Community feature: Inmate advocacy group calls for Ohio Parole Board reform

Erica Thompson
Victoria Ramey, James Kronenberger and Candace Hudson

After serving nearly four years on the Ohio Parole Board, former Sen. Shirley Smith resigned on Dec. 31, 2018. But she didn't go quietly.

According to theCleveland Scene, Smith sent an op-ed to Ohio media outlets, claiming she “witnessed strongly biased opinions regarding cases, unprofessional behavior, unethical decisions, and a frighteningly unfair practice of tribal morality.”

“What she came out with was nothing new that we didn't already know,” said Candace Hudson, secretary of Fair Treatment Reform and Re-Entry, an Ohio-based advocacy group for inmate rights.

“But we needed confirmation from somebody that worked on the inside,” said James Kronenberger, founder of the organization.

Bolstered by that support, the group is hosting a “Legislative Day” event at the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday, Feb. 21, where it will introduce a proposal for “a fair and transparent parole process.”

“We're showing the state how much money they're wasting on keeping these folks locked up past the minimum,” Kronenberger said.

Among other requests, the group is asking that parole hearings be recorded, and that prosecutors not be allowed to attend, as they already made their case at trial.

“The crime isn't going to change,” Hudson said.

“But people can,” Kronenberger added.

A former inmate, Kronenberger has turned his life around. He spent 25 years in different Ohio prisons. He said he witnessed the mistreatment of inmates, especially regarding medical treatment.

“They misdiagnose people,” he said. “They won't give them the proper medication. … Or when you're in a closed facility, you just get so many hours a week to exercise.”

Hudson can speak on present-day challenges; she is currently married to an inmate at Mansfield Correctional Institution. “He was incarcerated as a juvenile and he's been in 26 years,” she said. “In August, he just got six more years before he goes to the parole board again.”

Fair Treatment Reform and Re-Entry President Victoria Ramey brings her own personal connection to the group. “I have a lot of friends that are incarcerated that shouldn't be,” she said. “They pleaded guilty to things that they shouldn't have.”

Ramey, Hudson and Kronenberger all take on the concerns of people they don't know, receiving calls and emails from inmates throughout Ohio's state prisons. They help get transfers for prisoners who have been assaulted, medication for prisoners who have health issues and basic toiletries for prisoners who have been denied their supply.

“I just email the warden to begin with,” Hudson said. “And then, the officials at the [Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction]. … It's just basically to make them aware that we are aware of what's going on and that we want answers.”

They also communicate with family members and have had success restoring previously revoked visitation rights.

“That's probably the most difficult [part],” Kronenberger said, “because they'll call you any time of day or night and holidays. You have to listen because, to them, it's important. We've been able to calm some of them down and point them in the right direction.”

The team also assists inmates upon their release, collecting personal hygiene products and helping with housing and transportation. They are always in need of donations to continue this work.

“They're releasing people homeless,” Kronenberger said. “[When you do that], they're going to do whatever it takes to survive, especially if you spent 27 years inside of prison.”

“A lot of times the inmates don't know things that are available to them because the case managers aren't following up,” Hudson said.

But they have to get a shot at starting a new life, which is why parole reform is important, according to the group.

“They're starting to lose hope,” Kronenberger said of the inmates they're engaging. “If these guys uproar, it's going to be bad. And when you push people against the wall with no hope, this is what happens.”

But they've been encouraged by Fair Treatment Reform and Re-Entry's forthcoming proposal on “Legislative Day,” which is open to anyone who wants to participate.

“We're not there just for one person, we're there for the whole,” Kronenberger said.

1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21

1 Capitol Square, Downtown

Ohio Statehouse