Unanswered Questions at the Parole Commission

John Tate II, parole commission chair

The Wisconsin parole commission met on Wednesday, June 2. It was an exciting meeting because commission chair John Tate II allowed people to send in questions in advance and even answered some of them. This gave us a deeper glimpse into the biases, misconceptions, and mindset of the commission. That’s not a pleasant thing to see.

Routine agenda

In-person v virtual hearings- Tate anticipates that Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) will restore visitation, but gradually, by having people wear masks at first. Doug Drankiewicz has complained that parole petitioners wearing masks inhibits his ability to pass judgement on them, so he (and other commissioners) will have the option to continue with virtual hearings until DAI also lifts the masking protocol.

Informational deferrals- Tate noted that when commissioners issue deferrals based on needing additional information, they have begun to actually amend the recommendation when they gain the information. Apparently, past practice was to defer people for lack of information, and then ignore them until the deferral passed and they had a regularly scheduled hearing. This is an improvement to that incredibly poor practice.

Photographs of victims- commissioner Doug Drankiewicz, who was hired long ago, during the Walker administration, asked about bringing in photographs of victims to hearings. This used to be a more common practice before COVID19. The office of victim services has at times requested including “multiple pictures, and a picture [of a victim] in the casket”. Tate asked about the intentions of these pictures. He said “I don’t want to create a situation where victims / attendees are trying to inflict some kind of damage on people… in a way that isn’t therapeutic.”

This discussion went on for some time. Commissioner Jennifer Kramer said: “I haven’t had anyone request that. I think photo is a respectful reminder, but that picture in a casket… I’m not sure how that will be helpful during the review.” Tate added, “that desire to expose them is better suited for a victim-offender dialog… The focus in a hearing is on the person who is applying… really it’s a semi-judicial kind of process… the victim-offender dialog is a tool that exists and works very well to achieve that closure.”

Someone named Joan from the victim services office was in the meeting. She, commissioner Shannon Pierce, staff weighed in, but they ended up landing in the relatively reasonable place Tate outlined.

Sex Offender Treatment (SOT)- Drankewicz next spoke about new sex offender evaluation standards that are leading to fewer people being required to do SOT1 or 2 treatment. He said people who “obviously needed” these programs were no longer being required to do them. He also wants to use the fact that they are now more widely offered inside institutions as a pretext to make them a requirement before release. Previously, most people did SOT1 after release, so Doug is looking to impose standards that delay releases. He, and the former commissioners who were hired during the Walker era frequently sought out pretexts to delay releases in this way. Tate spoke against it, saying that the preference is that if SOT programs “can be done prior to release, great” but if not “it’s still very much an option in the community.” Exchanges like this in these meetings always involve dancing around the open secret that commissioners, especially old-school commissioners like Drankewicz are looking for pretexts to defer people and maintain their role as commissioners.

Jennifer Kramer and Doug Drankiewicz, commissioners

Questions from the public

Tate took a couple questions from the public, limiting it to things “related to policy, practice, and procedure” which maybe excluded questions from loved ones about specific cases, and definitely excluded questions some of us sent in. The answers provided here are often paraphrasing from notes, not direct quotes.

Question 1- When considering grants or pre-release does the commission “hold it against a person for not having moved to a reduced level of custody through no fault of their own if they have been classified for a lower level?”

Tate replied:
“the direct answer is no,” but then he added a lot of ambiguous language. Paraphrasing: it’s important to know that we do prefer releasing people from minimum and work release because the transition to the public is less jarring. It’s important for us to see people perform at a lower level, to know they can keep good conduct. Security level is not a factor itself, but it is a consideration. There are times we’ve released from medium or maximum. As with every case we are looking at individual factors.

Analysis and recommendation: Tate’s answer prevents people from having specific expectations. It shows the parole commission’s reticence to have clear, dependable standards, which enables arbitrary and unequal treatment. They always want their process to be opaque to the people subjected to their judgement. The effect of this approach is to set people up with false hopes, requiring them to be more emotionally vulnerable, and more emotionally harmed when the commission dashes those hopes with an arbitrary deferral.

People going in to hearings should recognize that the commission gets off on wielding this kind of power. You must be ready to perform a level of remorse and emotional vulnerability about your crime, but you also must protect yourself against the disappointment of deferral and not react. The commission requires people to adopt this paradoxical, vulnerable yet guarded, posture when discussing not only the traumatic events leading to incarceration, but also decades of additional trauma caused by captivity. In this way, what the parole commission does is a form of emotional abuse. Recognizing this may help you prepare for it.

Question 2- What things can a supporter of parole applicants do in preparation for a hearing?

Tate’s answer, (paraphrasing again): write in, express support. The more specific about support you offer, the better: if you can provide housing or a vehicle, for how long? Those details help. Additionally, help the person prepare, have a sense of what they’ll be asked and practice how they want to respond. Sometimes the people who are before us don’t fully understand how they’ll come across in a hearing. Sometimes, they’re too much in their own heads, so having them bounce off a listener helps. Help them prepare to answer questions like, ‘are they safe to return? Are they acknowledging their role in events? Are they taking responsibility in a way that demonstrates the impact of their role in the events?’

Jennifer Kramer: connect people with resources for programs and forms of support outside of just family support. The world has changed since they were incarcerated. They should not have everything fall upon the family.

Analysis and recommendation: again, this is a more complicated feat than perhaps even John Tate understands. The vast majority of people convicted of crimes in amerika are convicted through plea bargains. Court processes are not based in reality, but on a charging and punishment negotiation. Cops and District Attorneys over-charge, then negotiate the plea deal using under-resourced public defenders who are often looking to maintain a good relationship with the prosecutor and judge to make their jobs easier. So, at a parole hearing, the person going up for parole is expected to take responsibility and express remorse about a conviction that may not match what actually occurred decades ago. Tate’s advice that you rehearse and play that part is good advice, though. Remember that the entire system is built on lies, and to escape those lies, you need to play along with them. Think of it as an acting role you need to adopt to appease the commissioners. Understand what they expect you to say, rehearse with friends, and find a way to say it convincingly.

Question 3- What can someone who doesn’t have community supporters to write to the commission do to improve their chances of release?

Tate’s answer: that’s a tough situation, we run into it pretty often. Those are the most challenging scenarios. Their release plan is often too independent arrangement, which they don’t have resources to support themselves on their own. One thing the commission doesn’t do is release to homelessness. We also try not to release to inevitable homelessness. A person dependent on DOC resources is going to end up homeless when those DOC resources expire. Lack of support doesn’t really deter us from granting release, it prevents the person from having a viable release plan. So, the question is, how do they get a release plan?

There are a number of organizations that are advocates and provide resources. Tapping into those community based resources and advocacy groups is probably the most key thing a person can do. A lot of the folks who tend to participate in these calls are advocacy groups. Making themselves available and becoming a resource is probably the most impactful thing that can happen for that person. We’ve recommended release to support of individuals who meet through advocacy groups, and churches. Any support approved by DOC is better than no support.

Not having support doesn’t necessarily mean a person won’t release, it just means the commission is more cautious considering release and working with DOC and DCC to fill in those gaps until those connections can be made.

Shannon Pierce: having those additional forms of support. I find that I encounter often people who intend to rely solely on DOC housing or support. I suggest they develop back-up plans. If that’s their only plan, then we’re in that cycle of requesting a pre-release investigation (PRI) and waiting until one’s available. If they can develop those resources, even as a back-up plan, I think that’s the most helpful scenario.

Tate continued: Sometimes I write a note that says, your release plan is to a DOC transitional living program. This is a limited resource, which could fall through, and the commission would place a hold on the grant, but there’s nowhere for you to go. That happens much more often than I anticipated. We don’t want folks releasing to homelessness. The best thing we would recommend is develop community supports, however you can.

Analysis and recommendation: So, in addition to the above-described emotional gauntlet, people going up for parole are also expected to “develop resources” for themselves from inside the deprivation of incarceration. After decades in prison, they need to find an advocacy organization or individual that has all the resources needed to live, including housing, a job, transportation, etc and then develop a strong enough relationship with that individual or organization to solicit a commitment to get those resources. Oftentimes, even when a support plan is established, the parole commission still defers release, scuttling the plan and making the work by that advocate or organization a waste. If the commission’s process was transparent and reliable, it would be much easier for the few advocacy organizations who do have resources to make plans with people.

It sounds like these commissioners are also deeply confused about what resources advocates have. Unlike them, we aren’t getting $66-80,000 or more salaries from the state. Many advocates are senior citizens, living on SSI or retirement incomes. Others are formerly incarcerated themselves or are young people working jobs at or below living wage. Advocacy organizations survive on grant funding, and there is no grant organizing just handing out thousands of dollars to help everyone coming out of prison. Only the government has that kind of money, and the government clearly and continuously chooses to withhold it. They prefer to spend money on prison cells, and on salaries for commissioners who sit in judgement of the people struggling to live in those cells. The parole commissioners are part of the reason that resources are not available.

There’s nothing we can recommend other than being patient with advocates, family, and organizations, and stressing to the commissioners that support resources are not as abundant as they seem to think.

After prompting from Tate, Doug Drankiewicz also responded:  It is a minority of people we see, but the most difficult situations. I’m thinking of a couple instances that have informed my opinion. David Wap (sp?) when I was an agent, was released to the TLP because his family didn’t want to deal with him anymore. Then the TLP bed wasn’t available, so instead he went by his family, and brought over his girlfriend. She called his agent, but I was on vacation. I didn’t hear from her, and neither did anyone else. He killed her because he didn’t want to go back. [Drankewicz then added grisly details of the murder.] That’s always in the back of my mind. Most of the time when they get out and stumble, it’s usually quite minor, but sometimes it’s very major. Oftentimes, people would say they don’t have help. They insist that they know no one. There’s all these community groups that sit on these calls, but you’re finding that you’re dealing with resistive individuals. They are creating for themselves a difficult situation where we can’t make a decision and they aren’t helping us make a decision. They are holding supporters at arms length. Its is hard to assist people who do not want to be assisted.

Analysis: First off, Drankiewicz seems morbidly obsessed with the worst things he has encountered through his years as a commissioner. A woman died after calling him for help. That’s traumatic, but its clear his only take-away from the tragedy was that people he deals with are potentially dangerous. Hopefully, he (and the commission) also changed policies to make sure someone was available to cover when they take vacation. It seems entirely unlikely that this story helped Drankiewicz recognize that prison is a terrible place, so terrible that someone would panic and harm, even kill their loved one when threatened with going back. Its a strange mentality that posits the only solution to that situation as “hold more people in prison, longer”. 

Similarly, his take on the lack of resources is also to blame the person trying to get free. He ignores the scarcity of resources and instead concludes that people coming out of prison are resistive to assistance. The DOC and the parole commission make people into beggars, and surely there are some people who do not want to beg, who are resistive to asking over-tapped, underfunded organizations or advocates for help. It seems Drankiewicz wants to break these people, he seems to resent the pride and self-respect they cling to. It’s another example of the parole commission engaging in emotional abuse.  

Refusing to recognize full impact

It must be sad and difficult for John Tate to release someone to homelessness, but the society we live in does not consider housing a human right, and thus doesn’t provide people with housing. Holding people in prison longer is a ridiculous approach to that problem. Tate should not think about the decision as “releasing someone to homelessness” but rather as “keeping someone in a prison cell.” Homeless people experience hardships, but they are often better off than incarcerated people. At the very least, they have agency, opportunities to improve their conditions. Leaving them in prison robs them of that agency, and more importantly, continues to consume resources ($31,000 / year incarcerating each person) that could be going to providing housing and more opportunities for everyone.

Also, the DOC frequently releases people to homelessness, just not those who go before the parole commission. People sentenced under truth in sentencing (TIS) are coming out of prison when their sentences expire regardless of what their release plan is. Advocates watch these people come out and struggle terrible hardships. We see many with lack of support having mental health crises, and they simply get cycled back into prison by unsympathetic DCC agents. Some are put in catch 22’s to force a revocation and return to prison. Sometimes, they turn up dead

John Tate’s queasiness about releasing to homelessness is naive to the broader context and hardships TIS prisoners experience. Tate and the commission should take more chances on more low-risk people they’re witholding, especially those who do have family support. Instead, commissioners seek out pretexts to hold people, then Tate decides that what support does exist is inadequate. These practices ensure that the small population Tate has the authority to review and judge remains in prison unless they are almost certain to “succeed.”

As Tate mentioned in a previous meeting, people released on parole have a more than 99% re-entry success rate. Meanwhile, many TIS prisoners are going directly from solitary to the streets with zero preparation or support and unsurprisingly, many get revocated and sent back. What exists in WI is two prisoner populations. First, old law prisoners: a small, elderly group who gets held for decades attending hearing after hearing, program after program, and required to line up abundant supports on their own before release. Second, TIS prisoners: a larger mass of people who get churned out of prison and back in with little support regardless of preparation or state of mind.

Tate has control over the fate of the old law prisoners, but his actions impact the entire system. Anyone genuinely concerned about humanity, public safety, decarceration, or any of the other values John Tate and his boss Tony Evers speak to would consider both of these populations when making decisions. If Tate were a reformer, he would reduce demands on and resources consumed by his old law captives, freeing up reentry support for TIS people who are coming out regardless. He can move toward more equal, consistent treatment of these two populations. If he took this on in an honest way, it may even allow for closing the commission. That alone would free up hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissioner salaries, which would improve re-entry resources for everyone coming out of prison, and thus public safety. Of course, that would also mean Tate, Drankeiwicz, Kramer, and Pierce would no longer get paid to lord power over, emotionally abuse, and pass judgement on their captives.

John Tate II: bad at reform, afraid of questions

Neglected questions

After only two questions, Tate closed the meeting. Apparently he didn’t consider some of the other questions sent to him sufficiently related to “policy, practice, and procedure.” A few we know were submitted actually seem very very relevant to where we ended up on that last question, so we’ll include them here:

1. You all are holding people who are past the age of desistance—often even elderly—to a much higher standard than people sentenced under TIS, who tend to be younger and higher risk, and get released regardless of preparation. Your efforts create a situation where a low-risk population uses programming space, attention, and resources that could be going to support the re-entry of higher risk people, which has a net-negative impact on public safety, because those unsupported higher-risk people are far more likely to harm their communities. Why are you conducting your office in a way that ultimately makes communities less safe?

2. If you released people at the kind of rates and after the amount of time parole was originally designed for, almost all parole-eligible people would be released and your office would cease to have much purpose. Is making yourself obsolete part of your goal, or is protecting your jobs more important than justice or public safety?

If you’d like to hear the answers to these questions, feel free to copy and paste them to the commission: parolecommission@wisconsin.gov. Maybe next month Tate will deign to include them in the meeting.

Next month’s meeting

Shannon Pierce said that most commissioners will have off on the first Wednesday of July, so the meeting will probably be the second Wednesday. We’ll have to follow the commission’s webpage to find out. The meeting might also be in person at the DOC offices, rather than virtual. 

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