Mullane admits to letting her imagination run wild during her first visit to San Quentin: “I survived being in a small room, alone, with half a dozen murderers, and they didn’t try to kill me when they had the chance.” She seems a bit wide-eyed about prison life, dwelling on details, such as the claustrophobic cells, that should already be familiar to any viewer of MSNBC’s Lockup or similar reality shows. She’s amazed that there’s a sweat lodge available to Native Americans and gets chewed out for hugging a downcast prisoner, in violation of no-contact rules. More troubling, though, is her willingness to accept at face value the inmates’ somewhat self-serving accounts of their crimes. She makes use of court documents to flesh out one inmate’s story and visits restorative justice programs, in which prisoners and crime victims interact, but she also declares her lack of interest in interviewing victims’ families; she doesn’t even seek out the niece of one homicide victim who’s actually supporting the killer’s parole. This is a curious omission. The perspective of victims’ families can not only provide a reality check on a convicted felon’s version of his crimes, but also offer insights into the burgeoning power of the victims’ rights lobby, which has had an enormous influence on legislation and sentencing policy.
It’s just such political considerations that have spawned California’s highly dysfunctional parole system. The “lifers” Mullane profiles have indeterminate sentences and a shot, in theory, of being released someday. Regardless of their accomplishments inside—earning college credits, completing substance-abuse programs—they are turned down for years before being granted parole. But that isn’t the end of the process. California’s governor can overrule the parole board’s findings; the aspiring convict must wait another agonizing five months to learn if the board’s grant of release will stand. Often, it doesn’t.
The statistics Mullane compiled are revealing. Of the thousands of lifers in the state eligible for parole in a given year, only a handful are found suitable for release—and most of those have their parole overturned by gubernatorial fiat. Pete Wilson approved only 131 lifer paroles during his eight years in office. Gray Davis let out a total of eight in six years. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected only about three-fourths of the approved paroles that crossed his desk.
This adamant refusal to parole murderers, even if they’ve become model prisoners and fit all the criteria for release, costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But it’s hardly surprising; what future presidential candidate wants to have the next Willie Horton dogging his or her campaign trail? Yet all of Mullane’s profile subjects eventually did get out, thanks in part to a 2008 California Supreme Court ruling that parole can’t be denied simply because of the heinous nature of the crime. Although the governors invoked public-safety concerns as the justification for their denials, it’s a feeble argument in the case of long-term prisoners with good records. Lifers can get institutionalized and have problems returning to society, but they are statistically less likely to reoffend than younger felons. Mullane contends that it’s the prisoners released with little assistance after serving determinate sentences who pose the greatest safety risk: “Of the 1,000 prisoners paroled by the State of California in the past 21 years who were serving a sentence of life with the possibility of parole for committing murder, not one has committed murder again.”
Mullane chronicles the lives of the five parolees as they leave prison, reunite with long-suffering families, get overwhelmed ordering from menus, and struggle to find work and forge new relationships. The devastation their crimes left behind, not to mention the void in themselves, can’t be easily remedied. (One of the five is the father of two boys who were two and eight years old when he shot the drug dealer who stole his wife; by the time he gets out, they’re in their twenties—and in prison.) Mullane is there to observe many of the events she recounts, in contrast to Kunerth’s more conventional true-crime technique, which involves dramatizing scenes culled from interviews with the participants—a tricky business when the sources’ stories don’t agree. Mullane’s radio-reporter approach seems more intimate at first, but I soon became too conscious of her as a chatty presence in the story, dropping in on the men in the hope of gaining some revelatory bit of action and even inviting the whole crew to Thanksgiving dinner in order to provide a parting scene. The tightwire that parolees must walk isn’t empty of drama, but a successful re-entry doesn’t have a tidy ending, just a slow settling in to something like normalcy.