How often do I sit or stand still long enough to follow a “This American Life” episode from beginning to end. Not often. That’s at least as much a comment on my attention span, though, as it is on the program. But today, I did manage that feat for a segment entitled “Hasta la Vista, Maybe.” It was about a “model” prisoner at San Quentin prison who in his mid-20s murdered a man during an armed robbery and was sentenced to 25 years to life–with the possibility of parole. The story turns on the inmate’s efforts to rehabilitate himself after his conviction–he managed to do 27 years in state prison without a single infraction and worked hard to make something of his life behind bars and to prepare for a life outside someday. After the state parole board found him “unsuitable for parole” six times, it finally changed their verdict and ruled him suitable for release. Then the board’s decision went to the governor, who reversed it.
Why? Probably the best answer is that it’s politically untenable for a governor to show a whit of leniency–even after a prisoner has done all that’s humanly possible to pay his debt and “rehabilitate” himself, even after a famously conservative parole board approves a release. It’s not just the incumbent Republican governor who behaves this way. According to the story, he’s reversed 75 percent of the parole board’s release recommendations. His Democratic predecessor reversed 99 percent of such cases.
The “Hasta la Vista” case has something of a happy ending. The inmate’s lawyers challenged the governor’s decision in court and won, and the man finally went free. But the state’s institutions remain unchanged. When it comes to crime, they are singularly focused on retribution and punishment. They are abandoning the idea that preventive programs–like a decent education–can keep people from winding up in jail in the first place. And they make a mockery of the notion that a “corrections” system should work to effect lasting positive change in inmates lives.