“So, Why Do You Think You’d Make a Good Parolee?’

What happens during a parole interview?

Mark David Chapman. Click image to expand.
Mark David Chapman

Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon on Dec. 8, 1980, had his interview for parole today and was denied release. Chapman has been up for parole every two years since 2000 and will have another chance in 2012. What happens during a parole interview?

A lot of self-reflection, ideally. There’s no script for the interview, but in New York (where Chapman is imprisoned) parole commissioners look for candidates to take responsibility and show remorse. After some initial formalities, interviewers ask the inmate to describe his crime, then they let him talk about why he did it. This is where many prisoners trip up, trying to minimize or excuse their role—a big no-no if you’re looking for release. Other prisoners waste their time outlining their exemplary behavior in jail, like educational accomplishments and employment. Parole commissioners are interested in these gold stars, but they can get the same information from prison records. What they want is a prisoner who knows himself well enough to explain why he committed the crime, and then convince them he won’t do it again.

Prior to sitting down with an inmate, the New York State commissioners review his prison record, the judge’s sentencing report, and statements from victims or their families. Then they establish a video conference link with the prisoner and talk for between five and 20 minutes. (Chapman’s interviewers questioned him from Rochester, about an hour from the killer’s home at Attica Correctional Facility.) One member of the two- or three-person panel takes the lead. According to some, the other(s) often spends the session reading the next interviewee’s file. Efficient interviewers can churn through as many as 60 inmates in a day. (The high-tech, Up In the Air-style video conference is a recent innovation. Historically, the commissioners traveled to a prison and set up shop in a designated conference room.)

After interviewing the last candidate of the day, the commissioners go back to the beginning and make decisions. Two commissioners have to approve a release, so inmates with three interviewers have a better shot. Prison personnel generate forms that explain the decision. In most cases, the explanations contain boilerplate language like “release at this time would not be consistent with public safety.” For famous prisoners, like Chapman, commissioners are more likely to draft original prose. The decision is hand-delivered to the inmate. Victims are notified, and then the decision is made public. Inmates who are denied parole can appeal, but the process takes such a long time that many prisoners come up for parole again before they exhaust the appeals process.

An inmate’s chances at getting out depend in part on which commissioners he draws. In New York, most of the 14 governor-appointed interviewers have law enforcement backgrounds. One of them is a social worker, and another is a nun. (Some refer to Sister Mary Ross as “Release ‘em Ross,” based on her perceived leniency.) The commissioners earn $101,600 annually for what some consider part-time work. Last year, just 9 percent of eligible New York inmates won parole.

Parole interview transcripts are available to the public. In Chapman’s 2000 interview, he seems to have taken responsibility for his crime and expressed remorse. He described having been “full of anger and resentment” and notes that he unfairly judged Lennon. When asked why he would kill an innocent man, Chapman said, “I was feeling like I was worthless, and maybe the root of it is a self-esteem issue. I felt like nothing, and I felt if I shot him, I would become something, which is not true at all.” But Chapman was, and remains, a long shot for parole, because his victim was famous. It’s especially tough for people who killed cops, judges, or celebrities to win parole, perhaps in part because commissioners are political appointees.

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Explainer thanks Elizabeth Gaynes of the Osborne Association and Marc Violette of the New York State Division of Parole.

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