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(De)serving Life: A community led parole preparation project for New Mexico

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(De)serving Life: A community led parole preparation project for New Mexico

Jul 07, 2023 | 7:05 am ET
By Austin Fisher
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(De)serving Life: A community led parole preparation project for New Mexico 
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Carissa McGee, a re-entry specialist who will be leading peer support work for (De)serving Life, stands outside the Juvenile Justice Policy Forum held by the National Conference of State Legislatures in Santa Fe on June 8, 2023. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Juvenile parole reform is now law in New Mexico and the work is just beginning. 

The same community of people who fought for the change in parole law are coming together to make sure those impacted have the support they need when they go in front of the New Mexico Parole Board, and as they make their way home.

Communities across the United States have done similar work to meet this immediate need in the wake of these legislative changes. In New Mexico, this will be accomplished by (De)serving Life, a community led parole preparation, parole advocacy and re-entry project.

In addition to actually following up on the new law, the project’s founders say it represents an opportunity to reimagine advocacy in the criminal legal system.

The right kind of support

Carissa McGee is a re-entry specialist who helped to establish the Community Peer Education Project, which provides peer mentorship to men and women in New Mexico who have been released from New Mexico prisons on probation or parole.

McGee believes (De)serving Life will be able to get the right kind of support to New Mexicans who were handed down long adult sentences for harms they committed when they were under the age of 18.

This group of about 75 incarcerated people are impacted by SB 64 — the Second Chance law that went into effect on June 16 as a result of the last legislative session in New Mexico.

Part of the project’s job is to support them through their parole hearings that have now opened up. The Parole Board will start hearing cases in October.

“Much deeper than that, we’re going to be able to instill hope inside the incarcerated population,” McGee said.

“What they’ve been told their entire incarceration could be different,” she said. “They don’t have to live with this idea that they’re gonna die behind the walls, or spend all or most of their life behind walls.”

Stephen Taylor will be the project’s executive director. He has been a public defender since 2006 both in the New Mexico court system and now the federal one.

He said it will provide direct advocacy in the parole process, and work with experts when clients need evaluation, so information about who they are can be presented to the Parole Board.

“We want them to re-enter society as safely as possible, and then help them continue their success beyond that,” he said.

Similar work is already happening in other places like Pennsylvania where the recidivism rate — how often someone who gets out goes on to do more harm — is approaching zero for adults who have gotten out for an early chance at release, Taylor said.

“Ideally, we want there to be no recidivism,” he said.

The group is looking to other parole preparation projects outside of New Mexico, including the Second Look Project in Washington D.C., the UnCommon Law in California, the Louisiana Parole Project, and others in New York and Maryland.

McGee will be joined by Abby Long, an impacted community member who will be the project’s outreach coordinator; Eva Buchwald, an Albuquerque-based social worker who will be supervising social work and mitigation for the project; and Denali Wilson, a Las Cruces-based attorney who brought the group together and was instrumental in getting SB 64 passed and signed into law.

(De)serving Life: A community led parole preparation project for New Mexico
Carissa McGee, Eva Buchwald, Denali Wilson, Stephen Taylor, and Abby Long are the core group who will be doing the work for (De)serving Life. (Photo courtesy of (De)serving Life)

‘They deserve a second chance’

The new law does not set aside money to do this work, and McGee said (De)serving Life needs funding to do it. She’s asking for donations from the community to help make their work happen.

“We all believe in second chances,” Taylor said, “And if somebody has paid their debt to society, for the harm they inflicted, if that person is willing to take account for the harm they caused, then they deserve a second chance.”

Few New Mexicans have lived the experience of being sent to prison as a teenager, and losing out on all of the experiences, relationships, disappointments, mistakes and life lessons one has in the first decades of life on the outside, Taylor said.

“How would you go about handling that experience?” Taylor said.

“What would that be like to come back into society, after society has turned its back on you for so long?” he said. “What would be the emotions you would feel? How would you go about planning for something you can’t begin to conceptualize as a real thing, until it happens?”

The reality for people in these situations today is they are not those young people struggling when they were first imprisoned, McGee said.

“Not because these people haven’t changed, but because they haven’t had a chance to experience who they’ve become,” she said.

When McGee was getting ready to get out of prison between 2013 and 2014, she had first-hand experience with the re-entry process provided by the New Mexico Corrections Department.

However, she was not able to judge whether those services were adequate or not, because they were for adults.

McGee went into prison as a child. Having grown into adulthood behind the walls, she said there was a lot she was missing.

Under those circumstances, it’s daunting even just to have authority over your own life, she said. People incarcerated as children, throughout most of their adulthoods, have had some ultimate authority over them, making nearly every decision for them.

“So they were telling me things adults need to know, to function successfully in society, but I hadn’t had that,” McGee said. “I didn’t know what it was to be an adult in society.”

All the re-entry supports made available to McGee sounded good on paper, and sounded very doable. But in real life, she felt completely inadequate.

“Investing in (De)serving Life is an investment in community,” Taylor said. “It’s an investment in a more just world, in a world that believes we can heal from trauma, that believes we are more than our worst mistake, and that’s especially true for children.”

People who grow up in prison

For the specific group of incarcerated people who stand to benefit from the new law, “re-entry” is a misnomer. These people were put in adult prison as children, and are coming out into society as adults for the first time.

YOUNG AND INCARCERATED: Life sentences for people who aren’t yet 18

Research shows children who are sent to prisons have a really hard time adjusting initially, but once they do, they are more likely to use groups or services offered. They tend to not get in trouble, and learn to do what they’re told, Long said.

And once they are released, they tend not to commit new crimes.

One of the main supports they will need is relationships, Long said. Most relationships formed in prison are transactional in some way, she said.

“Navigating through conflict with somebody you care about, or just the healthy dynamics of relationships, don’t make as much sense to folks who are raised in prisons,” she said.

A new approach to parole defense for NM

The kind of advocacy that (De)serving Life will do is centered on mitigation, which is humanizing people who are facing others with the power to make decisions over their lives: judges or parole boards.

Without a rich body of information created as a result of mitigation, Buchwald said, decisionmakers can really only go on by what they’re given by the system: the harm, what the person has done, or what their record shows.

There isn’t much mitigation in New Mexico right now, and the project is meant to fill that gap.

Wilson said the lack is due to the dominant culture of defense — represented through public defenders and private criminal defense attorneys in the state — does not value humanizing clients as a primary tool.

There’s no way to know how the Parole Board will decide whether to free someone, Buchwald said, “but what we do have control over is working toward healing, as you’re preparing to go before the board.”

Going in front of the board to spill your guts out might be something someone has never experienced or that doesn’t feel safe doing, she said.

Some people do find camaraderie with others inside the walls, she said, but for some people going before the Parole Board, it might be the very first time in decades that they’re asked to talk about themselves.

“Prison is not a touchy feely environment,” Buchwald said. “In spite of what the environment is, people do tremendous work on themselves and with each other.”

The starting point, McGee said, will be helping people get unstuck from who they were when they caused harm that put them in prison, and move forward with life.

That looks like peer-to-peer mentorship, she said, along with group sessions, while they are still behind the walls and after they get out.

As unusual as it might sound to someone who has never been incarcerated, it also looks like having someone to call, even in the middle of the night, when one feels uneasy about having their freedom.

“They wake up, and they’re no longer in their prison cell, or they woke up and it’s not count time, there’s not somebody banging on their door telling them to stand up for count,” McGee said. “They’re going to feel like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t miss that, but I do miss that. What is going on with me?’”

Those small moments that come with such a major change in life are just part of being human, she said.

Daunting to face this alone

McGee isn’t bragging when she says in prison, she knew she would be given food (even if it wasn’t something she wanted to eat), and had a roof over her head (even if it wasn’t somewhere she wanted to be).

Getting out was like “trying to drink from a firehose,” and she knew if she couldn’t manage and possibly violate the conditions set on her parole, she could go right back to prison.

“I want to be able to take my experience, and try and slow it down a few notches,” she said. “It’d be nice if we can get it to a fountain, so people can at least have a chance to catch up.”

There are also “huge gaping holes” when it comes to services for young people coming out of prison as adults, said KC Quirk, director of the social work unit at the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender.

While (De)serving life can anticipate needs that everyone will have — like identity documents, finding their children, work, and housing — there will also be extra things they have not yet considered, Long said.

Maybe someone getting out is an artist, for example, and they need help getting plugged into their local art community, she said.

“Not just housing and those things, but how do we meet their emotional needs and help them express their creativity?” she said.

McGee had been incarcerated at age 16 in Las Cruces but on her way out, she was “spit back out” at age 25 in Albuquerque, where she did not have family to support her.

“It was just daunting,” she said. “I was alone.”

Fighting that loneliness will take trying to understand what was happening when an incarcerated person caused that harm, whether they understand its impact on the survivors or victims, their families, their community, and themselves, Buchwald said.

“It’s talking about the harm that was caused, and not making excuses,” she said. “All of this is about the people that would be impacted, both the people that have caused the harm, and the survivors of the harm, and our community.”