Two men serving life sentences lobby lawmakers to expand parole eligibility

Two men serving life sentences lobby lawmakers to expand parole eligibility

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HB 697 would give people sentenced to die in prison an opportunity to earn parole after 20 years behind bars.

“People with no reason to change will not change.”

Phillip Vance Smith II first met Craig Wissink in 2004, toward the beginning of the life sentences the men were serving for separate murders. Smith thought Wissink was a friendly guy, the type who was always trying to make those around him laugh. The pair lost touch for about 10 years, a gap in a friendship common among imprisoned men subjected to unanticipated transfers to other correctional facilities.

They reconnected around 2013, when the two were incarcerated at Nash Correctional Institution. They caught up by walking laps around the rec yard, talking about where their other friends were doing their time. Wissink shared his art with Smith — cards and portraits he made for others, for a price — letting him in on the secrets of his craft.

It wasn’t an entirely happy reunion. Wissink seemed different to Smith. He remembered the Wissink from a decade earlier as a gentle, kind man who read the Bible and was always joking around. Now, Wissink seemed like he was always high on marijuana and popping pills. He seemed anxious; his face used to always be curved in the shape of a wide smile. Now, it looked perpetually locked in a frown. Wissink wasn’t just doing time anymore; he was passing it by any means necessary.

After about a year, Wissink and Smith were separated again after corrections staff shipped Wissink to another prison. A few years later, Smith saw Wissink’s face on the television one morning when he was getting ready to start his shift at Nash’s printing plant, where he worked as a graphic designer.

Wissink had been accused of killing a corrections officer named Meggan Callahan on April 26, 2017, setting fire to a trash can, throwing boiling water in the officer’s face and beating her to death with a fire extinguisher. It was a brutal act that didn’t square with Smith’s memories of the calm, quiet guy who had won a statewide award for his drawings.

“I never met the Craig they described on the news. To me, he was not a crime but a young man trying to navigate prison life,” Smith wrote in a letter to Policy Watch recently. “I have always felt that if Craig had an opportunity for release, Officer Callahan would still be alive.”

The possibility of release, Smith argues, gives people hope and an incentive to work on their underlying issues, rather than resign themselves to spending the rest of their life in prison.

“Many people think prisoners should want to be better simply because they are in prison,” Smith said. “It doesn’t work that way. People with no reason to change will not change.”

Smith teamed up with another man named Timothy Johnson, with whom he is incarcerated at Nash Correctional Institution, and wrote a bill entitled “The Prison Resources Repurposing Act,” that 18 lawmakers co-sponsored and put before the General Assembly during the 2021-22 session. The proposal (which was provided to the sponsors by a third party) would give people sentenced to die in prison an opportunity to earn parole after 20 years behind bars, provided they take certain steps to rehabilitate themselves while they are incarcerated. Under the measure, authorities in the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice would be required to assess the needs of people sentenced to life without parole during the first five years of their incarceration. After they do five years of their sentence, officials may offer the incarcerated a 15-year contract based on that assessment, with work and educational requirements that an individual would have to follow to have a chance at parole.

Source: Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice

The contract could offer the incarcerated a potential path out of prison. Mere completion of a checklist, however, would not provide an automatic ticket home. Rather, it would mean the Post Release Supervision and Parole Commission would then screen those individuals for possible release. The decision of whether to grant parole would still be the state’s call.

The bill as written would apply to all people currently incarcerated on life without parole sentences, including Smith and Johnson, as well as those given the sentence in the future. There are 1,616 people serving life without parole sentences in North Carolina prisons, almost two-thirds of whom are Black.

Smith said that neither he nor Johnson have spoken directly to any legislators, including the 18 co-sponsors of the bill. The two men have reached out to every lawmaker in the state. No one has responded.

“Many lawmakers will not speak to us because we are in prison. We understand that, but who else is in a position to offer solutions to problems a person sitting behind a desk does not understand?” Smith said in an email. “We would love to tell lawmakers about our plan, but we cannot get our foot in the door.”

Writing as a means of rehabilitation

Phillip Vance Smith II

Smith had been convicted of a slew of low-level crimes in 1999 for crimes he committed the previous August, including driving with a revoked license, resisting an officer and speeding from police. He was released on Dec. 30, 2000 with no clothes, $3.36 to his name, “and little hope.”

The day after getting out, a drug dealer offered Smith marijuana to sell, a business opportunity for someone who didn’t have any money or place to live.

“I took it because I had no other means of survival,” Smith wrote in a letter. “That mistake created a critical chain of events that led to the death of Mr. Rico Waters.”

Cary Police found Waters’ body slumped over the passenger seat of a black Nissan Maxima on March 2, 2001, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Smith said the murder was the result of a botched robbery attempt that he had initiated.

Smith was admitted to the prison system on March 8, 2002. He said he came in just as those who were still eligible for parole — a bill passed in 1993 did away with parole before legislators passed another bill in 2011 that added post-release supervision for people coming home from prison — were transitioning out of prison. The law passed in the 90s, Smith said “ushered in droves of young Black men with either decades to serve or life. With no hope for early release, many sought means to survive in prison instead of positive change. Violence and gangs exploded.”

Sentenced to life without parole at age 23, Smith was no exception. He said he wasn’t violent, but he was rebellious and hopeless, a dangerous combination of qualities for the imprisoned. He got so used to spending time in solitary confinement that it didn’t feel like a punishment. He did not make any attempt to stay out of trouble.

“I didn’t care,” he said.

His outlook changed after spending a decade in prison. He started writing as a form of therapy, giving himself the space to process life while incarcerated.

Writing is a shared passion for Johnson, too. Sentenced to life without parole after killing two young men at an N.C. State tailgate in 2004, Johnson met Smith when he was transferred to Nash Correctional around 2017, to participate in the Field Minister Program. The two became fast friends. Smith helped Johnson become a better fiction writer, and Johnson mentored Smith on writing academic papers for the classes Smith took as part of the Field Ministers Program.

Both men have supported one another in their rehabilitative efforts, working toward college degrees and participating in the Field Minister Program. Johnson has since become a graduate assistant with the program, counseling and tutoring his peers. Smith has helped teach writing classes to the incarcerated, earned an apprenticeship in graphic design and has gotten some of his writing published in a digital magazine and a local newspaper in Nash County.

Smith and Johnson also serve as editor and assistant editor of the Nash News, a quarterly newspaper published at the Nash County prison.

Smith and Johnson serve as editor and assistant editor of the Nash News.

“A popular misconception that all we’re doing in prison is time,” Smith said in a phone call from the prison. “But throughout this time, we’re changing. We’re changing lives, we’re changing each other.”

Legislating from behind bars

Johnson and Smith started thinking about how to address violence within the North Carolina prison system in 2020, after the deaths of five corrections officers. Rejecting the assessment that staff shortages were the cause of the violence, Johnson and Smith hypothesized that hopelessness was responsible.

Three principles guided the men’s proposal: those with the longest sentences shape prison culture; incentives are the best influencer of behavior; and the best approach to prison reform begins with those serving the longest sentences.

“Contemporary reforms focus on those serving the shortest sentences,” Johnson and Smith wrote in a joint letter shared with Policy Watch. “In order to produce wide and lasting change, this paradigm must be inverted.”

The men finished a draft of the bill in the spring of 2020 but were unable to generate interest from advocacy groups and lawmakers. In March 2021, they presented their proposal to a national audience at a virtual conference sponsored by the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.

“The response after that virtual presentation was surreal,” Johnson and Smith wrote in a letter. “The pace went from snail to cheetah.”

Someone sent the bill language to North Carolina legislators — Smith declined to say who, saying, “We had a lot of help, probably from people who may not have been supposed to help us… We’re in prison, and the cost for influencing politics and making these types of connections can be very detrimental, not just to us.” — and 18 lawmakers sponsored the bill late in the 2021 session. It was referred to a pair of House committees, but never made its way to the Senate.

Johnson and Smith’s efforts got another boost in March 2022 when they were published in the North Carolina Law Review. Their argument: offering “hope to the hopeless” in the form of a chance at parole will have a sort-of trickle-down effect on those serving shorter sentences, since lifers play a major role in setting the tone and culture of correctional facilities. That, the men argued, will ultimately make North Carolina communities safer, since the overwhelming majority of those in prison will at some point be sent home.

The bill likely faces an uphill battle. In a related measure from the 2021 session that would have expanded parole eligibility for people convicted of crimes when they were children, a lobbyist from the Conference of District Attorneys warned lawmakers in a committee hearing that the bill could upset victims and surviving family members of people who were murdered. That testimony effectively stopped the bill’s momentum.

Smith has been in touch with Kristie Puckett-Williams, the ACLU of North Carolina’s deputy director for engagement and mobilization, about his and Johnson’s proposal. Puckett-Williams spoke highly of Smith and his efforts, calling him the “brightest star in the sky.” But that shine is dulled, she said, because of his life-without-parole sentence.

“He has caused some harm,” Puckett-Williams said of Smith. “But he is capable of more than just harm. And we don’t hold space for the endless capabilities that Phil and people like Phil have.”

A reckoning

A crucial idea behind Johnson and Smith’s bill is that those serving life without parole sentences are misunderstood by most people.

“Many North Carolinians believe the misinforming popular narrative that the crimes of lifers are more heinous than other crimes and thus think lifers deserve to die in prison,” the men wrote in the North Carolina Law Review. “However, the primary, and often only, difference between a felon serving LWOP for first-degree murder and one serving fifteen years for second-degree murder is usually the availability of a plea bargain, rather than severity of the crime.”

Johnson and Smith argue that many people serving life sentences stop perpetrating violence as they grow and mature. Many individuals become kind, compassionate people, unrecognizable from who they were at the time they committed their crime.

Johnson experienced the depths of that compassion earlier this year, after his father died.

Grief is the same in prison as it is on the outside: It comes in waves.

“Most in prison grieve alone, in a place that already has people at the limits of their coping ability each day,” Johnson wrote in an essay shared with Policy Watch.

This was not Johnson’s experience. About half of the 80 men who live in his dorm are ministers and counselors in training. They regularly lead Bible studies, prayer groups, counseling sessions and food giveaways, “consumed with the desire to serve,” in Johnson’s words.

Johnson’s friends offered their support in myriad ways after his father died. One gave him an assortment of snacks. Another drew a picture of Snoopy and Woodstock, signed with condolences from others who knew Johnson was hurting. Yet another bought and prepared lunch for Johnson: a cheeseburger and French fries, with barbecue sauce for the burger and ranch dressing for the fries. When the guy delivered the burger, Johnson could see there were tears in his eyes.

“I could see, like, I’m not grieving alone,” Johnson said in a phone call. “Those guys are hurting with me. They don’t know my dad, but they know me and they’re hurting with me.”

Johnson acknowledges there are people doing life sentences who are still causing harm and mired in selfishness. But he insists that that’s not the norm, especially among those who have been convicted of murder.

“Most people in here have wrestled with the harm that they’ve caused and the things that they’ve done,” he said. “There is something about taking a life that just can be a catalyst for transformation and awakening. A lot of sleepless nights as you wrestle with that guilt of taking someone’s life from them — taking a father, a son, a daughter, a mother, a brother or a sister — that changes people.”

Smith said in a phone call that there are two extreme choices for those serving a life sentence: “You dedicate your life to change and try to be a better person, or you dedicate your life to just tearing shit up. Those are the only two options.”

Those who take the path of rehabilitation, Smith said, are not asking for a reward. They’re asking for another chance.

Smith filed an application for clemency in the summer of 2021, asking not to be released from prison but to be eligible for parole after 25 years of incarceration. He included letters of support from family and friends, copies of articles he’d written for the Nash News, letters of support from corrections staff and copies of certificates he’d earned for completing rehabilitative programs in prison.

“I did the very best that I could do on my own,” he said.

It wasn’t enough. His application was denied this week. He won’t be able to apply again until 2027.

“The only thing that will have changed is I’ll have been in prison for five more years,” he said.

For Smith, his clemency application and the bill before the legislature boil down to one essential question: What does society want the purpose of incarceration to be?

“Do they want people to be rehabilitated in prison, or do they want to punish people?” he asked. “If they really want people to change, then they need to make changes to make that possible. Because right now, it’s just retribution.”