Missouri’s parole system has sent thousands back to prison for minor violations. Terrell Robinson is one
Terrell Robinson has served 12 years in a Missouri prison for a parole violation that he says officials have never made clear to him — much less given him a chance to explain.
Last month, the MacArthur Justice Center filed a petition asking for his immediate release. The suit says Robinson’s parole was illegally revoked in 2007 because his arrest denied him the right to counsel and violated his due process rights.
“As lawyers who have litigated these issues for years and are familiar with the process, we could not decipher why his parole was revoked, and why he was sent back to prison,” Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air.
Robinson’s case is just one example of unfair revocations by Missouri's Parole Board, Breihan said. Thousands more exist — and some people in prison because of them may not even know it.
“Mr. Robinson's case is a textbook example of the deficiencies in the parole revocation system and why they matter,” Breihan said. “They separate a husband and wife. They separate parents from children, and they disrupt communities.”
Thanks to a class-action lawsuit from the nonprofit civil rights law firm, a federal judge determined in 2020 that the state’s parole system was unconstitutional and regularly violates people’s right to due process. The suit said the Missouri Department of Corrections has “created a procedural vortex from which people on parole cannot escape and are at continual risk of being rearrested and reentered into the prison system.”
The state admitted wrongdoing, yet continues to appeal U.S. District Judge Stephen Bough’s ruling. In the meantime, 3,000 to 7,000 parolees in Missouri are sent back to prison every year for technical violations.
Robinson had little experience with the justice system when he was arrested at 17 and charged as an adult with first-degree assault on a police officer and first-degree robbery. A judge sentenced him to 50 years in prison.
After serving 21 years, he was granted parole. Robinson started attending Vatterott College to learn to repair heating and cooling units and helped teach youth boxing at a local gym. But his parole was revoked less than two years after his release. Robinson was arrested twice, but all charges were dismissed. He also acknowledged testing positive for alcohol and marijuana. He was ordered to enter electronic alcohol monitoring — but before he could comply, he was arrested and sent back to prison.
“At the end of the day, I drank a beer and I smoked marijuana,” Robinson said. “Was that germane to get a violation? Yes, but nobody has been able to tell me that this is exactly what I'm violating for.”
Since Robinson’s reincarceration, he’s been denied parole four times.
“I’m being denied for something that I have no knowledge of how to get on top of or how to rectify,” Robinson said. “What is it that I need to bring to the table? Because a parole violation is a parole violation. It happens. But 12 years? I’m thinking that's unconscionable to the average person. I mean, when does the healing process begin?”
Up to 50% of parolees returned to prison every year in Missouri are sent back on technical violations, Breihan said, rather than a new sentence.
“It's a huge driver of mass incarceration, especially when these are for things that are minor that don't harm anybody,” Breihan said.
Robinson’s wife, Lawanda, visits him twice a week at the Eastern Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. While the prison’s strict visitation rules ban hugs and embraces, she finds conversation can be just as intimate.
“I made a vow,” Lawanda said. “Whatever it takes to keep my family together.”
Robinson has been locked up for a majority of his daughter Cherrell’s life. She said her dad’s absence has made her angry. Now, that anger has seeped into her children and resulted in generational trauma.
“Every time I would get mad, I would be like, ‘I can’t wait until my daddy gets home,’” she said. “And I’m still saying the same thing to this day, at 35 years old.”
She worries about her 5-year-old son, Amir, because she recognizes her anger in him.
“I don't want him to be like my dad and make one wrong decision,” she said. “Somebody might piss him off in some way and he’ll retaliate. Now he's in jail for the rest of his life. I have to tell him, ‘You're a Black boy. You have dreads. It's very important to control your anger.’ But how can I teach my kids how to control that if I haven't fully grasped it?”
In her view, her dad has served his time.
“We’re still looking at the justice system to protect and serve. Who are they protecting?” Cherrell asked. “I don't understand how a man could serve 21 years in jail and has to come back to fight for his life once more.”
Cherrell now lives in Florida but was visiting St. Louis on Friday. Later that day, she and her mother were planning to drive to Bonne Terre to see her dad. They said it would be the family’s first time together. Since Terrell has been incarcerated, he’s never had the opportunity to be in the same room as his wife, daughter and grandkids all at once.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.