By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
George Dismukes had no experience managing rhinos, but it didn't take an expert to see that the rhinos weren't the problem. Recruited as an animal specialist to work on location in Africa for the film Hatari, Dismukes understood that the script would never work as written. "The type of footage they were trying to get would have required that the rhino be able to read," he says.
His unlikely role was but the latest in a life filled with unusual turns. Given up for adoption in Brownsville by his Mexican mother when he was five years old, Dismukes left his adoptive family before high school and returned to Mexico in search of his parents. He worked on a farm and bull-raising ranch outside Monterrey for a handful of pesos a day. Familiar with the bull ring (his mother had been friends with the famed matador Manolete), he took up bullfighting at age 14 under the stage name Jorge Mejia.
While at a Madrid party four years later, Dismukes met a flamboyant, mustachioed Englishman who was having problems with a movie he was making. Did Dismukes think his knowledge of bulls would translate to rhinos? the Brit asked. The next day Dismukes and the Englishman were winging their way to Tanzania.
But the project was bogging down, so Dismukes offered his opinion to the film's star, John Wayne. "When I pointed out the problem to the Duke," Dismukes recalls, "he studied the script for a minute, then simply said, 'Go write it.' To which I replied I had never written a script. His next sentence: 'You'll learn.' It was clear there was no arguing with him."
Dismukes redrafted the scenes, and thus began a long association with Wayne that included eight films and the television series Gunsmoke, and he got to hobnob with a group of stars the likes of John Huston, Jimmy Stewart and Raquel Welch. His screenplay, Two Faces of the Jaguar, was optioned by Francis Ford Coppola (though never produced). Eventually he got out of the movie business and settled in Houston, shooting commercial films.
The lights, camera and action still dominate his life, because Dismukes is serving a 16-year sentence for murdering a total stranger on Christmas Eve, 1991. Now, the lights never go out, surveillance cameras watch every move, and the ceaseless din of prison penetrates to the bone. He just observed the passing of seven and a half years behind bars, a date easy to remember: May 5, Cinco de Mayo. "What a day for that anniversary," he comments dryly. "A celebration of freedom for many Mexicans, but for one half-breed Mexican, a highway marker to nowhere."
In January Dismukes came up for parole for the third time, having been rejected the first two. This time, though, he figured he had a good shot -- his behavior in prison had been model, he had a strong support network outside with gainful employment awaiting, and he had a psychologist's report that deemed the likelihood of his committing another crime as virtually zero. Except for the murder, he had no prior record or history of substance abuse. Even the conviction had a mitigating twist: Dismukes has always claimed his innocence, and a Houston Press review of the records indicates his case is strong, if not provable (see "Catch-22").
But in the Byzantine world of the parole system, none of that necessarily matters. A three-member panel of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 2-1 against him, and Dismukes received an 18-month "set-off." That means he won't be up for another review until mid-2002. Set-offs can range from one to three years; last time, his set-off was for a year, and he's done nothing wrong in the interim. After the decision, he says, he was overwhelmed by "a depression so deep and profound that it has a death grip on me."
Since he became eligible for parole, Dismukes has watched dozens of others get their walking papers, which only compounds his anxiety. "I see people leave here whom guards and inmates predict will be back before their mattresses have cooled off," he says.
And while that may seem like a self-serving statement by someone with a vested interest, plenty of people on the other side of the fence agree with him. An administrator at the Ramsey complex in Rosharon (where Dismukes is incarcerated) who asked not to be identified puts it simply: "They let worse criminals out every single day."
How the 18 parole board members arrive at their decisions remains a mystery to those who deal with the system on a regular basis. By law, inmates can't see the files used in their reviews. Like other states, Texas has a set of guidelines that is supposed to objectively measure an inmate's chances for success or failure on parole, but the guidelines are almost never used. The legislature mandates what percentage of their sentences inmates must serve before they become eligible for parole, but many board members have their own, unwritten standards that are much stricter. The approval rates of individual board members vary dramatically, from 4 to 40 percent. "Texas parole has always been a dart throw," says Huntsville attorney Bill Habern, who knows the vagaries of the process as well as anyone in the state. "That's not the way to run a parole system."
Compounding the inconsistencies is the huge number of cases the board must review annually; last fiscal year, more than 67,000 inmates passed through the system, with a similar number projected for this year. The members are scattered unevenly across the state in seven district offices; each case gets at least two votes, with a third vote as the tiebreaker if necessary. Depending on who's counting, the board members spend an average of between four and nine minutes on each case -- hardly enough time to skim the file, let alone interview the inmates, attorneys or anyone else who might offer compelling information. "The bottom-line thing you can't escape is the numbers," says Gary Cohen, an Austin attorney who chairs the parole committee of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. "The sheer weight of the system is crushing."
According to a study commissioned by the state, board members don't agree on what they consider important, or even their primary function. Some focus on whether an inmate has, in their minds, been sufficiently punished. Others primarily consider the odds of whether an inmate will succeed or fail if paroled. Some say they look closely at the percentage of time served; others ignore it because of perceived inequities in sentencing. Some believe they reach better decisions if they can talk to the inmates, though they have time to see only 20 percent; others won't talk to inmates, their lawyers or anyone else. "They don't know where the hell they're going," says former Board of Pardons and Paroles chairman Jack Kyle. "As Yogi Berra said, if you don't know where you're going, you're lost when you get there."
Though the study reported that "board members clearly are most interested in risk assessment as the primary objective in decision-making," current practice says otherwise. Dismukes, for example, received the usual boilerplate explanation for his set-off: prior "criminal record and/or nature of offenses." Habern can recite a litany of clients with perfect prison track records who do everything asked of them yet never muster the needed votes to go free.
Of course, when it comes to releasing inmates into society, especially those convicted of violent crimes, the easiest thing to do is just say no. "The public wants prisoners out of sight and out of mind," says Kyle. "All of the people who are elected campaign on the promise that they're gonna lock 'em up and throw away the key."
And though board members insist they don't consider politics in their decision-making, it's hard to see how they can avoid it. Most of the board members come from within criminal justice circles and look for related jobs when their terms expire. Some, including Cynthia Tauss, are involved in politics. A former chairwoman of the Galveston County Republican Party, she is currently active in state party activities. After she leaves office, Tauss says, "I'll probably go to work on some campaigns or something."
When the prisons get overcrowded in part because the parole rate drops, as happened last year, legislators hammer the board for rejecting good parole candidates. Conversely, when an inmate gets out on parole and commits another crime, the board gets crucified in the media for being too lenient. And since board members are appointed by the governor, their mistakes can be used by opponents to make political hay -- Willie Horton remains one of the most famous parolees in history. "They don't count the success rate," Kyle says. "They count only failures."
Parole board chairman Gerald Garrett allows that the system could stand some improvement. But he takes issue with the idea that the board's decisions have a political component, especially when it comes to the ups and downs in the parole rate. "It's been part of popular mythology that the parole rate is a direct result of the criticism we receive," Garrett says. "People evaluate the criminal justice system in general, and the parole system in particular, on such a naive basis."
Garrett may be one of the few people in Texas who believe that. Almost everyone interviewed for this story acknowledged that the political winds blow as strongly at the parole board as at any institution in the state. Habern summed up their comments succinctly: "Tell me politics doesn't play a role in the parole process, and I'll tell you, 'Bullshit.' "
Tauss, who twice voted against Dismukes, acknowledges the pressure she and her colleagues face. "This has been a bigger dose of reality than I ever anticipated," she says of her six years on the board. "My greatest fear has always been that my picture would be on the front page of the Houston Chronicle, saying, 'This woman let that person out, and he bombed City Hall.' "
Kyle, like most critics, doesn't fault individual board members, who are just operating with what they're given. "Thirty-five to 40 percent of the people in the penitentiary today could probably be safely released," he says. "The parole system is about as dysfunctional as I think you could possibly find."
Bill Habern combs for files amid the clutter of his office, a converted trailer with add-ons that sits next to his country home near Lake Livingston. The house has expanded over the years in similar, organic fashion that fits Habern's persona. Partial to wearing a black derby that offsets his casual garb, he mixes sophisticated observations about the criminal justice system with off-color barbs and well-spun tales.
Habern will be the first to admit he's gotten people out of prison he didn't think stood a chance. At the same time, he rails about those he feels were ideal prospects but were rejected. What most frustrates him is that he and his client can't know what contributed to the denial; while some of the information in the parole files is public record, such as court documents, much of it is not. He cites the case of Greg Ott, who received a three-year set-off in March. Ott has served 23 years of a life sentence for shooting a Texas Ranger during a marijuana deal while a psychology graduate student at the University of North Texas in Denton. The case, the subject of a lengthy story last August in Texas Monthly, had many troubling aspects that left numerous key questions unanswered.
Despite the gray areas, Ott has accepted responsibility for what happened. And in those 23 years, he's been about as cooperative and hardworking as anyone behind bars. In 1982 he risked his life to save a guard who was being attacked by another inmate. During an escape attempt several years later, he saved countless lives by warning guards that a boiler was about to explode. Dozens of Texas Department of Criminal Justice staff members have urged his release. Even the district attorney who prosecuted Ott wrote a supportive letter to the parole board.
Approved in 1990, his parole was rescinded after the Texas Rangers mounted a campaign against his release. The board is supposed to consider the input of victims and others, but that usually occurs before the decision, not after the fact. That the law enforcement agency continues to oppose his parole every time he comes up isn't the issue either, says Habern. The problem is that no one but the parole board knows what the Rangers are saying. In 1999 Ott won the support of two board members, including Cynthia Tauss. But when protests came in, Tauss changed her vote. She told Texas Monthly reporter Gary Cartwright that "additional information was received," though she's proscribed by statute from revealing the details.
But Texas Rangers spoke with the Denton paper, which published articles about Ott's case. Unfortunately, some of the worst accusations conflicted with the trial record or were flat-out dead wrong. "What they said in the press wasn't true," recalls Habern. "Of course, it was too late then. If that was what Cynthia voted on, it was incorrect. But how was I to know?"
When Ott came up for review again this year, the panel based in Angleton split three ways, meaning the case got passed to the Gatesville office for a second vote. Again, law enforcement made a presentation to the panel; again, "additional information" was apparently received. And again, Ott got the thumbs-down, receiving the maximum three-year set-off. "I have no earthly idea what the information was," says Habern. "It's parole by secrecy."
When the information does see the light of day, it tends to confirm the fears of Habern and others who offered anecdotes to the Press. After a client of Austin lawyer Page Massey's was denied parole in the early 1990s, Massey guessed that a district attorney in north Texas had written a letter of protest that had affected the outcome. He went to the D.A.'s office and, in a stroke of luck, obtained a copy of the letter. He then compared the statements to the trial record and discovered 16 errors; all were slanted against the inmate. The D.A. would not withdraw the protest, but Massey laid out the facts before the parole panel, which granted release. But as Habern points out, "The D.A.'s normally don't give you that shit."
The arguments for maintaining closed files center around victims' rights and privacy issues. Victims, for example, might be reluctant to write letters arguing against parole if inmates or their supporters have access to them. But other states with more open systems address that problem by simply crafting their laws to require that sensitive documents be withheld or personal information redacted, as is done in Texas with other types of public records. Tauss sees both sides but is open to a change in the law. "If the legislature came and said, 'Open up the files,' I wouldn't have a problem with that," she says.
State Senator John Whitmire, who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and has been active in past reform efforts, agrees that the status quo is flawed. "We probably need to do more in seeing if the process should be more open," Whitmire says. "Somebody's got to give these folks information when somebody gets set off."
George Dismukes is haunted by his own invisible specter. A source close to the parole board told the Press that Tauss and Linda Garcia, the two who voted against him, were adamant because of something in the file. Tauss would neither confirm nor deny it, but she did say that she considered the totality of the circumstances before making her decision. "George has probably received more time and more review than any other inmate," she said.
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.
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.
That all makes sense, but the problem of data collection will be a thornier one to solve. While severity of the crime is fixed in stone, the information used to calculate risk factors constantly changes. Prisoner age, for example, is one of the best indicators of risk -- the older you get, the less likely you are to commit another crime. Inmates who avail themselves of opportunities for education, substance abuse treatment and other programs also stand a better chance on the outside. Other key risk factors include criminal history, family support and chances for employment, which can vary dramatically.
Those responsible for collecting and submitting the data are the 250 Institutional Parole Officers, who prepare comprehensive case summaries that are forwarded to the parole board. The IPOs occupy about the same position in the criminal justice food chain as prison guards -- they're similarly underpaid and undertrained, and turnover is high. Moreover, the information available to them has historically been spotty, and they must rely on a patchwork of reports, files and inmate interviews that may themselves contain inaccuracies. "The issue of data input and inconsistency is an issue that cuts across the whole system," says policy council executive director Tony Fabelo.
Though the degree of inaccuracy embedded in the current process can only be estimated, the consultants conducted tests to gauge the reliability of the Parole 80 scores. Using only those IPOs believed to be the most experienced and best trained, they selected a random sample of cases considered by the parole board in previous months; an IPO who had not scored the case the first time computed a new score. The two scores agreed less than half the time.
The new guidelines are supposed to eliminate much of the confusion and inaccuracy. But when the proposed guidelines were similarly tested using both IPOs and board members, the inconsistencies were still glaringly apparent. As the consultants' report notes, "The results indicate that a considerable error rate exists in the scoring and designation process."
While the consultants believe the problem can be overcome with an intensive training program, that remains to be seen. Training will begin at the end of May, after which a new round of tests will determine how effectively the guidelines have been absorbed. But that question will be moot unless another question can be answered affirmatively: Will the board members be convinced that the new tool will be any more useful than the old?
The policy council will closely monitor the board's use of the guidelines after they're in place. Board members who don't seem to be in sync will be given "feedback," according to council director Fabelo. "I think we will show that some people are using it, and maybe we will show that some people are not," he says. "We're gonna make this more visible than in the past."
The idea, Fabelo says, is not to take the discretion and power away from the board members, but to make their jobs easier. "It should help them," he says. "That's the goal. It's moving back to something not subject to political pressure. If someone is reluctant [to use them], I'd be surprised."
Cynthia Tauss, who is awaiting replacement because her term has expired, offers a somewhat different view. "I think these new guidelines look like they are going to be much more realistic," she says. "Then again, knowing myself, I'd probably glance at them, but I wouldn't trust them completely."
Relaxed and confident, Tolee Nguyen doesn't look too upset for a guy who just got a two-year set-off. Last time around he had to wait only one year, and he believed he had finally put himself in position to get out of prison. Valedictorian of his GED class, he has since accumulated enough college credits to earn his degree. His disciplinary record has been clean the last six years. He's a trusty at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville, considered harmless enough to drive around town in the prison truck and deliver packages. His parents are active in Houston's Vietnamese community, and his siblings have promised to help him complete his education and employ him at his brother's computer firm. When approached by the Press about interviewing Nguyen, TDCJ spokesman Larry Fitzgerald indicated he knew the name: "You mean the guy who turned his life around?"
Nguyen was officially convicted in 1991 of "engaging in organized crime" while serving a sentence for burglary. A high school dropout and delinquent street punk, he was originally arrested for burglary, given probation, and then sent to prison after failing to report to his probation officer. While in jail, he was set up by a police snitch who shared his cell; the snitch asked Nguyen and another cellmate if they wanted him to kill a particular cop who had given them problems. Nguyen agreed. Though the snitch later claimed he'd done the deed and demanded cash, no money changed hands, so the police couldn't get him for soliciting to commit murder. Instead, they claimed Nguyen was engaging in gang activity and charged him with the organized crime rap. A jury gave him a 40-year sentence.
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."
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."
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."
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.