a bird and a bottle

The False Promise of Rehabilitation
February 25, 2007, 9:27 am
Filed under: criminal justice, law, news

Have we totally given up on the idea of prison as rehabilitative? Sure looks that way.

The cover story in the City section of today’s NY Times tells the story of the very colorful life of William R. Phillips, a former corrupt cop who was convicted in the early 1970s of double homicide. Mr. Phillips, who maintains that he was framed for the murders, is now 76 years old, blind in one eye, and has survived a list of maladies, including prostate cancer. In his more than 30 years in prison, he has gotten bachelors and masters degrees with perfect grades, worked as a jailhouse lawyer helping other incarcerated men with legal issues, and worked with charities. He has been an ideal prisoner, without a single speck of violence on his record.

And yet the parole board has denied his application for parole every time he has come before them. His first parole hearing was in 1999, after he had already served 25 years in prison. Because he would not admit guilt, he parole was denied. The Times has the colloquy:

COMMISSIONER DANIEL REARDON: So, what your position on these convictions is that you’re innocent of these crimes?

PHILLIPS: Well, I was convicted by a jury, so I’m stuck with that.

COMMISSIONER: Did you do the crime?

PHILLIPS: I’ll put it this way. The description of the witness was a five-foot-eight, pockmarked, Italian gray guy. In 1961 I didn’t have any gray hair. It’s a one-way witness case.

Mr. Phillips’s application for parole was denied. “You accept no responsibility for these crimes, despite admitting to years of corrupt behavior as a police officer,” the commissioners said.

Two years later, his parole was denied again. This time, and in his third hearing, he accepted full responsibility for the crime, without ever actually admitting his guilt. Parole denied both times. In the denial of his third request, the board wrote: “You are a criminal of the worst kind whose danger to public safety is of the highest degree.” At the time of this decision, Mr. Phillips was 73, blind in one eye, and had not committed a single act of violence in over 30 years. So much for rehabilitation.

Mr. Phillips was denied parole in his fourth hearing too, at which his frustration was palpable. He is now awaiting his fifth hearing, which will take place in September.

Though outrageous, Mr. Phillips’ story is not unique. Men and women incarcerated around the state have faced similarly futile parole hearings for years. During the Pataki administration, Gov. Pataki appointed boards that virtually stopped granting parole, no matter how clear it was that the person deserved to be released.

Jean Coaxum too languished in prison despite an immaculate prison record and several chances for parole. The Office of the Appellate Defender, who took up her case, has her story:

In 1983, Ms. Coaxum was arrested for a crime that occurred in 1981, when Ms. Coaxum and another individual, in need of money to support their drug habits, robbed an elderly woman in her apartment and left her bound and gagged. Unbeknownst to Ms. Coaxum, the woman later died of asphyxiation. After her arrest, Ms. Coaxum immediately accepted responsibility, pleaded guilty to felony murder, and was sentenced to the minimum permissible term of 15 years to life.

In prison, Ms. Coaxum availed herself of every program offered to her, received outstanding evaluations by corrections officials for her program performance, was promoted to reside in the honors dorm at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, assisted prison staff in tending to prisoners with difficult mental health issues, often diffusing potential problems, and in more than twenty-two years incurred no disciplinary infractions. Among her other accomplishments, Ms. Coaxum was one of the founders of the nationally-acclaimed organization Puppies Behind Bars, in which inmates help train puppies to become seeing-eye dogs or bomb-sniffing dogs. In short, Ms. Coaxum was a model inmate. She amassed countless accolades and recommendations for release from a variety of prison professionals, corrections officers and staff, and others.

Despite her remarkable success in prison, her documented remorse for her crime, and the overwhelming support for her release, the Parole Board has denied Ms. Coaxum parole four times, even though she has served significantly more than the court-imposed minimum of fifteen years. Each time, the Board cited the nature of the crime. At her last hearing, in 2005, the Board noted that Ms. Coaxum had done everything anyone could ask of her, but that the Board had to determine “how much time should one stay in prison for killing somebody.”

Ms. Coaxum was not released until September 2006, when a state court found that the parole board had overstepped its authority in denying her parole four times despite her unblemished record and almost 25 years of incarceration. The judge accused the parole board of usurping a court’s power, writing that the board had “effectively undertook an unauthorized re-sentencing, substituting the Board’s own opinion of the sentence warranted by [Ms. Coaxum’s] crime for the court’s determination.”

In New York, at least under Governor Pataki, rehabilitation was a forgotten concept. Given the lack of funding for job training and education in prison and the lack of support for people upon reentry, it’s remarkable that we hold out hope for rehabilitation at all. But the whole point of indeterminate sentencing (say, 7-15 years, as opposed to a determinate sentence of 12 years) is to encourage rehabilitation. People are enticed to work hard and behave well when incarcerated because of the promise of a shorter sentence. Under Pataki that promise was empty. Let’s hope Spitzer can make it mean something again.


7 Comments so far
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I think the stories you cite point to a truth you know but aren’t acknowledging: the era of prison rehabilitation is over. (today, prisoners are not even given access to higher education – so earning a bachelors and masters itself belongs to a different era of criminal “justice.”) i think that we have to fight for prisoner rights and to keep people out of prison. but we also have to acknowledge that the era of rehabilitation is over and start searching for alternatives rather than try to wish it back. (moreover, given the rate of recidivism endemic to the system, “rehabilitation” has always been something of a farce; as foucault and others have demonstrated, recidivism is the extension of so-called “rehabilitation.”)
your impressive posts on changing drug laws and on the need for drug rehabilitation programs rather than prisons (as well as psychological institutions in place of prisons) strike me as a far more viable model than rehabilitation.

Comment by professorplum

It’s a fair criticism, but I have to wonder: what are we to do, then, with people like Mr. Phillips — not drug offenders but violent felons or corrupt cops? While I fully agree that the era of prison as rehabilitative is over (and I do not intend to argue for that as in ideal model), so long as we have things like indeterminate sentences, they should not be meaningless.

Comment by bean

i wish i had anything like a good answer. the best I can muster: de-politicize parole boards. (how? i don’t know.) i think this is the only way to reverse the corrosive effects of the “hard on crime” sheen that is a necessary accessory to every political campaign across the entire spectrum.
the other alternative: judges should acknowledge what you imply so well – that variable sentencing is little more than the empowerment of “unauthorized re-sentencing,” and that it should be replaced with more humane determinate sentences. this would at least end the charade of rehabilitation and, hopefully, end the reign of parole boards that don’t grant parole.
Anyone else have ideas? I would love to hear them.

Comment by professorplum

Of course, under Pataki, most convictions now require determinate sentencing. And, in most cases, the terms that individuals now serve are much longer than they would have been with indeterminate sentences, especially before Pataki politicized the parole board and essentially directed it not to release those convicted of violent crimes. An indeterminate sentencing system might be preferable, so ling as there was a presumption of parole after the minimum term, provided the individual had compiled a positive institutional record.

I wouldn’t give up on the concept of “rehabiliation” so quickly, though that is a poor name for it. By this I mean that, to the extent that we continue to incarcerate people (especially violent offenders), there should be meaningful opportunities for learning, healing, and spiritual and emotional growth in prison. Restorative justice programs are beginning to gain acceptance and could play an important role. And, of course, all programs should be geared towards the prisoner’s eventual re-entry and the avoidance of recidivism.

Just some thoughts…

Comment by ricky vermont

Ricky, thanks for making clear what the indeterminate/determinate divide really means. I agree with you about having hope for restorative justice, particularly for violent offenders. I also think that a movement in support of restorative justice has to be paired with a drive toward a less punitive society more generally. Fewer people in prison and better treatment and more hope for those who are in prison. That would be a policy I could get behind.

Comment by bean

Yes, thanks Ricky for the comments. I completely agree that there SHOULD be meaningful opportunities for learning, etc. It’s just that those opportunities seem to be less and less the norm; and a productive re-entry less and less the goal. (I am a little bit skeptical that the avoidance of recidivism was ever a real priority: the best place to learn crime is in prison, always has been.)
In the last years, it seems to me that prison programs only get a mention when they are getting cut.
Do you see any major shifts taking place under Spitzer?

Comment by professorplum

It’s difficult to predict where Spitzer will go with prison reform. It is a good sign that he signaled the end to the outrageous MCI/DOCS contract, under which MCI (now part of Verizon) gets to charge exorbitant rates for collect calls from prison (the only calls permitted) and DOCS gets a 57% kickback. That he did this so soon after taking office also is a good sign. But, that’s not to say that I think he will be a reformer, only that he appears to be more humane than Pataki. In contrast, Pataki’s first moves were to reinstate the death penalty and eliminate all state-funded college programs from prisons. Prisons are not going away any time soon (although with serious crime down, at least some prisons will probably be closed!), so we have to keep pushing for more humane policies on sentencing, parole, educational programming, and re-entry.

Comment by ricky vermont

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