View on criminal justice in Michigan

It is my belief, from having initiated five requests for commutation of my sentence, that the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) parole board is invested in purposefully interfering in all requests for commutation filed by those prisoners serving a natural life sentence, e.g., a life sentence without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

The question is: why does a commutation request that is initiated by a prisoner serving LWOP need the “stamp of approval” by the parole board? Most requests for commutation are generated by the prisoner or their family or friends and then is considered as being self-initiated. They are sent to the prole board first, and a “lifer review,” which is similar to a “parole eligibility report” done for prisoners who are actually eligible for parole, is done by the counselor in charge of that prisoner’s file. Here is where my confusion begins.

A prisoner serving a sentence of LWOP does not fall under the authority of the parole board’s jurisdiction except for a “file review” that occurs every five years or so. The days when an actual parole board member interviews a prisoner serving such a prison sentence are long gone. I, for instance, was interviewed by a parole board member face-to-face once — in 1986 — and haven’t seen another parole board member since. Then they, as a body, get to interfere with the decision-making mechanisms the governor’s office has in place to review and consider requests for commutations?

There is some ephemeral or fantastical condition the parole board “looks” for in each request for commutation called “merit.” If they don’t find it and recommend to the governor that this particular request for commutation “has merit,” that request is always, 100 percent of the time, denied. I don’t believe that it even receives real or meaningful consideration if it lacks this “merit” the parole board secretly determines whether it has or not.

The MDOC parole board, in many ways, operates against the public’s interest when it comes to the decisions it makes concerning all manner of things involving those who have been incarcerated. It is, for all intents and purposes, a political body, not a public interest body.  Over the last 50 years, their interference in and purposeful denial of all those requests for commutations that should be granted in the public’s interest is legendary.

I can attest to that. My last request for a commutation in 2022 was accompanied by a Letter of Support by the Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney, who basically challenged the parole board to determine whether or not I was a threat to the public after so many years of self-realized rehabilitation. I undertook that rehabilitation by myself to become a good human being, an asset to whatever community I was released to. Even with that very real and meaningful support, and the support of the University of Michigan’s Legal Clinic, all I ever received was a “No Interest at This Time” notice, just as I have received over the last 30 years, five times runnin’.

~Scott Dohn
Kinross Correctional Facility


Needs of Latinos overlooked

A friend asked me to submit a commutation to the governor’s office. I told him I would, but that some of the questions on the form require for him to express in his own feelings in regards to empathy, remorse, apologetic, empathy, respect, etc., all of which I could not do for him. He said I can express it, but I am Puerto Rican, whose first language is Spanish. So I advised him to submit his commutation in Spanish. Surely the governor’s office has someone who will be able to interpret it from Spanish to English.

Well, after spending many hours doing the work himself to answer the questions effectively but in Spanish, he forwarded it with the assistance of Humanity for Prisoners to the parole board. It was returned to him by the prison counselor (saying) that he had to resubmit it in English. This guy in the short time frame required is not going to be able to produce an effective and successful commutation application. I understand that the penal system was not prepared for so many Latinos to be in the system and the apparent neglect is a reflection of that. Currently there is a growing number of Latinos in MDOC. It is clear no one has kept count or else they would have made provisions for them to submit effective communications. If no one has taken notice, who can guess what other areas the Latino people have been neglected or discriminated against?

Discrimination is such a harsh word but an appropriate one because many of the other areas the Latinos are neglected or go unnoticed due to a lack of interest by MDOC staff, which leads to misunderstanding and a lack of ethnic sensitivity. Having a language barrier can cause a problem communicating with other prisoners that there is a problem within the system, or even jeopardize their civil rights. This is the biggest issue because if I don’t understand what you are saying or what behavior you expect of me, how can I go in the direction you need me to go or make the corrections needed? It is taken for granted that other prisoners will explain it to us. At risk, though, is the expense of consequence with no understanding as to why.

It is a problem that is never discovered until there is a full-blown dilemma. One of the keys to exposing this problem is to get those Latinos who do have the problems dealing with fundamental daily civil living to speak out in Spanish. Then these issues can be prioritized and translated into English so that staff may be educated in these areas. The challenge is that there is not enough staffing, especially Latino, to address these issues in Spanish.

Many of these issues can be addressed and resolved once someone of interest has a rapport with MDOC realizes this is a humanitarian issue. For starters, we can give my friend proper assistance to his already submitted commutation. The majority of my years have been spent assisting my Latino people through the prison structured organizations like Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO), Hispanic Americans Striving Towards Advancement (HASTA), and Chicanos and American Indians United and Striving for Self-Achievement (LA CAUSA). But my time is just about up being that the People v Parks case applies to me. I am an 18-year-old juvenile lifer who has over 37 years in. So I am short to whatever is going on. I will have to continue this mission on the other side of these fences. For now and until further notice, someone else has to take the torch. I have been too deep in these dungeons in Michigan to forget where I grew up. I look forward to the challenges liberation has to offer with the consideration of reaching back and setting the captives free.

~Gilbert Morales
Oaks Correctional Facility


Integrity in legal system?

I have many concerns with the criminal legal system in Michigan. People from low-income communities have little to no chance at a fair trial, and their ignorance of the law is used as an advantage against them/us. Public defenders do the bare minimum and prosecutors care less if the defendant is actually innocent — as long as there’s a conviction. Defendants are seen as cattle to keep business (prison) booming. As a young Black man (18), I was convicted of crimes I didn’t commit and sentenced to 22-35 years. I am now 33. During trial proceedings, I had a missing alibi witness and wanted to speak up and fight for my life, but my attorney advised me not to, and the judge got obviously upset when I tried. Both knew the issue would be procedurally barred on appeal, due to them silencing me. I had no idea. But this isn’t about me. All my options are exhausted. It just sucks to see young men and women being railroaded and spending the majority of their lives in prison. Where’s the integrity?

~Loring Walker
Baraga Maximm Facility