On parole again, former Amherst soup kitchen cook Donald Perry raps system

Last modified: Tuesday, April 01, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Donald Perry, 59, didn’t mince words about how he felt toward the system that put him back in prison after he was acquitted in July 2012 on charges of receiving stolen property.

“I’m pissed, I’m totally pissed,” he said. “I have a right to be angry.”

Perry, his partner Elaine Arsenault and about a dozen friends and supporters gathered at the office of his attorney, Luke Ryan of Northampton, Friday to celebrate his release.

Perry was originally paroled after serving nearly 19 years for a 1983 armed robbery conviction. Perry received a second-degree life sentence in that case, making him eligible for parole after 15 years.

Ryan said it was “pretty extraordinary” he received such a harsh sentence in the first place.

“Very few people in Massachusetts receive life sentences who haven’t killed somebody,” he said.

Perry, the former coordinator of the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen in Amherst and a program manager for the Single Room Occupancy Outreach Program in Northampton, was arrested in August 2011 on charges of receiving stolen property from two Leverett homes.

A tracking device in one of the stolen items, an iPad, led state police to pull Perry over a short time later in Northampton. Perry told police he had picked up a hitchhiker who fled, leaving the items behind in his vehicle.

While a jury cleared him of the charges, the Massachusetts Parole Board decided to revoke Perry’s parole. The board said it did not believe Perry’s story, including the claim about the hitchhiker, and believed he withheld evidence.

An outpouring of support, including approximately 142,000 signatures on an online petition and about 30 people attending his parole hearing last March convinced the board to place him back on parole after serving one additional year in prison instead of the five it could have imposed before he would have been eligible for parole again, according to Ryan.

Perry said Friday that he felt the board didn’t take into account everything that he had done in the 30 years since he was first placed on parole, instead focusing on the acts that had landed him in prison in the first place.

Perry was on the board of the Valley Community Development Corp. and worked for several other social and human services agencies in the region, including ServiceNet Inc. and the former Hampshire Community Action Commission.

“It’s like the last 30 years never happened,” he said.

Perry the human services work he does often puts him in contact with a troubled population, some of whose criminal activity or drug use could put him in danger of inadvertently violating parole.

Because of that concern, Perry unsuccessfully tried to have the Parole Board terminate his sentence in 2008.

It was that type of outreach situation that led him to pick up the hitchhiker in the first place, he said, thinking that this might be someone he could eventually build a bond with and try and get some help for.

Since the moment he let him in his car, Perry said, his life “went right down the rabbit hole like in some ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fairy tale.”

The trip back to prison was sobering, Perry said, because it put him back in touch with some of the same people he had been serving time with during his first incarceration and it made him feel the intervening time had never passed nor meant anything.

“I’ve done everything possible to improve my life,” he said. “Because of a flip of a switch, I’m back to square one.”

Perry will remain on parole for the rest of his life, Ryan said.

Perry’s case has caught the attention of filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who created the “Paradise Lost” films about the so-called West Memphis Three, and Radical Media, who are chronicling Perry’s experience for an upcoming project called “The System.”

Perry said he wants to advocate for people coming out of prison, who he said are often left to without transitional assistance or mental health treatment they may need in order to integrate back into society and avoid crime.

“There are people (in prison) in dire need of help,” he said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.