Who are we? We are a coalition of people inside and outside of prison who are working toward a more just and humane legal system.
We believe in the power of redemption and transformation; and that it is inhumane to order people to spend decades in prison until they die there without any periodic assessment of whether such sentences are necessary for public safety. We therefore stand against policies that sentence people to death by incarceration, whether that be life-without-parole or excruciatingly long sentences that people cannot outlive.
We recognize that excessive sentencing laws have piled up in Illinois, to the point that few people understand them and thousands of people are now required to die behind bars. We also recognize that each of these problematic sentencing laws needs to be repealed. And we recognize that each ameliorative law needs to be applied retroactively. However, we don’t believe that we can wait to establish a fair parole system until each of those battles are won individually, because many people will die behind bars in the meantime.
Therefore, our first course of action is to bring to Illinois a fair, inclusive, and retroactive system of Earned Discretionary Release. We are building a grassroots movement and working with legislators to promote parole legislation that is inclusive and that prioritizes rehabilitation and return to full citizenship. In addition, this legislation must distinguish the initial trial (which focuses on responsibility for the crime) from the parole hearing, which should focus on a person’s level of rehabilitation and current risk to public safety.
We believe that such a system of discretionary release would present the most expeditious way for the many over-incarcerated and wrongly incarcerated men and women in Illinois to obtain their freedom. We don’t take this lightly. We are prepared to devote substantial effort to establishing a fair and inclusive parole system and maintaining a fair and effective parole board.
We seek to mobilize people behind the wall as well as activists and loved ones of incarcerated individuals to fight for a fair and inclusive system of discretionary release and, more broadly, for a more just and humane legal system.
If you are on the inside and want to get involved in the campaign for a fair and inclusive parole system, send your name and address to the PO Box below and indicate that you would like the Parole Illinois campaign packet for people on the inside. We will be sending out the packets in January or February.
601 S. California Ave, Chicago, IL 60612
We regret that we do not have the staff to respond to individual queries at this address. However, your family and friends on the outside can email us at ParoleIllinois.org, check out our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ParoleIllinois/ and receive regular email updates when they sign our support form: https://paroleillinois.org/support-us/
Dear Friends and Family,
We are sending this letter to all of you who have stuck by us throughout this difficult incarceration. We understand that we are not the only ones doing time; that our friends and family are suffering both visible and hidden costs due to my incarceration; and that our family is being harmed emotionally, physically, and financially.
Which makes it all that much harder to ask anything more of you all and we truly regret that we have to. However, without your help, we will die in here. It’s as simple as that. We know you wish that we could come home immediately. So do we. But we need you to do more than wish for it: and so do we. We need you to help us fight to come home. Even if it is just a commitment to spend half of an hour of each week fighting to reinstate parole in Illinois.
In exchange for that half hour of your week, we will make this promise to you – we will spend time every day in that same fight. Plus, we will simultaneously work towards my own rehabilitation, so that, in the event that we are successful and parole returns to Illinois, we will be prepared to make the best case possible for my release.
We will fight to return to our family and community; to be there for both upon release. Will you fight with us?
Here are a few simple things you can do to get started.
- Get involved in the campaign to bring an unbiased, retroactive parole system to Illinois by:
- “liking” the Parole Illinois Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/ParoleIllinois/
- signing the petition in support of Parole Illinois’ proposed legislation for parole at https://paroleillinois.org/support-us/ (This also puts you on the Parole Illinois email list.)
- responding to campaign activities sent to you through the Parole Illinois email list. (If you’d also like to help us coordinate campaign events, you can contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org )
- Identify your district’s Illinois Senator and Representative by going to https://www.illinoispolicy.org/maps/ , typing in your address, and writing down their contact information. Be prepared to contact them when Parole Illinois organizes phone blitzes and lobbying events.
Thank you for your support!
The 6,226 Illinoisans sentenced to die in prison
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?
Dear Members of the IL General Assembly,
Please accept this letter as my support for re-introducing parole in IL.
For the last 13 years I have taught classes in IL state prisons through both state-contracted community colleges and through a volunteer based non-profit, Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project. For the last 20 years I have worked with people impacted by the criminal justice system as survivors and offenders through my work serving survivors of domestic violence, supervising volunteers at a books to prisoner organization, volunteering alongside formerly incarcerated people in communities in art and education organizations.
Over this time, I have met men in prison who have served, collectively, thousands of years of time. These men are in my classes because they seek an education they never got in the free world; they want to be a student alongside a child or family member going to school outside of prison; or they want to improve their skills to open opportunities that are different from what they had access to before coming to prison. In each case, the men are actively seeking out the ‘corrections’ in the correctional center, and often against the odds from staff and lack of programs. Men sign up for every religious activity, every study group, every job position with the hopes, of what one man in prison once told me, of “becoming a better man”. I’ve known men to self-organize study groups, vocabulary clubs and more in prison. Yet, the men I have met over all this time are “better”. That is to say that they are actively and positively engaged in their community both in prison and often via phone or letters, outside of prison. They are not the same person they were 10, 15 or 25 years ago when they committed a crime. They, like me, learn from mistakes, even grave ones. They change over time, take advantage of new opportunities, mature and grow as we all do.
Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project offers 14-week arts and humanities college-level classes to people at Stateville prison on a semester schedule. We work with 75 students per semester, yet some 160 men apply each time. We now partner with Northeastern Illinois University to support a bachelor’s degree program and 8 men will matriculate this year with a degree. This work is critical because it is one of many things people in prison do to prepare themselves for life beyond prison, but for so many, this life is uncertain because their sentences are indefinite, or 80 years, or otherwise too long to survive.
When I first started teaching at Stateville I was struck by the differences in length of sentence between the students there, and the last prison I where I had taught, Danville CC. At Danville, men were certainly serving long prison terms but had out-dates. They were in classes—academic and vocational—with a plan for a future. They often committed the same class and type crimes as men at Stateville, but might have had access to lawyer, or they were sentenced in a different county, or were sentenced before the Truth-in-Sentencing legislation took effect. These men expressed remorse for the harms they caused and were often trying to grapple with the violence and traumas that they had caused and violence they survived before coming to prison (as so many people in prison are both survivors and perpetrators of harm). At Stateville, I met the same men, with the same crimes, with the same goals for education and vocation and the same remorse for the harms that they caused. Yet, these men were functionally given the death penalty, serving ‘death by incarceration’.
Recent studies from the Urban Institute and the Sentencing Project show an all-time high in the sentencing of people to life and long sentences, despite the rate of violent crime falling. The broad use of long term and life sentences has been claimed to be used only in the most egregious cases, for the ‘worst of the worst’, yet the increase in sentences tells us this is not true. Across the nation some 170,000 people have been sentenced to life for non-violent crimes. This is at odds with IL’s stated goals of reducing incarceration and the costs, both financially and socially, to the state. Finally, the racial dimensions of long-term sentencing in the state is staggering. Some 68% of the people serving life and long sentences in IL are Black. This is a clear indication of a racially driven system of punishment.
The studies also point out important factors that must be acknowledged when considering a parole system in IL. The Sentencing Project’s Still Life study states:
Yet there are diminishing benefits of high levels of incarceration on public safety. A prominent reason is that the impulse to engage in crime, including violent crime, is highly correlated with age,8) and by one’s early 40s even those identified as the most chronic “career criminals” have tapered off considerably.9) Lifelong imprisonment with limited or no chance for review only serves a retributive purpose and is often counterproductive for purposes of crime control….. empirical evidence that shows diminishing public safety benefits associated with incarceration beyond a certain point. Some also reason that the expansive and somewhat arbitrary use of imprisonment weakens its general deterrence value…..
Further, the Alliance for Safety and Justice’s study IL Crime Victim’s Voices tell us that:
7 in 10 victims prefer shorter prison sentences and spending more on prevention and rehabilitation programs to prison sentences that keep people in prison for as long as possible.
6 in 10 victims prefer alternatives to prison such as rehabilitation, mental health treatment and drug treatment to putting people in prison.
A fair and balanced parole system in IL is sorely needed to reverse some of the harms created by locking up people for life. We know that longer sentences do not prevent or deter crime. We know that an effective and fair parole systems is far less costly than the millions of dollars required to keep people in prison for decades, especially as they age. We also know that IL is out of step with other states are actively reducing their prison populations. Most recently the Lieutenant Governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, told members of the Democratic Club “Life without parole is inherently inhumane.”
Today I know many men who are out of prison: they have done their time (again, often for the same crime as a man at Stateville but sentenced before Truth in Sentencing or other mandatory minimums); they were wrongfully convicted; and now some men who were JLWOPs and they have been resentenced under the famous Miller v. Alabama case. These people are highly valued members of their communities, they hold jobs, despite the challenges of getting a job with a record, that include youth mentor, tax preparer, community engagement specialist, fork-lift driver, owner of a fitness center and more. Further, I know many others that are now are enrolled in bachelors and master’s degree programs. Importantly, they are again an active father, sibling and care-taker of now-elderly parents. They are tax-payers and full contributors to our community.
Illinois is behind in prison reform efforts. Our state is financially precarious and small fixes to the system won’t do. Let’s take a bold step in the right direction by listening to crime victims, people in prison and communities where people will return home. We must restore justice and second chances to our criminal legal system by making a fair and just pathway out of prison. A rigorous parole board, with educated and diverse members, is one important step in making overdue and needed changes in IL.
Assistant Professor of Art Education
Co-Director, Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project
December 3, 2018
TO: Committee Chairs Kim Fox, Jehan Gordon-Booth, and Robin Kelly
CC: Lieutenant Governor-elect Juliana Stratton, Representative Rita Mayfield
FROM: The Stateville Debate Team
RE: Invitation to meet with the Stateville Debate Team
We are aware that Governor-elect Pritzker has announced the formation of a Restorative Justice and Safe Communities Committee. We appreciate that the Governor-elect recognizes the need to fix our broken criminal-justice system and to do so in a way that “move[s] away from a system of imprisonment and build[s] a true system of justice.”
We are writing today for two reasons. First, we believe that the establishment of a fair, inclusive, and retroactive parole system is crucial to true criminal-legal reform. This system must evaluate every person who enters prison to assess their program and rehabilitation needs; and, equally important, it must evaluate the currently incarcerated men and women, with the aim of ameliorating the excessive sentences that already have been handed out.
Second we believe that the committee needs to hear directly from incarcerated individuals. Regardless of how well-intentioned the committee, they will not fully understand the failings of our criminal-legal system or the steps needed for “a true system of justice” until they hear from the men and women who have direct experience with prisons and the criminal-legal system.
Therefore, we invite the chairs and members of your committee to come to Stateville Correctional Center and meet with the Stateville Debate Team. The Stateville Debate Team is particularly well positioned to contribute to the work of your committee. We are group of men from diverse social backgrounds who have experienced incarceration at prisons across the state. We were selected to participate in an educational debate program at Stateville prison. We have pursued substantial research on criminal-justice reform. We have presented our analysis of issues related to discretionary parole to a group of state legislators and community members last March.
We also urge the committee to meet with incarcerated people at prisons across Illinois. Women prisoners have unique concerns and perspectives, and we particularly hope that you will meet with women such as Janet Jackson and other women incarcerated at Logan.
Finally, as you may know, Representative Rita Mayfield recently held subject-matter-only hearings on the issue of bringing a fair parole system to Illinois. Representative Mayfield has conferred with the Stateville Debate Team and is drafting legislation based on the framework developed by the Debate Team. The Debate Team proposal can be found here: https://paroleillinois.org/stateville-debate-team-proposal/. We also invite you to visit the Parole Illinois website, ParoleIllinois.org.
We look forward to further discussions with you. (You can contact us at ParoleIllinois@gmail.com)
Why it is Imperative that Incarcerated Illinoisans Have a Right to Review Their “Master Files” and a way to Challenge any Inaccurate Information Contained within Them.
By Joseph Dole
The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) maintains what is called a “master file” on every incarcerated individual under its control. Among other things, the master file contains a statement of facts about the crime he or she was convicted of, their sentence calculation (or mittimus) sheet, their disciplinary history, grievances they have filed, and much more
During clemency proceedings, the Prisoner Review Board has unfettered access to the master file of any incarcerated person seeking clemency. If a parole system were to be reinstated in Illinois, any parole board would most likely have unfettered access as well, just as they did under the previous parole system
IDOC staff likewise have unfettered access to incarcerated persons’ master files, and can place within them negative information without any check on the veracity of the information. However, under current IDOC regulations, not only is an incarcerated person barred from accessing their own master file to determine if there is false, misleading, or fabricated information contained within it, but there is also no formal mechanism to challenge the inclusion of such information if one, by chance, discovers it.
Negative information in one’s master file can have dire consequences, especially when it is erroneous. It can literally be used to increase one’s punishment for new disciplinary infractions, can sway the Prisoner Review Board to recommend that the Governor deny the person clemency, and if a parole system is reestablished, could be used to deny a person parole. Thus, as the courts already have noted, incarcerated individuals have a liberty interest, and thus a due process right, not to have inaccurate information in their master files.
The problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If someone is denied access to his or her master file and it contains false information, he or she lacks the knowledge of the inaccuracy to challenge it. Moreover, as there is no mechanism for challenging the inaccurate information (in those rare instances when it comes to light) it becomes impossible to have it removed short of a court order.
As noted, it is rare that one obtains access to their master file. This is usually only achieved through a subpoena or other discovery requests during civil litigation or post-conviction criminal proceedings. When it occurs, though, the incarcerated individual often finds false, misleading, or outright fabricated information therein. Sometimes it will be inaccurate disciplinary information, such as a finding of guilt for an infraction a person was actually found not guilty of, or which was supposed to have been expunged. Other times, they find a master file devoid of any the person’s accomplishments while incarcerated (due to counselors not wanting to including information that reflects positively on the incarcerated individual), thus giving a misleading impression of the person being unproductive while in prison. Some people find inaccurate prison work histories, or erroneous “facts” in the “statement of facts,” or learn that good time was unlawfully revoked when the IDOC Director didn’t approve such revocation.
Then there is also the fabrications put in by staff members retaliating against the incarcerated person for filing grievances or lawsuits, or for engaging in verbal or physical altercations with staff. This type of retaliatory fabrication of negative information being placed in one’s master file can range from false allegations of threats of violence to fabricated nicknames or gang affiliations.
Therefore, to protect a person’s due process rights and ensure basic fundamental fairness in any parole system, it is imperative that all incarcerated Illinoisans have unfettered access to their own master files, and that a timely mechanism to challenge and remove erroneous information therein be created and available prior to any parole hearing. One’s freedom may depend on it.
 20 Illinois Administrative Code Section 504.20 (b)(5).
I was asked to write about a prisoner and about Parole in Illinois. But strange as it may be, before I expound on Parole, I felt more compelled to write about you… to write to you about you.
Strange, I agree. But here goes…
From the moment the cell doors slam on a person, I always imagine that what begins there, is some form of a count down: Count down for time to be released; count down to the time to die… or count down the time to get out.
Get out. Get away. Go back home. There would be a scramble, maybe…eventually. Whether innocent or guilty, the library would be filled with those attempting to find out what happened; find an appeal, find some loophole or an escape route. Then, there would be the letters; letters and petitions; petitions to attorneys or advocates. All wanting the same thing: to get out. Letters saying: “Help me. Look what happened to me.”
And then there’s you. The person the advocates and the attorneys and politicians want. The one who has to read through the pleas and proceedings of activists and support organizations trying to get people to feel something for prisoners, because if you see them as people, then maybe you could have sympathy or empathy for them.
It’s easy to kill or forget a monster. It’s hard to torture a person.
But, I’d rather write this essay about you; a person of profound interest. The one pulled and tugged by both sides of a spectrum; the one that must be convinced. But how could anyone know for certain… that they are not all monsters? That any one of them is human? Is anyone truly themselves when they are fighting for their lives? Those charged with raising doubt would tell you: people can say just about anything when they are fighting for their own lives, right? It seems so selfish or at least disingenuous to be apologetic at such a time. How would we know they are not con men? Con men are humans too.
So, I’m looking at you and I’m thinking: Let’s put monsters and men aside for a moment and ask you about you; if you are getting what you want out of any of this. Are you getting justice? Is justice being served? When a child is born and depending on whatever womb they are born from, they may face a high-stakes, uphill battle to obtain a marginal education, craft skill or alleyway of opportunity and if by most staggering statistical odds they end up miseducated, unskilled and without opportunity, that they will stumble down a rabbit hole of self destruction that may or may not land in your back yard; in your front yard, in your parked car, in your house, on your college campus or at your child’s school. How many more scientists and economists have to write papers pointing to the same answers?
Are you happy paying for the school to prison pipeline? All of it, any of it, either way: hit or miss, in your back yard or in your neighbors back yard. Are you okay paying for everything? And if you pay for it and don’t have to look at it, does that make it go away? Has it gone away? Or is it increasingly and intriguingly more and present. The more you try to erase, the more it appears. And isn’t it expensive? Increasingly closer to you. On your television every night and lurking between the ledgers of all of your security systems.
I’ve listened to and sat on panels of conferences, boardrooms of discussions, where tens to hundreds of brilliant people deliberated over ways to seduce you; to pull you in their corner for what they want. Make you feel empathy…sympathy. This is caught somewhere between the simultaneous attempts of news stations to scare you, politicians to woo you, governments to tax you and food and drug companies to sedate you. Victims families rightfully have all of us empathizing with their hurt and anger while prisoners rake up classes and petitions asking you feel sorry. Have you noticed the words that are missing in all of this?
Has anyone gotten what they needed? Do victims get satisfaction from warehousing or state sanctioned retaliation? Does it rewind time? Are streets any safer? Or does it feel like we’re going in circles?
And if we keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, are you comfortable with that always being a roll of the dice for you? Every time you walk out your front door, or jog at night?
What’s so intriguing about you, is that through all of the dice rolling and all of the buck passing from those trying to manipulate you onto their team, you’ve not once won a single game or even seen progress. But you keep paying for it all. The real losers aren’t just the prisoners and the victims. It’s you as well. And the only people winning are the ones who built the casino.
They built an arena and profit from both sides battling each other to the death. They built a system where masses and masses of people don’t get better. They simply “get out.” Or they just try to get out. They try to get you to get them out. And then all we get, once they’ve gotten that, is another social liability that pours back into the cycle of ignorance that fuels the whole machine running on your shoulders.
Instead of asking you to care about a prisoner in order to be a proponent of Parole in Illinois, I think I’d rather ask you to care enough about yourself and the world that your children will have to grow up in to pose the real questions. To flip the chessboard over and hold the game-maker accountable for the cycle of destruction we’ve all been wrapped into: A system that is called corrections, but makes very little progress at correcting things. A system called education, but makes very little progress at educating everyone. And even still, while we talk about justice and freedom; crime and punishment, there’s still words missing that you rightfully deserve.
Prevention ProAction Progress Well-Being Redemption Atonement Restoration Reparation
If someone was actually working toward a way where you could touch those things. Not another buzz word, or heart-string; not running in circles and not just getting out; would you listen?
Ask: Andre Patterson.
And then ask yourself: What socio-economic benefit has ever arisen from establishment of decentralized education funding since the inception of the U.S. Department of Education in 1867?
Ask yourself: If crime is the result of economic instability and economic instability is the result of non-education and non-education is the result of economic instability, what incentive do the corporations or government entities that claim billions of dollars in earnings and tax revenues each year from this cycle of ignorance have to bring about or propel legislation that calls for equal education for all?
If America’s position as the number one jailer in the world, the rising recidivism rates and failed policies since the war on crime began in 1971 are no indication, ask yourself this:
Who is t,hen, incentivized to end the cycle of ignorance and incarceration? If the policy makers, corporations and prisons have found no incentive to diminish mass incarceration (except when there’s a national recession),Who is incentivized to educate the disenfranchised youth of tomorrow? Who will dare to step into forgotten schools, neighborhoods and confront the angry, mis-guided, mis-educated pipe line counterparts BEFORE they terrorize anyone’s neighborhood?
Who is the most equipped with nothing else to lose? Who has seen the pendulum swing and seen the end of the dead-end road? Who has been to the depths of hell and climbed out again to warn others to go a different way? Who has self-educated, self motivated and self demonstrated a plan to set a new course for the future?
Those Paroled from Prison.