Good Intentions, Bad Choices

I stared at the proverbial blue screen recently for seven long hours until the perpetrator of two murders and his laundry list of other crimes finally ended the virtual marathon. 

I had a tension headache but listened intently to the twelve cases the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Parole presented and took notes. The list of inmates included candidates from two adult correctional institutions, a youth correctional facility, and two halfway houses around Connecticut. For the majority of hearings, the virtual observer, including victim families, can view the inmate during the live hearing. 

I did not have the benefit of watching our offenders, as they are not usually present at an administrative review of the case record.

My most significant accomplishments in the previous four months were:

1) The arduous task of navigating the various victim service personnel at different agencies and attempting to truly understand what was going on as compared to five years ago with the Board of Pardons and Parole and the perpetrator;

 2) To ensure that my vital victim impact statement and those of my deceased mother were hand-delivered to the hearing officers well in advance.  

 Yes, the advocates do the best they can. However, the process did contain misinformation, lack of communication across agencies, and many “I don’t know’ with our 42-year-old case. In addition, there was some finger-pointing as the various agencies in state government tend to operate in silos more often than collaboratively, in my opinion. 

However, this did not deter me, being the self-appointed ‘captain of this ship.’ I was determined to find the answers. 

As I write this now, the one part of the process that was a complete failure was the FOI- Freedom of Information process, consisting of a formal request to learn about the inmates’ activities in the last five years.

 Suffice it to say even with advanced notice, everything needed to be clarified. No FOI information was ever sent to me, although they knew the deadline. I ‘saw the handwriting on the wall,’ As time progressed, I determined I could do without it, as I had plenty to say.

Another observation was alarming and distracting to me as a viewer. The MacDougall-Walker Correctional Center is a high to maximum-security prison for adult males merged in 2001 and encompassed 140 acres in Suffield, CT. 

As you would expect, it looks like a 1960 cinderblock school built in the 1960s. The inadequacy of the hearing rooms was apparent, very small, with TERRIBLE soundproofing ( as in NO soundproofing!) 

Several times during the seven hours of hearings, viewers and participants could hear loud conversations in an adjacent room very clearly, which masked the essential proceedings. Not being able to listen to the testimony is an injustice to all concerned and must be addressed. I will be bringing this up to prison and victim advocates. 

The cases I heard included youth who had come from the streets and didn’t know any other way, such as one young adult diagnosed with schizophrenia who had little appreciation of his acts.

Some males were incarcerated for molesting children in the family. Reportedly, one inmate up to 400 times either consistently denied guilt, while the other inmate used his medical conditions as ‘an excuse’ or did not benefit from programming. Neither appeared to be motivated to attend programming.

I feel compassion for the overall situation that is thrust upon crime victims. However, I know those who commit violent crimes waste many years of their lives; many receive little to no parental upbringing or support, with insufficient prison staff to teach vital life skills programs to influence positive change. Ideally, prisons exist to teach inmates how to grow up and make good decisions. (For 2023, according to the State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, Connecticut’s recidivism rate is 34%. The average rate is calculated during a three-year period in most states.) 

The three Board of Pardon and Parole hearing officers I viewed, comprised of two males and one female, had their styles of questioning. Steve Dardin (Who had also participated in our 2018 parole hearing), Michael Pohl, and Deborah Palmeri appeared fair in their rulings. However, I think a woman can sometimes ask the right questions more quickly to gauge whether the inmate has grown, had goals, took responsibility, or had remorse from the female perspective. I was glad there were three opinions and two genders. 

As the day wound down, the administrative review for the murderer of my Dad lasted a little over five minutes, much shorter in length than the rest.

Mr. Dardin summarized that they had received letters of support from the inmate’s family, but also (my) strong detailed victim impact statement and my Mom’s. The murderer is now 64 years and seven months, had no disciplinary infractions in several years. Still, he possessed a very violent previous history, including drug dealing, two murders, attacking a correction officer, and many disciplinary problems in earlier years.

Taken from my victim impact statement- “For the record- No one in my family wishes for Mr. Herring to be paroled under any circumstances. Although Mr. Herring is considerably older, and may have matured to some extent, and held a job in the commissary, he continued to commit serious crimes while incarcerated, had no interest in who our family was/ is, nor truly seemed remorseful nor offered any type of restitution over the years, nor did he offer to try to ‘make amends’ in any manner. “

Pivotal points during the brief review were that the perpetrator had taken only one new program in five years. It was titled, ‘Good Intentions, Bad Choices.’ All those years ago, he had ‘good intentions’ to secure money from my father to flee the state. But, he made the ‘bad choice’ to rob and kill him.

Had he used what he learned in the past 42 years in a restorative justice manner, the outcome might have been different.

The other frequent comment made by the hearing officers was, ‘Nothing has changed’ since the previous parole hearing. A BOPP administrator confirmed that, as the rules stand, although he applied for a commutation, he is NOT currently eligible. 

The outcome: Parole, the chance at release was denied again!  

Thank God! ‘Yet another administrative review will be scheduled in five years. This was the best of all possible outcomes of the options available.

I genuinely know that had it not been for my past and current efforts and strong victim impact statement, our lives would again be comprised of fear. But instead, I now feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment in memory of my father and mother. They both deserved this victory!

The next day, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted on several nominations and re-nominations of the Board of Pardons and Parole Hearing Officers. The most controversial of the group was Carlton Giles, the former Chairman demoted by Governor Lamont. As the heated debate progressed, I predicted it would be a reasonably close vote. 

The controversy could all have been avoided had Governor Lamont used his authority to ask that Mr. Giles step down or be fired. (Regardless of his previous credentials or record). The final tally was YES- 79; NO-67; ABSENT -5;

I was so disappointed! 

As rapidly as it ended with the Speaker ending the debate vocally and the crack of the gave, they were then on to ‘the important ecological matter of the horseshoe crab.’ Seriously? This puts things in perspective – whatever is on the calendar! I was minimally glad to note that some Representatives were admonished to ‘keep quiet, take them after-debate discussions elsewhere.’ 

Audrey Carlson, fellow homicide survivor turned warrior, was in the gallery watching. On April 30th, she sent me this hopeful message- 

“Thank you! I’m waiting to hear from Governor Lamont when we, as stakeholders, will be included in the round table discussion moving forward to rewrite the commutation bill/regulation. Stay tuned. We are all in this together.” 

The fate of horseshoe crabs, indeed! 

 Donna R. Gore

Completed May 5th, 2023

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