At first, it seems unfathomable. You’ll hear an inmate telling his friends, “Fuck parole, I’m topping out.” Topping out means finishing one’s entire sentence in prison (as opposed to on parole). But inmates every day, even highly intelligent ones, are opting out of parole and choosing prison instead.
In Idaho, judges assign a “fixed” time and an “indeterminate” time — the sum of these two numbers adds up to the inmate’s total sentence. One might get what’s referred to as “Five Plus Ten”. This would be five years fixed (meaning he is eligible for parole after those five years) and ten years indeterminate (meaning he could serve those final ten years on parole, or in prison, or a combination of both). A “five plus ten” is a total sentence of 15 years. If someone got “four plus sixteen”, that would be a total sentence of 20 years (but the inmate would have his first parole hearing after four years). When an inmate “tops out”, he serves his entire sentence inside of prison.
Why would someone voluntarily top out? There are several reasons.
Scenario 1: An inmate is sentenced to 3 plus 12. His wife reluctantly agrees to stay with him, figuring it will be difficult, but she can make it 3 years. She and he are optimistic, always talking about how he can’t wait to get out in 3 years, 2 years, next year. He might write to her in a letter, “This should be my last valentine’s day in here. I can’t wait to spend the next one with you.” After spending months sending out dozens of resumes from prison, he gets in touch with his brother-in-law’s construction company, interviews over the phone, and is offered a job upon his release. But when his parole hearing finally comes, the parole board denies him parole. He is told to try again in two years (prison speak: he gets flopped for two years).
“Two more years? I thought you were going to get out. Why didn’t they let you out?” his wife may ask. And he could tell her that he did everything right, he stayed out of trouble, he has no idea why. She might think he is lying, that there must be some reason. Nonetheless, she agrees to wait. It’s only two more years, and with JPay email now, they can keep in touch every day. She can also visit once a month.
His brother-in-law rescinds the job offer. He can’t wait two more years for an employee. He’s sorry, he says, but there’s nothing he can do.
For the next two years, the inmate tries even harder to do everything right. He gets a prison job, he stops sharing coffee with his cellmate, he stops ordering sexy pictures from HighCaliberLatina.com, he tells his wife not to talk dirty on the phone anymore, and when his friend asks for an aspirin for a toothache, he tells his friend no…so that he won’t get in trouble. For those two years, the inmate walks on eggshells, afraid of committing even the most minor infraction (which could cause him to get denied parole yet again). He is never able to relax, be comfortable, and enjoy any part of his life, because he becomes consumed with following all of the small rules, even at the expense of his own mental and physical health and happiness. He’s so afraid of not getting out that it renders his “Power of Now” book totally useless.
This time, he finds the perfect job, working as a cashier at Dollar Tree. It’s $13 an hour, with health care benefits. But at his next hearing, the parole board tells him to try again in 9 months, once he has completed his treatment programming. Flopped again. And this time it’s even more painful, because an assortment of shitsticks, real idiots who always get in trouble for fighting and tattooing, they are all granted parole dates. It makes no sense to him. He tried so hard. He did EVERYTHING right, and they still let those idiots out instead?!
His wife finally decides she can’t wait anymore. She has sex with a coworker, (six times in one night — on their first date) and ends up writing her husband a goodbye letter. “I believe in you, but my biological clock is ticking and I can’t put my life on hold any longer. I’m sorry. Goodbye, Erik.”
A married inmate, and former executive at Google, is sentenced to 5 plus 10 and is granted parole on his first try. Outstanding. He’s excited to get his freedom back and get rehabilitated back into society. But once he meets his parole officer, the excitement wanes. He is given a list of his parole restrictions:
-No relationship (remember, this guy is already married!)
-No driving without permission
-No use of cellphone
-No use of computers
-No internet access
-No communication with felons
-No contact with minors (including at work)
-No pornographic materials
-No kissing or physical contact with the opposite sex
-Must submit to polygraphs and plythesmographs (a test where a mercury-filled rubber band is placed on your penis to measure your erection when showed various pornography).
-No alcohol and no visiting businesses that serve alcohol
-7 PM curfew
-Must maintain full-time employment
-Must not ever be within 1000 feet of schools, parks, bus stops, day cares
-May not attend any church with children present
-Sex offender registration
In prison this same inmate could actually have more freedom WHILE incarcerated. Email access, religious services, sexy pictures and magazines with scantily clad women, a romantic (albeit long-distance) relationship with his wife, and plenty of communicating with felons. The inmate may feel (and often, rightfully so) that his parole restrictions are so severe that he could not possibly succeed. How many jobs can you think of that would require no computer, no phone, and would have no kids in the vicinity? Any office job? No. Any restaurant worker? No. A cashier at a grocery store? No. And even if such a job existed, would they hire a sex offender on parole? Not likely.
Scenario 3: An inmate is sentenced to two plus five, for a total of seven years. After two, he is granted parole, and he gets out and does great on parole. For the first four years, he follows all the rules. They’re strict, and as much as he likes Bud Light, he manages not to drink for four years. The only thing he really did wrong was the one night when he was out past his curfew. He went to a concert, and while he thought he’d be home by 9, he ended up not making it home until closer to 11. It was just a one-time thing. He figured he’d be ok.
But when he took his polygraph, it showed that he was being deceptive. “Why does it say you’re lying? These tests are accurate. You must have broken some rule. What do you think it is?” The parolee admits that one night he did miss his curfew, because he was stuck later than expected at a concert.
Weeks later, he is given a parole violation and sent back to prison. He had done four years on parole, and only had one year left to finish his 7-year sentence. Uh oh. They are going to “take his street time.” That means the four years of perfect parole don’t count. The time doesn’t count. He will have to re-do those four years in prison, plus one more. So now, his 7-year sentence has turned into an 11-year sentence. And if he is granted parole again, it could happen yet again. (I’ve seen it take some guys 20 years to complete a 5-year sentence, due to “street time” while on parole being taken away.)
For some, they’re just more comfortable here in prison. Free food. Free cable TV. Free laundry service. Lots of friends to play cards with. A person who was a “nobody” in the real world can be a somebody once he comes to prison. Nobody out there ever believed in him, so why bother even trying? For many, prison is the safe alternative to life in the real world. For others, it may be the only life they know (as many were in Juvenile facilities from as young as age 9 or 10).
While I personally believe that it makes sense to try and get parole, and deal with the restrictions and make the most of it, I can understand why many would disagree. For me, the worst part is the false hope and uncertainty. Constantly getting your hopes up, trying to create a plan for your life (where you’ll live, where you’ll work, who you’ll marry) and having that plan continuously ripped away. It’s mentally grueling. Having hopes and dreams crushed, year after year, month after month. But on days where I, too, want to say, “Fuck this, I’m topping out,” I remind myself that I want out of prison so badly that I’m willing and ready to fight an uphill battle. I’m willing to swim upstream because, quite frankly, when I’m released this November, I will have done the prison thing for 10 years and 5 months — I’m burnt out, ready to try something new. It won’t be easy, but at least it will be a change. I’ve never shied away from tough challenges. There’s no need to stop now.
I may not get a fresh start, but at least I’ll turn to a new chapter. My bed will be softer. My TV will be bigger. My food will be better. My (landline) phone calls will be cheaper. My coffee will be fresher. And I’m going to install a hottub on my patio. Ahh, the good life!
–Stephen Newman is a former marketing executive who has eaten at over 200 Mexican restaurants in 44 states, 7 European countries, and even Mexico! His favorite is the cheese enchilada and beef taco combo plate. He prefers his refried beans authentic — cooked with lard, topped with a little cheese. When the waitress asks, “more chips?” Mr. Newman strongly believes the answer should always be: “Yes, please, and can we get some more salsa, too?” If you’re ever in Austin, Texas, Stephen strongly recommends the Chili Relleno with tomatillo sauce, and Sopapillas with honey, at a tasty little place called Chuy’s.
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