“We are not here to panic but to prepare and consider whether there are proactive steps we can take to address matters uniquely within our parole function and that still offer an opportunity for safe and successful release upon parole…”
The Rhode Island Parole Board met on Thursday to make modifications to some of their practices and procedures due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“The COVID-19 crisis has really shifted the ground under all of us,” said Laura Pisturo, who chairs the board. “At this time, health and safety is paramount.
“The parole board has a limited function, although an important one, but one that is very much dependent on statute,” continued Pisaturo. “We are not here to panic but to prepare and consider whether there are proactive steps we can take to address matters uniquely within our parole function and that still offer an opportunity for safe and successful release upon parole.
“Virtually everyone in the criminal justice system is, I think, taking similar considerations.”
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The meeting was conducted telephonically, with over 40 people attending, including board members.
The board made several decisions relevant to reducing the inmate population at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), which currently incarcerates between 2500 and 2600 individuals.
During the one hour meeting, the board decided to review cases of inmates already granted parole with a release date of April to June 2020. There are 28 cases in that category. At a later date the parole board will take up 24 additional cases scheduled for release between July and December 2020.
Many people granted parole but awaiting release are required to complete programs inside the prison, or to arrange employment outside the prison before release. The ACI has suspended all in prison programs due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Pisaturo suggested, and the board approved, reviewing the cases of those already granted parole release and consider lifting program contingencies or other conditions to allow for release where “there exists a stable home plan and/or release conditions that would allow for safe release to the community.”
The Board voted to suspend, temporarily, in-person meetings with inmates inside the prison and will conduct its review of parole applications on all other materials the Board receives. This includes institutional adjustment and achievements, treatment and programming, discipline, support letters, risk assessments, victim impact statements, inmate letters and any other written materials that are submitted on an inmate’s application in advance of a hearing.]
The board also voted to temporarily expand the “scope of authority of chairperson to act between meetings” pending future ratification by the full board. This will allow Chair Pisaturo to act quickly to address parole violations and to move up parole considerations.
During public comment, Tal Frieden, an organizer with Never Again RI, asked if the board might consider early release for inmates based on medical considerations that might make them more susceptible to COVID-19.
Attorney Lisa Holley asked if the board might look into medical parole for inmates who have previously been denied medical parole.
Natalia Friedlander, representing the Rhode Island Center for Justice, asked if the parole board might take into account “mitigating factors” when deciding on parole, and public health could be considered a mitigating factor.
“The statutes that govern us are very specific, and that may include medical parole as well,” said Pisaturo. “We can consider other factors, aggravating or mitigating, that are not set out in the guidelines. We do not need formal motions to do that.”
“When someone is before us we can consider a whole host of factors, some of which we have put in our guidelines,” continued Pisaturo. “Board members may consider other factors that we particularly articulate in the minutes once we make a parole decision. That would include that someone have a job plan and under this current pandemic crisis, joblessness and job loss is happening daily by the thousands. The board is certainly aware of that, I am certainly aware of that.
“That is something the board can, without a formal motion, take into consideration,” continued Pisaturo, adding that not having a job lined up outside is “not typically a bar to someone getting out on parole.”
“We cannot see anyone any earlier for their initial parole hearing than they are entitled to by law,” said Pisaturo.
Never Again RI’s Tal Frieden asked if Chair Pisaturo was in touch with the Governor’s Office to modify some of the restrictions in the parole statutes and Pisaturo responded that she has been in touch with the Governor’s office, but pointed out that modifying the statute was a legislative function. Pisaturo that the state is in a state of emergency, so she doesn’t know if the governor can modify the legislation.