Parole for inmates serving life sentences


“Ma’am I’ve got some good news for you. Your grandson is being released from prison.”

I made that phone call about 20 years ago after covering a session of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and seeing the board members vote to parole a long-serving inmate.

The elated grandmother dropped the phone receiver and screamed, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” I could hear her feet thumping and relatives hollering with joy. Cheers roared across the phone line.

And then there was silence.

The grandmother came back on the phone and whispered, “Which one of my grandsons is getting out?”

Illinois abolished its parole system in 1978. In the decades since, most of the people sentenced under the old parole system have been released. Fewer than 50 of the 38,000 inmates in the state’s prison system are eligible for parole. 

But there is a movement afoot in the legislature to bring parole back so inmates serving life sentences can have some hope of release. 

During the last 33 years, I’ve learned a lot about parole and the pain that remains decades after a loved one is killed. 

When I was a young reporter in Galveston, Texas, in 1988, I covered a shooting at a daycare center. A gunman entered, shot and killed one teacher, and wounded another in front of 30 screaming kids.

For years, my wife pestered me to return to Galveston County and follow-up on the story. She wanted to know how the trauma affected the kids and what the ramifications of the crime were for everyone involved. So, four years ago, I returned and wrote that story. 

The killer, Clyde “Buddy” Spence, became eligible for parole after serving seven years of his 30-year sentence. For more than 20 years, brothers and sisters of the woman who was murdered wrote the Texas Parole Board asking that Spence not be released.

“It’s horrible,” said one of the sisters, Kim Barksdale. “I can’t think of a better word. It’s just horrible. It’s very emotional. Every year we’ve done it. ... We wrote the letters and got petitions and got the newspaper to do an article on him. It was very emotional, stressful.

“You almost want to just give up and say, ‘Fine just let him out.’ That way you don’t have to relive everything. You can’t just walk in and say, ‘Hey will you sign the petition?’ Everybody wants to know why. ‘What is it?’ And then they say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I didn’t realize it was your sister.’ Everybody remembers.”

And there is the rub. Proponents of bringing back parole in Illinois see it as a compassionate move to give hope to inmates who have changed for the better. But the families of those killed often see it as dooming them to relive the crime at hearing after hearing for years to come.

When I visited Spence, the killer, in prison, he shared that it was difficult to be denied parole year after year. Even though he participated in multiple programs to improve himself he was resigned to being denied parole a final time before his 30-year sentence was complete. For him, the parole system fostered nothing but false hope. 

But there are people in our prison system who don’t belong there. Some are wrongly convicted. Others were wrongly sentenced.  And some folks have turned their lives around and become much better people than when they entered prison.

A perplexing phenomenon I’ve observed is that murder victim’s families often equate the value of their loved one’s life to the severity of the punishment their killer receives. All life is precious. And sadly, no matter how much punishment is meted out, the grief remains.

I’ve heard victim’s families talk about a need for “closure” and express hope that seeing a criminal punished would give them just that. 

Perhaps closure is like a period at the end of a sentence or the “amen” at the end of a prayer.

It’s a signal to move on to something new. 

But here is the thing.  I’ve never met a person who found closure from watching someone else suffer. But I did encounter a woman who found peace decades after her husband was murdered.

After getting off the phone with the grandma celebrating her grandson’s release, I called a nursing home to talk to the widow of the man who he killed.

The widow came to the phone, and I explained that her husband’s killer was going free.

There was a long pause and she said, “It’s time to forgive and move on.” 

Scott Reeder is a staff writer for Illinois Times and can be reached at [email protected].

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