Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases And The Illusion Of Parole

Author: Hadar Aviram
Publisher: Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020. 293p.
Reviewer: Dvir Yogev | September 2020

Hadar Aviram’s Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole, tells the story of California’s discretionary parole through a deep dive into the Manson Family’s cases and transcripts. The book succeeds in explaining how a “legal accident” in the 1970s that led the Manson family to the parole process, contributed to the turn toward increased punitiveness and demonization of incarcerated individuals in California. Professor Aviram’s book is a significant contribution to the academic literature discussing the social aspects of punishment in late 20th century America, but even more importantly, it is an imperative addition to discretionary parole research, which requires much more attention.

In gripping detail, the book describes how punishing the Manson Family – a group led by Charles Manson, whose members were responsible for some grisly murders – became the catalyst for the thrust to extreme punishment in California. The book argues that as a result of the Manson family’s “life with the possibility of parole” sentence (“a legal accident” p. 37, which was the result of the People v. Anderson 1972 commutation of capital punishment) California went up a punishment spiral which resulted in the return of the death penalty, the birth of life without parole, and the turning of life with parole to “life de facto.” Or, as the book describes it: the “Extreme-Punishment Trifecta.” In short, the parole board found itself in an impossible position – having to consider the release from imprisonment of the Manson Family — individuals who captured the public’s imagination and became the epitome of evil after the Sharon Tate 1969 murder. Amidst the early 1980s’ climate of shock and fear from violent crime, fueled by the advocacy of victims’ rights movements, the parole board became the public’s “last line of defense” from “dangerous criminals.”

The book opens with a succinct yet comprehensive description of discretionary parole in California. In the first chapter, we learn all the necessary details: the parole board consists of 12 (17 at the time of writing this review) commissioners who decide the outcome of a parole hearing; that each hearing is chaired by a single commissioner and a single deputy commissioner who vote on granting or denying of parole; and that the decision-making process is guided by the broad discretion of the board and whether the incarcerated individual demonstrated “insight” – a notion which “permeates the entire parole process … but what it means is fairly nebulous” (p. 81).

Moreover, we learn about three processes in the development of parole through 1970-1990: Firstly, after many years of discretionary release from prison as the primary release mechanism, in 1975 California limited discretionary parole to a subset of people convicted mostly of murder; yet currently there are many thousands of parole-eligible people (supposedly not subject to parole board discretion) in prison cells. Secondly, even after the emphasis in a parole hearing turned away from the underlying act of the offense to the ostensibly less retributive-triggering vocalization of “insight,” less than a third of all hearings result in the grant of parole (and even fewer people are released, because of the governor’s veto power). Thirdly, discretionary parole in California gradually became more public and political — victims have a voice in the hearing and are central to the hearing’s narrative, the governor has veto power, and the hearings’ calendar and transcripts are all available to the public.

In the following chapters, the book manages to demonstrate critical insights into the nature of California’s discretionary parole. The chapters are cleverly bound in temporal terms – past, present, and future of the incarcerated person’s life story. Choosing to discuss parole as a process in which the incarcerated person goes through “revisiting the past,” “reinventing the present,” and “reimagining the future” reflects genuinely on Aviram’s conviction to remind the reader that parole is a matter of human life and dignity, not just a bunch of legal abstractions and fear-mongering. Regarding the role of the past, the book argues that the parole hearing assumed the role of a “moral trial” where the prosecutor is the moral compass and the court records are the moral truth (the author terms the prosecutor and the victims “a solid bloc of ‘moral memory’” p. 83). For parole, the concept of the present (Ch. 5) revolves around the neo-liberal ideology of the board as it “perceives the inmates as being on an individual path to redemption” (p. 136), yet coerces its narrow interpretation of the “correct” path. The book’s argument regarding the last temporal dimension, future (Ch. 6), is in stark contrast to the narrative of the previous chapter on the present (yet it was never argued that the board aspires to a cohesive theory of parole, nor indeed adheres to one). In short, the argument is that the incarcerated individual’s future is never entirely her or his own as far as the parole board is concerned. Rather it is seen through a deterministic lens covered by the crimes of the past: “the past casts a long shadow on the little prison room” where the hearing happens (p.204).

This book is not meant to be a practitioner’s guide, and the important takeaway is that the world of California’s discretionary parole has come to inhabit a unique sphere of law, almost distinct from the criminal law of the courts and the classroom, containing its private epistemes and conceptions of rights and justice. More importantly, the reader comes to terms with discretionary parole’s many irrationalities, as it evolves to contradict itself — a process of further removal from society, instead of a reintegrative healing one. To fully immerse the reader in the current character of discretionary parole, the author depicts a defining moment for California’s punitive turn: the last hearing of Susan Atkins, one of the former “members” of the Manson family. At 60 years old, paralyzed due to a brain tumor and non-responsive, Atkins was denied parole after 37 years of imprisonment. The reason? Fear for public safety! As the reader faces the humanity of incarcerated people, compassion and empathy are evoked, and with them the reckoning that parole is indeed only an “illusion” (as the book’s title suggests).

In addition to the book’s academic value, reading Aviram’s prose, the reader experiences a rare sensation (especially for a book about the Manson Family and the penal system) — a widening of the heart. According to Buddhist tradition, there is an “in-between realm in which beings realize their suffering and reexperience it from various perspectives before being reborn” (p. 180). The Buddhist tradition calls this the Bardo, as Professor Hadar Aviram informs us in her book, but for people serving indeterminate sentences in California (“Lifers”), this turbulent and agonizing space describes the discretionary parole process.

The book’s achievement is the author’s success at conveying the forgotten essence of parole, which is compassion, and how that got lost through fear and hate. It is all the more impressive considering the book’s subjects, which came to be known as the embodiment of evil criminality, yet somehow gain humanity thanks to Aviram’s skillful writing and empathy. The book is an invitation, not just for the readers to revisit their prior thinking regarding the importance of the discretionary parole process in the criminal justice system, but for scholars and students of the American crisis of extreme punishment and mass incarceration to pay closer attention to discretionary parole. To the small rooms inside prisons, where a tiny group of people decides the fate of thousands who are required to walk “a performative tightrope” (p. 206). Indeed, the book’s argument that the Manson cases are pivotal in the development of today’s system is convincing. Still, the story of discretionary parole is the story of the countless individuals that struggle to escape the Bardo, not the story of the Manson family. It is on us — academics, activists, politicians, and voters — to accept the book’s invitation. We might find out that some of the book’s arguments are refined when we broaden our gaze to the people who do not get the Manson cases’ attention. In fact, we cannot fully understand discretionary parole by examining its operation under the conditions of a “legal accident.” Most lifers are not as famous as the Manson family, but are the exact opposite — society’s most neglected and ignored individuals. How would our understanding of parole change if we systematically study those cases?

The greatest strength of this book is not as apparent as it might seem at first. When I attended a parole hearing, the most challenging task was to keep my heart open, not to let my fears and anger take hold over my impression of the powerless individual going through Bardo. The book clarifies that my struggle was no accident; by design, the parole hearing triggered fear and anger, namely a design meant to deal with a problem – the possibility of parole for Charles Manson. Reading this book forces the question: Can this model enable just punishment, given that Lifers are society’s marginalized individuals, and that the “Extreme-Punishment Trifecta” affects their communities as well? The book engages the reader in a reimagining effort of an alternative universe (not so unlike Quentin Tarantino’s exercise of reimagination in “Once upon a Time in Hollywood”) where discretionary parole is a process of rebirth and liberation, not of trauma reinforcement.

Dvir Yogev, Ph.D. student, UC Berkeley, Jurisprudence and Social Policy

Start typing and press Enter to search