Imprisoned man claims Parole Board ‘masking indefinite confinement’ in lawsuit
Brett Abrams has been confined at the Orange Correctional Center — a minimum security facility — for several years. (Photo: Google maps)
North Carolina’s prison system trusts Brett Abrams. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been allowed to leave prison for work release, unsupervised, starting in 2008. He wouldn’t have spent the last 24 years in minimum-security prisons or have been placed at the system’s lowest risk level for committing future crimes.
But the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission does not trust Abrams, a 54-year-old white man who has been serving a life sentence for second-degree murder since he was 15 years old. That agency has repeatedly denied Abrams parole since he first became eligible in 1993. Among the reasons they have cited: Abrams’ release would “unduly depreciate the seriousness of the crime or promote disrespect for the law;” more rehabilitative programming in prison would make Abrams more likely “to lead a law- abiding life if released on a later date;” and there is a “substantial risk” Abrams would commit more crimes if he were granted parole.
Abrams doesn’t see it that way. To him, he is not still imprisoned because he is a violent man, nor because he is the same wayward teenager he was when he was sentenced to life in 1983.
He is still incarcerated, Abrams wrote in court filings in 2020, because the North Carolina Parole Commission “continues to reset the bar upon each parole review under the new procedures so that plaintiff has to continue to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation in whatever ways the defendant deems fit, rendering plaintiff’s opportunity for release perpetually out of realistic reach.”
The result, Abrams wrote, is “a parole denial that is punitive, continues to seek retribution, recommends continued correctional programming unto no end, and arbitrarily makes plaintiff out to be a risk that the prison record does not support.”
Abrams filed a federal lawsuit in 2020, arguing that the Parole Commission violated his constitutional rights by not giving him a “meaningful opportunity” to get paroled. He represented himself, making the case that the commission wasn’t following court rulings that, taken together, state that “‘children are different’” and shouldn’t be criminally punished in the same way as adults.
“As a juvenile offender sentenced to Life, I am entitled to a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” Abrams wrote, arguing that the Parole Commission’s decision to deny his parole “raises profound questions about redemption, justice, and fairness.”
Abrams’ lawsuit got a boost this month when the Southern Coalition for Social Justice took on his case, filing a notice of appearance on his behalf on Aug. 11. A press release states that the lawsuit is challenging the Parole Commission’s process as “arbitrary and capricious.” It cited a 2015 federal court ruling that North Carolina’s parole review process for individuals sentenced for crimes they committed when they were children violated the U.S. Constitution because it didn’t give them a chance to show how they’d changed over the course of their imprisonment.
“The NC Parole Commission is required to provide a meaningful opportunity for people like Brett Abrams, who was 14 years old when he was sent to prison, to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation, and be seriously considered for parole,” Jake Sussman, Interim Chief Counsel for Justice System Reform at SCSJ, said in a statement. “That has not happened for Mr. Abrams and others in his situation. We hope this lawsuit will expose this constitutional violation and help fix North Carolina’s broken parole system.”
The parole review process applies to a relatively small pool of people in North Carolina’s prison system: those who committed their crimes before Oct. 1, 1994. As such, many of those eligible for parole are elderly. Abrams, in his mid-50s, does not share that characteristic with many of his parole-eligible peers. But he does share another quality: he has not been given many infractions over the course of his imprisonment.
Abrams has received 11 infractions since entering the prison system in 1985. His disciplinary lapses were not especially violent. He got an infraction for fighting in 1987, when he was 17 years old, and two infractions for provoking assault, in 1985 and 1990. The other infractions are for profane language, unauthorized funds, substance possession and theft of property.
Prison records show he has not been given an infraction since 2005.
But behavior in prison is not all the Parole Commission considers when weighing whether to grant someone release. They also look at the nature and circumstances of a person’s crime, their previous criminal record, the rehabilitative programs they’ve completed, and what court officials and victims think about their release.
However, Abrams argued, U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Miller v. Alabama, Graham v. Florida and Roper v. Simmons give the Parole Commission added criteria to consider for people like Abrams who were sentenced to life for crimes they committed as children. Abrams claims the commission has denied him the chance to obtain parole based on his “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation by masking indefinite confinement behind the usage of continued correctional programming repeatedly, and by continuing to issues the same arbitrary specific reasons for parole denial that have been issued since the plaintiff became eligible for parole in 1993.”
Abrams accused the commission of treating his life sentence like it was life-without-parole, “when in fact, if the plaintiff were charged and convicted for the same crime today under the Structured Sentencing Guidelines which were enacted in 1994 and were the results of the evolving standards of decency of society, plaintiff could not even be sentenced to Life.”
Over the past 40 years in prison, Abrams has earned his G.E.D., received psychological counseling, and volunteered and worked in the community without correctional supervision. According to his court filings, he has, in other words, taken advantage of rehabilitative programming during his time in prison, despite the Parole Commission’s contention that he should remain incarcerated so he can complete more programs.
“Rehabilitation cannot justify the indefinite confinement of a juvenile offender,” Abrams wrote.
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