A lifelong offender takes a ride on the Georgia parole roller coaster

December 5, 2018 - Longtime inmate Byron Ferguson talks to his friend on the phone during his lunch break at Alatrade Foods in Phenix City, Ala., where he began working while at a Georgia Department of Corrections transitional center earlier this year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

December 5, 2018 - Longtime inmate Byron Ferguson talks to his friend on the phone during his lunch break at Alatrade Foods in Phenix City, Ala., where he began working while at a Georgia Department of Corrections transitional center earlier this year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

During his 11th prison sentence, Byron Ferguson, 56, did something either foolish or brilliant: He turned down an offer for parole.

Ferguson, nearing the end of a three-year sentence this February, told the parole board he needed six months to prepare. He’d just arrived at a state department of corrections transitional center and wanted to be sure he wouldn’t relapse on crack cocaine and end up back in prison, as he always had over the past 30 years.

Six months later Ferguson said he was ready, but then the board did something confounding. It turned down his parole request, saying his release could harm society.

Ferguson was devastated, angry and so very confused. What had changed? The board’s letter said simply the decision was based on “new information.”

Byron Ferguson studies for a paralegal certification test. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which considers the fate of thousands of inmates every year, operates mostly in confidentiality and doesn't have to explain its decisions to inmates, victims, media or anybody else, not even the governor. The secrecy can render inmates helpless to defend themselves against accusations they aren't even allowed to hear. It can also have a destabilizing effect on a person like Ferguson who is trying to reform. How, he wonders, can you change satisfactorily if no one will say what you've done wrong?

Board spokesman Steve Hayes said members can’t discuss particular cases, but telling an inmate his release might not be “compatible with the welfare of society” is considered an adequate explanation for a parole denial.

The board makes decisions based on inmates’ case files, as well as information from anyone who wants to offer it, authorities or residents. Former board member Bob Keller, who wasn’t aware of Ferguson’s case, said “new information” in Ferguson’s case could even be something that happened years ago but that the board only recently learned about.

Keller said “the only thing” the inmate could do is think about what he may have done in the last six months and, if that doesn’t yield an answer, the rest of his criminal history. For Ferguson, his criminal history spans most of his life.

The fall

Ferguson said he’s been thinking about his past since before he was last arrested, in December 2015.

Byron Ferguson (left) jokes with Keita Singleton, training coordinator, in the break room at Alatrade Foods, where Ferguson works, in Phoenix City, Ala.

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The self-examination got more intense when he landed a transfer to a transitional center, where inmates have jobs on the outside but are escorted to and from work and still live highly institutionalized lives. As he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for an April article about the benefits of transitional centers, he felt a slightly slower re-entry into freedom would be his best chance while he concentrated on recovery.

On breaks from his job at a chicken plant, he would send texts and make calls on the phone he was allowed to have. He would say he was ashamed of how his actions hurt people. He would talk about regret late into the night, when Columbus Transitional Center was all quiet and you could hear him crying and imagine the tears washing over the heavy bags under his eyes.

Ferguson traces his troubles back to youth outside Rochester, N.Y., where, he said, he was abused by a relative. He coped by making music and became a professional sax and keyboard player. But Ferguson partied too much and lost work.

Even a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes, didn’t wake him up in 1992, at age 30.

Around 2000, he ended up homeless in downtown Atlanta, a constant source of disappointment for his sister Lori Lindsey, who is also his best friend, and his young daughter.

He said his change only began at the end of 2015. In his 50s, he was tired. He said he was also haunted by the vision of the fluttering eyes of a woman who’d fainted as he robbed her. He realized only as she fell backwards that she was pregnant. Ferguson took her money and tormented himself with worry that the baby could have been hurt. The robbery was apparently not reported to police, but he would return to jail anyway.

When he went to court the last time, for stealing a laptop and breaking into a car, he was crying.

“It doesn’t matter what happens in this courtroom,” he told the judge, “because I am committed to changing.”

He got three years in prison, five on probation.

The rise

How can you tell if a person is recovered?

First, as Ferguson said he’s learned, you have to determine what the person is recovering from. He doesn’t believe he was addicted to burglary and theft; he was addicted to crack. Peel back further: Ferguson said his original ailment was mental anguish due to child abuse. His chosen treatment — crack — ruined his life. Ferguson said he hasn’t had any in three years, so he doesn’t believe he’s addicted to crack anymore.

Byron Ferguson  waits for a ride outside Alatrade Foods in Phoenix City, Ala.

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What remains, he said, is his original longing to feel accepted.

He said he’s felt that acceptance for the better part of a year. In recent months, he has reconnected with old friends on Facebook. Most had no idea where he’d been for 30 years. They encouraged him to play music again and continue studies to be a paralegal. To Ferguson’s astonishment, they also wanted to be his friend.

His sister has heard “rehab talk” for a long time but finally believed him.

“What I hear different is a tired person who is making concrete plans for his future,” Lindsey said.

Who decides if a person has recovered enough to be released early from a prison in Georgia? The parole board.

The roadblock

The board, made up of five governor-appointed members, doesn’t meet to consider cases. Members, who serve 7-year terms, cast votes remotely in an online system.

They have guidelines to determine when an inmate should be considered for release, based on the severity of the crime. They also have access to inmates’ cases, conduct behind bars and any information sent in, such as statements in support or opposition to their parole. In a report this year, the board touted a success rate of 71 percent for inmates completing parole without re-offending, nine points higher than the national average.

The spokesman said state law gives members “full discretion” to make the decision they believe is best and the latitude to keep records and votes confidential.

Keller, the former board member, said confidentiality can be important when handling sensitive information, but he can also imagine the frustration of an inmate denied parole with no explanation.

“It’s an age-old problem and I don’t know what the solution is,” he said.

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, a longtime critic of the board's secrecy, wonders: Why not have some information confidential and some public? "Anything government does, I think, should be transparent and open unless there is a strong, high standard of why it shouldn't be," he said.

The unanswered questions gutted Ferguson. He felt ready for freedom. It hurt to hear that the five parole board members thought he wasn’t.

The luck

In September, Ferguson started having night sweats. After medical tests, Ferguson got a call from the doctor’s office while he was at the chicken plant. He walked into a smelly back room, where employees dump “condemned meat,” to answer.

The caller said Ferguson’s cancer was back.

After he hung up, he lingered in the rancid room for awhile and prayed God wouldn’t take him just as he was turning things around.

He started taking radiation treatments five days a week on the way to work.

In October, he got more news: his counselor at the transitional center sent the parole board a request to release him early. She wrote that he was doing well in recovery and had bosses who spoke highly of him.

Several weeks later the board approved Ferguson’s parole. Now it just needed to set a date for his release.

When Ferguson lay down to sleep that night, his mind raced. He took stock of all he’d done wrong and how far he’d come in recovery. He couldn’t wait to share hope with others, to help somebody, somehow, which he saw as the purpose of his life. He was amazed when he thought of all the people pulling for him. It used to just be his sister. Now there was a cadre of old friends: Darryl, Sherry, Jackie, Lisa, Donna, John and more.

He knew there were still inmates, including people he knew, who weren’t getting parole or explanations why.

He was still worried about the cancer, but he felt lucky.

Byron Ferguson arrives at his home in Columbus. Ferguson fought to be allowed to go to a transitional center to prepare to leave prison after a lifetime of prison stints and failed efforts to turn his life around. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The new life

On Nov. 14, at 9:46 a.m., Ferguson walked out of the transitional center into chilly rain. He had most of his belongings in a black trash bag. It was less than a month before his prison sentence would’ve been over anyway, but after a life of losing, you take a win.

Ferguson, who wore dress clothes and smelled of earthy cologne, had rented an old brick house across town. On the way, a parole worker took him to a SunTrust, where Ferguson rubbed his long, wrinkled hands together like a man about to eat a good meal, except the meal was just the act of opening his first bank account in 25 years.

After a trip to Walmart to buy some necessities — air mattress, winter coat, microwave — Ferguson decided to hitch a ride with a reporter to Atlanta so he could surprise his sister and take her out to dinner. First, he checked the windows and doors at the house, fearful of a break-in. He laughed at the irony.

A few hours later, as the car pulled into downtown Atlanta, where Lindsey works, Ferguson looked into the streets. Old homeless men sat bundled up on sidewalks. Ferguson pointed out the Fulton County jail, where he spent so many nights, and the courthouse, where he answered for so many wrongs.

He took a deep breath and exhaled.

“Woo! Back in the city…” he said. “And, you know what, I needed to do this.”

The car stopped near his sister’s office. He climbed out, said thanks and walked into the crowd bustling along Pryor Street under the clouded sky.

In a second, he was gone.

Byron Ferguson prepares a chicken dinner at his home in Columbus. After serving 11 terms in prison, Ferguson is serious about making a new life for himself on the outside. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The AJC first spoke with Ferguson earlier this year, during his 11th prison term, when he was attempting to be transferred to a transitional center to help inmates re-enter society. Shortly after his request was granted by the Georgia Department of Corrections, he received and declined an offer of parole by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. He told them he wanted six months to get money saved and plans in place to ensure his success outside of prison. In July, six months later, he was shocked to learn the board was denying him parole, citing “new information,” which was not shared with him. His case is a reminder of the secrecy of the board, which doesn’t have to explain its decisions to anyone.