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.

Bill Habern, who represents Tolee Nguyen, sees that logic as problematic. Public opinion, at least in theory, is supposed to be reflected in legislative action. Judges, district attorneys and juries know when inmates will be eligible for parole, and they take that into account in passing sentence or plea-bargaining a case. If the public demands that inmates serve higher percentages of their sentences, then the legislature should change the law and let judges and juries sentence defendants based on that and the facts presented in the courtroom. "Our [parole] agency has exceeded the legislature's intent by creating fantasy numbers that they've reached into the air and grabbed," Habern says. "I'm not sure the legislature understands what the parole board is doing."

Nguyen understands. Regardless of the details, he can never escape the words on his rejection slip: nature of the crime. "It seems like it doesn't matter what I do in here," he says. "They can use that reason forever."

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…

George Dismukes clings to his dream. When he gets out, he wants to build houses with his wife, Sherry, in the beachfront community of Bacliff. He sees himself looking out over the bay, eating sushi and listening to his favorite music. "I'm a three Bs guy," he says. "Beethoven, Bach and Brahms." After the state is through supervising him, he wants to move to the Caribbean with Sherry and build a combination vacation getaway and meditation retreat.

But time is not his ally. At 58, his hair has thinned, evolving to match the color of his prison whites. He's seen way too many inmates die in their cells, and he knows how fragile life can be inside prison. Sherry, who visits him every Saturday, sustains him for now. But his hope for parole has been dimmed, and he realizes the implications. "Prison is the one place where hope has a shelf life," he says. "And when hope dies, the body follows shortly after."

Ironically, Dismukes has helped other inmates get out on parole, directly and indirectly. He's currently helping three inmates in his unit put together review packets. He also co-wrote the parole manual for the Texas Inmate Families Association, a support group with chapters around the state. His co-author was Sherry, who headed the association for five years before recently stepping down.

His activism may not have helped his cause. In addition to his work with the association, he's fond of writing scathing letters about the inequities of the parole system and prison in general, some of which have reached the board. He penned a life-behind-bars column for Newsweek in 1994 that painted an ugly picture, no doubt angering prison system officials. He files complaints against guards. In a system where one letter in a file can mean the difference between approval and denial, pissing off powerful people is probably not the way to sway the board in your favor.

To Cynthia Tauss, the issue boils down to the nature of the crime. "George Dismukes was convicted of murder," she says. "He got 16 years for murder. He has his life. The victim does not. I don't think the board or myself let a lot of murderers out."

Though the political advantage to keeping people in prison indefinitely is obvious, Dismukes has seen the flip side of that coin: People who are institutionalized too long become greater risks upon release than if they'd been paroled. Among other things, their support systems evaporate as spouses file for divorce and parents die. Social science research backs this up, as does an observation in the consultants' report: "It is noteworthy that inmates who are paroled have the lowest re-arrest rates, while inmates released under mandatory supervision or who are discharged have higher re-arrest rates….The results show that only 2.2 percent of all arrests occurring in 1999 were persons under parole supervision."

And that doesn't calculate the monetary cost to society of keeping people locked up: A drop of as little as 2 percent in the approval rate means millions of dollars in increased operating expenses for TDCJ, the report says.

Dismukes looks at the wall, but his gaze is a thousand miles away. "There's an old man in here we call Wild Bill," he says. "He's crowding 70. He's been in here for years. He came up for parole in January, same time as I did, and they just gave him a 'serve-all.' He's got three more years to do. He did get one vote for parole -- the guy said, 'You need to go home.' "

"Here's the sad part about Wild Bill," Dismukes continues. "He'll come running up to you like something is very important: 'George, George, they're having peach cobbler for lunch.' His world has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed until it's centered on what's going to happen in the next couple of hours. This is a man who was a career officer in the army. Protracted incarceration has turned him into, I don't know how to describe it, a hollow carcass. He's lost all of his support system. There's nothing there anymore.

"I think about all these things, and I try not to become like Wild Bill. But I realize that the chances of getting paroled next time I come up are no better than they were this time.

"What's changed?"

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