The Hayward Bus

One woman's long, long journey to fix the parole system and free her husband.

Four witnesses speak on Lawson's behalf. His employer in the work-release program, Bernice Dinner, describes him as an excellent worker who changed her view of ex-convicts; she says she has a job waiting for him. Lawson's daughter from a previous marriage, Dianne and Dianne's father all voice their confidence in him, too. The entire business is over in thirty minutes. After a brief embrace, Dianne and Habe are sent their separate ways again, pending a decision to be announced later in the day.

On the trip back to Denver, Tramutola-Lawson and her entourage dissect the hearing, charting its ups and downs. Habe did well, everyone agrees, and all that time in community corrections--nine months without a single bad report--surely that counts for something? And yet...Harold Graham, ex-offender turned private investigator, shakes his head.

"We don't know what's in his file," he says. "Neither does he. They won't let the inmate see it. How can you defend yourself when you don't know what they're looking at?"

"I think they'd like to get rid of him," Tramutola-Lawson says. "I hope so, anyway."

Hope gets a slap in the face that afternoon, when Dianne receives a phone call from her husband. Habe Lawson has been denied parole for the fifth time. Worse, he's been given a two-year setback, which means that he can't apply again for another two years. According to the official rejection form, his release has been deemed too great a public risk based on his prior criminal record; Alders and Schwarz also believe he needs to be placed in a "less secure facility" prior to his next parole hearing.

The logic of the board's thinking escapes Tramutola-Lawson. How can a man already considered suitable for community corrections, a man who was on the street for nine months without incident, be too great a public risk to be paroled? As for a move to a less secure facility, that was what was attempted two years ago, before the DOC pulled the plug because Lawson hadn't yet received parole. It's a standoff: The DOC won't place Lawson in the community without a definite parole date, and the parole board figures he needs to spend more time in a community setting before parole can be considered.

Tramutola-Lawson and her supporters are now flooding parole-board chairman Saul Trujillo with calls and letters urging him to reconsider the ruling. (Alders and Schwarz did not respond to requests for comment on their decision.) If that doesn't work, there's always another hearing in the year 2000, and then another after that. And some day, maybe, that transition facility for hard-to-place inmates that doesn't exist yet.

Chairman Trujillo says he hasn't reviewed the particulars of Lawson's latest hearing yet, but he agrees that the case does seem to demonstrate a need for an alternative to private halfway houses. "I don't see the legislature removing local control over community corrections," Trujillo says. "The only alternative is to create some state-operated facilities."

"We're caught in a trap," Tramutola-Lawson says. "It's totally inconsistent and totally punitive. Every once in a while there's a ray of light, a hint that they might be interested in rehabilitation and fiscal sanity--but not in this case.

"Years ago, when you were eligible for parole and you had a parole plan, you got out. It's so frustrating. I think it's a sign of the times, the political climate. Officials are so scared that someone who gets out is going to reoffend, they'd rather not take a chance on anyone. They just want to keep their jobs."

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