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 his defense, Nguyen said he didn't take the snitch seriously, and was just being the brash badass he'd always pretended to be. Before his last parole hearing, he passed a polygraph to that effect. "When you're 18 years old, you want to act bad, especially in a prison setting," he says. "My worst enemy was my mouth."

A conviction is a conviction, but the Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled that in order to secure one for organized crime, more than two people and more than one offense must be involved. Neither applied to Nguyen, but his appeals had been filed on other grounds and were already exhausted, and he has no further access to the courts.

But he does have a chance for parole, at least in theory. Combining good time with time served, he first became eligible in 1995. In each of his first three set-offs, he received the standard "nature of the crime" reason in his denial letter. This last time, though, the denial was more explicit. "They came up with three paragraphs full of reasons," he says. "Gang affiliation, ongoing criminal activity. It made me look terrible. When I read it, I was wondering who it was."

Celluloid heroes: George Dismukes's long association with the Duke would lead to a related career in Houston…
Photos courtesy of George Dismukes
Celluloid heroes: George Dismukes's long association with the Duke would lead to a related career in Houston…

The debatable nature of the charges aside, Nguyen questions why he would get a one-year set-off, advance himself and behave well during that time, then get a two-year set-off. Now he wonders if it matters at all how well he does in prison. "You try to go along with the program, and you follow the rules," he says. "It's kinda frustrating, when you really don't know what you're supposed to do."

Still, Nguyen has a practical view of the situation. "I have two ways to go," he says. "I can lose everything I've gained so far, or I can push ahead and keep going. I'd just rather hold out a little longer."

In 1990 the Texas prison system was in crisis. Jammed to the brim, with hundreds of new inmates arriving daily, the parole board turned people out in unprecedented numbers. The approval rate soared to more than 70 percent; among those released were hundreds of violent criminals. Public outrage would reach its peak after Kenneth McDuff, released on parole in 1989, went on a killing spree.

Governor Ann Richards appointed Jack Kyle to head the parole board in 1991. Kyle, a tough, no-nonsense former warden, immediately went about shutting the revolving door. Coupled with a massive prison expansion program and legislative changes in parole laws, the rate plummeted to a low of about 16 percent in 1997.

Last year the Criminal Justice Policy Council issued a report titled "Goal Met: Violent Offenders in Texas Are Serving a Higher Percentage of Their Prison Sentences." According to the report, the percentage for the aggravated category of violent offenders had increased from 38.2 percent in 1992 to 75.6 percent six years later. "If present policies continue," the report estimates, "the percent of sentence served … for offenders entering prison today will increase for violent aggravated offenders to 89.1 percent."

Whose goal the parole board is meeting, however, is unclear. In 1995 the legislature responded in two significant ways to the public's desire for inmates to serve a bigger slice of their sentences: Those convicted of aggravated violent crimes now had to serve at least half their sentences before becoming eligible for parole, double their previous minimum. Everyone else still had to serve one quarter before eligibility, though they were no longer automatically discharged under the old "good-time release" rules if they behaved themselves.

Other states passed even tougher laws. Fourteen states enacted "truth-in- sentencing" statutes that effectively abolished parole, requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their time. Texas legislators apparently felt their more moderate position provided more flexibility.

But the "goal" identified by the policy council is vastly more punitive than the law regarding parole eligibility. "There is no specific goal," says council director Fabelo. "How high that goal should have been, or how low, is not written down anywhere."

By its actions the parole board essentially sets the goal. Board chairman Garrett says there may not be a stated goal or policy, but the higher percentage "has been stated as the goal of the people of Texas." Garrett, who was appointed by George W. Bush in 1999, says he gets a lot of input on the matter from all quarters. "The average citizen in the street was expressing to me their frustration with parole," he says. "Policymakers were expressing their frustration."

Fabelo agrees that the board probably picked up the unwritten standard from the legislature and is acting accordingly. "I think it was communicated indirectly by public officials," he says. "In a diffuse way, it filters to the parole board, and they do have the discretion."

But if board members apply their own, individual standards to how much time an inmate should serve for certain crimes, parole eligibility becomes a meaningless technicality. "I think people convicted of violent crimes can expect to serve the majority if not all of their sentences," Garrett says firmly. "These people are eligible for parole. They're just not likely to make parole. If you think the parole board is going to blatantly fly in the face of public opinion, I think you'll be disappointed."

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