“Today I am in support of a brother and friend who has been the most influential person in my life.”
[UPDATE: Thomas Koonce was unanimously approved for parole on Tuesday, April 12. He will go to a halfway house, Brooke House, for four months and then to an “approved” home plan. To read the decision, click here.]
An innovative plan to exit prison was the highpoint of Thomas Koonce’s two-and-a-half hour parole hearing before the Massachusetts Parole Board on March 24. Several formerly incarcerated men who were locked up with Koonce have proposed plans to offer housing, work, and support, providing Koonce is approved for parole.
Fifty-four-year-old Koonce, a former US Marine who was born in Brockton, earned a commutation from Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year. He proved that he lived a life of “restoration and reparations” since killing Mark Santos in a clash between New Bedford and Brockton young adults in 1987. His sentence was officially commuted from a 1st degree murder sentence, ie life without parole, to 2nd degree murder, life with parole eligibility.
Parole Board Chairperson Gloriann Moroney clarified during the March 24 hearing that Koonce’s proceedings would be similar to those of all second-degree lifers who seek parole and a chance to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community.
Waist-chained and handcuffed, Koonce sat at a table with his attorney, Timothy C. Foley, facing the board in a packed room full of nearly 40 supporters. He spoke before a five-member board that has been down a member for a year and was missing one person at the hearing. In his opening, Koonce apologized to the Santos family for taking the life of Mark Santos.
By many reports, Koonce has touched countless lives and been instrumental in making the prison he served time in a safer place. He was one of the main people to bring restorative justice programs to MCI Norfolk during his more than 30 years behind bars. Restorative justice is survivor-centered and accountability-based responses to violence in which those who have been harmed (survivors) meet with those who have harmed people (in this case, prisoners). The Transformational Prison Project (TPP), which Koonce helped start from behind bars in 2013, describes its mission as “seek[ing] to repair harm” instead of “focusing on punishment.”
Following the board’s questioning of Koonce, his supporters testified and discussed their part in his reentry. Every person who seeks parole needs to present a plan to the board, and Koonce’s relies on the idea that those who “walked the walk” are best suited to support their cohorts exiting prison. This, said his attorney, is similar to students teaching the teacher. TPP’s website explains, “We believe that healed-people heal people, and that those with lived experience are the best people to help others to heal.”
Miguel Reyes, who served 18 years in prison, much of that at Norfolk in restorative justice programs under Koonce’s leadership, testified, “Today I am in support of a brother and friend who has been the most influential person in my life.”
Reyes further explained how he, his wife, and their baby will provide a stable home for Koonce, whose mother and brother passed this year. They are offering a more personalized way of providing him with support than a typical long-term residential treatment program. According to Foley, Koonce, who has no substance use issues and does not need a sober house, will get a “unique” experience more in line with his “education, programming, and faith-based lifestyle.”
Reyes noted that Koonce will get home-cooked meals, and have responsibilities related to being in a household, plus counsel from those who have experience with reentry challenges. “He won’t be a case, a client, or a number,” Reyes said. “He’ll be a member of the family.”
In addition to that support, Nicholas DeJarnette, who also served more than 10 years behind bars, some with Koonce, and now has a landscaping and home improvement business, is offering him a rent-free apartment. When Koonce is ready to transition from the Reyes’s home, the apartment will be his “for 6 months, or a year, or as long as he needs it.” DeJarnette also sees himself as part of the circle that will support Koonce upon reentry.
Thirty-four-year-old Bobby Iacoviello testified that he, too, was introduced to restorative justice through Koonce at some point during his 12 years behind bars. He said, “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for these older men in prison,” and emphasized, “specifically Tom Koonce. Tom met me where I was.”
In a phone interview, Iacoviello, director of outreach at TPP, discussed how the organization that developed on the inside became a reality on the outside. He said TPP now works with partners as diverse as Harvard University and Maverick Landing Community Services. Their website says it “provide[s] spaces where those who have been harmed and those who have done the harming can come together and engage in dialogue—to build understanding and empathy toward those who have been victims of violent crime.”
Being behind bars for 30 years means things that many people take for granted—knowledge of everything from how to set up an email account to how to recognize fake websites and bank safely—are unfamiliar. To help fill that void, TPP will provide services to Koonce including computer and social media training.
TPP also offers mental health counseling through forensic social worker Sarah Coughlin. Testifying at the hearing, Coughlin said she came to work with TPP because the programs “blew me away.” Coughlin also works with Mass General Hospital and in other community settings.
Iacoviello said Koonce will be able to participate in, and eventually lead groups across the Commonwealth. Foley mentioned that Koonce has multiple job offers and has not yet decided exactly what he will do to complement his restorative justice work.
Parole Board member Charlene Bonner praised Koonce on his service to others and the way he conducts himself, saying: “When there was no incentive, you did all this work anyway. This makes you unique.”
This hearing for parole completed an extensive process. In October 2020, the Board of Pardons (technically the Parole Board) held a five-and-a-half hour hearing for his commutation. The Parole Board approved Koonce’s petition and sent it to the governor on Jan. 14, 2021. Baker signed the approval for the commutation on Jan. 12, 2022, and for nearly 10 hours, the Governor’s Council grilled Koonce again on Jan. 26, 2022. They voted to affirm the commutation on Feb. 16, 2022.
The parole board will now vote on Koonce’s parole petition, decide if they will approve his home plan, and issue a decision.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.