By Chris Zoukis
In an unusual turn of events, a former prisoner was appointed to Connecticut’s Parole Board. While ex-prisoners are typically not considered as parole board members, state officials decided that Kenneth F. Ireland was a qualified candidate.
In 1989, when he was 18 years old, Ireland was convicted of raping and murdering Barbara Pelkey, a mother of four.
Several people had connected Ireland to the 1986 murder, including someone who claimed she witnessed his confession. The witness later admitted that she was intoxicated at the time and confused in her recollection, according to The Daily Mail. Ireland received a 50-year prison sentence.
Although he asserted his innocence, his claims fell on deaf ears until 2009. DNA testing was performed after the Connecticut Innocence Project became involved in the case, and the test results indicated another man, Kevin Benefield, had committed the crimes for which Ireland had been convicted. Benefield was subsequently sentenced to 60 years for raping and murdering Pelkey.
Ireland was exonerated and released in August 2009 after spending 21 years – more than half his life – in prison.
Vivian Blackford, a member of the Connecticut Sentencing Committee, originally raised the idea of having Ireland serve on the Parole Board. “Having been in prison, he brings so much to the board because he understands the experience, the perspectives and the reasons that people do what they do,” she told The New York Times.
While incarcerated, Ireland was subjected to extreme conditions including a year in solitary confinement, losing part of a finger and seeing a prisoner die from burns after being set on fire by other prisoners. He was also sent to the Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia, a facility known for guard brutality, due to overcrowding in Connecticut prisons. In a 100-page document titled an “analysis of damages” he sought up to $8 million for his wrongful conviction, and the state claims commission awarded him $6 million in January 2015. He was represented pro bono by attorney William Bloss.
“I am extremely pleased and thankful for the hard work and the thoughtfulness of the state and the claims commissioner,” Ireland stated. “You can’t replace those years, but I’ve gotten beyond that, and I’m looking forward to the future. I’m not a live-in-the-past kind of guy.”
Governor Dannel P. Malloy appointed Ireland to the Parole Board in October 2014, saying he was a person “of extraordinary character who endured the unimaginable pain of two decades of wrongful incarceration, and yet is not only without bitterness, but is incredibly thoughtful, insightful and committed to public safety and service.”
Ireland’s experience with the prison system became evident when 11 prisoners stated their cases to the Parole Board via tele-conference. Some had entered the criminal justice system as teenagers. There were several cases of bad choices and poor decisions, and some made excuses. Ireland prodded each prisoner to get to the root of their actions. He stated later, “you want to set up these guys for success, no one wants them to be in prison.”
Of the 11 prisoners heard by the Board that day, none were recommended for release; many were required to serve more time due to their records of misconduct.
Following his $6 million claim award in 2015, Ireland said he intended to continue with his full-time job as a member of the Parole Board but decided to resign on February 4, 2016, evidently so he could travel.
This article recently appeared in Prison Legal News in October 2016