Calvin Ash must have stood in line for food thousands of times over the last 47 years, but never at Panera, and he probably never had much choice about what to eat. So, on Thursday, he approached his first transaction at the chain bakery-cafe in north Baltimore with a combination of delight and confusion.
A little direction from his brother, Julian, helped Calvin figure things out. He managed to order what he wanted — a toasted breakfast bagel, a pastry and orange juice.
Until he returned to his hometown 10 days ago, 68-year-old Calvin Ash had been one of the oldest inmates in Maryland’s prison system. When he started serving his life sentence in 1972, he was only 21 years old. He spent far more time in prison than he should have — at a cost of about $1.5 million to Maryland taxpayers.
I recognize that many people, particularly friends and relatives of victims, think a man who committed a murder at 21 should spend the rest of his life in prison. Nothing I offer here excuses Calvin Ash’s actions. He confessed to fatally shooting his estranged wife’s boyfriend. Murderers, even those who commit “crimes of passion,” need to be in prison, away from the rest of us.
But I disagree with “forever.” The costly “life means life” approach fails to acknowledge the possibility that people who commit crimes of violence can change and live out their years as law-abiding citizens.
So I support parole — that is, the opportunity for inmates to earn their freedom after the passage of time and in consideration of good behavior. In Maryland, parole commissioners have the huge responsibility of evaluating inmates eligible for release. The commissioners decide, based on facts gathered at parole hearings, whether an inmate poses a further threat to the rest of us. In 2004, the Maryland Parole Commission considered Calvin Ash and recommended that he be paroled.
Given that, you’re probably wondering why he had his first Panera breakfast only days ago.
It’s due to politics. If not for delays, and a Maryland governor’s refusal to allow lifers to be paroled, Calvin Ash might have been back in Baltimore as many as 15 years ago.
Maryland allows the governor to reject a recommendation for parole. When the parole commission gave the nod to Calvin Ash in 2004, it acknowledged his 32 years in prison, his good behavior and a positive psychological evaluation. But the commission’s recommendation sat around for years, through the last of Republican Robert Ehrlich’s term as governor and through the entire first term of his Democratic successor, Martin O’Malley. In fact, it was not until 2011, a year after O’Malley’s re-election, that he considered Ash for parole. And he rejected it.
O’Malley, a tough-on-crime Democrat, opposed parole for lifers; keeping Calvin Ash and others in prison was a way to appear politically moderate as he prepared to run for president in 2016.
Remarkably, and ridiculously, O’Malley’s rejection of Calvin Ash’s release meant the parole commission could not reconsider his case until 2014.
So he went through parole process again. “I had an assessment at JCI [Jessup Correctional Institution] in 2017,” Ash told me at Panera. “The psychologist said, ‘You got this. You should be out before Christmas.”
But it was not until this past April that O’Malley’s successor, Gov. Larry Hogan, accepted the 8-0 vote of the parole commission that Ash be freed.
“We do not feel he is a risk to public safety,” David Blumberg, parole commission chairman, told Sun reporter Luke Broadwater. “When you reach the age of 50 and over, your chances for criminality are greatly reduced.”
Hogan’s decision to commute Ash’s life sentence came as Maryland’s prison population continues to decline and officials take a long-overdue look at the length of time we keep older inmates behind the walls.
In 2005, I was told it cost Maryland taxpayers, on average, about $28,000 a year to incarcerate someone. Nowadays that cost is about $46,000, and the non-profit Justice Policy Institute calculates the cost to house, feed and care for older inmates at around $54,000 a year.
Calculating our cost to keep Calvin Ash in prison at, say, $30,000 a year, plus his health-care needs as he got older, we get a low-side estimate of about $1.5 million. And the most costly part of that came after O’Malley’s rejection of parole; by then, Calvin Ash had more medical needs, including surgery to replace one of his bad knees.
And now what?
The journey home is no primrose path.
Calvin Ash turns 69 in October, but, like most long-time inmates, he is not eligible to receive much, if anything, in the way of Social Security benefits. He came out of prison with $381, much of it money his brother had put into his inmate account. Calvin Ash has a place to live — his late mother’s two-bedroom house in Wilson Park — but Julian Ash, who lives in Oklahoma and owns the property, says the house needs about $60,000 in repairs. So far, he says, banks have been reluctant to help with a loan.
Of course, had Calvin Ash been paroled 13 to 15 years ago, when he was in his mid-50s, things could have been quite different. He probably would have been able to find a job, support himself, build an earnings history, retire and get a little Social Security. He might have been able to buy the house from Julian, even get a home-improvement loan, and live out his days in Wilson Park.