Parole board’s Executive Officer offers powerful insights
The Board of Parole Hearings Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer visited San Quentin on Sept. 14 for a Q&A during Mental Wellness Week to discuss preparing for the Board.
Shaffer, an attorney, has been with the Board of Parole Hearings for 11 years. Relying on notes written by the BPH’s Chief Psychologist Dr. Cliff Kusaj (who couldn’t make the event due to a death in the family), she began her speech by explaining the importance of how an incarcerated person prepares for an evaluation by a forensic psychologist prior to a Board hearing:
1) Be prepared and get organized, yet don’t over-rehearse things or try to anticipate what the psychologist might want to hear.
2) Relax and be yourself. If you have real, positive changes in your life, then you have nothing to fear.
3) Be honest and transparent because credibility is important. The psychologist has access to far more records than you could possibly know, so they will know if you’re being disingenuous.
4) Stay focused and provide relevant information such as who you were then, what was going on in your life at the time of your crime, and who are you today as opposed to who you were then.
5) Follow the psychologist’s lead. The psychologist is not your advocate; however, they are not your adversary either. When they’re asking you questions, answer them. Being evasive will not help your chances for a positive review.
At the conclusion of the notes from the BPH’s Chief Psychologist, Shaffer shared a quote of his saying, “Know that we are looking forward to your safe return to our communities.”
After this, Shaffer opened up the event for questions. Here are some of the questions asked by members of the audience:
Question (Q): I put in a medical form for mental services to seek help with my childhood drama. I was interviewed but never actually seen by a doctor. Does the mental health department help us process childhood drama, things that we don’t understand that’s related to our crime? And if it does, why wasn’t I afforded that opportunity?
Jennifer Shaffer (JS): The protocol that has come as a result of Coleman [Plata v. Coleman] is that the Mental Health Delivery Services program is intended for people who have a diagnosed mental health disorder… If you’re not diagnosed with a mental health disorder then that treatment wouldn’t be available to you. However, I do recommend seeking out some volunteer support groups that have volunteer clinicians that come into the prison to talk about any childhood drama issues that you may have.
Q: I fear going to the Board due to my past criminal history. Though I’ve worked on myself, I’m not good at expressing myself, especially when the Board has so much power to let you go or not. Will they be able to recognize that I’m not the person I use to be even though I’m not able to articulate it well?
JS: Here’s another really big myth about parole hear-ings: Everyone thinks it’s about what you say in that hearing… The majority of what makes you suitable or not suitable is reflected in your C-File — your behavior, how are you interacting with your peers, how’re you spending your time, your programming, etc.
After the event, SQ resident Philippe Kelly, 38, said that he was aware of Kusaj’s to-do list, but in his experience, it doesn’t match some people’s reality with the Board. Kelly has served 23 years in prison and was just granted parole after three tries. In Kelly’s opinion, CDCR-appointed psychologists can be inconsistent in how they handle write-ups (RVRs–Rules Violation Reports) in a person’s C-File, which can cause problems during Board hearings.
“I remember I had a charge for selling drugs [methamphet-amines] in prison, and when I went to my first psych evaluation I wanted to talk about it in an attempt to be transparent, yet the psych said she didn’t want to discuss it because the case was dismissed. However, the first two times I went to the Board they banged me [for it],” Kelly said. He attributes this as a major reason for his denials.
He added, “The panels at the first two Board hearings determined that my psych evaluation was inaccurate because they felt I was ‘hiding’ or ‘withholding’ information, even though the psychologist gave me a low-risk assessment knowing about the drug issue.”
It is important to note that Kelly, prior to his first two Board hearings, was: 1) A youth offender; 2) had his VIO (violence) code removed; and, 3) remained violence-free for nearly 13 years.
According to Kelly, at his second psych evaluation, the psychologist told him that whatever Kelly brought up they would discuss; whatever he didn’t, they wouldn’t. Yet he said the Board, at his first two hearings, accused him of hiding the drug issue because “I didn’t talk about it in my first evaluation.”
“So when I went to my last psych evaluation,” Kelly continued, “I brought it up and I still received a low (risk assessment), but this time the Board didn’t even talk about it. We discussed my personal drug history, but for some reason or another, the meth issue never came up.”
Donald Edge, 64, a SQ resident who has served nearly 28 years and has been to the Board, has also had experiences that in his opinion contradict the assurances given by Shaffer.
“To me, instead of evaluating you on an even scale, they [the Board] are looking for a reason to deny you,” Edge said. “They’re looking to make you mad — as if they are trying to make you lose your composure or catch you in a lie.”
Edge recalls that at his first psych evaluation the psychologist brought up an issue pertaining to a write-up he received for over-familiarity with a staff member. “She asked me why did it happen, and I told her the lady crossed the line and so did I. I admitted it was wrong and that at the time I didn’t have a handle on the aspects of criminal thinking,” he said.
Edge says the Board accused him of being in denial. “I told them the full truth, but they accused me not taking full responsibility, even after I explained my criminal thinking and entitlement issues,” he said.
It is Edge’s opinion that the Board’s decision was already reached before he even stepped in the room. “If they ask you a question, you have to be truthful, right? But the reality is that you have to be careful with how you tell the truth because they are looking to twist it in a way to justify the [parole] denial they know they’re already going to give you,” Edge said.
Overall, while everything that Shaffer expressed about what the BPH is looking for at a hearing or a psychologist in an evaluation is legally factual and appropriate, it doesn’t always match the real-life experiences of incarcerated people who have gone through the process.
As such, incarcerated people going before the Board may need to consider her assessment as well as the practicalities that emerge based on the actual experiences of those who have been denied or found suitable by the Board.
Shaffer says there are a lot of programs in prison that will prepare you for a Board hearing, but the key questions to answer for the Board are: “Who were you then? Who are you now? And what is the difference?”
She continued, adding, “Whether people like it or not, it’s based in the science of risk. The type of person the Board is looking for… Are you someone who seeks help when you need it? Are you someone who lifts people up? Are you somebody who actually positively contributes to your community, here in prison? That’s what we see as people who succeed upon release, that’s what we’re looking for.”