The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles consists of five people who report to no one. They have complete discretion in their decisions over the few who make parole and the majority who are kept waiting, and are not beholden to any sort of objective criteria.
Prisoners never meet them. When they determine someone’s fate, they do it from behind closed doors without ever having to look the person in the eye. Many such prisoners have nothing but good behavior on their records and have successfully completed their case plans, but the Board chooses to warehouse them in overcrowded facilities as rates of murders and suicides continue to swell. They choose to extend the cycle of violence and despair.
Jeffrey Eicher, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, was 22 when he entered the Georgia Department of Corrections system with a 20-year sentence. Now 34, he’s been the picture of good behavior and should be an ideal candidate to make parole. His eligibility date arrived five years ago. Like everyone else eligible for parole but still in prison, he’s never been told why.
Eicher has an automatic review coming up in early summer, and says sometimes prisoners are led to believe they’ll be allowed to parole out after serving 65 percent of their sentence, a mark he’s hitting around now. He does not expect this to happen, nor to be told why. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
C Dreams: So prisoners believe the Board does have internal guidelines for how much of your sentence you’re meant to serve, even if they aren’t public?
Jeffrey Eicher: As far as I know, they do. It happens when you first go through Jackson [County State Prison] and you’re getting classified [for security level]. You’ll sit down to take an IQ test, they’ll ask you a bunch of stuff. Your background, your history, they’ll look at your crime, all these other things. And I guess they have, like, an algorithm that spits out what percentage of your time you should do. And for me and a lot of other guys it’s 65 percent, but that very rarely actually ever gets granted.
I’m just looking around, I see what they’re doing to everybody else. I kind of see the writing on the wall. Everybody’s getting [denied for] no given reason. I mean, they’ll make up some random excuse … that’s kind of vague and abstract.
“I’ve completed my entire case plan. I have an exemplary disciplinary record. I’ve completed vocational training, I have employment opportunity, I’ve passed all my drug tests. Everything.”
My last denial was about two years ago. They said “due to the nature of your offense…” But, y’know, I’ve already been sentenced according to the nature of my offense. I feel like my conduct while incarcerated, that should dictate whether I get parole or not.
So that’s my current situation here—in another month or two I should hear something else from them, but just judging from what I see happening here right now, I already kind of know what they’re gonna say … Why do we have guidelines if we’re not going to follow them?
When you’re eligible for parole, does the Board provide you with a case plan, with a list of particular things that you can do to be released?
Kinda. They’re gonna come up with a bunch of crap, tell you to take all these classes, go through all these processes, and they’ll [let you out]. But it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t really happen.
For taking the classes, and for working a detail, you’re supposed to be able to earn points for up to 18 months off your sentence, but they don’t have to honor it. So I’ve worked all this time—the points are hard to get—I’ve worked all this time to get these points, for the Parole Board to turn around and say, “Yeah, we’re not gonna honor those.”
You completed your whole case plan?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve completed my entire case plan. I have an exemplary disciplinary record. I’ve completed vocational training, I have employment opportunity, I’ve passed all my drug tests. Everything.
There’s one shining star here I would like to talk about in the Georgia Department of Corrections, that was a program I did—a two-year “Faith and Character Based” program at Walker State Prison. Absolutely phenomenal. Tons of support tons, great classes. It’s what incarceration should be. I can’t recommend it enough.
“There are guys in here who are being forced to max out. To do 100 percent of their sentence. And no reason is given to them.”
Other than that, though, it’s a dog and pony show. Most of the classes, you show up, it’s a rubber stamp. A lot of the classes don’t actually get taught. There’s no real learning. There’s no real education, rehabilitation. And again, it comes back to the fact that people don’t really care because we all know it’s the dog and pony show.
If the people of Georgia, and at large, want me and people in my shoes to do more time, that’s fine. But I feel like this decision should be made in an open, honest, transparent way, with concrete reasons and evidence. Not behind closed doors, [this] Parole Board, nobody-knows-what’s-really-going-on crap. That’s really what bothers me. There are guys in here who are eligible for parole, who are being forced to max out. To do 100 percent of their sentence. And no reason is given to them.
There’s no way to find out why they’re being made to serve the entirety of their sentence? No review process, no oversight?
None. None whatsoever. The only thing you can do is spend 10, 20 grand on one of these “parole representatives” … who won’t do anything for you. But other than that, no. [The Board] has complete, arbitrary authority over your case once you come into the Department of Corrections.
It’s a board of people who report to no one, not even the governor of Georgia. They do not have to give any reason for any of their decisions to anybody. They get to do whatever they want … It’s such an opaque system. We’re not told—we don’t know what the hell’s going on. We don’t get answers as to why we’re being denied. Or accepted. We’re just in the dark.
“It’s creating a very dangerous atmosphere of, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter—might as well act like a jackass and do whatever the hell you want.'”
They have their meeting [about us] but it’s all behind closed doors. There’s a form you can fill out to appeal a decision, but you hardly ever hear anything back. Or if you do, it’s just the same decision and all it’s gonna be is one sentence: “Due to the nature of your offense …” Or it’s “incompatible with the welfare of society.”
Or sometimes, if you have a good disciplinary record, they’ll even say that they feel you’re manipulating the system. That doesn’t even make any sense. I mean, it’s your system here. I’m abiding by your rules, it’s your case plan. How is that manipulating the system?
What impact has this practice of widespread denials had on you and the people around you?
It’s definitely contributing to the overcrowding problem. It’s definitely contributing to a lot of the anger and frustration, and the violence that’s going on. These are people’s lives they’re messing with, and they act out.
It’s creating a very dangerous atmosphere of, “Well, it doesn’t matter. If I do the right thing, I get punished. If I don’t do the right thing, I get punished.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t—might as well act like a jackass and do whatever the hell you want. I’m not saying I myself do, and … I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m saying I understand it.
When they started cramming people in here, you can tell the difference. Especially when [GDC] starts cracking down on stupid, arbitrary stuff. It puts everybody on edge, brings the worst out of people. Even great people, you put them in a shoebox long enough, they’re gonna explode.
And the understaffing thing is huge. The Parole Board has to be aware of it. That’s one of my arguments, and for a lot of guys that are in positions like mine: You can’t even guarantee our safety anymore. I mean, things are going nuts in here. You’re saying I have to stay in here? For what reason? For no reason?