Governor’s Council weighs controversial Parole Board renomination
“You have an unbelievable amount of people who are against you.”
Governor’s Councilor Christopher Iannella, a personal injury attorney, was grilling Massachusetts Parole Board member Colette Santa on August 3. Santa, first nominated by Gov. Charlie Baker for the board in 2017, is now up for a second five-year term.
“To me, it’s mind boggling.” Iannella added. “Very rarely do we get letters, phone calls, [and] people who don’t like somebody.”
Echoing this sentiment, Councilor Marilyn Devaney read into the record an email by former board member Lucy Sotto-Abbe, as well as an attached letter from five anonymous parole staff (all fearing retaliation if their names had been used). The email and letter both pointed out why Santa should not be renominated: “She has brought nothing to the agency other than chaos and destruction of morale,” wrote Soto-Abbe. (Dig reported on the problems of nepotism and poor morale at the agency in May.)
This was all on the second day of Santa’s two-day hearing for board renomination. The hearing was extended from July 20 because of the large number of people who were slated to testify and the extent of the questioning by council members.
The Governor’s Council—which votes on the governor’s nominations for judicial, parole, and other positions, as well as on commutations and pardons—holds hearings every Wednesday at the State House. Since Gov. Baker has been in office, councilors have confirmed more than 350 of his nominees, with only one nominee rejected since 2015. In July, they approved two of Baker’s picks for the board—James Kelcourse, a former GOP state rep. from Amesbury, and Dr. Maryanne Galvin, a forensic psychologist.
Colette Santa’s hearing brought out two supporters and 10 in opposition who testified about her performance on the board in the past five years. At a Gov. Council meeting, those vouching for and against speak prior to the candidate giving a statement, and they are subject to questions by the council.
Kevin Keefe, executive director of the board, kicked off the support by calling Santa “mission-driven,” and stated that she has a “superior ability” to judge those who deserve parole, also known as supervised release, to complete one’s sentence in the community. Keefe was questioned by the council for nearly one-and-a-half hours, with criticism aimed at the Parole Board as well as at Santa. Councilors cited its dysfunction, lack of transparency, a toxic culture, and poor morale. Councilor Mary Hurley, a former Springfield judge, said that among the many complaints about the nominee, she had received a phone call from a woman who “is petrified” of Santa—not only of her being reappointed, but also of her possibly becoming the board chair. To Keefe, who seemed surprised by the critiques, Hurley asked, “Are you living in a cloud some place?”
Attorney Amy Belger also supported Santa’s renomination. Belger said she’d represented approximately six parole candidates at hearings for second-degree lifers during the time when Santa has been a board member. She maintained that the nominee, who was born in Puerto Rico, “advocates for indigent candidates for parole,” and represents diversity on the board.
The only other person of color on the board, Tonomey Coleman, wrote a letter in support which was mentioned by Councilor Joseph Ferreira. Coleman pointed out that Santa is “not only representative of the state’s Hispanic community, but she also brings the added advantage of assisting the Board in directly communicating with non-English speaking Hispanic inmates.”
Krysten Huey, an African-American staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services, took issue with praising Santa as a diversity candidate. She called Santa “unqualified,” detailing her deficits in terms of experience with mental health and substance-use issues. Commenting on what Huey called “racial tokenism,” she stressed that Santa’s “race and language diversity do not make her a competent member of the board.” Huey served in 2021 with Santa on the Special Commission on Structural Racism in the Massachusetts Parole Process. The commission, formed by the state legislature, issued a report on its findings and the need to improve processes and procedures in parole.
The Aspen Institute, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to equity, defines structural racism as “a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.”
Huey said about Santa, “While on the Commission, she did not make any meaningful comments about the areas of parole that need to be improved.”
Attorney Patricia Garin, co-director of the Prisoners’ Rights Clinic at the Northeastern University School of Law, who also served on the special commission, pointed out that Santa was “defensive” about the Parole Board’s issues with structural racism, and was the only commissioner who did not vote to support the 16 recommendations in the final report. She described Santa as a “polarizing force” on the board. Garin also said that Santa did nothing to assure that the report was “widely distributed to people on the board,” or to parole staff. Per Garin, Santa, often seen as second in command at the board, “owns” the body’s dysfunction, having done nothing to address it over the past five years.
Lisa Berland, Laura Berland Wyman, and Bob Katz, members of the civic group Parole Watch which attends hearings for life-sentenced prisoners (in which this reporter participates), all mentioned ways in which Santa is not fully engaged in parole hearings for lifers. They distributed to councilors a fact sheet about Santa’s performance on the board, pointing out how Santa asks fewer questions and less substantial questions of petitioners at hearings than other board members and has more absences. As Attorney Huey put it, she has been known to ask “inappropriate and culturally insensitive questions.” Two examples given by Bob Katz that were directed to a prisoner with a disability: “Do you see yourself as broken?” and “How does it feel to have a disability?”
In addition, Parole Watch members spotlighted Santa’s attendance at hearings vs. other members of the board (an average of 19% vs. 5% absences in 110 hearings). Former board member Soto-Abbe had also emailed to the councilors a copy of the 2021-22 board members’ schedules. It specified that between April 2021 and March 2022, Santa had taken approximately 41vacation days (one month was missing); 12 days “off site” meaning to go to meetings or conferences; and 6 days as the board’s representative at the American Correctional Association.
On the issue of vacations and absences from her board participation, Councilor Eileen Duff asked questions about what she considered Santa’s unprecedented amount of time off, remarking, “It appears from this public record that you might owe the Commonwealth money.”
Two formerly incarcerated people also testified against Santa’s renomination: Cynthia Kussy-Goldberg, founding director of a reentry organization called the F8 Foundation and president of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition; and Don Perry, who served more than 18 years in Massachusetts’ prisons, was on parole for 16 years, and has worked in human services and as an organizer since his release.
Goldberg asked for the Parole Board to appoint someone with lived experience and Perry stressed, as a person of color, not to appoint Santa as a ”placeholder for the sake of board diversity.”
In a phone interview for this article, Lucy Soto-Abbe noted that the parole agency opposition letter from five anonymous parole staff specified an important piece of information about the Massachusetts Parole Officers Association. That is the union representing parole officers, and it has “routinely written letters of support” for a renomination for a parole board member, said the letter. The union did not write a letter of support for Santa. But the staffers said in their letter, “Our agency has never come forward to speak out against a board member. Enough is enough.”
Soto-Abbe also spoke of Santa’s tenure as chief of transitional services for the parole agency, a position she held before becoming a board member in 2017. Soto-Abbe said she ruled with “intimidation tactics, such as denying employees time off, violating civil service rules, cyberbullying employees via email, [and] punishing employees if they spoke up.”
Governor’s councilors will vote on Santa’s renomination on Wednesday, August 10 at noon.