Damon Cooke has worked as a paralegal, a master computer programmer, the founder of an award-winning Toastmasters leadership team, a podcast host and a newspaper editor. Recently, he co-founded a nonprofit organization called The Uncuffed Project, that assists people released from prison after a lengthy sentence transition back into free society. Damon accomplished all of these things while serving more than 30 years in California prisons. In 1993, at the age of 23, Damon was convicted of attempted murder after shooting a friend during an argument. Though his victim recovered and Damon had no prior criminal history, he was sentenced to 11 years to life. Had he accepted the plea bargain offered to him, he would have been released after 11 years with no parole, but 31 years later, Damon remains in prison. Why?
To Parole or Not to Parole
“It's about the work that I put in to get a parole date. 10 years. Nothing. And then some guy drops a note…” —Damon Cooke
Damon has gone before the parole board 14 times, armed with his accomplishments and pages of support letters from CDCR guards, program leaders, inmates and his family. He has had no gang involvement or serious violations while in prison. His since-retired prosecutor has personally appeared at every hearing to oppose his release, and “confidential informants” have provided injurious information only to have it withdrawn following the hearings. Not until December 2021 was Damon deemed suitable for parole. But he continues to live behind bars, awaiting the governor’s approval of the decision — the same governor who recently vetoed bill SB1064, which would have disallowed using “confidential informants” in parole hearings. Damon’s experience begs the larger questions: Namely, how does his continued incarceration serve us as a society? How are the decisions about parole being made and who is making them?