Testimony for the Nov 8 House/Senate Hearing on Parole, by Shari Stone-Mediatore

My name is Shari Stone-Mediatore. I was born in Chicago and grew up in Highland Park, Illinois.  And I am currently a Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan University.

I’ve taught philosophy to men and women convicted of violent crimes. I’ve also supported several men with life and de-facto life sentences in Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan in their efforts to pursue education, apply for scholarships, publish their writing, and participate in productive activities, such as art and essays contests. I’ve been amazed by these individuals and what I’ve learned from them.

One thing I’ve learned is that there is no such “violent offender” or “murderer.” Those categories regulate our legal system. And they sometimes take on a life of their own in our imaginations. But the people convicted of violent crimes are each unique individuals with their own life stories, strengths and weaknesses.

I’m here today because I fear that our criminal-justice policy has followed the phantoms of our imagination at the expense of this human reality.

The incarcerated individuals with whom I’ve had the privilege to work have struggled against tremendous obstacles to educate themselves and — even when their own chances for return to free society looked grim — to contribute to social aims larger than themselves.

When I’m having a bad day, I often motivate myself to pick myself up and focus on positive goals by thinking about, for instance,

Joseph Dole writing an essay on justice to publish in an academic philosophy journal, while sitting on the cement floor of a barren cell.

I also think of Howard Keller using his limited funds to sponsor an essay contest for fellow inmates.

I also think of Mike Simmons, who has been moved to pursue his education and strive to be the best person he can by the wish of his victim’s mother that one day he be rehabilitated and rejoin the community. (Mike’s own mom couldn’t be here today due to work obligations; but she insisted that I stay in her home last night.)

I also think of  Lacino Hamilton, who, despite his confinement to virtual constant lockdown conditions, has reminded me of the need to maintain dialogue with those from whom I’ve been alienated.  As Lacino put it in a recent letter:

“The adversary, ‘Us v. Them’ model encourages us to see those [with whom] we have disagreements…as opponents and not collaborators. It prevents us from positioning ourselves to hear others’ claims with any openness or willingness that would enable us to see how their [concerns] are related to our own….

…If there was one thing I could change about prison, it would be more dialogue between jailer and jailed.” 

Statistics tell us that – contrary to popular perceptions — people convicted of violent crimes have the lowest recidivism rates.  This may be because many such people never actually committed the violent crime of which they were convicted: Some have been wrongly convicted and many have been convicted under laws of accountability, which pin violent convictions on people who were only indirectly involved in the crime.

In addition, however, having worked with many people convicted of violent crimes, I now understand how people who have struggled with all-too-human failings can face their own flaws and use their regret as a catalyst to improve their lives and give back to society.

Parole would give these people who have worked so hard to repair their lives something to hope for; a goal to motivate them to develop their best potential.

To borrow a metaphor from incarcerated writer Joseph Dole, parole would provide a “safety valve” for the many men and women in this state who are irrationally locked up for decades beyond the time they pose any threat. These men and women have far too much to offer to allow a stranglehold of irrational policies to prevent them from ever even having a chance to rejoin their families and communities.

Do we lock these people up for the rest of the rest of their lives and forget about them as they pile up in geriatric prisons? Or do we face them as human beings and give them fair opportunities to present themselves before a parole board?