Fransharon Jackson waited years for someone to hear her story, to know she was truly sorry and, after two decades in prison, smarter and stronger than she’d been the night when drugs and desperation set her on a destructive path.
Her second chance and the possibility of freedom from her life sentence came last year. Parole officials cleared Jackson for a psychological exam — a critical step before a recommendation to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for early release.
But after 15 months, she still is waiting for an appointment.
There is one doctor in Maryland’s prison system to conduct the required exam, and as of early April, 85 inmates were on the waiting list.
In the past 15 years, 11 inmates have died while waiting to clear the hurdle of the exam, according to parole commission reports.
Jackson waits having spent half of her 45 years in prison on a murder conviction and with a thick packet of reports and certificates that attest to her “impeccable” record as a “model inmate” and highlight her compassion and patience.
The letters are signed by corrections officers, her teachers, and friends on the inside who have seen Jackson’s work as a seamstress, with inmates with mental health problems and as a choir director.
The judge who sentenced Jackson in 1998 in Baltimore County, James T. Smith, said a delay of one day, one week or one month for anyone who has been rehabilitated is too long. That there is only one doctor to evaluate inmates in the pipeline for parole is “pathetic,” Smith said.
“It’s very bad emotionally for people to know they’ve been okayed and then to just languish,” said Smith, who is also a former Baltimore County executive. “That just shouldn’t happen.”
Maryland, California and Oklahoma are the only states with parole that requires the governor’s signature to release inmates sentenced to life.
And recent court rulings that are expediting release reviews for lifers sentenced as juveniles may be extending wait times for those like Jackson.
The Supreme Court has prohibited a sentence of life without parole for juveniles in all but the rarest cases, and Maryland’s system is the target of a federal lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union challenging whether the state offers a meaningful chance at freedom for those inmates.
The combination of having a lone doctor to conduct the psychological assessments and a decision to give priority for parole hearings to the lifers sentenced as juveniles adds to the logjam for those like Jackson also waiting for their appointments, said David R. Blumberg, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission.
There are about 2,000 inmates serving life sentences in Maryland, including 314 sentenced as juveniles.
“We’re not gaining ground. We’re treading water,” said Blumberg, adding that the waits are too long. “I wouldn’t want to wait, either. I’d be very nervous.”
Gregarious by nature and quick with a hug, Jackson has been reserved in prison and often kept to herself to avoid being pulled into trouble, she said. She is even more restrained now to circumvent the chaos that could ruin her chance for release. She skips movies and other gatherings, returning instead to her cell after her cleaning job.
“I don’t want to die in this place knowing there’s so much I could be doing,” Jackson said, her large brown eyes filling with tears during a meeting with her lawyers that The Washington Post was permitted to attend at the women’s prison in Jessup. “I’ve done too much to redeem myself. I’ve done everything — and more — to prove I can be a productive citizen.”
The two- to three-day psychological exams, conducted to determine the risk an inmate would pose if paroled, are conducted by a longtime psychologist for the state at a corrections facility near Jessup. The sessions include psychological testing, behavioral observations and review of an inmate’s prison records.
The backlog has fluctuated from a high of three years to a low of 10 months in 2015, and it runs now at about 16 months, according to waiting lists unearthed by a public records request from Jane C. Murphy, a University of Baltimore law professor.
“The list shows that there has always been a problem with waits, but it’s certainly made worse because there is only one clinician,” Murphy said.
Sonia Kumar, an ACLU attorney representing prisoners in the federal case in Baltimore, said the wait times are indefensible and easily could be shortened with more resources or a change in policy.
“Lifers are anxious for decision-makers — and the world — to see that they have done the work to be ready to return to the community,” she said. “Delays that are for years at a time are incredibly disheartening, prolong their incarceration and are not based on merit.”
A coalition of academics and advocates met recently with the governor’s legal team to press the administration to address delays.
Inmates sentenced to life with the possibility of parole serve at least 15 years before being considered for release. Prisoners cleared after an initial hearing before two commissioners are sent on for the risk assessment.
“Each day that a lifer waits for a risk assessment imposes additional costs of incarceration on the state and adds to the desperation and hopelessness that many lifers feel,” according to a letter the group sent to Robert F. Scholz, Hogan’s chief counsel.
Michael Ricci, the governor’s communications director, said the Hogan administration is “committed to lowering the wait times.”
After the recent meeting with advocates and calls from The Post seeking interviews about the backlog, Blumberg, the Parole Commission chairman, said he and the state’s acting head of public safety and corrections, J. Michael Zeigler, intend to contract with an additional doctor or clinical group to shorten the list.
Georgetown Law professor Abbe Smith, her students and colleagues from the school’s Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic prepared Jackson’s parole petition in November 2017.
The legal team expected the process to move swiftly after Jackson was cleared in January 2018 to move on to the psychological evaluation. The process stalled.
Christopher Herr, a third-year law student, wrote to the commission more than a year later — in March — to ask whether Jackson’s appointment would be scheduled by the end of May.
“Her parole team believes morale is very important for Ms. Jackson so close to the end of the parole process,” Herr wrote in an email.
A program manager for the commission responded: “Understand that the Parole Commission has one psychologist that does the risk assessments. [I] would encourage you not to give her a time frame.”
Smith questioned the legitimacy of a state process that holds out the possibility of parole but leaves people languishing because of flaws in the system.
“There can’t be just one person in the entire state. It’s like a bad joke,” Smith told Jackson during their recent visit.
Jackson’s life term is for felony murder.
In August 1997, she was a 22-year-old mother of three in Dundalk, with no criminal record but a crack cocaine addiction. She had started “escorting” as a teenager, had been beaten and robbed and had a gun held to her head, her lawyers recounted in Jackson’s parole petition.
Her addiction and an abusive relationship with an on-again, off-again boyfriend led to their eviction from an apartment, which is when, her lawyers wrote, the two made a plan.
Jackson agreed to set up Claude Bowlin, a 73-year-old widower who had supported her financially and had been kind to her, according to court records.
The plan: Jackson would distract Bowlin with sex in his bedroom while her then-boyfriend, Corey Williams, entered the house to steal electronics, court records also show. Instead, Williams entered the room where Jackson and Bowlin were and bludgeoned Bowlin with a ceramic mug Williams had grabbed from the kitchen, according to court records.
A judge convicted Jackson of felony murder.
“I never intended to hurt anybody. I didn’t think about what I was doing,” she told the judge at her sentencing hearing, according to a transcript.
In making her case to the Parole Commission, Jackson’s legal team wrote, “It is undisputed that she did not kill Mr. Bowlin. Still she has served more time than the person who actually did the killing.”
Williams died more than a decade ago in prison.
Jackson said she thinks “all the time” of her crime and the pain she caused Bowlin’s family. She’s a fixer, but she knows she can’t fix it.
His son, John Bowlin, lives in the house where his father was killed. When asked about Jackson’s petition for early release, he said he would leave it to state officials to decide.
“If it was up to me, she would never get out of prison,” he said. But at 70, John Bowlin said he is also trying to move on. “I’m trying to let go of everything, trying to let it rest.”
Once Jackson was cleared for the psychological exam, her mother, Francis Rose, began planning. She was certain her daughter would be released in time for her 45th birthday in February. Rose imagined a surprise party at her home in Dundalk and had in mind a menu of salmon cakes and spaghetti.
“I’ve been waiting 22 years for my baby to come home. It’s taking so long. It shouldn’t take this long to see a doctor,” she said.
Rose is trying to be patient, to suppress her frustration in their phone calls. She doesn’t want her daughter to worry. “I’m not going to let her hear me be discouraged.”
“This is the hardest part. The waiting game,” said Jackson’s friend Novlette Haughton, a former inmate who speaks with Jackson by phone most days. “At this point, there is nothing more she can do. She just has to sit and wait her turn.”
Jackson said she finds peace in weekly gospel choir practices she leads and in her dreams of opening a nail salon. Her own nails are long and painted hot pink.
Prison tests your strength, Jackson said. She is tired of being told when she can shower, when she can eat. Mostly, she is tired of the chaos — the constant fighting, foolishness and badgering, she said.
“It’s grueling. I didn’t think I’d still be here,” she said to her lawyers at the prison meeting, letting out a deep sigh. “I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do. Why am I still here?”