She was on her way to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, where she was the only person scheduled to speak on behalf of her brother. David Roberts has been in prison since the early 1990s on an armed robbery charge.
Before Pugh could even speak, the parole board gave her the bad news. Her brother was facing a sentence of life plus 25 years. No one had ever told her about the "life" part. And no one had told her about the disciplinary record her brother had racked up in prison.
"I'll be honest with you," said parole board member Robert Longshore. "He's not been a good inmate on top of that."
"Oh, Lord Jesus," Pugh said, shocked. After joking with the parole board about how she'd scold her brother, possibly by not sending a Christmas package, Pugh left with a smile on her face.
But in the car, she broke down.
"My brother has gray hair," she said. "He was like a baby when he went in. I cried all the way to Troy."
The case that sent Pugh home in tears was just one of 90 parole requests that crossed Longshore’s desk Tuesday. Another 85 were scheduled for Wednesday, and still more on Thursday.
But even if the board paroled them all, Longshore said, he couldn't solve Alabama's prison overcrowding problem.
"It's physically impossible," Longshore said, "Because of the inmates coming in."
There were 32,447 people in some form of state correctional custody at the end of May, according to Department of Corrections statistics. Some were in work-release and rehab programs, but 25,279 were behind the walls of prisons designed to hold 13,403.
Each prisoner costs the state $42 per day — the lowest per-inmate cost in the South, but still enough to force the state to raid its trust funds to pick up the tab. And legislators have begun to openly fret about the possibility of a lawsuit that could lead to a court order to reduce the prison population. Some state officials have even floated the idea of appointing a second parole board to quicken the pace of prisoner releases.
For now, the tough decisions about who leaves prison — and who stays there — lie in the hands of the three men on the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Foot of the cross
By 9 a.m., when some state offices are just opening, there's already a crowd of people at Pardons and Paroles. A waiting room for inmates' families is filled with people of all ages, some dressed as if for church, others in T-shirts and jeans. A slightly smaller crowd mills about in a separate waiting room for crime victims who wish to speak to the board.
Notably absent are the inmates themselves. It's up to inmates' friends and relatives, and occasionally lawyers, to make the case for their release.
"The state of Alabama cannot afford, today, to bring 90 inmates to Montgomery for these proceedings," Longshore said.
Charles Caine Sr. is one of the few to actually hire a lawyer for the hearing. A farmer and fruit-seller from the rural Houston County community known as Pansey, Caine said his son Charles Caine Jr. has been in jail off and on since he was 15. The younger Caine is now 33, his family members say. Court records show that he has convictions for a number of offenses, including robbery.
"I run a farm," the father said. "I need him next to me in the fields."
Caine thought his son had a good chance of getting out. A technicality blocked the younger Caine from getting released at a hearing a year earlier. He had a job lined up — cooking and selling barbecue at his father's fruit stand — the family's lawyer said.
Longshore told Caine his son was disciplined for possessing marijuana in prison just two weeks before the hearing. The board voted to push back his parole hearing for another year.
"Tell your son to submit a plan, and tell him to live at the foot of the cross until his case comes back to us," said board member William Wynne.
The elder Caine told the The Star he had no idea about the charge against his son. He said he didn't believe it.
"I can stake my life on the fact that he doesn't smoke weed," Caine said.
In the dark
Parole board members have access to inmates' prison records, some of which take up multiple, thick manila folders. Inmates' families don't get to see those folders.
"Our records are confidential," Longshore said.
That lack of information leads to surprises for many who come before the board to plead on behalf of an inmate. Wives and mothers walk away frustrated with inmates who didn't tell them about disciplinary issues in their record. Sometimes prison records show an inmate having more children than his friends or family knew about. A few challenge the record; most tell the board they'll have a talk with their inmates and tell them to straighten up.
Some inmate advocates don't have a clear grasp of the crimes that landed their inmates in jail. One man appeared before the board Tuesday to plead on behalf of an inmate in his in-prison Sunday school class; he withdrew after hearing that the inmate was in prison for killing and chopping up his victim.
"The only person in the whole thing that knows everything is the inmate," Longshore said. Inmates get notice in prison of their upcoming hearings and line up someone to speak for them, board members said.
"Most of what I know about the process, I know through Google searches," said Shanette Granstaff, a doctoral candidate at UAB. Granstaff spoke on behalf of her brother, Blake, on Tuesday. Court records show Blake Granstaff has several felony convictions for crimes such as burglary, receiving stolen property and domestic violence.
"Although it's been hard to see him mature behind bars, I have seen tremendous growth," Shanette Granstaff told the parole board.
Longshore complimented Granstaff for having an "impressive resume," and the board voted to send her brother to a program that could get him out of prison in 30 weeks.
After the hearing, Granstaff told The Star that the hearing process is almost completely opaque to inmates' representatives. Hearing times get changed suddenly — she was originally scheduled to speak to the board in March — and the best advice available comes from online discussion boards for inmates' families.
"I'm a very engaged person," she said. "But for a person who doesn't have the resources I do, it would be hard to get this information."
VOCAL keeps promises
Victims of crime don't have access to those prison records either.
“The victim’s role is to advise us of what the impact of the crime has been,” Longshore said.
Victims do have a chance to testify. Parole board members say Alabama has some of the most stringent victim-notification laws in the country. Every person affected by a crime must be notified of a parole hearing — and if they aren’t, state officials have to prove they made a good-faith effort to find them.
“If a drunk driver ran into a bus with 26 people on it, we’ve got to reach all 26 of those people,” Wynne, the board member, said.
Board members said they’ve sent notices to adults who were abused as children and had blocked all memory of the abuse. They’ve contacted crime victims who’d never told their families about the crime.
“We had a rape victim, and the first time she told her husband about the crime was here,” Wynne said.
Those victim-notification rules are the product of years of campaigning by the nonprofit group Victims of Crime and Leniency, also known as VOCAL.
VOCAL executive director Janette Grantham spends two days per week at board hearings, speaking against parole in crimes where the victim was physically harmed.
VOCAL maintains a house in Montgomery where victims and their families can stay the night before a hearing. She said victims’ families, too, feel intimidated by the process.
“They’re scared sometimes,” said Grantham, who joined VOCAL after her own brother was killed. “They don’t know what’s going to happen, and it feels like a courtroom.”
Grantham doesn’t get to see the files on the parole board’s desk, but she said district attorneys often give her information on cases. She said she’d also become adept at reading the board’s reactions and guessing what their concerns are.
The Alabama Attorney General’s office has a representative in most hearings, to stand in for local district attorneys. But sometimes Grantham is the only person representing the victims themselves. Some victims don’t want to be involved in the process. Some personally ask Grantham to take their place. Some are dead.
“In some of these cases, the people have died out,” she said. She recalled a rape victim, diagnosed with cancer, who asked her to speak against her attacker’s release.
“I keep my promises,” she said.
When victims and inmates’ representatives show up, the tension in the room is palpable. On Wednesday, the board held a parole hearing for Heriberto Arevalo Robles, a Randolph County man convicted in 2000 of the drunk-driving death of Benjamin Holland of Cleburne County.
At the victim’s table were several members of the Holland family, many of whom were in the car when Robles hit them.
“It’s been so hard raising children without him,” said Shyrll Holland, Benjamin Holland’s widow. Another passenger, Jennifer Dempsey Burnett, testified that her face was crushed in the accident and that she still has flashbacks to the crash.
“It took me a year to look in the mirror,” she said.
There were tears on the other side, too.
“This has been a tragedy for their family, but it’s been a tragedy for our family, too,” said a woman who identified herself as Robles’s wife. (She didn’t state her name at the hearing, and parole board officials say they don’t release their list of people who testify.)
The parole board deliberated from 10 a.m. to 10:02 a.m. and voted to keep Robles in prison. Most of the hearings Tuesday and Wednesday took less than 15 minutes.
No time for golf
Parole board members say they’ve been known to come to work sick. There are parole requests the board can’t vote on unless all three members are present, so a sick day can leave both victims and inmates’ families hanging.
“We’re the only reasonably successful people our age who can’t take a day off to play golf,” Longshore said.
If they heard 90 cases per day and paroled every one, it would take nearly a year of three-day weeks to get the prison population down to the 13,000 it’s built for. That will never happen, board members say. Only about 30 percent of the inmate population is eligible for parole, board members say, and many inmates have given no indication that they’re ready to leave prison.
And it would be hard to find someone to watch over more inmates if they were paroled. Board members say parole officers see an average of 200 inmates each — around four times the recommended workload.
Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas says a second parole board is still an option the state could use to alleviate prison overcrowding. It was done before, about 10 years ago, he said, and caused a dip in the prison population. The number of paroles granted by the board has been decreasing steadily for the last few years, he said.
“I don’t have control over the amount of people who are on parole,” he said. “I don’t have control over who gets revoked. I don’t have control over who offends.”
Even Grantham, the victims’ advocate, says prisons are overcrowded. While she speaks in every case involving violence, she bows out of hearings for drug offenders. If they do get released, she said, it makes more room for violent criminals.
“I wish the we’d had the foresight, when we had more money, to built another prison,” she said.
Earlier this year the parole board picked up another potential backlog of cases. Under the Scottsboro Boys Act — named for several young black men falsely convicted of rape in the 1930s — the board can now pardon people after death, if their case is at least 80 years old and their conviction was the result of racial bias.
Longshore, who is white, said he expects hundreds of cases under the new law.
Board member Cliff Walker, who is black, said he expects perhaps 10. Except in high-profile cases, he said, documentation is hard to find.
Despite the fanfare when the act was passed, board members say they’ve seen no applications for posthumous pardons yet. Not even for the Scottsboro Boys.
Why inmates lie
More than anything, Mary Ann Roberts Pugh said, she’s hurt — hurt that her brother didn’t tell her the full details of his case.
But she understands why an inmate might lie, even to his sister.
“It’s not that they don’t want to tell you,” she said. “In prison, they’ve grown accustomed to deceiving and lying.”
Pugh has been behind the walls herself, spending time at Tutwiler Prison for Women after being arrested on a drug charge. She says Jesus helped her overcome her addiction; Pugh passed out copies of her self-published autobiography to the parole board and told them she was an example of someone who made it.
It’s a painful read. Pugh’s earliest memories are of relatives fighting each other with razor blades. Her father died of cirrhosis at 38; by age 15, Pugh was dating older men and had been beaten by boyfriends and raped. None of that information — which would seem to reflect on her brother’s childhood as well — has a significant bearing on a parole proceeding, where the inmate’s current conduct is paramount.
Pugh said she’s glad the board gave her a chance to come back next year and try again.
“It’s amazing that you can go to a board like that, and get bad news, and come back not mad and not blaming the board, but just hurt,” she said.
But it does hurt.
“I keep thinking, ‘Please don’t let my brother die in prison,’” she said.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.