Parole On Trial
Should convicted killers be allowed to rejoin society?
her three tive November, equally to girl intoxicated a named remote 1971, Helen location a drunken accomplices Betty Osborne outside Dwayne abducted town, in The and Archie a tried Pas, to Johnston 19-year-old Man., drove sexually and naassault her. When she resisted, an enraged Johnston, then 18, pulled Osborne out of the car, brutally beat her and stabbed her an estimated 56 times with a screwdriver. Then he and one of the other men dumped the battered, nearly naked teenager in a
wooded area and left her to die. It took police 15 years to crack the case. But in December, 1987, Johnston was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Now, after nearly a decade in custody, Johnston is a changed man—at least according to the National Parole Board. “It is fairly clear from the material we have that he doesn’t represent a risk to anyone,” says Fraser Simmons, director of the board’s Pacific regional office in Abbotsford, B.C.
With the board’s blessing, the 42-year-old Johnston is preparing for life outside prison. Now on day parole, the man whose case became the subject of a book and a CBC movie entitled Conspiracy of Silence lives in Abbotsford at a federal corrections centre that has no bars or fences. He owns a car, works full time as a furniture upholsterer and, if granted full parole next October, will be free to live on his own. But for the past five months, members of Osborne’s family in Norway House—450 km north of Winnipeg—along with natives across Manitoba have staged protest marches, signed petitions and pleaded with the parole board to keep Johnston locked up. “Somebody else could be harmed,” warns Osborne’s 41-year-old brother Isaiah, “because of the racist attitude that this person held
towards Indian people.” Concludes Norway House band leader Ron Evans: “I don’t think Johnston should be out. No one here believes he’s a model anything.”
Inmates like Johnston may be surprised when a storm of protest descends upon them. But, in fact, the entire parole system is under attack from people who tell pollsters they believe violent crime is on the rise—even though government figures show precisely the opposite for murder and most personal injury offences. Many Canadians are demanding longer sentences and a tougher parole system, and politicians are listening. Last week, Liberal backbencher John Nunziata reintroduced a private member’s bill that would deny convicted firstdegree murderers like Clifford Olson—the notorious serial killer who is eligible for a judicial review in August—any chance of being released before serving 25 years. And Justice Minister Allan Rock has promised to unveil a package of amendments within a month that will exclude some killers from applying for such reviews. “At the moment anyone can apply,” Rock told Maclean’s. “I’ve met with enough victims who have gone through a review and experienced a second time the trauma of a family member’s death. They argue powerfully that reviews shouldn’t be automatic” (page 49).
Along with hardening public attitudes, the 45-member National Parole Board has been deeply affected by a series of disastrous decisions in the late 1980s. In the summer of 1987, convicted murderer Daniel Gingras, then 27, escaped while on a temporary absence from Edmonton Institution and killed two people before being re-ar-
rested. Then in January, 1988, a violent sex offender named Melvin Stanton, 31, was granted a similar leave from an Ontario penitentiary and, within hours of getting out, raped and murdered a young woman in downtown Toronto. Finally, there was parolee Joseph Fredericks, a sadistic pedophile who abducted, raped and fatally stabbed 11-year-old Christopher Stephenson of Brampton, Ont., in June, 1988.
Those tragedies led to coroners’ inquests or internal inquiries, massive amounts of hostile media coverage and wholesale changes in the policies and practices of the parole board, which has an annual operating budget of nearly $24
million. Although they are appointed by cabinet, board members, who can earn up to $90,000 a year, must have a background in criminal justice or corrections, rather than simply the right party connections. “The board had been rattled by bad cases,” concedes Willie Gibbs, who was named chairman 18 months ago after a long career in corrections. ‘We needed to make changes so we could build some credibility with the Canadian public.”
But according to advocates for inmates, the board has already gone too far in that direction. It has attempted to rebuild its image, they say, by making parole too difficult for most offenders—and next to impossible for others, particu-
larly those who have committed sexual or violent crimes. In fact, the board’s own figures show that the number of day parole and full parole cases reviewed annually fell by nearly 20 per
cent between 1993 and 1995. During that time, the rate of day paroles actually granted fell to 58 per cent from 65 per cent, while the rate for full parole plummeted to 19 per cent from 34 per cent. “There’s an argument to be made that the parole board has abolished parole,” said Graham Stewart, executive director of the John Howard Society of Ontario, which counsels offenders. “It’s become a lock-up system.”
A Institution s federal penitentiaries in Kingston, Ont., go, Frontenac is a pretty tame place. It is minimum security, so there are no fences topped with razor wire
and not many bars. Despite the relaxed atmosphere, Frontenac houses some serious offenders, including murderers. And on a recent winter morning, a three-member parole board panel assembled there for day parole hearings involving three inmates in their early to mid-thirties, all serving life sentences for second-degree murder.
The first up is Scott, a broad, handsome man with big hands and shoulderlength hair. Scott, who has served 7V2 years in jail for stabbing an acquaintance to death in a drunken rage after a long feud over a woman, arrives with his parents, his sister, a minister and the director of a halfway house that is prepared to accept him. Scott has a job lined up, he is attending university and he is remorse-
ful. “The only way I can deal with it is to ask for forgiveness from God,” he says. “It was the worst feeling in the world waking up and realizing what happened. It took me a couple of years
to come to grips with it.” After a 90minute hearing, the board grants Scott day parole.
The next case is more perplexing. Geoff, slender and soft-spoken, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, has served 11 years for stabbing his wife to death after the breakdown of their marriage. His fiancée accompanies him and, from the anxiety on her face, it is apparent that her immediate future is riding on the outcome. Geoff tells the board he had no criminal history before the murder, and he has stayed out of trouble in prison, except for two minor breaches. But the board seems skeptical about Geoff s explanation of the killing, and his apparent lack of remorse.
“I’m having trouble understanding why the offence happened,” says panel member linda Lennon. “You seem so matter-of-fact about it.”
“This is something I’m never going to forget,” Geoff replies. “I feel bad it happened. But I can’t change that.” The interview over, Geoff and his
fiancée wait nearly 90 minutes in a visitors’ lounge before the board calls them back— and turns him down. Afterwards, out in the corridor, Geoff leans dejectedly against the wall, while his fiancée sobs on his shoulder.
By midafternoon, the board is ready to hear Alvin, who at age 34 has spent 15 years behind bars for killing a 72-yearold man, allegedly because the victim made a sexual pass after an evening of heavy drinking.
Alvin, who is blunt about his past, tells the board that he was one of 22 children in a home rife with alcoholism, neglect and abuse. He piled up numerous offences as a juvenile, and his prison record includes breaches for carrying knives, harassing sex offenders and threatening a guard. “I just want to get my life
back,” he tells the board, “get a
job and start over.” But the panel
tells him he has attitudinal and emotional problems that must be resolved before he will be ready for the street.
Most parole board members insist that their decisions are guided by federal legislation, board policy and voluminous inmate files that usually include summaries of offences, the judge’s reasons for sentencing, psychiatric assessments, reports from the case management officers and, on occasion, victim impact statements. But other board members concede that they often rely on intuition during the inmate interview. “You’re always listening for inconsistencies and little things that may add up to big things,” said Ross Drummond, 43, a Kingston lawyer and board member for nine years. “If you pursue them, you can usually get an admission that raises red flags.”
Some decisions are emotionally wrenching, says Drummond, particularly those involving lifers. “Our job is to protect the public and sometimes that means a person may never get out. I don’t think the average Canadian really believes there is such a thing as a life sentence in this country. But there is. If we shut the door completely, the door is shut. Sometimes you see a guy who’s going to have a hard time convincing any board to release him. And that’s sad.”
A handful of disastrous decisions have altered perceptions of parole
David Claxton has been a correctional officer for 20 years (mostly at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, a tough place known as the gladiator school). Stocky and balding, Claxton has a demeanor that seems to say “I’ve seen it all,”
and he likens prison to bombs. “If you want to make a bomb, you take a hard outer casing, you put a fuse on it and you pack it with all kinds of volatile material,” he says. “In our prisons you have a hard outer casing, which is the fence, and you put all kinds of volatile people inside and they’re all bouncing off each other trying to get along. There’s drugs and tension and violence. When inmates come out, they need to shed the survival skills they’ve learned inside. This place gives people that opportunity.”
“This place” is the Keele Community Correctional Centre, where
Claxton now works. Located in a former post office in the west end of Toronto, it is a temporary residence for parolees who are trying to re-establish themselves outside prison. But many don’t make it, and Claxton keeps a brown leather briefcase in his office to demonstrate one major reason why. The briefcase is full of contraband he has seized at the centre. It includes about two dozen syringes, one containing driedup heroin, several devices used to smoke crack cocaine, a small bag of marijuana, prescription pills, an empty whisky bottle and a knife with an eight-inch blade.
Getting caught with items like those is considered a breach of parole and generally lands the offender back in jail. So, obviously, can committing new offences that lead to criminal charges. Recently, while Claxton led a visitor on a tour of the Keele centre, two police officers were frisking a resident before taking him away in handcuffs. The middle-aged man was suspected of being involved in a fraud scheme with another parolee at the centre. “It’s never a pleasant sight to see a man arrested,” Claxton says after the officers have whisked the man away. “But if you work in this field, you see it time and time again.” Of course, any inmate charged with a new crime and acquitted is entitled to a new parole hearing, and another chance to plead for his freedom. In fact, cases like those account for
about 15 per cent of the board’s workload. Another 10 per cent are detention hearings, involving inmates deemed to be too dangerous to release at the two-thirds mark of their sentences. The remaining 75 per cent are for escorted or unescorted temporary absences— generally for a doctor’s appointment or a death in the family—or for day parole or full parole.
But regardless of the reason for the hearing, they are frequently tense encounters. ‘"When you interview an inmate at a hearing, it becomes a highly charged, highly dynamic situation,” says Jane Hackett, a member of the board based in Kingston. “We’re making decisions that have a tremendous effect on the lives of the offender and the potential for harm to the community.”
Some inmates say they could hardly sleep the night before their hearings. Others recall sitting on their hands to avoid trembling. And still others describe the experience as more nerve-racking than standing before a judge who is passing sentence. Occasionally, board members become worried about their own safety. At a recent hearing at Millhaven Institution near Kingston, a short, gaunt, pallid-looking inmate named Dave entered the room accompanied by a beefy guard with a brush cut and a no-nonsense look on his face. And it quickly became apparent why the guard was there: Dave, a 39-year-old bank robber with 40 convictions, was smouldering with anger. He had been paroled on Dec. 18, 1995, from Kingston Penitentiary and he was back in jail the same day.
“So, you’re out 1472 hours before all hell broke loose,” parole board member Richard Palmer says. “What happened?”
“It would take a long time to explain what happened,” Dave snaps back in a raspy voice.
But within minutes Dave’s story spills out. He took a bus to Toronto and reported immediately to his parole officer, who promptly imposed a 9 p.m. curfew, although he and the parole board had agreed on midnight. His supervisor also ordered Dave, an admitted alcoholic, to spend his first six to 12 weeks at a substance abuse program, meaning that he would not be able to work. Furious, Dave walked out, had a good meal, got drunk, bought a lottery ticket and staggered back to his halfway house at 11:30 p.m., where he was
Despite his dismal performance, Dave pleads for another chance. “I promise you if you give me that much freedom, so I can go out and get a job, you won’t see me in prison again.” But Hackett dashes his hopes and ends the interview, declaring: ‘Well, we don’t really believe that.”
While parole hearings are emotionally draining for inmates, they can be traumatic for victims and their families. They are allowed to submit impact statements, but they are not permitted to speak.
“I just had to sit there shaking my head and listening to his lies,” recalls Helen Leadley, a 57-year-old sales clerk from Calgary. Last June, Leadley travelled to the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B., to attend a hearing for Robert Thompson, who severely beat her daughter Brenda Fitzgerald—a 23-year-old mother of two—before stabbing her to death on a May morning in 1983.
“The hardest part for me was having to face this man again,” said Leadley, whose voice still seems laden with grief. “The hearing lasted five hours and he never once looked at me. I just pray every year that he gets turned down.”
Other victims’ families feel much the same. Montreal
police officer Walter Filipas was shot in the face nearly three years ago by one Claude Forget, an inmate who fled while on a pass to visit family.
“This guy,” says Filipas’s wife, Veronica, “is going to stay in jail for the whole 20 years.” That kind of unshakable determination has turned victims and the organizations that represent them into a potent political force. “Public pressure is forcing the parole board to be very, very careful,” says Priscilla de Villiers, founder of the Burlington, Ont.-based lobby group CAVEAT.
Victims’ organizations and their supporters are using their newly acquired clout to lobby the federal government for stringent new restrictions on who gets parole. The Ottawa-based Canadian Police Association wants a law stipulating that anyone with three parole suspensions would be ineligible for any kind of early release in the future. Victims of Violence, another Ottawabased organization, would permanently disqualify anyone who committed one new offence while on parole. “The official response has always been that we can’t take away
hope for these guys,” says executive director Gary Rosenfeldt “So you can have as many parole violations as you want, and you still get out on parole.”
For inmate advocates, however, parole remains a crucial tool for controlling inmates and safeguarding public safety.
The John Howard Society’s Stewart notes that 85 per cent of inmates in Canadian penitentiaries are serving fixed sentences and will ultimately be released. The public, he argues, is better protected when inmates are released early with strict supervision than when they serve their entire sentences and leave without conditions. “The process is now extremely politically driven,” says Kingston defence lawyer Josh Zambrowsky.
“The victims’ rights lobby would be happy if parole were done away with altogether, and the parole board is pandering to this conservative attitude.”
Former inmates, particularly those who have served long sentences, say that parole is a vital bridge between the tedium of prison and a high-speed, bewildering society. “My first day out, I broke out in a cold sweat trying to cross a street,” recalls Tom French, 53, who received a life sentence for second-degree murder in the mid1970s and now runs an inmate counselling service in Kingston. “The
cars looked like they were going 150 miles an hour.” His partner, Russ Elliott, 44, who served 12 years for weapons and drugs offences, adds: “Doing a lot of time is like being placed in suspended animation. When I went in, there were hippies around. When I came out, there’s punk rock and video games.”
Whatever the merits of the parole system, the challenge to it can be viewed as a sign of a broad, attitudinal change within Canadian society, “We’re less forgiving today,” says Jeffrey Rouse, executive director of a nonprofit society
that runs two Toronto halfway houses. “In employment situations, managers are being held up to very rigid accountability standards. We’re seeing more government inquiries where we attempt to lay blame. And we’re locking people up for longer periods of time. We’re into a pe-
riod of absolute individual responsibility.” For inmates like Dwayne Archie Johnston, the new mood means that doing time and expressing remorse may no longer be enough. For victims’ families and a fearful public, one parole board mistake is one too many.