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It's been three years since Karen Smith-Gates had a major panic attack behind the wheel, driving home from visiting her younger brother, Kayle Smith, at Wakulla Correctional Institution in North Florida.
After visiting him for over 30 years, she was used to the waves of fear that had become commonplace afterward: That uneasy feeling lurching in her stomach, the chills rushing through her body, her heart racing. But this time, something about the heartbreak of it all—not just seeing her brother in prison, but the weight of the family dysfunction that brought him there and the broken system that kept him there—was just too overwhelming.
Around 4,000 parole-eligible prisoners are currently awaiting release in Florida.
Between October of 2019 and September of 2020, the Florida Commission on Offender Review granted parole in just 41 cases, out of 1,419 determinations—about one percent of eligible people.
Kayle Smith has been incarcerated since 1987.
He has spent 34 years—nearly two-thirds of his life—in prison.
He has been eligible for parole for 10 of those years.
Kayle has been incarcerated since 1987. He was 18 years old when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder of his and Karen's mother, a crime he falsely confessed to in a drunken state of shock.
Karen forgave her brother long ago for any role he might have played in their shared family tragedy, and the siblings are confident that the person actually responsible for their mother's death is also behind bars; he confessed the same day, with the evidence and motive to prove it.
Still, Kayle, now 53, has spent nearly two-thirds of his life in prison.
Of those 34 years, he has been eligible for parole for 10. For Karen, it makes no sense why the Florida prison system keeps him locked up. She spends most days fighting for her brother's parole release, which she feels he should've been granted many years ago.
Kayle has technically served his time, and then some; As of October 2020, all people locked up on murder charges in crimes before 1995 are technically eligible for parole in Florida. But there is still no sign that the state will be releasing him any time soon.
On the road that day in 2019, Karen pulled over on a small town road to call a close friend to help talk her down from panic. "I can't drive like this," she said, gripping the steering wheel. Her heart raced as she recalled trying to have a loving conversation with her brother. She just couldn't muster it this time, surrounded by guards and cold prison walls. She wondered how much longer she'd have to do this.
She tried to ground herself during the panic attack by focusing on a small detail from the visit: The guards let her buy her brother some ice cream, which Kayle ate with childlike joy. The moment sparked memories of happier days when they were kids, and Kayle would lick batter from their mother's mixing bowl. Food has been one way for her to feel like she has some agency in an otherwise seemingly impossible situation.
Over the years, the stress of her brother's imprisonment has been a heavy burden on her mental health. Seeing him inside never got any easier. Her doctor eventually prescribed medicine for anxiety and depression. It's emotionally hard on her to visit him in person now—not that she could anyway this past year with COVID-19 restrictions in place. Instead, she keeps in regular contact with him through phone calls and email.
What Karen really wants is to be able to tell her brother that he's finally coming home. They both know that she can't do that.
In Florida, from 2015 to 2020, only 152 people were granted release out of 6,851 cases reviewed in the state—less than two percent.
During the pandemic, at least 60 out of 221 Florida prisoners who died of COVID-19 were eligible for parole.
Kayle Smith's incarceration is estimated at a cost of about $840,000 in taxpayer money, or $24,000 per year he's remained behind bars.
The Smith family's situation is not unique. Of an estimated 80,000 incarcerated people and another 115,000 serving a sentence under community supervision, Smith is one of nearly 4,000 parole-eligible prisoners in Florida who remain in limbo.
By her count, Karen has made 280 phone calls and emails over the past year alone pleading for Kayle's release. With help from prison and justice advocates, she has petitioned multiple Florida governors, state representatives and senators. Still, the Florida Department of Corrections won't let Kayle go.
While it's not common for a victim of a crime to fight so ardently for the release of someone who harmed their family, the cards are still stacked against Kayle's release given the nature of the violent crime of which he is accused. According to records from the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR), the agency that administers parole in the state, from 2015 to 2020, only 152 parole-eligible people out of 6,851 considered cases were granted parole, or less than two percent of the cases reviewed. Of those, just 86 people paroled were serving time for murder or attempted murder, as Kayle is.
The commission's 2020 Annual Report said there were 3,959 incarcerated people who were eligible for parole that year, and 424 "releasees" actively on parole supervision. Between October of 2019 and September of 2020, the commission made 1,419 parole determinations and granted parole to 41 incarcerated people—about one percent of parole-eligible prisoners in Florida.
Florida's numbers are staggeringly low compared with the parole boards of neighboring Southern states, too. The state of Georgia considered 21,790 cases in 2020, releasing 10,429 people—nearly half of the parole-eligible prisoners that year. In Alabama, 544 paroles were granted out of 2,704 paroles cases heard in 2020. That's 20 percent.
Even during the pandemic, when some states eased release rules, Florida stood firm. In 2021, the Orlando Sentinel discovered that at least 60 Florida prisoners out of 221 who have died of COVID-19 were parole-eligible.
What's more, in March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis unilaterally exercised his clemency powers to deny the pending parole application of any prisoner with a murder charge. (The governor's office and the commission did not respond to requests for comment on this decision, or any other inquiries about parole-eligible prisoners.)
DeSantis' decision immediately destroyed any chance Smith had at being released this year, and the Florida Commission on Offender Review estimates that up to 1,000 pending clemency applications will be denied because of the Governor's unilateral action.
"How can he just do that?" Karen said in a recent interview. "How many hopes did he destroy?"
"No family should have to live with this kind of suffering."
When Kayle became parole-eligible 10 years ago, Karen's fight to free him became more focused. She has testified on behalf of Kayle at five parole hearings, all of which were denied by FCOR. Documents obtained from FCOR through a public records request show that Kayle's parole hearing dates have been delayed multiple times as a punitive measure after prison guards claimed that he was caught in possession of a contraband cellphone charger. He was also accused of using narcotics after a suicide attempt.
Denise Rock, Executive Director of Florida Cares Charity, a nonprofit prison reform group that has counseled Karen, said FCOR will often deny a prisoner parole if the agency determines what it believes to be an "egregious nature" to the crime. The same reasoning has been listed as a reason for Kayle's denial of parole; In the FCOR documents, Kayle was called the "Charles Manson of Florida" by a prison guard.
A national survey by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a group that brings together crime survivors to advance policies that help communities most harmed by crime and violence, found that across the country, violent crime victims like Karen actually want shorter prison sentences, less spending on prisons, and more concentration on rehabilitating violent criminals.
"What we need is transformative justice," Rock said. "Currently, prisons are in place to punish people like Smith, but not to release them healed back into society. And the families are left to deal with that burden."
Karen still loves her brother deeply and believes he deserves a chance to move past the mistake he made as a young man.
Back in 1986, Kayle lived with his mom, Junavis Smith, along with his and Karen's older sister Kimber, as well as Kimber's husband, David Pentecost, and her child from a previous relationship.
By most family and friend accounts, Junavis had always had a loving relationship with her son Kayle, and a more strained relationship with Kimber and Davis. After several fights, Junavis kicked out the couple, but kept custody of Kimber's son, who remained in the home with Kayle.
Kimber and Pentecost had previously discussed killing Junavis in retaliation for kicking them out and having possession of Kimber's son, court records say.
Around that time, Kayle—then 18 years old—kept in touch with his eldest sister, and started spending more time with both Kimber and David outside of the house. According to court records, their mother expressed to her friend and police officer Marsha Smith (no relation) that she felt like she was "losing control" of her son, who had started spending some nights at Kimber and David's house.
On December 15, 1986, Kayle and Pentecost were splitting a bottle of whiskey at the couple's home. Kimber parted ways with the guys before the evening took a dark and devastating turn, records show.
After a night of drinking, Pentecost asked Kayle for a ride to Junavis' house. According to court records, Kayle drove him even though he was drunk. He swerved across the road and ran into curbs, but managed to get them there.
Kayle claims that he didn't know how serious Pentecost's intentions to harm Junavis were until they got to her house. He used his own key to unlock the door. When he saw his brother-in-law break through the security chain latch, he realized the seriousness of the situation and ran.
Kimber's child was also in the house at the time, in a room across the hall.
Court records show that "late that night" Junavis called the Pensacola Police Department to report someone had broken into her home. During her distressed call, she yelled, "David! David!" before the phone line went silent. Police found Junavis dead, next to her bed and a small ax that she had tried to use to defend herself.
Pentecost initially claimed Kayle was the one who was responsible for the murder, court records show, but his own fingerprints were all over Junavis' room. Still, even though a forensic officer testified that there was no physical evidence of Kayle being in the room when Junavis was stabbed, Kayle felt remorseful for having driven Pentecost there. In a state of shock after finding out what Pentecost had done to his mother, he confessed to police, and pled guilty to first degree murder, court records say.
Kayle was sentenced to 25 years to life. Pentecost also pled guilty, and initially faced the death penalty, but his charge was lowered to match Kayle's.
Nearly 34 years later, both men are still behind bars.
In that time, Kayle has mentored younger prisoners and is a "model inmate," according to Karen. But any time he thinks of his mother, she said he feels the agony surge through him. In a letter from prison, he wrote, "I suffer torment every day in the hell of my own mind."
Karen said the rest of their family—Kayle's father, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides—also forgave him for his role in his mother's death. In her petitions to free her brother, Karen has offered to house, feed, and care for him upon his release.
Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee-based lawyer who is an expert on clemency and parole cases, said that victim forgiveness, as well as the offer of food and shelter being provided upon release, have played a role in cases that he's worked on, including those that involve murder.
"It's super important when the victims of a crime have forgiven a person, it means that there's less risk of harming a victim through releasing someone on parole," Garcia said. "And if they have their basic economic needs covered—a house, food, clothing—they're much less likely to reoffend."
Florida's legacy of slow-rolling releases through parole is long-standing.
From 1986, the year Kayle was arrested, to 1988, there were 1,272 parolees released. According to FCOR, in the mid-1990s, Florida's release rate took a downward trajectory, with only 72 granted parole in 1995, and 86 in 1996.
"[Kayle's] case is a perfect example of what is wrong with our criminal justice system," said Kara Gross, Legislative Director and Senior Policy Counsel at ACLU of Florida. "It's a tragedy, and the nature of his crime does not fit the sentencing."
The Florida ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center are working to release parole-eligible prisoners through legislation. In March, their efforts led to Senate Bill 620 being passed, which will require the FCOR to partner with the DOC to adopt certified rules and regulations for how prisoners can achieve parole.
Gross points out another drawback to having such a bloated prison population—the cost to taxpayers. Kayle's incarceration cost about $816,000 of taxpayer money, or $24,000 for each of the 34 years he's been locked up.
Even when Florida releases people from prison, regressive laws restrict integration back into society. In March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that removed a minimum five-year waiting period that previously prevented people with felony convictions from applying to have civil rights restored, including their right to vote. However, the law only applies to people who have paid all fees and fines owed to the state—costs that the state does not have a defined system to track or solicit.
The sum of a person's accumulated restitution, fines, fees, and court costs can total as high as thousands of dollars, and releasees often have no way of knowing how much they owe. The law disproportionately affects Black and brown people, who are more likely to have been convicted of felonies in Florida and less likely to have the individual or family wealth or pay off the courts. Business people, athletes, celebrities, and nonprofits like the Florida Rights Restoration Committee are helping pay these fees, as felony records make it increasingly difficult to earn a living wage.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) is the largest agency administered by the state, with an annual budget of $2.7 billion. A lot of that money goes to GEO Group, a company based in Florida that operates private prisons and detention centers through contracts with the FDOC. The company makes its profits by offering facilities and services to state and federal agencies, promising that they can build and start up prisons faster, and incarcerate people more cheaply than state-run facilities.
"It's ridiculous and harmful that the state of Florida spends more on prisons than it does on education," said Epiphany Summers, organizing director of Dream Defenders, an activism group that fights for abolition and social justice.
Summers added that DeSantis and prison corporations like GEO Group that invest in private prisons are a direct threat to the people of Florida.
In 2018, the Florida Sun Sentinel reported that $5,000 from a GEO Group subsidiary was donated to DeSantis' election campaign. The Friends of DeSantis PAC received another $50,000 from the GEO subsidiary, along with $50,000 from George Zoley, CEO of the company. Florida Republican Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio also received money from a subsidiary of GEO through the New Republican PAC.
In 2019 and 2020 combined, GEO Group's PACs and affiliates spent over $2.8 million on lobbying, according to Open Secrets.
"This is a man that accepts private prison company donations and will help create a total prison state," Summers said of DeSantis. "And Florida has the second largest private prison company, GEO Group, influencing DeSantis and many of our right-wing politicians."
GEO's stock has plummeted by 25 percent since January, when President Joe Biden signed an executive order meant to phase out the Department of Justice's use of private-prison corporations like GEO in the federal prison system. The order does not apply to state prisons, however, nor contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the largest contractor of GEO's owned and leased assets. In 2017, a GEO-run ICE facility was recognized by the Detention Watch Network as the deadliest in the country. They've been sued multiple times for making detainees work for food.
Dream Defenders has waged campaigns against GEO's involvement in Florida politics, but Summers said their influence continues on.
"So long as there is profit to be made, there will be groups that exploit the situation," she said.
Prisoner rights coalitions and abolitionist groups have formed all across Florida. Dream Defenders is just one example, while groups such as Florida Prisoner Solidarity and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee also organize to abolish the prison system. Summers hopes that people in Florida will continue to educate themselves on abolition, and to join the ongoing struggle.
"We need to re-imagine the carceral system, and strive for a society where we heal more than harm, and protect each other from cages and misery," Summers said.
With all of the powerful forces at play, Karen often feels overwhelmed in the struggle to free her brother. She knows it's an uphill battle, but she continues on. Most of all, she just wants healing for her family; to see and hug her brother outside of prison walls.
"It's impossible to explain the loss and sorrow that I feel when I think of Kayle in such a horrible place," she said. "I just want him to see that there's a life outside of prison, with those who love and care for him, who want him to know what life really is."