Warden's Recommendation

I didn't know what a mittimus was before going to prison. By then, my future depended upon one. A mittimus is a warrant for commitment to prison, describing the conditions for incarceration and release. In 2002, the mittimus for my first sentence stated that I was sentenced to the New Hampshire State Prison for "not more than 7 year(s), nor less than 3 1/2 year(s)." I was also ordered to be "of good behavior and, comply with all the terms of this sentence."  Before my minimum parole date, I would have to go before the parole board to find out if I could begin serving my next sentence. The parole board would, presumably, decide whether I had been "of good behavior," as my mittimus stated. But how would the board know what my behavior had been?  I found out from fellow inmates that the prison administration supplies the parole board with a synopsis. That synopsis would conclude with a Warden's Recommendation.

I decided to try to find out what being "of good behavior" really means. I didn't want to be caught by surprise on judgment day and find out too late that I had done what I ought not to have done or not done what I ought to have done. As in life itself, an answer to that question is not easy to find. The inmate manual, a brief catechism of prison life, is silent on such an important topic. It provides a long list of don'ts, acts that will result in disciplinary action, but no comparable list of things to do. Obviously, avoiding disciplinary write-ups is part of being "of good behavior," but is that enough to get the Warden's seal of approval?  I decided to write to the warden directly.

In my letter I explained my situation. I asked the warden how I could be assured of getting a positive recommendation from her on any future synopsis for the parole board. I attached my letter to the required, triplicate-copy Inmate Request Form, and placed it in the in-house mail.

A few weeks later I got a reply, not from the warden herself, but from the office of Offender Records. Offender Records keeps track of court records, disciplinary reports, and other paper-generating activities we do while incarcerated. It is the Doomsday Book for inmates. The very name "Offender Records" sounds ominous. They told me, "You will have to file a motion with the court and the court will request a synopsis.”

Perhaps I had not been clear enough. I wrote to the warden again. I explained that I was not so much interested in how to get a synopsis as how to get a favorable one.  After another two weeks I received a response. This one was from the warden herself.

She said, "These types of requests are handled within the requirements of the policy and procedure directive.”

I looked for some deeper meaning. There must be a Policy and Procedure Directive telling how to obtain a favorable warden's recommendation. PPD's are the prison's Code of Canon Law. They are kept in a series of four thick black binders in the prison library. There are PPD's about every aspect of prison life. They have titles like "Cold weather operations" and "Use of emergency lights by corrections law enforcement staff."

I found the PPD about recommendations to the parole board and to sentencing courts. In it was a checklist. It included items like "Did complete Court recommended programs," "Did remain disciplinary free," and "Did obtain excellent work reports." All this was reassuring. I read on mentally checking off my accomplishments until I came to the criterion, "Is not a sex offender."

I was in prison for a sexual offense. I was at the New Hampshire State Prison along with fellow violators of the laws of the State of New Hampshire: murderers, drug dealers, and wife beaters, to pay for our crimes. If those guys could get positive recommendations from the warden, why couldn’t I?

“What's this all about?" I asked my cellmate. He was coming to the end of his sentence for a sexual assault that occurred twenty years prior.

"That's right." He told me. "You can get a favorable Warden's Recommendation if you are a murderer, but not if you're a sex offender."

He pulled out a recent synopsis prepared for him by the prison. Sure enough, under Warden's Recommendation it said, "It is the policy of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections not to make specific recommendations in sexual assault cases."

A short time later a sex offender seeking a sentence modification brought the “no recommendation for sex offenders” policy to the attention of a judge.  The judge was not impressed. The policy would have to change. I’m sure this created a dilemma for the warden. She was faced with the prospect of occasionally having to say good things about sex offenders.  After all, the inmates who didn’t have a criminal mindset, who kept away from prison gangs and drug use, and who avoided disciplinary write-ups were frequently sex offenders.  The solution: the Warden’s Recommendation line simply disappeared from everybody’s prison synopsis. Now no one would get a positive recommendation.

That day I learned something about my situation. I was not going to get a favorable recommendation from the warden. I might as well get over it. There was something frustrating, yet somehow freeing about it. I no longer needed to impress anyone. No one was going to be impressed. As a fellow con once told me, “Look, Horner, you can’t get an “A” in prison so you might as well stop trying.” Sound advice, it seems.