Once a month Khalid Mustafa stops by a Dorchester parole office, provides proof that he has steady employment and gives a urine sample. Once a month, a parole officer also drops by his home for a check-in. It’s a slog of a routine, and it's not cheap. Mustafa pays $80 monthly in supervision fees.

And this has been going on for years.

Mustafa, a Black man, is one of several former prisoners involved in a lawsuit over how Massachusetts terminates parole. And he's also suing the parole board to end his three decade parole, a request that the board has previously rejected.

For all that time, Mustafa’s had a rotating cast of parole officers, each with different personalities and peculiarities.

“Sometimes I refer to it as, you know, dancing on banana peels. You just really have to be very careful, know what you're doing and make sure what you're doing is right," he said.

The lawsuit Mustafa and other former inmates have filed — the first of its kind in the state — argued that the process to end parole is opaque and termination applications are rarely approved. They’re seeking a clear process for terminating parole, with benchmarks for getting approval and requiring specific reasons for denial.

The case may already be spurring change. The parole board has agreed to create formal regulations to address issues the plaintiffs have brought up, putting the case on hold.

A sign marks the front of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Parole Board Central office in Natick, Mass., on June 29, 2020.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

The arc of redemption

Mustafa was 18, standing near a corner store when someone threw a glass bottle that shattered near him. He confronted two people at a nearby party about the bottle and stabbed 15-year-old Troy Willis, who died. Mustafa was incarcerated from 1977 to 1992 for second-degree murder.

He spent his 15 years in prison learning computer programming, which he made into a career post-release. After getting out, Mustafa took classes at South End Technology Center and Roxbury Community College as a member of the Timothy Smith Network, a foundation that helps provide technology resources to Boston residents.

The organization hired him in 2010 as a technology trainer. He also spent time as manager of technology and facilities at the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.

Mustafa is currently an adjunct professor for Bunker Hill Community College. He is a parishioner of the Mosque of the Qur’an in Dorchester where he’s involved with community events and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

But he also remains on parole and has to check in monthly. And the weight of being on parole is heavy. Mustafa said whenever he meets someone new, looks for a place to live, secures a loan, or seeks employment, it’s a discussion he has to lead with.

Mustafa has had no shortage of support for his petition to end his parole.

William Watkins, the director of workforce at the Urban League, wrote a letter of support saying, “Mr. Mustafa has become one of the leaders in computer technology that is widely respected by industry leaders alike. His expertise in this field has been a true benefit to this community before and during the pandemic.”

Parole officer Salvador Bolanos recommended Mustafa’s parole be terminated, saying, among other things, that he has a “beautifully maintained apartment and has much support from many in the community.”

Boston State Representative Liz Miranda also submitted a letter of support, saying “If anyone is deserving of your Board’s mercy, it is this man.”

Mustafa took responsibility for the death of Willis, and expressed remorse. “I believe in taking responsibility for my actions and striving to be better in the process,” he said in a letter to the Parole Board. “It is humbling to be judged by a crime committed forty-five years ago, as a teenager, when you are in your sixties.”

Nevertheless, the board rejected his petition in July 2021. The board said only that Mustafa didn’t establish "a compelling reason why termination of parole supervision is in the public interest.”

Man standing on pathway in park.
Khalid Mustafa poses for a photo in Boston's Franklin Park on February 21, 2022.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

Challenging the denial

Attorneys Victoria Kelleher, Eric Tennen and James Pingeon filed a lawsuit in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of Mustafa and other former prisoners.

“We brought a lawsuit because parole basically had no real process in place for people to terminate their parole early, even though there's a statute that allows for it,” said Tennen. “And the statute's been on the books for a long time.”

That statute is a 1955 provision that says the parole board can issue a certificate of termination "if it’s in the public interest" after a person has spent a year on parole.

"The Legislature thought that it would be good public policy to terminate parole when people no longer need supervision. And yet the board has decided that it is unwilling to implement that,” Pingeon said.

The lawsuit claims the Parole Board has effectively repealed state law by adopting a “blanket practice” of denying termination in virtually all cases. It’s typical for people who apply for termination to get a one or two sentence denial, he said, but there’s never any reason given why the parolee hasn’t demonstrated that it’s in the public’s interest to terminate.

The Parole Board has not responded to a GBH News request for the number of people whose parole has been terminated in the past decade.

But the Parole Board has offered a hodgepodge of responses to similar requests by attorneys in the past. In one case, the board said 51 petitions for termination were submitted between Sept. 2015 and Sept. 2018 but none were approved. In another case, the board’s attorney said that one termination was granted out of 19 requests between 2019 and 2021.

The plaintiffs want the court to order the Parole Board to create a formal process for terminating parole, approve more termination requests and provide a written reason for denials in a reasonable amount of time.

The parole board told GBH it can’t comment on active litigation, but it agreed in January to draft regulations on terminating parole and to invite public comments, according to court filings.

“They want to put the case on hold while they pass formal regulations, which is one of the things we were seeking with our lawsuit,” said Tennen. “That's an absolute step in the right direction. So we agreed to stay the case so they can go through this regulation.” He’s hoping the rulemaking process takes place within 90 days.

If the Parole Board doesn't implement changes on its own, the legislature could get involved. State Rep Andy Vargas was part of the Massachusetts Special Commission on Structural Racism in the Massachusetts Parole Process, which issued its final report in December. Vargas said the commission "found merit" in examining lengthy supervision periods, and he noted “termination is rare even for those without any violations for years.” Vargas said developing a better process will require collaboration between the parole board, the legislature, and the judiciary, because parole length is set by judges during sentencing.

As of 2020, there were 1,683 people on parole in Massachusetts.

Pingeon, who is litigation director at Prisoners’ Legal Services, said many people have contacted the advocacy organization over the years for help ending their parole, and it almost never happens.

“Psychologically, it kind of undermines the fact that they have actually become fully rehabilitated and have fully adjusted to society,” he said. “And yet on some level, they're being treated as if they are a threat when they aren't a threat.”

Mustafa tried to appeal the decision when he learned last fall that his termination of parole was denied. That’s when he was told there is no appeal process.

"It just seemed baffling to me, being in America, right? No appeal process," he said. "And then that's really how I got drawn into the advocacy part of it."