Thousands of inmates rely annually on a capricious parole board for their freedom. Most, like George Dismukes, return to their cells without ever knowing why they were denied.

In late April Dismukes was called down to see the unit captain and asked to bring his typewriter. Type a few lines and sign it, he was told. After he produced the sample as ordered, he asked why. According to Dismukes, the captain told him that "The parole board has received a letter." The letter contained a threat, he said, something to the effect of "You sons of bitches need to parole me, or I'm going to blow up your house and shoot your dog," Dismukes says.

A TDCJ official confirmed that the captain had been asked to collect a sample, but not for the reason conveyed to Dismukes. "There was a letter," says the source, who wouldn't divulge the details. "It did not involve a threat. The board was curious as to whether it came from George." Asked why no one ever asked Dismukes himself, the official came up empty: "It's an interesting question, and I don't have an answer to it."

Dismukes has written some letters, critical letters that likely haven't won him friends among those whose support he needs. After his conviction, he allegedly wrote Judge James Keeshan an angry note that predicted his downfall from the bench, a missive that Dismukes denies writing. He wrote Tauss a pair of letters; though neither was especially inflammatory, the first suggested she may have had it in for him.

Tolee Nguyen: "The guy who turned his life around."
Tolee Nguyen: "The guy who turned his life around."

His file likely contains communications from other sources as well. Last July an old neighbor wrote Dismukes to tell him of an odd encounter he'd had while browsing at a yard sale in the Montgomery County neighborhood where the murder victim had lived. A woman Dismukes had never met let it be known that she'd written the board in opposition to his release. She and her friends, the letter stated, had made all sorts of wild allegations: He was making millions from publishing his story, was suing the state, had even been seen walking the streets. "They have perceptions that you are bigger than life," the neighbor wrote. "They are the problem in your parole."

Dismukes would prefer to defend himself, but no board members talked to him before his latest review. (His current attorney, Gary Polland, says that Tauss expressed an intent to visit Dismukes; she denies it.) And though he's not especially worried about a letter claiming he'd been spotted roaming around Montgomery County, Dismukes fears the implication that the various letters and rumors bear. "It raises the question of what else could be in that file," he says glumly. "It could be anything, and I'd never know."

In 1987 the Board of Pardons and Paroles adopted a set of guidelines that the legislature mandated be used in parole decision-making. Based on the seriousness of the offense and the likelihood of success upon release, the guidelines established a set of objective criteria that, when combined, would yield a suggested positive or negative result. The board could then apply its discretion in voting case by case.

The concept mirrored that of the federal system, which in 1976 adopted standards that exhaustive research had indicated were reliable predictors for success or failure on parole. And by most accounts, the federal system worked well; in the 1980s a wave of other states passed similar laws. "It is a fairer system when you have a determinative guideline in place that has been validated by social science research," says Alan Chaset, a Virginia attorney who has worked federal parole cases for years. "Relying on that as opposed to the instincts of the parole board members, I find it far more acceptable, particularly if they're political appointees."

The rules in Texas were looser than most. Rather than creating a matrix that would spit out an actual release date (subject in most cases to modification by parole boards), the Texas guidelines assigned numeric figures to various categories that are important in risk assessment, such as the severity of the offense and behavior in prison. Added together, they produced a raw number, known as the Parole 80 score. Inmates who scored 80 or above were considered good risks; the further below 80, the higher the theoretical risk. The score was merely intended as a useful tool in the final decision.

In 1993 the legislature charged the state Criminal Justice Policy Council with monitoring the parole board's use of the guidelines. The first report, issued in 1996, noted that the lack of computerization in the criminal justice system made such monitoring impossible. The council, which serves as an advisory body to the legislature and governor on criminal justice matters, did do some informal studies. The conclusion: The guidelines as written were outdated, and the case-by-case calculations submitted to the parole board were error-ridden and unreliable. Consequently, the board members ignored the Parole 80 scores. Subsequent analyses by the policy council came to the same conclusions. "The guidelines we have right now have proven to be faulty," says parole board chairman Garrett. "Frankly, the guilt lies with us, because we have not revised the guidelines since they were issued."

As a result, the board decided to update the guidelines and hired a consulting firm with expertise in the field to develop a new approach. The consultants devised a matrix similar in concept to the old federal system ("old" because the feds essentially did away with parole a few years ago). Reflecting evolving public opinion about the severity of certain crimes, the new guidelines weigh violent and sex offenses more negatively than in the past; the consultants also refined the risk factors using the latest research. In conjunction with a revamped computer system that will pull TDCJ into the new millennium, the guidelines are slated to take effect late this year (though some of the details have yet to be finalized). "It is good to have an objective instrument, a baseline, to help guide us in our decision-making," says Garrett.

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