By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Even if the board continues to deny most parole requests, Colorado's parole population is expected to more than double in the next six years, from 3,200 to 7,100 parolees. The logjam is due not only to the state's runaway growth but to the impact of a 1993 law that requires all newly incarcerated felons to serve a mandatory period of parole of up to five years, whether they discharge their full prison sentence or not ("Please Release Me," January 9, 1997). Unless the system is significantly retooled, the parole board will have to nearly double in size to keep up with the staggering workload--not to mention a similar increase in the number of parole officers and halfway houses.
Tramutola-Lawson recently served on a legislative task force that studied the problem. Their report urges the Colorado General Assembly to consider appointing hearing officers to relieve some of the parole board's burden; to develop more consistent release guidelines; and, most important, to explore the possibility of developing a state-operated halfway house for "hard-to-place" inmates. There's a desperate need for such a facility, Tramutola-Lawson says, pointing to her husband's work-release experience as a prime example. Although he was doing well in the program, working during the day and returning to jail at night, officials ultimately decided to send him back to prison--at much greater cost to the taxpayer--because no private halfway house would accept him for long-term placement without a specific parole date.
"They said he wasn't parolable," she says. "There's a lot of lip service to getting more halfway houses, but it's so much easier to ask for bricks and mortar to build more prisons."
The bus crests a hill, and the sprawling prison complex east of Canon City looms on the left. Tramutola-Lawson grabs a microphone and gives her freedom riders a guided tour. She points out various prisons, from the notorious Colorado State Penitentiary, where inmates are locked in their cells 23 hours a day, to the low, warehouse-like profile of Arrowhead, a minimum-security facility. She blasts governor-elect Bill Owens, who never met a prison-building scheme he didn't like. But her narrative always circles back to her husband and the impending hearing.
"I just think the board needs to see the support that Hayward has," she says. "I don't know what else to try. He's 61. He will have been inside 25 years tomorrow. He hasn't had a disciplinary report since 1995. He was out nine months without a problem. And he probably didn't sleep last night, like me."
Once inside the complex, the passengers are signed in and patted down, then have their shoes and mouths examined for contraband before being driven in a DOC bus to the Arrowhead visitors' center. Wearing prison greens, Habe Lawson is brought in by a separate entrance. He barely has time to nod to his wife before the hearing begins.
Today's hearing is only the first step in the parole process. Lawson must present his case to two members of the parole board, Don Alders and Larry Schwarz; if they decide it's worth pursuing, a second hearing before the entire seven-member board will be scheduled in a few days. Alders and Schwarz have a thick file on the applicant, including nearly fifty letters from people supporting his parole bid. The writers range from Denver undersheriff John Simonet (who notes that Lawson "exhibited a positive attitude" during the months he was a resident of Simonet's jail) to Metro State history professor Charles Angeletti, who describes Lawson as "a quiet, unassuming 61-year-old man who I would trust with my life."
A hush falls over the crowded room as Lawson begins to tell his story of past mistakes, "antisocial behavior" and crime sprees, as well as efforts to turn his life around. "This whole experience has been a nightmare," he says.
"Do you think prison helped you?" Schwarz asks.
Lawson hesitates. "I'd like to throw away 95 percent of it," he says. "But, yes, it helped me to grow up."
Alders frowns over his paperwork. "You were returned to DOC because no halfway house in Colorado would take you," he says.
"That's the reason they gave, yes, sir," Lawson says.
No one from Larry McVay's family is at the hearing. His widow and four children reportedly moved out of state years ago. Neither Alders nor Schwarz asks a single question about the McVay murder. They do, however, ask several questions about another 1973 burglary, during which Lawson wounded two Wheat Ridge police officers.
Lawson explains that he got the drop on one officer and was in the process of handcuffing him when his gun went off accidentally, grazing the officer in the arm; the other was shot in the leg by Lawson as he was fleeing the scene. The wounds were so minor that Lawson was eventually charged with first-degree assault rather than attempted homicide, and he has since served his full sentence for that conviction. But both Alders and Schwarz have a strong interest in the matter--and, perhaps not coincidentally, both have a solid background in law enforcement. (Although the parole board is supposed to include four "citizen representatives" and only two from law enforcement, it's traditionally been stacked with former cops and parole officers; every one of the current seven members has some prior association with corrections or police work.)