News » Features

A recent Tennessean piece trashing paroled ex-felons has advocates and former prisoners up in arms

Sucker Punch



On the morning of Sunday, July 24, Tristan Buckner was in bed when his phone rang.

"Hey, Tristan," said the caller, a friend. "You've got to look at the newspaper, man. Your picture is in it."

Puzzled, Buckner shambled out of bed and walked down the street to grab a copy of The Tennessean from a gas station. A regular customer, Buckner was approached by the station's owner, who shared the look of puzzlement.

"What is this about?" the owner asked. "I know some of those people. You're good people."

"I don't know," Buckner replied. "Bad things happen in people's lives, and sometimes they come back around."

The headline was sensational: "3,500 TN felons, even killers, have phoned-in oversight." For Buckner, it was also personal. His 16-year-old mugshot was one of 25 splashed across the front page of the daily, part of a story about "dangerous" offenders participating in the Tennessee Board of Parole and Probation's phone-in Interactive Offender Tracking program. Through the program, some 3,500 offenders have been processed since it was adopted in Tennessee in January 2010.

At the article's center were the 42 violent offenders (out of 479) in Davidson County who participate in the program. But the most ink was spent detailing the case of 30-year-old Anthony Ussery, whose manslaughter and drug convictions were highlighted to call into question the efficacy of IOT — at the expense of its participants.

Like most of those whose mugshots were plastered atop A1, Buckner received exactly zero ink — neither context nor explanation.

"I was thrown for a loop," Buckner tells the Scene. "I've been out since 2007. I've worked hard to build my reputation, to build a business. So for me to put all my work and energy toward getting my life on track and have somebody throw your picture up like that without saying anything about you, just to lump you in with 'freed killers,' it was just, wow."

Charged in 1995 with second-degree murder, Buckner has in the four years since earning probation founded a thriving business, Tristan's Barber & Styling, as well as an adolescent outreach nonprofit, dubbed D.R.E.A.M.E.R.S.

Now Buckner, and a great many within Nashville's felon-advocacy community, say The Tennessean article trashed the reputations of the majority of parolees, who more often than not adhere to the guidelines of the new system.

"I think it did incredible harm without actually being backed up with facts that might've helped people think about it differently," says Janet Wolf, a professor at American Baptist College who has worked educating prisoners since the 1970s. "Of those 25 faces, why is there nothing in the story about those who have been out for over 20 years, who are doing great, who have gifted the community in so many different ways?"

Most likely, the answer to that question has less to do with "those 25 faces" and more to do with the societal dilemma that lawbreakers have posed since the dawn of civil code: weighing the catharsis of punishment against the likelihood of rehabilitation. In America, a country with the largest prison population in the world, those concepts appear to be mutually exclusive.

Although the IOT system is far from perfect — it suffers from a 4.5 percent failure rate — none of the individuals who have failed to report via the program's automated telephone system have gone on to commit violent offenses.

"We do have some people on IOT who commit new crimes. I'm not going to say that doesn't happen," Gary Tullock, director of field services for parole board, tells the Scene. "We have failures with people we see multiple times a month. But the failure rate of IOT is actually less than the failure rate of regular supervision."

Tullock adds that as offenders "move along the scale toward lower and lower risk, you get better results," and that once an individual is determined to be a low enough risk for parole, re-implementing harsher correctional methods becomes counterproductive.

A 2004 study conducted by the University of Cincinnati's Division of Criminal Justice corroborates his claim. By examining the outcomes of more than 13,000 individual incarcerations, the study examined the effectiveness of low-supervision programs like IOT and concluded that "placing high- and low-risk offenders together is never a good idea," because the latter group "radicalizes" the former group. Further, it found that "low-risk offenders should be identified and excluded, as a general rule, from higher-end correctional interventions."

But if the comments left on The Tennessean's website are any indication, that logic is lost on many.

"A few years locked up in a Cuban prison might make a repeat offender think twice about committing his next crime," wrote commenter JohnDoe. "Would also save us money on new prisons."

If Tennessee indeed mollycoddles these offenders with the loving glove of liberalism, as readers like JohnDoe would likely agree, then other states border on pinko Communism. Missouri, whose phone-in system inspired Tennessee's, has 18,000 (roughly 30 percent) of its offenders participating in an equivalent program. So does Michigan, with 10,000. Worst of all is Kentucky, renowned for its godless collectivism, which allows some 5,000 low-risk offenders to report by mail.

Denver Schimming, executive director of the Tennessee Alliance for Reform, which serves to educate current and former felons, says societal bias against those who have been incarcerated — a figure that now includes one in 10 American citizens — is largely the fault of the media.

"By and large, the media doesn't do their homework when it comes to men and women who come out of prison, who never return to prison and have gone on to lead more productive lives," Schimming says. "If more of those stories were told, then people could see that, hey, people do change. They made great mistakes but they can overcome those."

After serving two years in federal prison on a bank robbery charge, Schimming took a bus to downtown Nashville in 1994, his only possessions the clothes on his back and $50.

"But now, over these last two decades, I've been very blessed," he says. "I'm married — the judge who sentenced me to prison actually performed our ceremony — I have had all my citizenship rights restored, I vote, I travel the country. My life is absolutely blessed, and it took me two decades to get to that place.

"My point is that my story is really multiplied hundreds of times, but we just don't search out those people who make terrible mistakes, pay their debt and go on with their life. Those stories really need to be told more than just grouping together a bunch of people on probation and parole without looking at where they're at, what they're doing, saying they're irredeemable and they can't change. Because I know from experience that you can."


Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Add a comment