serve as an extrajudicial death warrant. As far as his case is concerned, the system has fallen back on Machiavelli’s advice that men should either be caressed or crushed; might as well tell him, Arbeith macht frei[1]. During the seven or so years we locked near each other, I sat with him in the numb days following three of his parole denials, “hit” in local parlance. There was nothing I could say, nor would I dare offer palliative clichés.

I tried to imagine these parole commissioners watching Ralphie totter in, bald and pudgy like a cherub; peering up at them, his eyes look tremendous big behind thick glasses. The senior commissioner begins the interview, while the others half listen to what is going on, scanning the folder of the next case[2]. Ralphie speaks well and advocates for himself, but it does not really matter, does it? Not with that mayoral coupe de grâce serving as a cover page to his file. So, he sits there as they berate him, and when they ask what his plans are if he’s to be released, well, he tells them. His wife of many years recently passed away; yet, a group of Quakers has written to the parole board pledging to house Ralphie, ditto the director of a program for ex-cons, who would guarantee employment for him administering their database (the old man learned to code in the nineteen-eighties and, remarkably, has kept his skill set current). And then it’s over, just a matter of waiting about a week to receive the denial in the mail, a terse, boilerplate invite to the confab two years hence.

Disappointing, he says, but no surprise. Stoic. But alone, the night after receiving his denial: crushed, gutted. Two days later, he opens the accordion folder that holds a copy of his appeal to the previous denial, two years earlier when the parole board meted out its pronouncement. He highlights names, dates, and other changes that will need to be made on this go round. That appeal was never ruled on, nor were any of the ones that preceded it, each one made moot by not being heard within two years. This is a Catch-22 by way of Kafka, and only someone who’s learned patience from decades spent in a cell can face it without decompensating. On one hand, Ralphie knows that, after spending countless hours assembling and mailing his appeal, it will be mooted by his appearance at the next board, which will hit him again, which will lead to this retrieving his appeal yet again from the according folder, revising and resubmitting; but on the other hand, he has to work the process, do what is expected of him, and hope that one day soon the Fates will tire of making him their plaything. The days go by, and we go with them – but don’t start counting too closely.

[1] “Work sets you free,” the wrought-iron signage on the gate to Auschwitz.

[2] “… half listening to what is going on, because they are focusing on the next case” were the words used by Vernon Manley, former New York State Parole Commissioner, to describe the parole process during a panel discussion held by the New York City Bar Association, February 15, 2007.