Walter Lomax

Director, Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative

When Walter Lomax was locked up in the Maryland State Penitentiary in 1969, he was an angry, high school dropout serving a life sentence for a convenience store robbery and murder he did not commit.

In solitary, Lomax taught himself to read and write by highlighting unfamiliar words in books and looking them up in a dictionary.

It took almost 10 years, but Lomax earned his GED behind bars-as well as a welding certificate and an associate's degree in business administration and criminal justice.

He excelled at his work-release job, moving up from receiving clerk to warehouse supervisor. He became a writer and editor of a prison newsletter, and received dozens of certificates of achievement and letters of support.

The Maryland Parole Commission recommended parole four times for this model prisoner. Yet none of that mattered to then-Governor Parris Glendenning who had adopted a policy that no lifers would be paroled unless they were dying or elderly. It seemed Lomax never would be released until a Baltimore judge reopened his case and suspended his life sentence in 2006.

By then, he had served nearly 40 years in prison.

Now in his 60s Lomax is continuing the advocacy work he and other prisoners serving life-sentences began in 1995 while Lomax was still in prison-the year Glendenning ended all work-release programs and parole for lifers.

Lomax's organization, the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, advocates for humane sentencing policies for prisoners serving long sentences. One specific example is changing Maryland's policy of paroling lifers. To raise public awareness about people serving parole-eligible life sentences, the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and the Justice Policy Institute produced the documentary "Blocking the Exit," which featured stories of people serving life sentences, their victims and families. They hosted screenings of the documentary in numerous public settings, including the Maryland State House. This public education effort had a profound impact.

During the 2011 legislative session, state legislators introduced bills in both chambers that required the removal of the Governor from the parole process for people sentenced to life imprisonment. The Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative's supporters worked diligently in both houses for the passage of this legislation, including testifying before legislative committees. The final outcome is a new law that gives the Governor 180 days to reject the recommendation to release a person serving a parole-eligible life sentence. If he does not act within that time period, then the person will be released.

While this is not the legislation many worked so hard to support, it represents an unprecedented first step toward the goal of removing the governor from the parole process entirely.

"When I got out of prison, I was able to dive full force into this initiative, which has kept me focused," says Lomax. "It hasn't really settled in with me yet that I spent 40 years in prison for a crime I didn't commit. All I can do is to move forward. Working hard on this project is the way for me to stay sane."