GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — James Hicks says he's one of the most hated inmates in the Michigan prison system.
It's because of all the help he's given to federal, state and local cops while he's been behind bars for the last 31 years. The list of his exploits is long and some lawmen he's worked with believe he's earned his freedom because of the risks he's taken and the value of what he's done.
According to letters written by top law enforcement officials, Hicks has helped convict a corrupt deputy warden for selling prison transfers to inmates. He helped make cases on other crooked prison employees — 22 of them, Hicks says. He helped save a phone company $5 million with the breakup of an inmate-run credit card scam. He has worked to bust a major car theft ring.
He has also helped solve a couple of murders. The most recent resulted in the 2010 conviction of another inmate, initially imprisoned for another crime, for killing his girlfriend in Flint.
"I don't think there would have been a conviction without his involvement in the case," said Reymundo Mascorro, a now-retired Michigan Department of Corrections inspector who worked with Hicks on that last murder case. "He went above and beyond anything I've ever encountered in my 30 years."
'IT WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO'
In his youth, Hicks was one of the bad guys. He has convictions going back to 1972 for manslaughter, robbery and larceny. In 1986, he was sentenced to between 50 and 200 years in prison for the armed robbery of an illegal gambling house in Muskegon in which a man was shot and killed by one of the other bandits.
"I wasn't responsible for it, but I'm still responsible because I could have stepped up and stopped" it, Hicks, now in his 60s, said.
He said he has helped law enforcement from the inside to prove "to my father and mother that I am not that person that brought me to prison."
"I did it all because I know it was the right thing to do," he said.
DIFFICULT FOR PRISONS TO PROTECT HICKS
It may have been right, but it put Hicks in serious danger.
Former prison inspector Mascorro said Hicks' "safety was jeopardized and he fully recognized it."
Hicks said he has been poisoned, beaten and stabbed. He said he has been cut seven times, but MDOC officials have records of only three stabbings. Hicks said that's because four of the incidents didn't require him to be sent outside prison walls to a hospital.
The MDOC says it tries to keep Hicks safe. You won't find his name or picture on the prison system's online inmate lookup, and Hicks has often been put in what prisons call 'protective custody.' But an MDOC spokesman says Hicks "often requests to be taken out of protective custody and returned to the general population."
That might be because even though protective custody may help to keep an inmate safe, it looks a lot like punishment.
"Basically, he's doing a maximum security sentence, limited movement," Mascorro explained.
It shows the difficulty the system has in dealing with inmates like Hicks. Protective custody isn't much of a reward for inmates who do the right thing.
"Exactly," Mascorro agreed, "that's the outcome of having helped."
THREE REQUESTS FOR FREEDOM, THREE DENIALS
Hicks won't be eligible for parole until 2030, when he'll be 77.
Members of law enforcement who Hicks has helped have written letters encouraging the parole board and governor to commute his sentence — that is, shorten it and set him free. Commutation is sometimes used to reward good behavior. It's different from a pardon, which essentially forgives the crime.
Hicks has had the backing of the former head of the FBI in Michigan, state police detectives, MDOC employees and a former state legislator.
He even won the support of the man who got him convicted in 1986. Muskegon County's former chief trial prosecutor Les Bowen wrote in 2011 to the parole board that "Hicks is the only person I can think of who I believe has actually earned a sentence commutation."
Bowen wrote that he had never before written a letter supporting a prisoner's commutation, but backs Hicks because "the public good in this extraordinary case would be well served by commutation."
Hicks applied for commutation in 2005, 2012 and 2015. Despite the high-powered law enforcement support, the parole board and Govs. Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder said no.
It's hard to know why. Target 8 investigators used the public records law to get what little paperwork there is on MDOC's response to those applications, but the documents don't reveal any information about parole board discussions or provide any insight into the rejections. The letters Hicks got back say only that they found no merit to his requests.
"He's done this for years on major cases," former U.S. Attorney for Western Michigan John Smietanka said. "Why do they turn him down, I have no idea."
Smietanka, who has been voluntarily helping Hicks, said keeping him in prison "does not make any sense."
Hicks contacted Target 8 investigators through Smietanka because of his frustration with the system, even though it could put him in even more danger.
"I know the risks," Hicks said in a phone call.
The fact is, Hicks is up against a system that commutes and pardons very few. Since 2011, more than 3,000 Michigan inmates have applied to have their sentences commuted; only five were granted. Out of 689 pardon requests, just 11 were approved.
MDOC didn't respond to questions that Target 8 investigators hoped would reveal parole board's thinking about how and when sentences should be commuted.
Longtime Michigan prison reform organizer Kay Perry says the few inmates who actually get executive clemency are the sick and dying.
"That's a pretty narrow group of people to look at and I think there are a lot more people in the system who deserve a careful look to see if they aren't good candidates for commutation," she said.
Perry, who runs a reform group called MI-CURE, says the reason the parole board and governor grant commutations and pardons so rarely is based on fear that they might make a mistake and release someone who will commit a major crime. She thinks such decisions should be given to professionals who should start looking at inmates who have been inside the longest and who might have aged out of their prime crime years.
She says keeping some people in prison for long sentences "doesn't make sense to me."
Meanwhile, Hicks and his attorney say they will try again to convince the parole board and governor to release him.
"If the DOC's intent is to release people as law-abiding citizens, I think that's been accomplished with Mr. Hicks," Mascorro, the former MDOC investigator, said. "If he moved down the street from me, I wouldn't have a problem with him. I'd welcome him to the neighborhood."
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