Note: This transcript is a radio script, which means it includes production notations and occasional syntactical errors and quirks of writing for audio storytelling.
Episode 1: The Privilege of Parole
If you spend any time thinking about the criminal justice system - I’d guess you’re thinking of things like this…
Here’s what I bet you don’t think about….parole. (MUX)
It’s not like there are any great movies about life on parole. No unforgettable “parole break out” scenes.
But Parole is a ubiquitous part of the criminal justice system. It’s supposed to reward inmates who behave by letting them out of prison early. It’s a safety valve that reduces overcrowding. And if the state is gonna take a risk and let someone out of prison early. -- well, parole lets law enforcement keep tabs on them...
I’ve reported on criminal justice for years. And I’ve come to learn another thing about parole. that ...It’s a state of being.
It’s not captivity. And it’s not freedom. It’s something else.
It’s almost like a kind of purgatory...one that starts here.
This is a parole hearing for Jacob Porter. Can those present for the hearing state your name and your relationship in the case for the record please...
March 2, 2017. I’m in New Hampshire largest prison -- in the back of what looks like a miniature courtroom.
One by one, inmates shuffle in...in orange or green jumpsuits...and shackles. One by one, they sit at a tiny table, facing a big desk. That desk sits up on risers - above them. Up there, that’s the parole board. Behind this desk sit three individuals.
MUX This is a parole hearing for.../// This is a parole hearing for… /// This is a parole hearing for…
Inmates wait years for this moment. For these eight or so minutes when they can try to prove they’ve changed during their time behind bars... that they’ve learned some profound lesson and are ready for life on the outside...It’s a single moment when it seems years of freedom hang in the balance
DAVIS: I’ve found out I can’t change the past. So I just gotta move on and look forward to the future.
SMART: I’ve never had rehab. It all stems from mental health.
One of the first things that strikes me as I watch inmae after inmate step in front of the parole board is how practical and mundane a lot of their questions are.
BOARD: Make sure you have that appointment before you leave. /// MUX: Do you have a mental health provider in the community? [I do.] /// You already have a job lined up? [I do.]
They wanna know the person before them has a concrete plan for life on the outside. They wanna know you’ve got a job, you've got housing, you’ve got transportation.
BOARD: There’s no bus or anything like that….
If you haven’t planned these details, the board knows it will be hard to succeed.
BOARD: She’s ok with this?
DAVID: Yep, she’s ok with this.
Cain Davis tells them...if he’s released, he’s gonna move in with his ex. Someone the board chair refers to as his “baby mama.”
BOARD: Three kids and some other guy that lives there. Who’s he?
DAVIS: Um, that’s her boyfriend. So I’ll be sleeping in the little boy’s room. He’s all for it too. He’s like, we’re gonna have playtime. He goes, we can sit and play toys and matchboxes...
Did you catch that? He’s moving in his his ex...and her boyfriend. Still he gets paroled. But the board wants to know about more than just your living situation. They wanna know what you’re gonna do with your time?
FRASCONA: I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Like, what would my day look like?
BOARD: What do you do?
BOARD: What do you do with your time?
Paul Frascona seems particularly unprepared for this moment. He’s not in the room. He’s video conferencing in from another prison.
Paul --- says when he gets out, he’s gonna watch TV, walk to the park, and obsessively clean his apartment because he’s got OCD.
BOARD: Oh! So how many years have you been behind the wall? ///
FRASCONA: I’ve been in pris-- I been in foster homes, groups homes. /// I been in prison basically almost my whole life.
FADE DOWN /// FADE UP
SMART: I been self-medicating for a long time. I’ve been here for a long time.
This is Adam Smart. And he’s almost too put together. In my notebook, I write in caps REALLY SMART. And one board member -- Leslie Mendenhall -- thinks he’s making excuses about why he hasn’t gotten drug treatment.
And she loses it.
BOARD: I think you’re full of shit. And I think you’re just trying to sell a nice boat down the river. /// And it’s just -- you’re full of it. You’re full of yourself.
SMART: It’s all on the record right? Every time I’ve gone to mental health?
BOARD: Every single time! And what are you taking for medication?
It’s wild to think of it -- as I sit in the back of the room watching these men-- and a few women-- pass before me in this parole-hearing-conveyor belt....
Most of them are gonna get out of prison on parole.
And then? Half are gonna fail. ...Half of parolees in New Hampshire end up right back in prison -- (in less than three years.) In most other parts of the country, the odds aren’t much better.
FADE DOWN AND UP
BOARD: This is a parole hearing for Josh Lavenets, via video in Berlin.
A new face appears on the screen. He’s sitting in a prison in Berlin, New Hampshire - way up north. He’s got a short buzz cut. And he’s wearing these rectangular wire-rimmed glasses.
OFFICIAL: You’re looking to parole, is that correct?
Some of these inmates have family in the room during their hearing. Some wave, and say, “I love you,” through the video screen. One inmate even has a lawyer.
But I’m the only one back here when Josh Lavenets comes on the screen.
BOARD: You're in for some pretty serious crimes. I mean you assaulted your wife and your son. And... [LAVENETS: Yes.] And looking at your record there's a lot of assaults in your history. So how have you changed? ///
LAVENETS: Uhh, well… I'm 39 years old and I’ve lost everything because of my decision making. My lack of decision making.
Josh has good answers to all the questions. He’s got job prospects. He knows where he’s gonna live and get treatment.
AND he says he understands now how his bad decisions are fueled by alcohol, and depression.
LAVENETS: I, I, I should be...I should be further along in life than where I am, ma’am.
BOARD: Alright Mr. Lavenets, we are gonna grant you the privilege of parole….
The board walks him through the conditions of his release.
He’ll get out in two months - in the spring.
LAVENETS: I’m looking forward to this. I’ve worked very hard.
BOARD: Well you know what you need to do.
LAVENETS: Yes ma’am.
BOARD: Good luck.
LAVENETS: Thank you ma’am.
At the bottom of my notepad, I circle the words “Good Candidate.”
The day after the hearing, I write a handful of letters to parolees.
I write, I want to know what it's really like to be out of prison, but not free...to have to check in with a parole officer, regularly, for years. To start again...and -- to try not to get sent back. I ask, will you work with me to tell your story?
And what I really want to know is this: What is it that makes every other parolee --- fail? Why do half land BACK in prison? I think Maybe.... If I could just get to know someone who’s going through it, I could see what’s going on.
Two weeks later, I get a handwritten letter. It’s from: ---- Josh Lavenets, #22176.
From New Hampshire Public Radio, this is Supervision, a podcast in four parts about a life on parole. I’m Emily Corwin. Episode 1: The Privilege of Parole.
Josh’s letter is postmarked March 17, 2017, just two months before he gets out.
“Hi Emily,” he starts. “This is my first prison sentence and my first time on parole...” “I am kinda nervous that my parole officer would be waiting to cut my throat at a moment’s notice but at the same time I am very determined to be successful and rebuild my life.” He wrote: “I have goals that need to be accomplished”
After I got the letter from Josh, I set up a call with him, at the prison.
EMILY: Alright you can hear me ok?
EMILY: Great. So um, basically, I... [fade]
I explain, I want to follow him in the weeks leading up to and then the months following him getting out of prison. I wanna check in with him a lot.
EMILY: Do you have any questions?
LAVENETS: Uh, not really. I’m nervous about this whole parole thing and///
EMILY: What’s scary about parole? ///
LAVENETS: Coming back here. /// You know, are they just waiting for me to hang myself? /// Are they there to help me?
At his parole hearing, Josh mentioned that he has mental health issues. He tells me he got on top of it in prison. Later, he’ll list for me all his diagnoses: bipolar disorder, PTSD, attention deficit disorder, alcohol abuse.
EMILY: How much of the trouble that you got in /// do you attribute to not being on your meds? ///
LAVENETS: A lot of it, cuz /// I'm very up and down. /// Very inconsistent with my mood I guess you can say. ///
EMILY: Yeah, so the Josh that I’m talking to right now is that up or down or in between?
LAVENETS: It’s in between. It’s not bad. [EMILY: OK] I been goin’ at a steady pace, you know, just anxious of gettin’ out. /// Because I KNOW I can do good. Cuz I'm not a drug addict. I don't do heroin or all that crap. /// I'm, I'm 39 years old and I should NOT be in this situation right now.
[SFX: series of loud doors]
One week before he’s scheduled to get out, I meet up with Josh at the prison. He’s been locked up in Berlin -- a city just north of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, about 50 miles from the Canadian border.
[SFX DOORS] GUARD: Hey could you page Lavenets -- could you page Laventes from the dorm down to the visitor room please? Thank you [SFX: radio sound]
I put my things in a locker, and follow a guard through a series of locking doors... to a small attorney inmate meeting room. A faux-wood desk and a TV take up most of the space.
BOTH: Hey, nice to meet you! You too.
Josh is smaller than I expect...maybe 5’3”. The cuffs of his baggy green prison jumpsuit hang down past his wrists. He’s got brown hair in a short buzz, and those wire-rimmed glasses. He sits down.
LAVENETS: I’m excited...
[SFX: Lower housing five minute movement lower housing five minute movement]
LAVENETS: Huh, loud speaker.
EMILY: That’s the loudspeaker? Ok cool.
LAVENETS: I can’t wait to get out of here. This is crazy. It is. Yeah, two years of this, hah, is not for me.
Josh fidgets and leans in, toward my microphone. I want to understand his life here, so I ask what his day is like. He tells me he wakes up every morning in a big gym full of 50 other guys.
LAVENETS: It’s, it’s almost like a homeless shelter. It’s a big gym area, the basketball hoops are raised up.
There’s an electric kettle, which he uses to make instant coffee.
LAVENETS: It’s pretty much -- it’s freeze-dried coffee, so it’s like you add hot water and, whoop, there it is, ya know...then I wait for my meds, take my meds. And then I usually work out...
Josh sounds bored just telling me about it all.
LAVENETS: Take a nap...lunchtime.
The gym he works out in? It’s identical to the one he lives in, only...instead of bunk beds, it’s empty.
Josh is religious about his workout routine: six days a week, three hours a day. And he’s always hungry. At lunch, he says, the other guys know to give him the discolored, stinky baloney they refuse to eat.
LAVENETS: Tuesday will be back and chest. Wednesdays will be shoulders and cardio.
Before he went to prison, Josh loved to hike. He kept a list of every mountain in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range - those are the tallest mountains in the state. Everytime he hiked a new one, he’d check that peak off his list.
One thing that drives him crazy in here... is the prison is closer to those mountains than he’s ever lived.
LAVENETS: Especially in the fall time, cuz from the big yard you can see I believe it's Madison and Jefferson, and Washington in the background. And every September, I was like I bet there's Appalachian Trail hikers coming from Georgia going over that right now, going to Maine. /// Yeah, it’s kind of a tease, but it just gives me more reasons to change things, ya know. Cuz steel and concrete's just not my thing.
This is Josh’s first time in prison. But it’s not his first time messing up. His record is peppered with low-level assaults and drinking and driving.
I’ve always went to drinking. I’m not much, uh, I don’t like needles so that eliminates that whole thing, I can’t stand needles. So. But alcohol has gotten me in some trouble in the past so, it’s something that I can look forward to working on once released.
Honestly, it takes me a while to work up the nerve. But eventually, I ask Josh about the crime that got him here.
LAVENETS: Umm, I just pretty much blacked out, and I just started fighting everybody. And it just wasn’t good.
Josh doesn’t really elaborate. But I’ve read his court files, and -- it’s not pretty.
According to police, Josh beat his ex-wife, knocked her phone out of her hands, locked her in a bedroom, and then beat his 13-year-old stepson.
LAVENETS: It was just boom. Like a light switch. You know. Um, that’s why it’s important that I take my meds, so my mood can stay consistent and between not taking my meds and drinking it’s just a bad combination.
Josh was convicted of seven counts of assault; what they call “false imprisonment” - which means holding someone against their will; and obstructing the report of a crime.
But now, he says: he’s changed.
LAVENETS: I have a piece of mind right now. I’ve worked on myself vigorously in the past two years, and, it’s just, I feel really good about myself.
Full disclosure… after years of criminal justice reporting, I’ve grown skeptical of this idea that locking someone up will somehow make them a better person.
But when Josh says he’s changed...I actually believe him.
Especially when he shows me this four-inch-thick manila folder he keeps in prison. He calls it his “Book of Knowledge.”
EMILY: What are these?
LAVENETS: Proteins and stuff, like egg whites, fish, pork. ///
EMILY: So were you counting calories?
LAVENETS: No! I was learning how to do it for when I got out.
There are printouts with definitions of organic compounds... There are magazine clippings with diet tips.
LAVENETS: Yeah, whey and casein proteins, and just knowledge of different things. ///
EMILY: So you’ve got, like, riboflavins and niacin. Pan-to-then-ic acid stokes your metabolism to burn off...
There’s a page of tiny figures sketched in pencil -- 25 yoga poses he drew by hand.
EMILY: What is that?
LAVENETS: Jogging in the woods is supposed to very be good mentally, not only physically but mentally.
There are recipes…
LAVENETS: ... Avocados, shrimp on a flatbread, with cilantro and Greek... [EMILY: Yogurt?] Yes, that stuff. Hahaha.
LAVENETS: It was about time that I start making decisions about what I wanna do with the rest of my life cuz the first half of my life hasn't worked out so great. So obviously you wanna change the game plan. And one of the main things, the whole foundation would be uh, physically. And then the mentality will follow.
Josh mentions his age a lot. He really wants life to be different once he’s out of prison.
LAVENETS: I’m not too happy about being 39 years old and in prison, losing everything.
May 4th, 2017 is Josh’s parole date. His mom has the day off work from Walgreens. She’s never visited him the whole time he’s been here. (In fact, nobody has.) Josh’s mom is planning to pick him up at the prison the day he gets out. I book a motel nearby so I can tag along.
Then, at 4pm the day before Josh is set to get out, I get a text message. Something is wrong.
HAMMER: Uh, Investigator Hammer speaking.
EMILY: Oh hi this is Emily with New Hampshire Public Radio. ///
HAMMER: He’s standing right here.
EMILY: Hey Josh, it’s Emily.
LAVENETS: Hi Emily.
EMILY: So, wow, things didn’t turn out the way we thought they might.
LAVENETS: Uh, no, no they didn’t. Yeah...
EMILY: What happened yesterday?
LAVENETS: They don't have their shit together.
Josh isn’t getting out. Not today. He tells me the parole board never sent his paperwork to the prison. He says his case worker had no idea he was supposed to parole.
LAVENETS: Now I gotta call my mom get ahold of my mom. /// Yeah. I had to tell her last night, she wasn’t too happy. ///
EMILY: What was that phone call like? ///
LAVENETS: It was a phone call I really wasn’t excited to make, you know?/// I broke my mom’s heart coming in here in the first place. ///
This hangup is about more than a few more days of heartache for Josh and his mom. See -- it’s not likely Josh’s mom will be able to get another day off of work. That means when he is released, Josh isn’t sure how he’ll get where he needs to go.
And sure enough four days later, when Josh does get out of prison. Nobody comes to pick him up. His mom couldn’t make it.
At 7:30 Monday morning, I’m standing in the parking lot of a convenience store. An SUV with the New Hampshire corrections department logo pulls into a parking spot, and Josh steps out.
He’s wearing prison-issue gray sweatshorts, and a white t-shirt. It’s nice out, Josh says.
LAVENETS: It’s nice out.
Actually it’s gray, and rainy.
EMILY: You get any coffee this morning?
EMILY: The usual?
LAVENETS: Yeah, the usual.
A correctional officer hands Josh $14.50. Exactly his bus fare.
LAVENETS: So where do I get this bus ticket? Here?
Next time, Josh’s first day of freedom. Freedom he wants to last.
But as the people in charge will often say -- parole is a privilege, not a right. And as he’ll find out, his biggest challenge on parole will be something he didn’t plan for.
If you’d like to listen to the next episode of Supervision, the entire series is available in your feed right now.
Supervision was produced and reported by me, Emily Corwin.
Jack Rodolico is Senior Producer.
Editing by Dan Barrick, Cori Princell, and Maureen McMurray.
Sound mixing by Nick Capodice [CAP-uh-DEE-chay] and Hannah McCarthy.
Digital production by Sara Plourde and Rebecca Lavoie.
Special thanks to Vermont Public Radio.
To learn more about the series visit our website: supervisionpodcast.org
Supervision is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.
***END OF EPISODE***