For many convicted murderers, life behind bars carries on even after prison. Nancy Mullane, KALW reporter and author of “Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption,” discussed the discoveries she made while working with former murder inmates of San Quentin state prison, at USF last Thursday. Mullane shed light on the flaws in the California state prison system, such as unfairness within the parole process and the shockingly non-existent number of murderers who return to prison for the same crime after release. Mullane was joined by Donald Cronk, a first degree murder convict who discussed the challenges inmates face after release and the most valuable thing that the public can do to help men like him.
Mullane’s research was motivated by her discovery that not one of the 988 murderers at San Quentin prison returned to jail for assault or homicide within twenty-one years after their release. She was also shocked that San Quentin prison had no data on the rate of murderers who return back for the same crime.
In 2007, Mullane met with six prison inmates at San Quentin. “When I thought of murderers, I was thinking of Charlie Manson. In my mind, people who had committed murder would want to kill again if they got out,” she said. These men proved her wrong.
“Life without the possibility of parole with 15 years to life drove my work. So many of the men I met were suitable for parole, but for 20 years, the governors of California had been reversing parole; the chance of [the prisoners] getting out is less than one percent.” Mullane wanted to dig deeper. “The justification for reversing parole is original crime, so why even give life with parole,” she asked. In original crime, the parole board looks at the crime the inmate committed, overlooking any personal improvements made while in prison.
But Mullane found that convicted murder inmates strove to make significant improvements, both inside prison and, eventually, outside, as well. “They make an astounding commitment to give back to society,” she said.
One such former prisoner is Donald Cronk. At 24, Cronk was imprisoned after accidentally shooting and killing a man during a robbery, he explained. Because of one terrible incident gone wrong, Cronk has spent half of his life “in a cage” at San Quentin. He had never used a revolver before, he said, and shot the man through his pocket when he reached for the gun. “I couldn’t undo it,” said Cronk, who originally planned to rob the wealthy family in order to pay back the thousands of dollars he owed Colombian drug-lords. “They want their money. If [you don’t give it], you die,” said Cronk. In the course of a year, Cronk said he lost control over his life because of his cocaine addiction. He also started selling the drug and got involved with fellow drug dealers and buyers. After serving a 24 year sentence, Cronk is currently enrolled in Marin City college studying computer technology.
“People think we’re looking for an opportunity to kill again,” said Cronk. That is why Mullane is on this mission. “We were a little leery of her, but we didn’t want to kill her,” joked Cronk, on meeting Mullane. Though Cronk acknowledged that there are dangerous people out there, he said it is “not to the level that we’re lead to believe. It is often a series of bad decisions involving drugs and alcohol that lead to convictions.”
Junior Tip Donaldson agreed that people should keep an open mind about accepting former convicts back into society. “The public is generally scared and strongly believes that they will kill again. However, the evidence [for those who are released] shows that these men are in fact capable of being rehabilitated, and not one who had been released killed again,” he said.
The fact that no men returned to San Quentin after murder shows that our parole system is in need of change, Mullane said. After hearing Cronk’s story, the flaws in parole became an area of interest for the audience. When one individual asked Cronk who makes up the parole board, his answer pointed to corruption within the system. “Their all law enforcement, so it doesn’t serve them well to release. I’ve studied board members and never thought I could give them the right answer. It all depends on their attitude,” he said, suggesting that the attitude of the parole member, coupled with their own benefit of keeping these men in prison, are the true forces that drive decision making in the parole system.
Mullane and Cronk made clear to the audience that the prison system is in need of reform. Cronk suggested volunteer work from the public as a starting point to helping inmates. “Volunteer skills and talents to help inmates are so valuable to us; you are needed. It’s a very rewarding experience,” he said. According to Cronk, the state doesn’t pay for prisoner rehabilitation— it’s all volunteers.The most important lesson Mullane learned was gaining a sense of forgiveness and an open mind towards prisoners. “People change,” she said. “We stereotype, but they can change and give back.”