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No Way Out 

Inmate Lonnie Morris is a role model, antiviolence program leader, and darling of the media. But will the parole board see past his crime?

Wednesday, Jan 27 2010

Page 3 of 4

In the infirmary, he got to thinking about his life. He hadn't really accomplished anything, he realized. Hadn't done anything of value. He had never gotten to know his son, Jamal, who was born a month after he shot Wheeler. He had brothers and sisters who admired him and visited him, but most people who knew his name knew him only as a cop killer. He didn't like that.

Morris began applying for classes and activities within the prison walls. In the late '80s, he was selected from a large applicant pool to work for SQTV, the prison's television network. Soon after, he was accepted into an Antioch University bachelor of arts program within the prison. According to guards who knew Morris back then, he began developing good relationships with his teachers, and his attitude began to shift.

J.T. Evans, a corrections officer who has worked at the prison for 29 years, noticed a "profound change" in Morris. Evans delegated responsibilities to him, such as the organization of several yard concerts. In 1992, Morris became a peer health educator. In 1994, he became the cofacilitator of a substance abuse program. Morris then enrolled in San Quentin Film School, where guards say he displayed leadership and set a good example for the younger participants.

Morris eventually earned his degree in communication from Antioch, becoming one of the last inmates in California to do so. Armed with his education and newfound sense of self-worth, Morris decided he wanted to do more.

He began having conversations with a guard named Vernell Crittendon about issues facing the black community. They talked about how those issues can be dealt with on a policy level, and Crittendon — who went on to become a widely respected lieutenant and press spokesman — was impressed with Morris' grasp of the problems facing urban youth. The two decided to work on reducing violence and recidivism from the inside out.

Morris knew that simply returning criminals into the community en masse — as the state will soon be doing — was bad news. He had gone through it himself, and was well aware of a certain criminal code many people continue to live by.

Before you can change people's behavior, Morris recognized, you have to change the way they think. To start that process, in 2002 he cofounded No More Tears, an antiviolence program providing a supportive group environment for inmates to discuss their feelings and receive wisdom in hopes of interrupting the cycle of recidivism and violence. Morris facilitates weekly workshops, which are packed with volunteers and prominent visitors.

Morris didn't stop there. In 2003, he, another inmate, and Crittendon started REAL Choices, another antiviolence program targeting urban youth, for whom they provided prison mentors. REAL stands for Reaching and Expanding Adolescent Lives.

Morris was already a spiritual and emotional adviser to other prisoners. But after he cofounded the inmate programs, word of his charisma and good works spread outside San Quentin. He became friends with writers, doctors, religious leaders, activists, and politicians, including Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson.

Those who gravitate to Morris tend to have a few things in common: They believe prison should be about reform, not punishment. And they believe he should be given the chance to take his programs outside the prison walls.

Woodford, the former warden, is one of those. "I know Mr. Morris's crime is violent," she wrote in a recommendation that he be granted parole. "I also know he has caused unbelievable pain to the families and friends of his victim. This he can never change. The only issue within his power to change is himself, and I believe he has done that."

Ask defense attorneys, victims'-rights advocates, lawmakers, prisoners, and anyone else who has to deal with California's parole system, and they'll all tell you the same thing: It's godawful. A 2008 editorial in The New York Times even described it as "perhaps the most counterproductive and ill-conceived parole system in the United States."

The main problem is that the system is simply too big. Each year, the state paroles about 138,000 inmates, overloading parole officers with as many as 100 parolees each, about two-thirds of whom end up back in prison.

Very few parolees are murderers serving life sentences. Under Governor Gray Davis, who was notoriously tough on crime, just eight murderers out of the hundreds of potential parolees were released. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been far more permissive, but many lifers have gotten a fair shake only after case law changed the requirements for denying parole.

Until 2008, the commissioners often denied parole based on the heinousness of an offense. Defense attorneys argued that this wasn't fair; that year, they prevailed in appellate court via the case of Sandra Davis Lawrence. After the state Supreme Court refused to intervene, Lawrence was released on parole, and the board was required to provide additional evidence that an inmate posed an unreasonable risk if released. That was when the phrase "inmate lacks insight" became popular at parole hearings.

Attorney Keith Wattley says his clients are routinely denied with this vague assertion. Furthermore, he says, the board is unfairly stacked with conservative commissioners. The state penal code requires that commissioners come from a cross-section of backgrounds that reflects the population of California, but at the moment, nearly all are or have been police officers, investigators, sheriffs, wardens, and correctional officers.

In 2006, Wattley started his Oakland law firm, Uncommon Law, to combat what he felt were arbitrary denials of parole for deserving individuals. He often takes pro bono cases he deems important; Morris' was one of those. In fact, Wattley says, Morris' case has a lot going for it beyond the fact that the inmate is rehabilitated.

For one thing, Morris is old. Research has shown that elderly inmates are significantly less likely to commit further crimes. They also cost the state two to three times more money to keep incarcerated. (Taxpayers recently financed Morris' first hip replacement, and he needs a second one.) For this reason, the state's Legislative Analyst Office, a nonpartisan body, recommended in 2003 that thousands of older inmates be paroled early.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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