Incorruptible Mass

Parole -- how does it work and why it needs to be improved in Massachusetts

December 15, 2023 Anna Callahan Season 5 Episode 32
Parole -- how does it work and why it needs to be improved in Massachusetts
Incorruptible Mass
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Incorruptible Mass
Parole -- how does it work and why it needs to be improved in Massachusetts
Dec 15, 2023 Season 5 Episode 32
Anna Callahan

Please donate to the show!

Today we talk to two wonderful experts about parole and what needs to change about it. We talk about how long people can be on parole, how many people return to jail because they break some small technical aspect of parole, and what we need to do here in Massachusetts to make parole more humane and better for our society.

Laura and Lisa Berland join Jordan Berg Powers, Jonathan Cohn, and Anna Callahan to chat about Massachusetts politics. This is the audio version of the Incorruptible Mass podcast, season 5 episode 32. You can watch the video version on our YouTube channel.

You’re listening to Incorruptible Mass. Our goal is to help people transform state politics: we investigate why it’s so broken, imagine what we could have here in MA if we fixed it, and report on how you can get involved.

To stay informed:
* Subscribe to our YouTube channel
* Subscribe to the podcast (
* Sign up to get updates at
* Donate to the show at

Show Notes Transcript

Please donate to the show!

Today we talk to two wonderful experts about parole and what needs to change about it. We talk about how long people can be on parole, how many people return to jail because they break some small technical aspect of parole, and what we need to do here in Massachusetts to make parole more humane and better for our society.

Laura and Lisa Berland join Jordan Berg Powers, Jonathan Cohn, and Anna Callahan to chat about Massachusetts politics. This is the audio version of the Incorruptible Mass podcast, season 5 episode 32. You can watch the video version on our YouTube channel.

You’re listening to Incorruptible Mass. Our goal is to help people transform state politics: we investigate why it’s so broken, imagine what we could have here in MA if we fixed it, and report on how you can get involved.

To stay informed:
* Subscribe to our YouTube channel
* Subscribe to the podcast (
* Sign up to get updates at
* Donate to the show at

Hello and welcome to Incorruptible Mass. We are here to help us all transform state politics. We know that we could have a state that truly represented the needs of the vast majority of the residents of our beautiful commonwealth.

And today we are talking about parole. We have two wonderful guests who are going to be helping us to understand stand parole and some bills that are coming up and how you can help. But before we do, I will introduce our two regular co hosts.

I will start with Jonathan Cohn. Jonathan Cohn, he him his joining from Boston. I've been active in different issue and electoral campaigns here in Massachusetts for a decade now, which always feels wild to say.

And Jordan. Jordan Berke powers. He him.

And I am coming from Worcester, Massachusetts, and I am a former person who does this on a day to day working on electoral and political causes in Massachusetts. And so I'm happy to be here and definitely excited about this conversation. 

And I am Anna Callahan. She her coming at you from Medford. Love local and state politics. Been working on it for a while.

I am very excited to introduce Laura Berland and Lisa Berland, who are here to talk to us about parole specifically in Massachusetts and ways that you can get involved to make it better. 

I just want to ask each of you if you can chime in with a little bit about why you yourself have worked, are working on this and also what organization you're with. And I will start with Laura.

Hi there. Laura Berland, she heard and I am with an organization called Parole Watch, which I can say some more about a bit later. And I got involved because I somehow ended up volunteering at Susa Baronowski maximum security prison in the Toastmasters program. And it was such an incredible experience. And I went in there not knowing anything really about prison. I had never been in a prison before, and I met really incredible people.

And I'm talking about people who are incarcerated there. And they made such an impression on me, so many of these men. When the program was booted out of Susa Baronowski because there was an incident there and then Covid kicked in, so we weren't allowed in.

I started looking around for ways that I could somehow be helpful in the area of incarceration, and I ended up connecting with a group that was very focused on parole, and it really grabbed me. So that's pretty much my story. 

Great. And I look forward to hearing more about your organization in a few minutes. Lisa. 

Lisa Berland and yes, we are sisters. And my, I'm not going to repeat what Laurie said because basically my path was the same. So also volunteered at CeSA Toastmasters and just incredible experience, and wanted to find other ways to volunteer after we weren't able to do that anymore, so we started going to the meetings for SEPs, the coalition for effective public safety, which is an umbrella organization, to kind of find out what was happening with criminal legal issues in the area. And they are very involved with parole.

And so we started with Parole Watch, and actually with our interest in parole watch, we got involved with this other, starting another organization, which was based on a New York project, which I can talk about more, but this organization is called the Massachusetts Parole Preparation Partnership. And basically, the idea behind this group is to help lifers attain parole, people who do not have counsel, because people are not entitled to counsel unless for specific reasons.

So that's how I got involved with that group, and I'm currently on the board of that. And actually, Laura is also a volunteer with this organization. So we're both just doing parole, parole, parole.


I would love it if you could help us and our listeners to understand a little bit more deeply what parole is. Right. So there's a lot of confusion around parole, and you'd be surprised how many legislators don't know how parole works.

Parole actually follows from serving time. So it's a conditional sentence. So once you've served time, you can be on parole afterwards, and then basically you're released to the community, but with certain conditions.

And if you violate some of those conditions, you can be reincarcerated. Now, this is different than probation because probation is actually a sentence that you receive for a particular offense. So you never serve time inside.

You're just given a sentence of probation, and you have a probation. It's a similar in terms of conditions and violations. Also, I think you can be reincarcerated for that.

But basically, we are focusing on parole and just a little bit more, how do you get parole? So there's a parole board in Massachusetts that has seven members that are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the governor's council, and they determine who gets parole, and they determine the conditions for parole. And typically, in Massachusetts, if you're serving a life sentence with the eligibility for parole, which is often second degree murder, not first degree. First degree is usually life without parole.

Second degree is life with the possibility of parole. You serve 15 years before you can come before the parole board for parole. So this organization I'm involved with, the parole preparation, is basically working with lifers who have been sentenced to life with the eligibility of parole, whereas there are plenty of other people in Massachusetts prisons that are serving sentences, that they can also be on parole, and they also go before the parole board or one or two members, but it's a different process.

And I'll stop there quickly to tag in with one question. You talked about setting the kind of the conditions for parole. What time frame are we talking about when, say, somebody serves time and then are out on parole? How many years is that, or how wide does it range? For example, for somebody who's been sentenced to life with the eligibility of parole, when they receive parole, they're basically on parole for the rest of their life unless they can terminate it, which is very rare.

So this has been an issue because basically you can be on parole for decades. In fact, somebody who we know quite well just finally received termination of parole, but he'd been on for, I think it was 30, 40 years. It's a very long process, but it's sort of like the condition of your sentence.

So, in other words, if you had a 15 year sentence, you got out on parole after ten years, and you'd have another five years of serving parole within the community kind of thing. Yeah. 

I would love to hear from you a little bit about parole in, you know, you guys both are involved with organizations. I assume you're trying to change things, like what is parole like in Massachusetts? How could it be improved? What are some of the problems that we see that you see? 

Yeah, I can talk about that a bit. Parole is a huge problem across the country. I mean, there are, what, 2.3 million people incarcerated and some 4 million on parole. And parole is a form of incarceration as well. So the problems are deep.

Sorry, barking dog. I'll talk a little bit about parole watch because that's how we've sort of identified some of the problems. So parole watch started in the summer of 2020 during the pandemic, and at that point, we only were able to listen to life or hearings.

And basically, we're a group of volunteers, and we are from all different walks of life. We have some attorneys involved, but we're really made up of basically concerned citizens. And we started just listening to parole hearings, and what we started hearing was very disturbing.

We would hear the parole board relitigating the case. So going through all the details of the crime, and from our point of view, we didn't really see how this was relevant to someone achieving release. What we thought was, why aren't they talking more about how they've changed, how they've rehabilitated what they've been doing for 15, 20, 30, 40 years while they've been incarcerated to make it clear that they can live in the community without reoffending.

So those were the kind of problems we started seeing. And so we were very interested in gathering data about these problems. So we collected data about the race of the person to see what connections there were there.

We collected data about whether folks had attorneys and how that impacted their situation. And we also gathered information about how parole applicants were treated. Were they treated respectfully? Were they given the opportunity to talk about what they needed to talk about? So those were the kinds of things that we were looking at.  There’s been, from the beginning to now there's been a change, and primarily, we've seen the change come about because of the change in the parole board members. So when Baker left, he did reappoint. Well, he made one of the folks who was already on the parole board, he made her the chair.

And she has actually been extremely good and extremely interested in hearing from people who are trying to reform parole about the problems. And then one of the problems has been in the past is that the parole board has often been a position where folks who have done favors for the governor get appointed. It hasn't been a situation where there have been criteria that need to be met to be on the board.

So now, with Governor Healy, she's appointed two new members, and we've seen her appoint people who have expertise in the things that you need expertise in, for example, social work. She has appointed someone who was with the probation department, but who is very interested in restorative justice and very pro parole. So these are some of the changes we've seen, and we're encouraged going forward.

Just for example, one of the things that used to happen was that folks had to wait an entire year to get a decision on their parole. Now, you can imagine how hard that is for someone who's waiting on a decision. And also, you lose a year of being able to perhaps do programming that might help you get parole because you don't know exactly what the parole board is looking for. Those are some…. 

Can I ask you what you mean is, you have a hearing, and then it's not a whole year after that hearing. Wow.

You wait for your decision. So we're encouraged by the changes and the current parole board nominees. So, yeah, I will stop there, I guess, 

Just quickly, what's the demographic makeup of the parole board, especially when it comes to, that we've often seen, obviously, increasing recognition in recent years of the racial disparities that exist in terms of incarceration.

What does that body look like in terms of a gender breakdown, in terms of kind of a racial ethnicity, kind of background? Well, it's seven people and there is currently one person – well, now there are two people – of color on the board. There was a person who was Latina previously.

She has since left the board. It is not a particularly diverse board. That's another issue that we were encouraging the governor and the governor's council to address.

We also feel that it's very important to have someone who was formerly incarcerated on that board. I mean, who knows better the situation surrounding parole than someone who's formerly incarcerated. So that is, I believe, in the legislation, the equitable access legislation, to require that at least one person on the parole board be a person who was formally incarcerated.

Wow, that's great. 

I was just going to add some things about, some of the things about, just statistics about Massachusetts, in terms of our makeup of our prisons, et cetera, in terms of racial breakdowns and stuff like that. 

In Massachusetts, we make it extremely hard for people to get out of prison. So we have a very aging population. So we have the oldest population in the United States. Wow.

So it's interesting. We have about 1000 people who are life without parole and another like 800 who are life with the eligibility parole. But all these people are very old, so 20% are over the age of 55. So it's an extremely aging population. And the other thing is that we make it very easy to go back into prison. So this is some of the things that we've talked about is technical violations.

So something like, I think the statistic is, well, a quarter of all prison admissions are because of violations of parole. 

Oh, you're kidding. 

Yeah, 25%. And 71% of those violations of parole are purely technical. Basically, there's no new crime. It's just somebody has violated the conditions of their parole, which are very standard.

And are things, for example, like associating with somebody who was formerly a felon? How is somebody who comes out of prison and is going back into the community not going to connect with people in their family, perhaps, who were felons or other conditions? You can never have a drink. You are never allowed to have a drink again for the rest of your. As long as you're on parole.

Well, let's face it, if substance abuse was not a part of your original crime, why is that a condition of parole? Right. These are some of the reasons why parole is so onerous in Massachusetts. And we make it so hard for people to get out and to stay out.

I think it's important. I just want to come in here because I have family members who are on parole. It's also arbitrary, and it's up to whether or not the person likes you.

So I've had family members, quote unquote, break parole on technical violations, which was that the person was mad at them and made up something that happened that didn't happen. And every single person I've ever talked to who's in the parole system will say, oh, yeah, that person will put you back in jail. They don't like people being out.

Like, we'll just say that, yeah, that person loves to put people back at jail. They will manufacture a reason. One of the times one of my family members stopped fighting was like, I'm just going to go back to prison so I can get a different parole officer because I just know I'm just like, this person is going to set me up to fail.

Think about that. And that's common. I just want to say that that is common.

That is happening a lot. So I want to say also, technical violations makes it sound like, oh, like they're doing something and maybe they should have been a little bit more careful. I think it's important to note that it's, one person has decided it, and you can maybe appeal it if you have a lawyer.

And it's really complicated, but they're just going to believe the parole officer. They're not going to believe you. So it's just like, it's also important to note that it's a made up system.

It's made up and it's capricious. One of my favorite violations was my family member was told they couldn't use a computer, but they had to get a job. Think about that for a second.

Yeah, think about that for a second. What year is it? And they were like, if you applied to jobs, he was like, no, how would I, like, he can't even go to the library and use a computer. If you go to target and apply for a job, they put you on a computer.

Yeah. If you physically show up to target and say, I want a job, they will send you to a computer thing to fill it. Just, it's, it's just the capricious whims of people who often hate the people that they're overseeing.

And it's usually white people overseeing people of color. I just wanted to pause there for a second because I think it's really important because, yes, technical violations. But I also want to say that that's not, like, for people who are like, well, don't have a drink, whatever.

I just want you to know you could have never had a drink. There's no guarantee that you had a drink. And that's the reason they'll just say, I think you had a drink, and they'll say that.

They'll say, I think you had a drink violation. And you're specifically talking about, I just want to make it clear for people. You're talking about parole officers doing this.

Yes. I feel like that also speaks to when some of the areas in which the violations can occur are things that really just would not happen in the public to begin with. Increases the level of the arbitrariness potential of that.

That because let's say, for instance, with somebody like consuming alcohol at all, considering likely that's not necessarily even going to be out in the public that might be at their house or at another kind of private event that increases the chances that people could be like, well, it's a time of year where people often go to events where there is alcohol, so I don't believe that you didn't. And that's such a messed up process. Well, requiring so many different things that folks have to do also provides a way for them to come up with numerous ways of putting folks back in prison.

One interesting statistic is that 50% of folks waive their right to a parole hearing. Now, this is not lifers, but these are everyone else because they feel that the parole requirements are so onerous that they choose to just wrap up their sentence and then get released. That's not that great for anyone because when you are on parole, presumably there's some help to transition you to the community.

So it's a very mixed bag with that. Yeah. In terms of quickly thinking, Lisa, go.

I was just to say, in terms of public safety. Yeah. The whole idea behind parole was that basically you transition people to society with supports that they need, and that's clearly not the case.

You're basically just pulling people in for any minor thing and they're just, like you said, so many conditions. I mean, it's travel. It's like if you have ankle bracelet, it's not working.

There's just so many reasons you can be pulled back in. And the fact that people would wrap their sentence rather than go on parole is not good because basically you want to be able to help people transition back into society for a certain amount of time. I mean, a limited amount of time, but just a period.

Speaking of transitions, Anna, do you want to do midroll? I do. Thank you for the reminder. We want to encourage everyone listening to put up a little $5 donation a week, or do give us $100 or whatever you would like.

That money really goes to Incorruptible Mass podcast. It makes sure that we are able to get these videos edited properly, to get the music in there, to have the amazing graphics that our folks do, to get it all over social media, to clip all the clips that get cut, and a lot of other work that happens kind of in the background. It all goes to some young folks who help us a lot in terms of getting this podcast out and in the community and growing our audience.

So if you can go ahead and make a donation, it's right below. And we love having guests on, like Laura and Lisa Berland to talk about parole. We have voices here on this show that you will hear nowhere else.

So I would love to continue this conversation and talk about what sort of legislation is coming up, what legislation is going on in the state legislature to help improve the parole system. Laurie, do you want to. Sure.

Yeah. So, as Lisa mentioned, there's two main bills that we're focusing on, and the first one I'm going to talk about is the Equitable Access to Parole. And we've talked about improvements in the parole process recently.

But the importance of the legislation is that administrations, governors come and go, and the parole board is just made up of folks who are appointed by the governor and they're confirmed by the governor's council. And from what we saw during Baker's administration, the governor's council rubber stamped just about every nominee that he put forward. So despite the fact that they're all Democrats and Baker was a Republican, they rubber stamped, with the exception of a few folks on there who voted against people that we felt were not qualified to be in the parole board.

So there really needs to be legislation around the parole board and around what the parole board can do. So the equitable access to parole has a lot of provisions. Lisa touched on them a little bit, but it eliminates the reincarceration for these technical violations that we just talked about.

It provides for the termination of parole after three years unless there's clearly some kind of potential risk to public safety. I mean, the idea that someone would be on parole following these regulations for 30 years is. It's just kind of insane, really, when you think about it.

Not to mention the cost. Yeah, not to mention the cost. And then also, again, the conditions of parole, they should be customized for the person, not just a blanket set of conditions that don't relate to what issues they have what they need.

So they've never had a substance abuse problem, but now you tell them they can never have a sip of alcohol, things like that. The other thing it does, it increases the size of the parole board. Now, we've seen from watching the parole board that it is a lot of work.

They have a lot of work to do. There's a seven board members sit for the lifer hearings, which are every Tuesday and Thursday, and then they go to the institutions to do all the other parole hearings, and there's one or two or three that sit for those parole hearings. So it's an enormous amount of work.

And when you have that much work, it's sometimes hard to get the decisions out quickly enough. And we feel like that's a very important issue, that folks should have their decision quickly, and those decisions should be very well crafted so that the folks know what they have to do to have a successful parole hearing where they are then released, so that we feel is really important. And then the thing we've already touched on as well is the expertise of the parole board members.

I mean, the idea that you would appoint somebody to the parole board that has absolutely no expertise in parole issues, substance abuse issues, psychology, social work, is outrageous, but that's exactly what has happened. And historically, it's happened a lot. And with Baker's administration, that also occurred.

May I ask, what are the benefits? It seems od to give someone? Oh, you can be on the parole board. It seems like a lot of work. Are they paid some outrageous amount of money? It is a good salary.

I don't know exactly what it is, but I believe it's in like 100 and something thousand? Yes. Okay. It's a decent salary, and it's a position that, for some reason, governors have always thought they could give to someone as a plumb job without anyone saying, wait a minute, you don't have the expertise to be on this board.

Got it. Also, some of them do go on to become governors. I mean, excuse me, judges.

Yes. Or clerk magistrates. Yes, that is true.

That has happened. Yeah. Stepping stone.

It can be a stepping stone. Right. Then there's the whole notion of presumptive parole, and this is a term that a lot of folks have a hard time with.

But basically, it means that if there's no reason to deny someone parole, then they should be released. So it kind of flips it from the person having to prove that they are ready for parole because of this. That and the other thing, it's more that this person should be released unless there's a clear reason that they should not be.

So that's a really important part of that parole bill. It's one that we've often talked about how it's not good to say presumptive parole because it makes people very nervous for some reason, and I'm sorry to be stuck on this point. Can I ask, are the people on the parole board, do they have other jobs, or is this considered their full time job? No, it's a full time job.

Great. It's a very full time job. And also the fact that we're asking the parole board to do more is part of the reason why it needs to be expanded.

So, for example, termination hearings. There haven't been any termination hearings because there's no capacity to do termination hearings. So for people to have termination of parole, you have to have hearings in order to write decent decisions.

You need to have more capability. Also, the supreme judicial court is supposedly going to be handing down a decision that will allow people who are sentenced as juveniles. They're extending the age of the juveniles from 18 to 21.

So there'll be at least 200 more people who will be eligible for parole, who are currently incarcerated, who are lifers. So this is a really big deal. So you're going to have additional people coming up for parole anyway.

So it's really important to expand the capacity of the parole board to handle all of this more work. So I know that we only have a few more minutes. You talked about the first bill.

Do you want to give us a little bit of information about any other bills that are coming up? Yeah, I can be very brief. The other bill is an act to reform parole supervision in the interest of justice, and that has some of the same provisions of the equitable access bill, but it's really focused on the technical violation issue. So it has provisions to reduce that problem of reincarcerating people for technical violations.

So these bills will be coming up, hearings will be held. One thing that has happened more recently is that people who are incarcerated have been allowed to testify at hearings, which has been a really dramatic change and a really welcome one. So we're hoping at this hearing that we'll have many people who are currently incarcerated to speak on behalf of these bills.

Right. So the incarcerated people are being allowed to speak at hearings at the state House and state senate about the bills. Not at hearings for.

Not at parole hearings. No, they're allowed to speak at these hearings and via video. And that's been a really exciting development.

Amazing. Yeah. I just wanted to chime in how great that's been to be able to see that happen at different hearings over the course of this year around, like had been at the prison moratorium one back in June.

And I know that's happened at judiciary hearings as well. That first one was, I think, the state administration regulatory oversight. But judiciary has on several times as well, considering that the people there are the most directly impacted by the policies that we have governing the criminal legal system.

And knowing that having had virtual hearings for so long, if we have the capacity to do it, that means we have the capacity to make hybrid hearings. And it's been great to see that be something that the legislature, which is not normally a great place for small deed democracy. Kudos to them for doing that.

I will say, though, that, because I was about to say to keep pressure on, because the two things that happen behind closed doors, because I've gotten a lot of phone calls about it, are that the legislature tried to not do it, had to be pushed into it. And the people who spoke out, who were directly affected did so out of pure bravery because, of course, they immediately face retribution from a system that is literally closed off to the public. We can't see what happens once the door closes, once the zoom goes off.

And I could tell you that it's worse than you imagine. And so those people are brave in speaking up. And so it's just important that we highlight that that happened.

I think it's great that we highlight that happened, that we talk openly about how important it is that people, and when you talk to your legislator about these things, we say to them to encourage them to continue to allow that to happen. Just because you're behind bars doesn't mean that we take away your humanity. And certainly we should be ensuring if we want you to be a part back into society, because as we're saying, most people will come back into society.

And if we want to integrate people back in, they have to feel a part of that and integrated. And one of the best ways is to increase their civic engagement. So even if you're just a totally cynic person, this is also a great way to ensure, to lower recidivism, to allow people to feel part of our society.

So I just want to encourage, when you do talk to your legislators about parole, which I cannot describe it, not how important it is that you do so in these legislation, that you also mention the importance that people in prison get to have to say during these hearings. Please do mention it. Absolutely.

Do you guys have a little bit of any sort of comment about the new governor and the parole board, or. We already covered that. Is there anything that you want to say briefly before we close up for today? Well, I wanted to just talk just briefly about the parole preparation partnership because the doc has actually allowed us to do this pilot project in Norfolk.

So that's been kind of a big deal. So we signed a memorandum of understanding last winter, which allowed us to have volunteers go into the prisons and work with people to prepare for their parole. We have on our board, we have three people who are incarcerated at Norfolk, and we have three supervising attorneys.

And basically what we're doing is having volunteers who have special privileges. These are not just regular prison volunteers, because prison volunteers can't do anything, but these have legal privileges. So they're allowed to meet with people in private legal rooms and to have privileged mail, zoom, et cetera, to prepare people for their hearings and for old plans.

So they work with people up to twelve to 18 months before their hearing, and then after the hearing, they will continue to support that person in the community. So right now we have twelve volunteers working in teams of two with six individuals in Norfolk. And the program has been going along.

Lori has been one of the volunteers. The program has been working since September, and the VOC at Norfolk has been very accommodating, and we're hoping to expand to other institutions come the winter. So this is very exciting for us.

I'm putting in a plug. Amazing. For our website, which is,

and you can sign up and donate or volunteer. And I just want to say something about parole hearings. They are really so profound.

I can't stress enough that going to a parole hearing and just experiencing it is such a valuable experience. It's very dramatic. It's such high stakes.

There's just so much going on in that hearing. And I really encourage everyone, and we've actually been encouraging our legislators to go to parole hearings to see what is going on there. It's such an important experience.

It's part of our world. These people are part of our world. And I want to see what is happening there at these hearings where they really have to bear their soul.

It's very hard. And so I encourage everyone I meet to go to a parole hearing. They're probably sick of hearing that from me.

Our listeners won't be. They'll be happy to hear about it. Do you want to talk a little bit about how they can help your organization as well? Yes.

Well, I welcome everyone into parole. Watch where we go to parole hearings and we see what's happening there. And we take notes and we hold the parole board accountable when we need to.

We've testified in front of the governor's council, and we advocate for the legislation based on what we know from parole hearings. So I'm happy to share my email.

for anyone who would like to get in touch with me about joining parole watch or just even coming to a meeting and seeing what we do, that would be fantastic. Well, thank you both so much for being here. Thank you so much for the work that you've been doing, the work you're continuing to do.

We really appreciate that. And we look forward to chatting with everyone next week and when we will have more progressive information for you. So, everyone, thank you so much and have a good week.

Thank you. Bye.