No benefit for behaving behind bars (updated 12-05-2022)

 (updated 12-05-2022)
“The basic principle of parole is that while people must be punished for their wrongdoing, most are capable of growing, changing and rejoining society before the end of their sentence…. The difficult job of determining when someone is ready is entrusted to parole boards, which should weigh, among other things, a person’s behavior behind bars and the likelihood that he or she will not commit another offense if released.” ~ New York Times editorial, February 16, 2014.

Ohio’s parole system is broken and unjust. At the crux of this injustice is a group of inmates known as “old-law prisoners” who were sentenced before 1996. A Truth-in-Sentencing law passed that year in Ohio but was not made retroactive for those already imprisoned. So now there are at least 3,000 old-law inmates who have been in for 19 years or more. Some, like Willie Lagway, for over three decades.

The Truth-in-Sentencing law requires that judges issue specific prescribed terms for sentences. A prisoner sentenced after 1996 must serve the entire sentence, except for a few eligible prisoners who may earn a small amount of credit for participating in prison programs.

The old-law prisoners were given indeterminate sentences that contained a minimum and maximum number of years. The rationale at the time was that the maximum years of the sentence would encourage prisoners to rehabilitate themselves and behave behind bars. Prior to 1996, there was an expectation among Ohio judges that a prisoner would be paroled at or slightly after the minimum sentence if his or her prison record was good.

Under the sentencing guidelines in 1983, Lagway received a sentence which ranged from a minimum of 15 years, but a maximum of 365 years.

During Ohio Governor Richard Celeste’s administration in the 1980s, five years was the maximum continuation granted at an inmate’s initial parole hearing. It was far more common for prisoners to be told they would be back up for parole in one or two years, and would be released if they followed a recommended program for rehabilitation.

Governor George Voinovich’s administration changed everything. The Voinovich family’s construction business was directly involved in building prisons and jails in Ohio. In 1999, Ohio’s Parole Board stopped giving prisoners a projected release date. Prisoners are now just refused parole without explanation or guidelines for ever getting out.

A prison industrial complex is reliant on keeping the cells filled to provide jobs for prison guards, administrators and even Parole Board members, not to mention the businesses contracted to provide services. The way the prison industrial complex works in Ohio is that the old-law prisoners who pose little threat to the public are the least likely to be paroled.

The risk of re-offending decreases sharply with age. As the New York Times put it, “They [old-law prisoners] are denied parole,…not because of misbehavior or any real concern for public safety, but because of the ‘seriousness’ of the original offense – which never changes, though the person who commits it can and often does.”

The so-called new law prisoners, with no incentive and few rehabilitation programs available, will be released earlier but are more likely to re-offend and return to prison.

If the old-law prisoners were released and prisons closed that had housed 3,000 prisoners, it would save the state $78 million annually.

In 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals found that “The prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.” The Commission recommended that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed” in the United States.

Willie Lagway, when 27 years old, went on a five-day crime spree involving robbery and rape. He was a passenger in a car stopped by the Akron police and he ate what he feared they would find in the car – ingesting “five or six doses of amphetamines” he had purchased at a party. The police did not arrest him.

Lagway, with a head full of speed sensed something was wrong and went to a hospital seeking medical care. He wandered into the hospital psychologist’s office but the secretary told him to leave. In the following days, perhaps afflicted by amphetamine psychosis, he robbed six women and raped two of them. He stole their money and jewelry, stole one of their cars, drove it a short distance away and abandoned it.

At trial, the court-appointed psychologist stated that Lagway was not competent to stand trial. Psychologist Daniel Reinhold of the Psycho-Diagnostic Clinic of Summit County found that “Willie gave all evidence of being a schizophrenic individual.” He concluded: “Willie is a mentally ill individual subject to hospitalization. There is a substantial possibility that he will be restored to reason within one year.”

Reinhold also stated: “He [Lagway] is not a dangerous individual but one should be cautious that he might find a way to disassociate himself from any hospital to which he is admitted.”

Despite the report to the court, the judge not only proceeded to trial but allowed Lagway to represent himself. Filled with remorse and babbling about atonement, Lagway refused to mount a defense for himself and refused to cross-examine any witnesses.

Prior to the trial the prosecutor piled on the charges. In addition to six counts of robbery and four counts of rape against two women, the prosecutor charged him with two counts of first degree kidnapping and four counts of second degree kidnapping, as well as an additional count of grand theft auto and one of gross sexual imposition.

The judge called Lagway into his chambers and told him to “start the bidding” and offered him 8-30 years. Lagway now admits the he was mentally incompetent at the time. “I’m gone at that point,” he explained, “I turned it down because they wanted me to plead to a lie that I had a gun when I didn’t.”

Lagway offered no real defense at the trial but did tell the jury in his closing argument that he was having “visions,” and medical records also document that he was fasting during the trial. At one point he did offer a glimpse into his early life when he was abandoned as a teenager on the L.A. streets by his mother: “I have been a victim, you know, of various robberies, sexual  molestation, you know, not as far as homosexuality or anything like that, but abusement [sic] by police to where your genitals are being beat or stuff like that. Or I’ve been, you know, like mugged, robbed, property been stolen and stuff like this,…” The judge sentenced Lagway to 15 to 385 years. None of the sentences were allowed to run concurrently – all would run consecutively.

Lagway would later be re-tried since an appeals court ruled that the trial judge found Lagway competent by an erroneous rule of law, violating his right to substantive due process, but the results were virtually the same. The second judge gave him nearly an identical sentence of up to 375 years, but Ohio law made him eligible for parole after 10 years.

By 2022, Lagway had spent almost four decades participating in every program made available to him. For the last 39 years his prison record indicated he has consciously worked to become a better person. He held several service jobs in prison including as a literacy tutor and law clerk in the library where he instructed others how to do their legal filings. He has been issued no prison tickets for fighting or violence while in prison.

Lagway completed a four-year sex offender program in prison. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in prison and ended up marrying a mathematics professor and prison rights advocate. He also received a paralegal certificate through correspondence courses.

Massachusetts prison psychologist Dr. James Gilligan wrote in 1998 that: “While several programs had worked, the most successful of all, and the only one that had been 100 percent effective in preventing recidivism was receiving a bachelor’s degree while in prison.”

The New York-based Center on Crime, Communities and Culture found that Texas inmates with no degree had a 60 percent recidivism rate. This dropped to 13.7 percent with an Associate’s degree, 5.6 percent with a bachelor’s and 0 percent with a master’s degree.

Part of Lagway’s problem centers around an assumption, as a former Chief of Ohio’s Adult Parole Authority put it, “Many kinds of sex offenders are extremely recidivistic.” Actual data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates low recidivism for sex offenders. A three-year follow-up study of all sex offenders released from prison in 1994 found only 5.3 percent were re-arrested.

Lagway came to the attention of the Free Press in 2011 when he and fellow inmate Tony Simmons were chosen to be the only two “master trainers” of an environmental literacy curriculum “Roots of Success,” introduced in the Ohio prison system. The program was created by Dr. Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor at San Francisco State University. As Pinderhughes explains it, the program “is used in prisons and juvenile justice facilities throughout the U.S. to reduce costs by reducing energy, waste and water use in correctional facilities and, prepare inmates for employment upon their release into the community.”

While Lagway turned 67 in prison in 2022, Pinderhughes points out his role in the Ohio prison system: “Mr. Lagway is one of only two inmates who has been trained and certified as Trainers in Ohio. This position carries a significant amount of responsibility, as it requires Mr. Lagway to leave SCI [Southern Correctional Institute] and travel to facilities across the state where he is responsible for orienting and training hundreds of inmates to teach Roots of Success in their facilities.”

In a letter supporting parole for Lagway, Pinderhughes wrote: “Mr. Lagway is a mature, responsible, highly effective member of the Roots of Success program and team in Ohio.” She goes on to write, “I am fully aware of the crimes Mr. Lagway committed. I am also aware that these crimes were committed over 32 years ago and that, since that time, Mr. Lagway has experienced a profound personal transformation; a transformation that has turned him into a kind, caring, responsible person who is ready to leave prison and live with his wife in the community.”

So, while Lagway trains others in prison for green technology jobs upon their release he remains behind bars. He is still inside not only because he is one of many old-law prisoners – most of them are black and poor – but because the prosecutor in Summit County led a campaign to keep him there in 2015. Lagway is up for parole in January 2023.

The author, Bob Fitrakis, represented Willie Lagway at his 2015 parole hearing.

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