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On Christmas Day: Protest at Ohio Parole Board to support 'old law' prisoners

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A 1996 overhaul of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines was a step forward in reforming the criminal justice system in Ohio. But it hasn't helped at least 3,500 "old law" prisoners who were sentenced before 1996.

From 12 noon to 2 p.m. on Christmas Day, the Universal Support Network (USN) is holding a vigil outside the Ohio Parole Board office, 770 West Broad Street in Columbus. The purpose of the vigil is to protest the denial of parole to inmate Norman Whiteside, and to support all old law prisoners and their families.

Whiteside was denied parole on Christmas Eve 2012. The board's reason for denying him parole was that he had been assisting other inmates in attempting to gain their freedom through the legal process. One of the people whom Whiteside assisted was Robert McClendon, who was exonerated of a rape conviction in 2008.

The USN argues that prisoners have a constitutional right to assist, and be assisted by, other prisoners in legal matters, and that the parole board overstepped its authority in denying parole to Whiteside for this reason.

The protest will be held on Christmas Day "because when someone is willing to give up the most important day of the year for a cause, people take you seriously," said USN president Dessalines Weaver. The USN is a non-profit prisoner advocacy organization based in Cincinnati.

Prisoners having to see the parole board have done far too much time, compared to those who were sentenced for the same crimes after the law changed and have already been released, said USN member Karen G. Thimmes, who is also a member of the prisoner advocacy group CURE.

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