MONTGOMERY – Eleven years after her conviction on robbery, stolen goods and drug charges, Arnetra Smith is still an inmate at Tutwiler Prison for Women.

In a federal lawsuit filed in late March, Smith suggests she could have been released years ago, if not for an error in the file placed before the parole board.

In 2011, Smith claims, the Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected her appeal partly because nothing in their records indicated she participated in any vocational training.

“The Plaintiff had attended the Trade School for Cosmetology and had completed the course,” Smith, who doesn’t have a lawyer, wrote in a 17-page legal brief she filed herself. Even if she hadn’t completed the course, Smith argues, parole board members weren’t supposed to consider that as a factor in her release.

Smith’s complaint is just one in a constant stream of lawsuits filed by inmates, acting as their own lawyers, who allege improprieties by Alabama’s criminal justice system. Most don’t make it very far in the courts.

But the story Smith tells is one that may well be unique to Alabama’s parole system. If there was an error in her file, she could easily have told parole board members at the hearing — had she been there. Alabama doesn’t allow inmates to attend their own parole hearings.

And Smith may not even know the real reason her parole was denied. The parole board sends inmates letters telling them their parole is denied, but the board doesn’t tell them why.

Most inmates rely on friends or family to attend the hearings and tell them what happened.

“The strong contrast between who is and isn’t present at a parole hearing seems to be unique to Alabama,” said Andrew Barbee, who studies prisons for the Council of State Governments. “I cannot think of another state that does it this way.”

‘Not infallible’

Barbee began researching Alabama’s prison system last year, when a task force appointed by the Legislature hired him to study reasons for the state’s prison overcrowding. Alabama has nearly 25,000 inmates in prisons designed for 13,000, despite years of efforts at sentencing reform.

Barbee and his colleagues pointed to the parole process as part of the problem. More than 1,000 inmates jailed on nonviolent crimes remained in prison for more than a year after they were eligible for parole, Barbee’s study found. The rate of release on parole has dropped precipitously in recent years.

It’s not for lack of speed in hearings. The parole board hears approximately 70 cases per day at its Montgomery office, in three days of hearings every week. Some hearings take only a few minutes; it’s rare for a hearing to drag on beyond the 15-minute mark.

Board members make their decision based largely on a file containing the inmate’s records. That file is for the three-member board’s eyes only; state law protects it from disclosure, even in court.

If there’s a victim in a crime, the victim can speak at the hearing. So can victims’ advocates groups. District attorneys can also appear to oppose an inmate’s release, or the attorney general’s office can appear for them.

On the other side are the inmate’s representatives: friends, family members and occasionally jailhouse ministers. Inmates can hire lawyers to represent them, but most can’t afford to.

It’s common for an inmate’s representatives to be surprised by the things parole board members tell them, based on the contents of the confidential inmate file. Anniston resident Deborah Hawkins told The Star last year that she has heard many errors in the file on her ex-husband, Melvin Pope, who has been in prison for 30 years for robbery.

“I don’t understand why he’s still there,” Hawkins said in November. “And I don’t understand the system at all.”

Family members often chalk any discrepancies up to inmates’ lack of honesty. But could an inmate’s file simply be wrong?

Parole board member Robert Longshore, the de facto spokesman for the board, said he had great confidence in the staff who prepare those reports. But nothing, he said, is perfect.

“I can tell you,” he said. “It’s not infallible.”

‘Some conduct, you cannot outrun’

Longshore said he couldn’t comment on Smith’s case. He said he doesn’t remember the specifics of her case, or of most cases, because of the thousands of files the board reviews every year.

The Star’s attempts to secure an interview with Smith, through Department of Corrections officials, were not successful last week. DOC spokesman Bob Horton said Smith did indeed complete cosmetology school in the prison in 2008. He said Smith also had a number of disciplinary actions in her file, as well as a conviction for an escape attempt in 2004.

Longshore said it’s unlikely a completed course alone would affect most inmates’ chances for parole. The nature of the offense that brought the inmate to prison, and prior offenses, can matter more.

“Some criminal conduct, you cannot outrun,” he said.

Smith makes a similar argument in her lawsuit. She said state law prohibits the parole board from denying parole based solely on her educational and disciplinary record, and she claims those are the reasons the board cited to her mother, who represented her at the hearing.

There’s no way to verify the accuracy of Smith’s second-hand account. Longshore said that when an inmate is paroled, the board provides a list of reasons for the parole; there’s no document available to the public that lists reasons for a parole denial.

Deputy prisons commissioner Jeffery Williams said inmates do get a chance to review their file before it goes to the board.

“When they know they’re going up for parole, they get together with the DOC staff and the file gets pored over,” Williams said.

Parole officers also interview the inmate in prison and write a report that goes into the inmate file, Longshore said.

Barbee, the Council of State Governments researcher, said that review doesn’t come close to the kind of interaction potential parolees in other states have with their parole board.

“That does not constitute, really, the opportunity for the inmate to make their case,” he said.

Common complaint

Barbee said a lack of communication with the parole board was a common complaint researchers from the Council of State Governments heard from inmates.

Inmates who are rejected for parole, he said, need to know why they were turned down so they can work to improve their chances.

Several states hold their parole hearings in prisons, to give inmates a chance to speak. Some states, such as South Carolina, offer inmates a chance to talk to board members via teleconference.

Victims’ advocate Janette Grantham said that’s not necessary.

“I do not believe that the victim should have to face someone who killed their son,” said Grantham, director of Victims of Crime and Leniency. “It’s enough of a burden for them to have to face that person’s family.”

At least one aspect of the system could change if the Legislature approves a sweeping prison reform bill that has already passed the Senate and is on its way to the House.

“The bill says that if I deny you parole, I have to tell you the reason why,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. “Right now, I don’t.”

Those reasons would likely come in the form of a letter to the inmate, Ward said. The bill also states that the reasons listed in that letter wouldn’t create any expectation of parole in a future hearing.

Barbee’s group wants more. He said the Council of State Governments asked lawmakers to create a new position for a hearing officer who would meet with inmates in prison, then sit as a voting member of the parole board when the inmate’s case comes up — giving the inmate a chance to interact with at least one member of the board.

Longshore says the parole board is “100 percent against” that idea. Current board members hear from victims and prosecutors before coming to a decision, he said. The additional hearing officer could come to a decision before hearing from all parties, Longshore said.

Bringing inmates to hearings isn’t an option, Longshore said, because of the cost of prison transportation. Hearings via teleconference, he said, would cost money as well, because of the need to set up equipment in prisons, and would slow down the hearing process.

“You’d wind up having to have multiple parole boards at multiple sites,” he said. “We don’t have the money for that.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.