Dianne Tramutola-Lawson no longer slings French verbs for a living, but the former Lincoln High language instructor still has the occasional teacherly impulse. As she boards the bus in southeast Denver on a sodden, foggy November morning--her bus, mind you, chartered with a personal check for $500--she can't resist addressing the other passengers like a schoolmarm getting her students squared away for their first field trip.
"Even though I'm retired, I can still be as obnoxious as any teacher," she says. "Everyone have their ID? Remember, that's all you can bring in. No jewelry. No change. No hats. Nobody's wearing green or orange, right?"
There are thirty people on Dianne's bus, including her parents, several close friends and a few half-asleep criminal-justice students from Metropolitan State College of Denver. She's taking them all to prison--the Arrowhead Correctional Center outside Canon City, to be precise--for a parole hearing. This requires leaving Denver before dawn and luxury-coach motoring through a hundred miles of traffic, fog and frost, and she's clearly gratified at the turnout.
"I want to thank you all for coming," she says. "They've never had this many people at a hearing before."
As president of the Colorado chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a national organization of prison activists and inmates' families, Tramutola-Lawson goes to as many parole hearings as she can, trying to fathom the mysterious ways of what is probably the least-scrutinized component of the criminal-justice system. Today's hearing, though, is a very personal mission: It's the fifth time before the Colorado Parole Board for a lifer named Hayward "Habe" Lawson, Dianne's husband for the past fifteen years.
Hayward Lawson is a high-profile customer--some might say a royal pain--within the Colorado Department of Corrections. He's spent more than two-thirds of his life behind bars, starting with a string of juvenile arrests, followed by a not-so-brilliant career as a habitual thief. Lawson readily admits to pulling hundreds of burglaries in his wild youth, but he's now serving a ten-to-life sentence for the 1973 murder of a Lakewood man during a bungled house robbery, a crime he insists he didn't commit. During his past quarter-century in stir, he's distinguished himself by his many letters to newspapers tweaking prison authorities, as well as by his involvement with Dianne and CURE.
Dianne met Hayward in 1981 through a former student who'd wound up in prison. They were married by proxy two years later. The only time the couple has seen each other outside of prison walls was during a brief period two years ago, when Hayward was allowed to participate in a work-release program out of the Denver County Jail. After nine months, he was inexplicably yanked back into prison despite a clean record in the program.
As the bus rolls down the interstate, a video monitor plays a 1994 TV news report on Dianne's crusade to free her husband. The report includes a cheesy re-enactment of the murder of Larry McVay, a 34-year-old warehouse manager who opened his front door on Super Bowl Sunday in 1973 and was shot by two robbers wearing commissar-style fur hats.
The hats were recovered outside the house and examined by the FBI. Human hairs found in the hats didn't match hairs taken from Lawson or his partner in crime, Jack Wiggins. But that evidence was never introduced at trial. Lawson's attorney, Michael Bender, then a young public defender trying his first murder case, also did not offer the jury Lawson's unusual alibi: that he and Wiggins couldn't have committed the murder because they were engaged in a time-consuming series of burglaries across town that night, for which they were arrested less than three hours after McVay was shot.
Three hours, plus change, was all the time it took for the jury to find Lawson guilty of murder.
Tramutola-Lawson has spent thousands of dollars appealing her husband's conviction, which was based largely on shaky eyewitness identification and the dubious testimony of an informant. The couple's lawyers have argued hair samples and due process and inadequate counsel to six different courts, all without success.
Michael Bender is now a justice on the Colo-rado Supreme Court. Wiggins, who was also convicted of McVay's murder, was released on parole eight years ago. Habe Lawson is still doing time.
Tramutola-Lawson believes her husband's protestations of innocence have cost him dearly with the parole board. The board likes to see evidence of remorse, she says, but how can you be remorseful about something you didn't do?
"The reason he's been turned down before is that he's never admitted he murdered someone," she says. "And he never will. That, and his career record hurts, too."
Tramutola-Lawson is hardly alone in her frustration with the parole process. Although Colorado inmates don't become eligible for parole until they've served almost half of their sentence--or, in the case of violent offenders, 75 percent of their time--the vast majority are routinely turned down on their first or second try. The state currently has more than 5,000 prisoners who are past their parole-eligibility date. Some are considered too dangerous to release; others haven't completed required but overcrowded programs or simply have no place to go. The problem is particularly acute for those convicted of violent crimes, since many halfway houses won't accept such applicants and the parole board won't release them without appropriate placement.
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.)
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.
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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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