Earning Freedom: A Tale of Redemption Behind Bars

Print More

Parole hearings came and went, one by one, over the three decades that Corey Glassman, now 51, spent locked up for the brutal murder he committed as a young teen.

The 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s went by, with unforgiving laws only mounting. No matter how much he grew, changed or mourned and repented for the loss of life he caused, it looked like Glassman’s 26 years-to-life sentence meant dying behind bars.

He didn’t know it then, but brain science and decades of activists’ cries were pushing the law and society to reconsider its treatment of the youngest offenders, with growing understanding that teenage criminals — even the most violent among them — could mature and make amends.

Then, in 2009, the California Supreme Court ruled that the callousness of the original crime couldn’t be a parole board’s sole criterion for denying a person freedom. Instead, commissioners had to consider whether the prisoner poses a current threat to public safety.

Four years later, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed Senate Bill 260, mandating earlier parole hearings for juvenile offenders, whose brains, according to growing scientific evidence, have prefrontal cortexes that aren’t fully developed, leading them to impulsive acts without thinking through the consequences.

California’s parole boards were retrained in the wake of SB260, mandated to give “great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles” and to consider the “hallmark features of youth.”

‘Unnecessary Decades Behind Bars’

In its 2016 national report “False Hope – How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that when parole boards focused solely on the crime, they missed other critical factors, like a young person’s age when the crime was committed and whether they had changed over time.

“As a result,” the ACLU reported, “even model prisoners who can safely return to their families and communities spend unnecessary decades behind bars.”

Facing what he had done was not a single “slam-bam moment,” Glassman said in a series of interviews over several months with The Imprint.

One breakthrough came at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, where he took part in National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. In one event that week, Glassman stood in front of several hundred men and decided to tell them what he had done — through his victim’s eyes.

“She had everything in front of her, amazing family and friends,” he said, “and I took all that away in a moment.”

As he spoke, one man stared at him and Glassman felt a connection. That is, until he abruptly stormed out of the group session.

When the two ended up in a room together the next day, Glassman learned the man’s brother had been murdered, much like he had killed Owaki. Hearing the killing described had triggered torturous memories. That discussion was transformational, Glassman said.

Prisoners ‘Need to Hear’ from Victims

Prisoners “need to hear from us,” said Cheryl Ward-Kaiser, a longtime victims’ rights champion from Salinas, the farming community just north of the Soledad prison grounds. 

 “We don’t have to be full of hate, but we do need to ask for accountability.”

Ward-Kaiser, 76, speaks to groups of prisoners for her advocacy work and has lived through the type of horrific crime that inspired the tough-on-youth sentencing laws of earlier eras.

In 1991, five teenagers broke into her home as she and her family slept. The teens were under the mistaken belief the family had a safe full of cash. For 45 minutes, one young man held his foot on Ward-Kaiser’s back and pointed a gun at her as she lay helpless on the floor, while another raped her 17-year-old daughter with a shotgun. Her husband was shot and killed as he tried to stop it.

The youth were tried as adults, given life sentences, and Ward-Kaiser went on to become an outspoken advocate for survivors of violent crime.

Yet she has undergone a profound transformation. It happened when she was invited to speak on behalf of crime survivors — she disdains the word “victim” — at a restorative justice conference. Restorative justice seeks to go beyond punishment of offenders, finding ways to repair the harms they’ve caused.

Often, perpetrators and the survivors of their crimes convene in guided dialogues.

In Ward-Kaiser’s case, the restorative justice method led to phone calls, prison visits and letters with some of the youth convicted in her case. She has even appeared before the parole board, shocking commissioners when she argued for their release.

One young man who was the lookout for the group has since been freed and is “doing terrific,” Ward-Kaiser said.

Victims’ rights advocate Cheryl Ward-Kaiser holds a photo of her husband Jamie, who was killed by teen intruders during a home invasion robbery. Photo by Conner Jay/The Imprint

Indeed, not all crime victims want revenge, a 2016 national survey by the Alliance on Safety and Justice found: Long sentences are often justified “in the name of victims. Yet, contrary to the popular narrative, most victims of violence want violence prevention, not incarceration.”

Cases like Glassman’s, Ward-Kaiser said, ask us to look at what justice really means. “Is enough time in prison right? You can’t give someone back their life. How much can you say you’re sorry? That doesn’t do a thing.”

The real test for Glassman is “by how he lives his life,” she said. “He’s giving back. He’s trying to make other people’s lives better. That’s the only way you make it right.”

By 2014, Glassman had been locked up for 28 years. He’d been denied parole five times, but at his sixth hearing, he was able to talk in-depth about his childhood, the crime and the remorse he felt.

The board was satisfied. He had finally succeeded. He could go home.

Veto by the Governor

Then, before the prospect of freedom set in, there was a new obstacle: The parole board’s decision had to go to the governor for review, a process that could take an excruciating 120 days.

Glassman was again caught up in the politics of the era. Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s governor in the 1970s, 1980s and again from 2011 through 2019, was a charismatic progressive leader on many social issues, and one with deep ties to Glassman’s San Francisco Bay Area.

But Brown — empowered by the 1988 law granting him rights to veto parole board decisions — was determined to keep Glassman locked up. In his 2015 veto of Glassman’s release, the governor wrote that he based his decision on “the horrific nature” of Owaki’s killing and the absence of an “adequate explanation for how he came to commit this heinous crime.”

Vanessa Nelson, director and co-founder of Life Support Alliance, an advocacy group for prisoners serving life terms, has analyzed years of parole grant review data under several California governors. She said Brown often denied parole grants in cases where the victims were women, a pattern that she said is now being followed by current Gov. Gavin Newsom.

One study of 18 months beginning in 2014 found that Brown — whose reversal rates were much lower than his predecessors’ — nonetheless vetoed the board’s approval in 11 percent of 426 cases. Glassman was among them. He had to wait another year to try again.

Still, there were factors that increased his odds. For one thing, he is white. In an analysis of 426 California youth offender parole hearings between 2014 and 2015 — the period of time Glassman faced the board — researcher Kristen Bell found that non-Black youth offenders had a 16 percent better chance of being granted parole than their Black counterparts.

Bell, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, reported that even among prisoners who had more than three years without rule violations, some higher education, and participated in self-help programs, only 46 percent of Black prisoners were granted parole — compared with 62 percent of those who were not Black.

Those far more likely to be released had, like Glassman, been before the board at least once already.

At his next hearing a year later in 2015 — his seventh appearance before the board — Glassman mustered optimism again.

This time there was strong supporting evidence he was safe to be released: A prison psychiatrist wrote that Glassman “accepted culpability and generally did not appear to trivialize, minimize his responsibility, or externalize blame.”

He explained that after nearly three decades in prison the then-44-year-old “was aware of some ways other people were likely impacted by his crime. He did not question the degree to which his life sentence was fair to him.”

Alameda County prosecutor Jill Klinge had vehemently opposed Glassman’s parole at every previous hearing.

“This was atrocious, cruel, callous, beyond the pale, probably one of the worst crimes I’ve seen in my history as a DA,” Klinge told the board at Glassman’s last hearing.

“This was a lengthy, gruesome, brutal killing where there were many opportunities to cease.”

She said one can accept there are evil people in the world, “but to see those apparent characteristics in someone so young as this minor is profoundly disturbing.”

She was especially concerned that Glassman couldn’t fully explain why he followed Gina so blindly. “I don’t think he’s been able to address that. He may never be able to address that,” Klinge said.

But Glassman’s court-appointed attorney, Michelle Shaddow, seized on that very point as an example of why the law has changed its view on the “hallmarks of youth” and teens’ “diminished capacity.”

“He’s trying to understand himself, trying to explain, but that’s why we have that ‘diminished culpability,’” Shaddow told the board. “He is trying to give you an answer that you want, but there is no answer because he can’t take that day back.”

“There’s no rationale between what he did then and his current dangerousness, that’s why we have the youth offender statute,” Shaddow said. “We believe in rehabilitating people, especially when somebody is 16 years old.”

Glassman spoke last, hoping to address Brown’s concerns about his insight.

“I can’t take back that day. I wish I could,” he said. “That day, I changed the lives of so many people I can’t even count. I took the life of Junko Owaki. I robbed her, her future, everything it might have been.

“There was a Japanese proverb that said the dead have no voice,” he told the commissioners. “And one of the things that I’ve tried to be is a voice for her, in honoring her in who I am today and being of service and helping others in trying to prevent others from hurting other people in any fashion or form. I’ve changed myself to the person I am today. I’ve become true to myself.”

Though she did raise concerns, this time Klinge didn’t fight Glassman’s release, telling the board it was their decision to weigh.

After the board approved his parole, Klinge, who declined to be interviewed for this story, knocked on the door as he conferred with his attorney. Glassman said she asked what he planned to do when he got out, and urged him not to relapse.

“I have no idea what changed her heart,” he said.

Gov. Brown, however, remained unchanged. He again reversed the parole board decision.

“That one rocked me,” Glassman said. He fell into a deep depression.

Then, Glassman’s family hired attorney Charles Carbone, who challenged the governor’s second veto of the parole board — taking his case all the way to a state appeals court. The higher court concurred with the governor on certain points, but not the most crucial one: There was no proof, the justices ruled, that Glassman posed a public safety threat.

“We agree with the Governor’s characterization of the crime as ‘senseless and shocking,’ ‘vicious,’ and ‘utterly reprehensible.’ The decision to parole an inmate, however, turns primarily on an assessment of his current dangerousness.”

Glassman wasn’t allowed to attend that hearing, so he still didn’t know he’d won his freedom when he called his mother for one of their routine check-ins. It was a Saturday morning and she played it cool.

“How’s your day going?” she asked casually, Glassman recalled. And then slipped in: “Oh, by the way … ’”

Corey Glassman, left, with counselor Melissa Edwards after his release from prison. Photo courtesy of Glassman.

At the time, all he could think of was, “Oh my God, I’ve got a week — how am I going to get through this week? But that was a good week.”

On the day of his release, a bus drove Glassman to the prison’s parking lot at 7:30 a.m. He walked across the asphalt and saw a figure coming toward him. It was his mother. After more than 30 years in prison, he was going home.

Glassman’s stepping into freedom and the life he was later allowed to live might outrage, inspire or frustrate those who learn about it. He’s now married and employed in Berkeley, California, as a substance abuse counselor and program supervisor.

Even during the pandemic, he’s made the most of his time, completing his bachelor’s degree and starting on a master’s in social work at San Jose State University.

But his example also raises important questions: How can we as a society know whether a youth is redeemable? What can we do to ensure better outcomes for juveniles convicted of serious crimes?

Victims’ rights advocate Ward-Kaiser said deciding the right response to youth violence is not easy.

“The murder thing is the hard part for people. They want that person back, they don’t want that person gone,” she said. “Victims want them all locked up forever.”

Instead, she said, we should ask how we’d want the defendant treated “if he was my son.”

Judges, victims — all of us should ask ourselves this, she said. “Because it is somebody’s son. Justice not served with love will never, ever work.”

University of Oregon parole researcher Kristen Bell offers policy solutions, including better clarification of parole boards’ criteria. Although “current dangerousness” must now be considered instead of merely the crime that had been committed, that term can be broadly interpreted when juvenile offenders sentenced to life terms are evaluated, as Glassman learned repeatedly.

Juvenile offenders, Bell writes, must also be held to “clear and measurable milestones for rehabilitation.”

It’s now been almost four years since Glassman was freed from prison, and he’s now off parole. After getting married last summer, he was promoted from counselor to admissions manager for the outpatient drug and alcohol program at Options Recovery Services. He supervises four others and is responsible for a team of counselors and all new intakes coming into residential and outpatient treatment.

Melissa Edwards, a staff counselor who knew Glassman during his time at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, said she’s thrilled to see him make it in the world.

“It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, you really did it,’” Edwards said. “He is somebody that I looked up to as an equal in this field and would definitely call on for advice.”

Glassman does not take lightly the fortunate position he’s in.

“Just as I’ve learned from other people and gained strength from other people, hopefully, the same is true in reverse,” Glassman said. “I’m just grateful for another opportunity to kind of give back and be of service and help somebody else.”

Julie Reynolds Martinez is a 2020-2021 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is part two of a story co-published with Voices of Monterey Bay. Read the first part of the story here. Johnny Angel Martinez contributed to this story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *