Parole board members in Missouri face accusations that they played outrageous games and openly mocked the prisoners who came before them seeking to be paroled.
Two persons on the seven-member panel reportedly would choose an irrelevant word or song title, and then keep score of how many times they could each use it or get the prisoners to say it during their interviews. This alleged pattern of malicious behavior was documented in a 2016 Department of Corrections inspector general report recently made public by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“It seemed they were trying so hard to embed the words or song titles into their questions or statements that they were not focused on the proper questions to ask nor were they actively listening to the responses from the offenders,” wrote Inspector General Amy Roderick. “Most times, it seemed the offender was being made fun of …”
Missouri Board of Parole member Don Ruzicka and another unnamed employee chose inane words like “platypus”, “hootenanny” and “armadillo” along with songs such as “Hound Dog,” “Soul Man” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” according to the report. They would laugh derisively and acknowledge one another’s scores in the midst of the interviews while the prisoners sat there perplexed.
“Most times, it seemed the offender was being made fun of”
When Roderick questioned Ruzicka on how incorporating the word game into the hearings could help establish risk and potential release, Ruzicka answered, “Through the complete and thorough hearing process we were able to determine the release date.”
Even though other members on the board were aware of this game being played in front of them, the report said none reported it or tried to stop it.
“Who knows how many hearings were affected by this conduct?” asked Amy Breihan, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center who believes potentially thousands of cases may have been tainted. “Even in hearings where literal games were not played, one has to question how seriously parole staff are taking their duties.”
“These activities, so far as we are aware, have never come to light in the public’s eye,” said Mae Quinn, director of a nonprofit human rights law firm.
In recent years, the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole has been highly criticized because it operates almost entirely in secret and has become an employment destination for former elected lawmakers who reached their term limits.
Norman Brown is one of the Missouri prisoners who was denied parole by Ruzicka’s panel. He has served 28 years for a fatal robbery committed when he was 15. Brown’s attorney insists his client wasn’t even the shooter.
“This does not sound fair having hearings conducted by a man who sees people like my brother as a means of entertainment,” said his sister Shatiega Brown at the news conference held by the MacArthur Center. “Imagine if this was your family, your father, your brother. Would you think this is right, appropriate or just?”
Brown is not alone in urging Gov. Eric Greitens to make sweeping reforms to the board, including the removal of Ruzicka.
“I am pleading with you so that my brother can have a second chance, a fair chance,” she said.