The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If we truly believe in redemption and second chances, parole should be celebrated

The Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, Va., in September 2010. (Steve Helber/AP)

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a writer, lawyer and the founder and director of the Million Book Project, which supports prison libraries across the United States.

Last spring, when Vincent Lamont Martin was released from prison on parole, I was 39 years old, and he’d been in prison every day of my life.

Word was that Martin had gone more than three decades without a single institutional infraction — not even for failing to stand for count. I did time in several Virginia prisons, and I can’t imagine going 30 years without once being too exhausted or depressed or frustrated to get on my feet for count. According to the Virginia Parole Board, a correctional officer said that “over the decades, there are numerous instances of Vincent Martin preventing fights, stabbings, and deaths all because it was the right thing to do. Never have I seen an offender demand peace like Vincent Martin does.”

With all this, you might imagine that Martin’s release would have been seen as a testament to the power of rehabilitation and reform. He waded through the most dangerous decades of prison in Virginia, and he became what everybody says they want a person in prison to become.

But there are crimes that some believe warrant no mercy, and Martin’s is one. In his 20s, he was convicted of the 1979 murder of Michael Connors, a Richmond police officer. And so what followed his release in our charged political times was predictable. The integrity of the Virginia Parole Board was questioned. An investigation followed. Lawmakers called for board members to resign, ostensibly for failing to provide proper notice of their actions, and a Republican candidate for state attorney general proposed abolishing parole for violent offenders.

Equally predictable: No one talked about who Martin is today. It only mattered what he’d been convicted of doing more than four decades ago.

During the 1990s, when the federal government and state governments across the country were abolishing parole, even governors of states that held back vowed never to grant parole to prisoners serving life sentences, as Martin was. This as the country was in the process of incarcerating 2.4 million people, more than any other nation in the world.

But times change, outlooks mature, people learn. Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D) wrote recently in The Post that he made a mistake in 1995 when he said he wouldn’t grant parole to anyone with a life sentence. Now, many states that abolished or limited parole have reversed course or are moving in that direction.

“Are we supposed to die in here?” Friends of mine doing 30-, 40- and 50-year Virginia prison sentences for crimes of violence committed as teenagers wondered as the parole board received heavy criticism after Martin’s release. They wondered what it means for them. Maybe less rehabilitation. My friend Terell Kelly, incarcerated more than two decades ago at 17 for murder, tells me that as the parole rate increased under former chair Adrianne Bennett — now so much under fire — he saw a surge of hope in the system. “Men started going to classes more,” he said. “Stopped with the drugs and trying to medicate themselves.”

Since doing my time, I’ve become a lawyer. Over the past year, I’ve helped two good men I served with gain parole in Virginia. During a robbery attempt, Kevin Williams’s cousin was killed by the man they attempted to rob. After he and a surviving co-defendant were arrested, a judge sentenced Williams to life in prison for his involvement in the robbery. Christopher Tunstall had been sentenced to life in prison for murder.

Violent crime causes harms that echo over time. I’ve not minimized that when it’s come to my own crime, or the crimes of the men I’ve represented. But I knew Kevin and Chris at Sussex 1 State Prison. Kevin slept in the cell above me, and Chris was my cell partner. Inside, Kevin was funny; I didn’t know he had a life sentence. He stayed away from trouble. Chris treated me like a brother when I was barely 21 and still figuring out how to survive in prison. I could attest to the reform and personal growth of both men because I witnessed it.

Chris’s and Kevin’s paroles didn’t get the public scrutiny that Martin’s did. Kevin went home to a life of 40-hour workweeks. He called me last week excited about getting a promotion. Chris fell ill and died. He’d been free for six months. A year in the stressful world of prison wears on you like five outside.

My last year in prison, I had a cell partner everyone called Pops, even by those his own age. He carried around a Bible and went to school, still believing a trade and education mattered after two dozen years in prison and a handful of parole denials. One afternoon, I came upon him and a group of other old heads weeping around a table. It scared me. These men had been locked up for decades; I didn’t want to know what could have made them cry in the open.

“Pops, everything good?” I asked. He wiped his face, this man who was more than twice my age and could bench press 300 pounds. “I made papers,” he said.

Pops was the first person I would see leave prison during my eight years. I cannot believe that what we truly want is for people like Pops to die in prison.

Read more:

Charles Lane: Here’s some hope for supporters of criminal justice reform

Leonore Anderson and Robert Rooks: No, crime survivors don’t want more prisons. They want a new safety movement.

Andrea James: Women and girls must be at the center of reimagining safety

Radley Balko: It’s time to repeal the worst criminal justice law of the past 30 years