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An Elder-Assisted Parole Hearing

After receiving the deputy warden's decision, Gary Weaver's spirits slumped. Stephanie Hronek decided to refocus his "reintegration strategy" on an application to the National Parole Board for escorted temporary absence passes for personal development purposes. Gary had served ten years on his life sentence and was therefore eligible for parole. His pass program would include such activities as psychological counselling, meditation at the Buddhist Dharma Centre, participating in Aboriginal spiritual and cultural activities with the Native Liaison Officer, and attending the Bridge Program in Victoria, which was designed to help prisoners prepare for a return to the community. Ms. Hronek noted that Mr. Weaver's application for two eight-hour escorted passes a month was in keeping with his correctional plan and that the suggested activities would address his criminogenic factors.

Gary Weaver's application also received written support from the Buddhist Chaplain at William Head Institution, Lama Margaret Ludwig, and the Native Liaison Officer, William Bellegarde. In his letter, Mr. Bellegarde wrote:

Over a period of ten months Gary and I have established a trusting relationship that now includes one-on-one sessions covering many topics and interests that pertain directly or indirectly to his eventual and gradual release . . . Gary views the management of his personal life through a holistic process. He is constantly creating a balance with his mental, spiritual, emotional and physical domains. Buddhism is a spiritual philosophy that Gary has taken a strong interest in and one that gives him an alternative belief system that he slowly explores and incorporates. He sees "Natural Law" as a correlation between Buddhism and Native spirituality . . . Whenever there are ceremonies or guests that come to the Native Health Trailer Gary is responsive and responsible in his approach and involvement. He supports in ways that are asked of him and gives of his time freely. For this I am thankful and again I realize that Gary demonstrates honour for other cultures and their beliefs. I will continue to be of support to Gary in his journey of self-evaluation, self-improvement and his reintegration to community, and I can foresee this support extending to working with him in the community. (Letter from William Bellegarde, Native Liaison Officer, to National Parole Board, November 4, 1998)

Shortly after I met Gary, I had offered to act as his legal assistant in his first appearance before the National Parole Board. When the time came in November 1998 to think about that first appearance, I suggested he might want to request an Elder-Assisted Hearing.

Elder-Assisted Hearings began in 1991 in the Prairie Region. There are a number of significant differences between Elder-Assisted Hearings and regular parole hearings. In a regular hearing, the offender appears before two or three members of the Board. Typically, the offender sits on one side of the table and Board members on the other. Some offenders have the support of an assistant, who may be a friend or family member or, in relatively few cases, a lawyer. The regular hearing is inquisitorial in nature; Board members maintain tight control, asking questions relating to the prisoner's offence, institutional history, understanding of his criminogenic factors, and progress towards rehabilitation and reintegration. Elder-Assisted Hearings are conducted in a circular arrangement. Participants include Board members, an Aboriginal Elder retained by the Board as a resource person, the Native Liaison Officer, and the institutional Elder who has been involved in the spiritual and cultural growth of the offender, together with institutional case management staff and the offender's assistant. The hearing begins with a smudging ceremony and a prayer to cleanse the hearts and minds of those participating and to open the road to clear, honest communication. All participants in the circle are encouraged to speak, and while Board members ask the questions they would in a regular hearing, the manner of inquiry tends to be less confrontational. (Kathy Louis, "Elder and Community Assisted Hearings", [paper preasented at the International Indigenous Symposium on Corrections -- Effective Corrections through Indigenous Wisdom, Vancouver, March 23-25, 1999] at 5-6).

Although Elder-Assisted Hearings were originally intended for Aboriginal offenders, they have also been used by non-Aboriginal offenders who have participated in Aboriginal ceremonies to benefit from the spiritual strength and guidance they offer. Gary had done this for many years and had worked closely with institutional Elders and Aboriginal liaison officers. It was for this reason I suggested he might want to consider an Elder-Assisted Hearing.

Gary Weaver appeared before the National Parole Board at an Elder-Assisted Hearing on January 6, 1999. I was there as his assistant. The hearing lasted several hours, during which Gary took the Board through the twists and turns of his life, tracing his transformation from a rudderless, drug-addicted and callous punk capable of murder to a reflective, introspective man with both a purpose and a direction. William Bellegarde, Lama Margaret, Stephanie Hronek, and I related our experiences with Gary and expressed our conviction that his remarkable energy, intelligence, and insight held out enormous promise for his future outside prison. Gary answered the Board's questions in detail, answers using the arcane language he had been taught regarding "criminogenic factors," "crime cycles," "thought-stopping" techniques, and a dozen other concepts. I have attended many parole hearings, and I felt Gary gave as good an account of himself as any offender I had ever heard.

The Board members decided to recommend the escorted temporary absence program as proposed by the case management team and approved by the warden. The Board congratulated Gary on his remarkable progress over the last several years, but they also questioned whether his understanding of his violent behaviour was overly intellectualized. These concerns are captured in their written reasons for the decision:

At today's hearing you, your assistant and the case management team, confirmed much of the filed documentation outlining the miraculous change that you have effected over the past three to four years. Unfortunately, your attempts at responding to the Board's questions in the areas of self-understanding of the root causes of your violent behaviour and victim empathy were intellectualized, lacking true feeling, and bordering on seeming to be well-rehearsed. However, the Board has taken into consideration the lengthy period of solid time you have done segregated in Special Handling Units in maximum security prisons. Although you are responsible for spending much of your sentence in those facilities, the isolation from normal community values and adherence to the "con code" can have an emotionally flattening effect. The Board therefore accepts your positive change as genuine and concurred the time is right for you to commence an extremely gradual release into the community . . . The Board is satisfied you need to commence implementing your new-found behavioural skills in the community as well as developing a community support network for future assistance as you slowly work towards reintegration into society. (National Parole Board Decision, January 6, 1999)

Most prisoners at Parole Board hearings are interested in the bottom line. For Gary Weaver the bottom line was in the black: the Board recommended the conditional release program he had put forward. Gary Weaver is not like most prisoners, however; he was distressed that his efforts to explain himself had appeared to the Board to lack "true feeling." Lama Margaret, William Bellegarde, and I also found the Board's statements puzzling, knowing how deeply Gary Weaver had gone into himself compared to many offenders. I hypothesized that perhaps Gary's facility at incorporating intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dimensions into his self-analysis was so exceptional and unusual that it had seemed to Board members too good to be true.

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