Ex-Inmate on Connecticut Parole Board Brings an Insider’s View to Hearings

WATERBURY, Conn. — There was the usual grab bag of inmates preparing to be heard here, from the career offender with a heroin problem to the plotter of a jewel heist to the glum men with girlfriend trouble.

All were former convicts who had landed back in prison on parole violations, and this was their chance to explain their conduct to the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles.

One by one, they were led to rooms at their prisons to participate via teleconference in hearings that dispensed assembly-line justice. Soon, they were offering reasons for their mistakes that ran from the fantastic (“Yes, I had a knife but only because I was cooking”) to the familiar (“My girlfriend made me do it”).

One cog in the machine was different, though: The two-member panel weighing each inmate’s fate included a man who was himself a former inmate.

The expertise that the former prisoner, Kenneth F. Ireland, brought to the task — intimate knowledge of the state’s criminal justice system — came in a way no one could envy: In 1989, a day after he turned 20, Mr. Ireland was convicted of raping and murdering Barbara Pelkey, a Wallingford factory worker.

The crime occurred when he was 16. He received a 50-year sentence and spent nearly half his life, from the age of 18 until he was 39, in prison. Despite his assertions that he was innocent, friends stopped believing in him, and family drifted away. Then, in 2009, DNA testing performed at the insistence of the Connecticut Innocence Project exonerated him and identified the real culprit.

Rather than spurn further dealings with the authorities, Mr. Ireland, 45, allowed his name to be suggested for a seat on the parole board this year. “I’ve been on the inside, and I understand the programs, the issues confronting the inmates,” he said.

Nominated in October by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, Mr. Ireland is now serving provisionally, along with four other nominees, until state legislators vote on the appointments next year.

Timothy S. Fisher, dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law, got to know Mr. Ireland through work he does on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. Mr. Fisher championed the idea of adding Mr. Ireland to the board in a letter to Nancy Wyman, the lieutenant governor, in March.

“He has a very cleareyed understanding of the people in prison,” Mr. Fisher said. “How so many of them say ‘I didn’t do it,’ and yet he’s no fool. He’s been around them and he knows there’s injustice, but he also knows that there are people who will try to pull a fast one. I think he will be a more discerning judge of character on this board than almost anyone.”

The hearing here served as Mr. Ireland’s first test, and he spent hours poring over each case file before joining Robert A. Murphy, a retired agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was the panel’s second member. The preparation showed.

“What was going on in your life that made you relapse?” Mr. Ireland pressed John Rivera, a 35-year-old Hartford man who had been dragged back into the system as a result of a failed drug test. “Help me understand.”

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Those three words alone suggested how far from rote Mr. Ireland’s input was likely to be.

Similarly, he strained to pinpoint James Edward Reilly’s reason for leaving without authorization the halfway house that he had been placed in, marring an otherwise clean record. The 52-year-old inmate said his departure was prompted by his eviction from an apartment he had been renting and that he had simply “moved my stuff into storage.”

Asked about trips he had subsequently taken to Massachusetts and Florida during his absence, Mr. Reilly was repentant. “I know I should have turned myself in after I put my stuff in storage,” he said. “I know. I’m guilty.”

Mr. Ireland did not let the matter drop there, though.

“You were on parole for four years, and you didn’t seem to have a problem,” Mr. Ireland prodded gently. “What led to this?”

Mr. Reilly recounted “a little argument” he had had with his girlfriend that ended in an arrest and a charge of disorderly conduct, but said he had the situation under control: “She’s not around now and we’re broken up.”

Like Mr. Ireland, at least seven of the 11 inmates making their cases had entered the criminal justice system as teenagers. There was much talk about “poor choices,” starting with the “bad decision” that Michael Gaston, 26, admitted to making when the police found him brandishing a knife. He said the incident had happened because he was making dinner when a commotion started and he rushed into a hallway. “Absent-mindedly, I still had the knife in my hand,” he said.

Alexis deJesus, 28, did not quarrel with the panel’s opinion that carrying heroin for a friend was indeed a “poor choice.”

“You did that as a favor?” Mr. Murphy asked.

“Well, I was already in trouble,” Mr. deJesus demurred. “I knew I was going back to jail.”

Considered administrative affairs, parole revocation hearings are more stripped-down than court hearings, even though the rulings they produce are final. Inmates are advised that they may have a lawyer with them or present evidence, but few do, and some participants were flummoxed by the proceedings.

“There’s no way I can go to court?” asked Kendall Hooks, who was dismayed when the panel ordered him to serve the balance of his sentence for his role in an attempted jewelry store robbery without another chance at an early release. He had violated the terms of his parole by leaving a halfway house without permission and was suspected of mailing a package to an inmate.

No, sorry, he was told.

Though Mr. Ireland showed an interest in each of the inmates’ lives — he took a moment to congratulate Mr. deJesus on the birth of a son, for example — the panel’s decisions did not deviate from the norm.

None of the 11 inmates were released into the community, and most had months of prison time restored to their sentences for the misconduct that led them to be arrested again.

“You want to set up these guys for success,” Mr. Ireland said later. “No one wants them to be in prison.” He acknowledged that it might be hard for the inmates to perceive that after sitting through a day of “deny, deny, deny.”

Addressing the youngest inmate of the day, 23-year-old Geraldo Ruiz, Mr. Ireland took a particularly firm stance.

Mr. Ruiz had been accused of violating the rules at his halfway house by letting his girlfriend stay over — twice in the first week he was there.

“What did you want me to do?” Mr. Ruiz asked indignantly. “Kick her out in the street?” The choice, as he framed it, was “either her getting raped or killed” or jeopardizing his parole.

“I understand you might care for the girl,” Mr. Ireland said. “But you got to look out for yourself.”

The idea of having Mr. Ireland on the board appears to have originated with Vivien Blackford, a member of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, according to people who supported the appointment.

“Having been in prison, he brings so much to the board because he understands the experience, the perspectives and the reasons that people do what they do,” Ms. Blackford said.

Mr. Ireland quit a steady job as a bookkeeper to accept the appointment, which comes with a salary — though that does not seem to be what motivates him.

He stands to collect millions of dollars once Connecticut lawmakers finish reviewing his case. A state law, enacted when Mr. Ireland was still imprisoned in 2008, entitles the wrongfully convicted to compensation. He served more time in prison and was younger when he was sentenced than the man whose case moved lawmakers to pass the law.

Harsh conditions at the prisons where Mr. Ireland spent those 21 years, including the fortresslike one in Wallens Ridge, Va., will also be hard to ignore. He spent a year in solitary confinement when he was 20, lost part of a finger in an assault and watched an inmate die from burns. He said he still has trouble answering the door for fear of who might be lurking there.

For all his nerves, there was no flinching when duty called at the parole hearing. Each time the hearing officer asked the board if they had questions for the men peering up at them from the other end of the video cameras, Mr. Ireland certainly did.

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