By Christi Buchanan
I was 21 years old when I was indicted into the Virginia Penal System in the late 1980’s. Soon after, a parole eligibility date was set for me. Farther ahead in my future I would “go up” for parole. At the time that date was decided on Virginia was governed by Doug Wilder, the State’s first black governor. The parole release rate back then was around 90% - it seemed like everyone made first or second parole. I had high hopes. Parole ruled the way I did my time. Every day was begun with that magical date in mind. Then, in 1993, Governor George Allen abolished parole. It went retroactive, thank God, so I still felt hopeful. Little did I know Parole would become an elusive ever-out-of reach-yet-always dangling-right-in-front-of-me-carrot. By the end of ‘94 it was crystal clear that no one was ever going to make parole again. The release rate had plummeted to around 4%. My magical date was still ten years away. Holding on to hope was slowly morphing into a struggle between life and death.
My first parole hearing came in December of 2004 – eighteen years into my sentence. I was as prepared as I could be. My family had written letters to the Parole Board on my behalf. Work supervisors and various staff members had also written recommendations and evaluations. I also had copies of every certificate of completion from every class, vocation and group I’d taken. My ducks were in a row.
I woke up ridiculously early that morning and spent a lot of time “getting ready.” By nature I am not a girly girl, but that day I did my hair and put on makeup. I ironed my uniform, too. I was nervous as hell so I drank a lot of coffee, which amped me up even more. The parole hearings always take place in the administrative offices at the school building (which are very nice). I was called over around 9 a.m. and went straight in. The parole examiner (who is not a member of the parole board) spoke with me for about 2 hours. I found out later that that was an unusually lengthy amount of time.
For the most part the guy was okay. It was a difficult conversation, to say the least. But he was calm and polite. He asked me to explain my involvement in the crime and questioned me about my co-defendant. It was perfectly routine – expected, even until the last 10 minutes , that is I’d been sitting silently for a few minutes while he typed who knows what into his laptop. Then, without warning, he said in a most dismissive manner, “You know you’ll never get out of prison.” As the room iced over I could only stare at my hands lying imp in my lap. I was frozen – all the air in my lungs instantly evaporated. My eyes dried out and my brain cracked into a billion pieces under the pressure. He let that hang in the air between us for those last 10 minutes and then coldly dismissed me with a flick of his wrist.
I was devastated. All those years I lived and breathed and believed that there would be life after prison for me. I moved through time on a mission, driven by hope. My turn-down came back two weeks later with a big fat three year referral attached to it. Merry Christmas. I think I cried all the way through February. My family was rocked by the news, too. Anger over the deferral took a front seat to the grief of revisiting the ugliness of what I’d done. It was a way for them to cope with it. I suppose by fall I was numb, relieved even, that I wouldn’t have to face that man again –wouldn’t have to go through that hell again for a couple of years.
That man retired in 2005. I’ve been up 9 times since then with a new examiner – a woman. She is kind and straight-forward, candid. We’ve had difficult, ugly conversations and rather easy ones. She’s always blunt about the political atmosphere in Virginia. Of the various personalities on the board she is fair and realistic without the affinity for total destruction.
Last year she saw me in November for about 20 minutes (the average time). We talked about my accomplishments and plans for release. It was nice and comfortable. Hope had returned. As usual the turndowns come back a couple of weeks later. I thought it was okay I mean, the reasons for my denial were the same as always. High risk to the community, and serious nature of the crime, with a new one thrown in – do more time. At first I thought that was the most honest thing they’d said to me yet. I have four life sentences and have only served a fraction of it, so I took it on the chin. I was just grateful I didn’t get a deferral. As 2014 moved along, that comment, “do more time” settled down on me like a wet wool blanket. I became impatient and bitchy, angrier by the day. I systematically alienated the people I hung out with. My personality had totally changed. By September I was oscillating between depression and fury. I couldn’t get over how the parole board seemed to only pay attention to crime and time. None of the work I’d done over the years – mentally, emotionally, academically – seemed to matter at all. How much I changed and how connected I was to my family, the job skills I’d collected, none of it was being considered. My remorse meant nothing. I got really hung up thinking, “What’s the point in any of this?” This misery infected me completely.
Then, one afternoon in early October, my counselor caught me on the yard. Brightly – gleefully- she chirped that I had a parole hearing on November 17th. I’d been dreading this and imagined my ears to be bleeding as she bounced off in the opposite direction. Then it felt like my head exploded from the pressure and all these pent-up obscenities I wanted to shout at the parole board fell out on the sidewalk. I felt raw, like an exposed nerve. A few weeks later I signed up to see a therapist over in mental health. I hated to do it (I do not trust shrinks) but I was desperate to get a grip before my hearing. I was seen on November 4th and aired it out as honestly as I could. I have to admit she (who happened to be the newly promoted director of mental health) was helpful, but more importantly to me, she didn’t try to get me to take some psychotropic drug that I don’t need. I left agreeing to get in touch with her again. I still felt out of control-, like I was hurdling off into space. I still wanted to go into my hearing and just unload all that fury and depression on the examiner. I was afraid that if she asked me what she always asks – “what have you been doing this last year?” – I’d come uncorked and spew forth a very sarcastic and vile response. “More time!” I didn’t want to cut my nose off to spite my face, yet that’s exactly what I felt the urge to do.
The day finally came for me to face the music yet again and I wandered toward it emotionless and robotic. I went to work to stay busy but did absolutely nothing. They finally called me over around 12:45 p.m. There were several people ahead of me so I knew I had a fairly significant wait. Four people went up that morning and apparently the general consensus was the examiner was in a foul mood. That must’ve carried over after lunch because every person who came out of that office was pale and distraught, all complaining of her mood. By 2:30 I was no longer nervous. I figured it was just going to be rough, so I might as well go to sleep until called for. I mean, how bad could it be?
I found out around 3:20 p.m. At first it was business as usual – small talk and pleasantries. She asked me what I’d been up to since we last spoke and I navigated it successfully. We discussed my home plan and potential job opportunities. I thought “Pfft. Bad mood? Please.” After that she asked what I wanted the parole board to know and I went temporarily insane. For some stupid reason I asked her if we could talk off the record. She spun away from the computer and said, “Of course.” We’d done so before. I asked her to pull up my answer from last year, which she did. She read the reasons out loud. When she got to, “Do more time,” I heard someone say, “See – that pisses me off.” And was horrified to realize I said it.
That woman lit into me so hard I was pressed back into my chair by the force of it. Over the next 20 minutes or so she mercilessly explained what parole meant and how they came to their decisions, all the while repeatedly reminding me that I have four life sentences. Apparently I wanted more because at some point I had the audacity to ask her what the point of all this was. Why? Why did I do that? She kicked the merciless up a notch and broke it down into no uncertain terms. Parole is simply about crime and time. Everything else – the work and education and letters and growth and change and remorse – though all very good and meaningful, mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. She explained that I don’t have a right to parole. I don’t have a right to the meeting with her. The only thing I have a right to is to “die in prison after serving a whole hell of a lot more time.”
What do you say to that? All I could say was “Okay” I thought about what she said for a moment and then thanked her for explaining all that to me. I told her I’d had an incorrect, misguided idea of what parole was all about and that I now understood and was grateful for it. And I was – I am. There is some relief in knowing that what I do and the support from home, while important and valuable, mean little in light of what happened and how much time I was given for it. See, I thought there was some sort of checklist of things I was expected to do – achieve – standards I had to meet that they kept track of. And although I wasn’t allowed to ever see this mythical list, I was expected to accomplish every item on it. I still think it exists. Only now I know all they really consider is what I can never change. Knowing that takes the pressure off. She said I would probably get my answer back in about three weeks. I thanked her for explaining it all, wished her happy holidays and left.
I laughed all the way up the yard.
Parole hearings are terrible, wonderful ordeals that I never want to go through, but dictate most of my life around. Even though the outcome has never been positive, I still would rather endure it, all that stress, every year, rather than live without it. I have to say my life is in God – in Jesus. It is my faith that gets me out of bed. It is my faith that gives me hope. It’s been three weeks now and so far I still haven’t heard. I’m getting anxious about it. If it’s another “no,” I’m sure I will be sad and disappointed. But this time I don’t have any preconceived notions about my being able to affect their decision. This time I know the bare bones, and that really does go a long way toward accepting it. I was involved in a horrible crime and must be punished.
Hope I can go home.
|Christi Buchanan 1003054|
Fluvanna Correctional Center 1A
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974