Preparing for a Parole Hearing - Helpful Tips from a Former Inmate
Guest Column by Peter Collins, Former Inmate at Bath Institute
PREPARING TO SPEAK TO THE PAROLE BOARD:
Because you want to introduce yourself and your case in the best possible light you should put considerable effort into crafting an informative, yet brief introduction. The more personal and honest this sharing is the better. Obviously you don't want to come off as a slick and polished con man either. Unfortunately, for most people a parole hearing is a very stressful experience, and stress can become a formidable goal crushing enemy that prevents one from making our best possible presentation.
PREPARING YOUR OPENING STATEMENT.
To be as effective as possible when you present yourself to the board, you should be sure that your statement is well structured. I know that most of us are not speech writers and this is a daunting task. However, if you follow this 3 step plan you can be more effective:
1) First, write the speeches conclusion and include a powerful & positive message.
2) Second, put together the body of the statement, including facts.
3) Finally, devise an introduction that will get the boards attention.
Now practice it until you feel comfortable speaking it >>NOT READING IT!!
The PB must look forward to meeting someone who is putting their best effort into receiving parole and being a successful person upon release. So try to bring a positive attitude with you into the hearing, this will help to promote an image of energy and commitment. Here are a few tips that may help you in the hearing:
• Pay attention to your body language. Try not to tap your toes / feet or fiddle with your fingers or a pen - if you notice yourself doing so, try to stop, and if it is appropriate explain the tapping or fidgeting as a reaction to your nervousness at being before the board. (It is, after all, natural to be nervous on such an important day)
• Never criticize the PB or individuals in the PB or any part of the justice system. If you need to impart some information that points towards someone having handled something in your case improperly (or whatever) do so without any derogatory comments or personal slurs.
• Learn to accept criticism as gracefully as possible. If something comes up in the hearing that sounds critical of you, accept it with thanks. You could even indicate that you will consider the insight and feel that it is helpful advice that will be useful in the future.
• Keep a positive attitude about the hearing and your future from the beginning to the end. You will have some control over maintaining the positive atmosphere. Even when you are asked to explain a failure, weakness, risk factor, or negative experience you can always finish your answer on a positive note by sharing the lesson you learnt and or strategies you now have to improve on such situations.
• Maintain an attitude of tolerance, willingness and flexibility. Remain open to accepting and participating in the process as it develops.
• If you are asked a question rudely you need to assume he question was accidentally phrased poorly. Put your negative reaction aside and try to focus on the question.
• Think of the interview as a conversation, not an interrogation. Introduce yourself in a relaxed, confident way.
• Sit straight, and lean slightly forward (this shows openness and interest)
• Listen to what the board members say and pay attention to how they are responding to you.
• You can make friendly observations about your surroundings if it seems appropriate.
• Communicate positive information about yourself - this is your responsibility.
• Toward the end of the hearing they may ask you if you have any questions. If this happens take the opportunity to say, before I ask my first question I would like to touch on some key points that were not discussed in the hearing (if there was something you felt was missed.)
You could try to come up with an interesting sentence that will capture their attention during your introduction. Then move towards sharing a significant personal experience that illustrate the changes you have gone through as a person. Explain your understanding and remorse about the impact and trauma your offense had on others. Share some of the steps and safeguards (lapse and relapse plans) you are putting in place to ensure that you do not fall back into the same cycle of behaviors & circumstances that contributed to your conviction. You might consider sharing your aspirations & ambitions as well as briefly touching on how you intend to accomplish them.
Remember that in essence you are demonstrating that as a fellow human being who has made mistakes you are working hard at changing the direction of your life. Express that you are honestly trying to move forward and are asking for their recognition and support of your efforts. You need to try and warm the relationship between the board members and yourself.
However, giving them too much information may only confuse issues so remember to stay brief as well as informative. Keep it short, as well as complete. Sometimes speaking can be more effective if you stick to 3 or 4 main points and emphasize them with examples, anecdotes or brief stories. (For instance indicate what you learnt from the anger management courses by illustrating how you used to feel and react to problems and how you manage them now with your new skills and understanding)
A couple of suggestions for formulating your statement:
• Emphasize your strong points.
• Acknowledge and own your mistakes.
• Let the board get to know you (the real you - not the file you).
• Properly prepare yourself - it will show if you haven't.
• Practice speaking clearly and audibly.
• Have an opening, middle and conclusion.
Once you have organized your thoughts and compiled the information you wish to share in the statement you need to practice it as if you were speaking to friends. When you feel ready you should to practice your statement with a friend or with any one who will listen and give credible feedback.
A tried and true method of speech writing is to work it all out in full, then break it down into sections, with a key word for each section. Then write out the key words on the 3x5" cards. Try not to just read your opening statement from notes. You can refer to the notes but DO NOT read it all out and then sit down.
Practice the speech and SPEAK TO THEM. During the speech you should look them in the eye, move from board member to board member and try to ensure that you have eye contact at least several times. Maintain soft eye contact (don't glare) and try to remain pleasant; you need to represent yourself well at this hearing.
Practice will help prepare you for the incredibly hard job of presenting yourself to a critical audience! If you have a tape recorder at your disposal you should record your statements and play them back and look for weaknesses and places you can improve. The following are a couple more brief tips on presenting yourself well.
Begin by facing the board and taking a deep breathe then saying something like: Hello, my name is ______and I would like to thank the board for allowing me this opportunity to present my case.
While you are saying this you need to look directly at one member of the board and maintain eye contact for a few seconds then looking at another so no one feels left out of your talk.
• Be well groomed and dressed appropriately (First impressions count!).
• Memorize the points.
• Maintain some soft eye contact (don't angrily glare).
• Share significant personal awakenings and experiences that generated change in you.
• Focus on the positives in your case but always be realistic.
• Speak clearly and with enough volume to be heard.
• Keep it personal.
• DO NOT BLAME OTHERS. Never blame others.
• Relax! Nervousness is normal.
It is truly the sign of a matured person who does not spend their time looking back and assigning blame. Whenever we look back and blame others we are focusing on the negative and nothing good can come of it. You need to look forward toward your future, yes things have not gone well in the past but the mature person will look at that, learn from it and say: I need to move forward.
During the hearing you can count on being asked open ended questions that begin with something like “Tell us about a time . . .” or “describe one of your experiences . . .”
Some people recommend that you do not volunteer too much during any answer. I'm not certain that there is any right answer in this case.
You need to assess your ability to help or harm yourself the more you speak. When you are comfortable in knowing the answer to that question you will know what to do when asked open ended questions. However you also need to keep in mind that communicating information about yourself is your responsibility. If you make the PB drag every answer out of you they may not appreciate the exercise. On the other hand do not talk too much and try to pay attention to the cues given to you by the PB members.
CLOSING STATEMENT TO THE PB:
Take advantage of the opportunity to have a last word! Do not waive this chance. Prepare yourself and then make your presentation to the Board. You can do it! Just practice it and then speak to them. Like you, they are human beings and realize how difficult this is for you. The effort you put into helping yourself will be seen and most likely taken into consideration.
Focus on the positives. The hearing may have been tough and they focused on a lot of negative stuff. This is natural and you need to recognize that they have a job to do and that their concerns are real. You need to be able to look at your case realistically and learn to respond in a positive fashion. Put emphasis on turning strikes against you into positive learning and growing experiences. For example; As a result of your offense / personal traumas / life experiences, etc, you have learnt from it, grown and gained insights. Share some of the personal growth and insights that have come from self-reflection, maturation and the time spent inside.
Thank them for considering your presentation.
HOW TO HANDLE AN AGGRESSIVE PB MEMBER:
You must be prepared for this eventuality. This can not be stressed enough. The PB has a mandate to evaluate your ability to deal with difficulties, set backs and disappointment. They want to know how effective your coping strategies are. Some suggestions to slow the hearing are:
• Asking for a drink of water.
• Asking for a moment to speak to your assistant.
• Asking for a moment to write down your thoughts. (Bring pen & paper)
There is no place for you to lose it so stay calm no matter how poorly things go for you.
They will try to bait you. This is a method of detecting weaknesses in your anger management and to test what you have really learnt. This is no trick it is a tried and true method of ascertaining your level of self control. Don't allow the weight of the hearing to throw you off balance. Stay calm and stay rational and demonstrate your ability to negotiate rough waters.
If it gets too rough, your assistant can ask why they are being so insulting or harassing, etc. In this type of atmosphere you might consider not giving really long explanations or answers as:
• You may only end up giving more ammunition to the attacker.
• Yes and no answers might be appropriate.
You need to remain helpful and thoughtful during this process no matter how hard it is on you. Your Parole Assistant can also run interference i.e.; “I need a moment to confer with my client.” If you have an attorney present the PB is less likely to go into Attack Mode.
QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD EXPECT AT A HEARING:
These questions may not appear in this order at your hearing - and there will be others!
• Why should we give you parole?
• Do you feel remorse?
• What guarantees do we get that you won't re-offend?
• Why are you in prison?
• What led you to this crime?
• What support systems do you have in the community?
• What are your options?
• What makes you think you can cope in the community?
• Where do you plan to live?
• What will you do if you are not allowed to go back to your hometown?
• What is a halfway house going to do for you?
• Why did you pick the halfway house you picked?
• Can you explain your institutional charges?
• What programs have you taken?
• How did these programs benefit you?
• How do you apply what you learnt in programs?
• Did you learn anything about yourself by being in an institution?
• Do you consider yourself a criminal? (Are you proud of it?)
• How do you think your victims feel about your offense?
• What have you done to address the need areas in your correctional plan?
• What would you do if the same situation occurred again?
• Have you addressed the issues that caused you to offend?
• Do you think the sentence you received fits your crime ?
You need to take the time to think about these questions and consider your answers. It is very important that you not only think about them in the interest of answering the Parole Board, but more importantly think about them for yourself. How have you addressed the issues in your life? Are you okay with how things are going in your life? Are you committed to staying out of prison and how are you going to do it? Really take the time to reevaluate your world and how you are approaching it.
IF PAROLE IS DENIED:
You have to role with the punches and use the set back to re-evaluate your situation and re-approach the problem equipped with the valuable information that they (PB) will provide you in the body of their decision paper - Don't get angry! Perhaps they felt you haven't changed or didn't learn enough from your programs or had too many institutional charges.
There is an old saying: If at first you do not succeed, try, try again. There is no room to give up at this juncture of your life so pick up and keep moving forward. Keep your thinking healthy.
You have to approach the problem methodically. Begin by reviewing their concerns with a friend who will be honest. You should also self-evaluate your case. If the PB has a point you need to reflect upon it honestly with yourself.
However whether you feel they have a point or not you now have the task of documenting & demonstrating how you have changed. Perhaps you will need to review your program books and go over and over it until you learn and understand it completely. With regard to programs, if you can't answer basic questions about what you learnt in a program and how you use it in your life then they have a point. You simply must be able to intelligently discuss the program content so do not take the programs lightly. You can never refresh your memory enough in regard to these programs. If you have had too many institutional charges then you are going to have to review why this is happening and whether or how you can change this factor. Pay attention to what you are doing and how you are being perceived by others, especially staff.
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