By David Brand
Stanley Bellamy has never used the internet. Bellamy, most people call him Jamel, has never seen a cell phone, except on TV.
A few years ago, his typewriter broke and he paid about $300 for a new one, which he uses to draft his college papers and to work on his Responsibility Letter, an intimate appeal for clemency, from inside his cell at Sullivan Correctional Facility.
That letter could be Bellamy’s ticket out after more than 33 years in upstate prisons. But it’s also one of the most challenging tasks he has had to complete.
“Jamel is not a big self-promoter,” said his friend and attorney Bahar Ansari, a CUNY Law professor helping Jamel apply for clemency. “There are so many things that he has done and he’d rather help behind the scenes.”
Under a 2015 measure, incarcerated New Yorkers are eligible for clemency through reprieves, commutations and pardons issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The measure established the Executive Clemency Board to review applications and recommend commutations or pardons to Cuomo.
The governor has granted clemency to inmates on fewer than ten occasions since forming the clemency board. This year, Cuomo has yet to grant clemency to a single person.
Despite the long odds, a lot of people want to help Bellamy, who was convicted of murder in 1985. In him, they see a mentor and inspiration to the generations of younger inmates who he has helped.
There’s Tajuana Johnson, Ansari’s colleague and the other member of Bellamy’s legal team. Like Bellamy, who is from Corona, Johnson grew up in a tough Queens neighborhood in the late 70s and early 80s.
Their paths diverged as they approached adulthood. While Johnson went to college and eventually studied law, Bellamy got caught up in crime. In 1985, at age 23, he was charged with murder and sentenced to 62 and a half years in prison.
There are the professors from St. Thomas Aquinas College, who have taught Bellamy as he pursues his college degree. He earned his GED and his associate’s degree behind bars and he is now working on a degree in sociology.
And then there are the many people Bellamy has helped lead better, healthier lives inside the prison walls.
“I got a call from a gentleman who was incarcerated with Jamel and he said ‘What can I do to get him out?’” Ansari said. “He was such an inspiration and mentor.’”
Ansari and the others are hoping Cuomo will see that too.
Bellamy’s voice is faint on the phone.
Each weekend, he calls Ansari using a Securas phone line inside Sullivan. How long he talks depends on how many people are waiting on line to make their own calls.
On a Saturday in November no one is waiting, so Ansari helps Bellamy share the personal accomplishment he seems too humble to bring up, like the research paper he’s working on based on his experiences in the groups and classes he has organized inside the prison.
“The vast majority of adult men return to school because they want to better themselves,” Bellamy said. “I hear them crying and complaining all the time, but when I started doing my paper, I understood that they’re coming to better themselves. When they’re with the group they say they’re bored. They’ve got to project an image in here.”
They fear that losing that image puts them at risk for seeming weak or vulnerable, he said.
“That’s the image thing that we need to get rid of — that’s ‘IEP’,” he continued.
“IEP” stands for Image, Ego and Pride, Bellamy clarified.
“And IEP is just as destructive as the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in Iraq,” he said. “It will make you do some really dumb things.”
Over the past three decades, Bellamy has taken on the role of mentor to many young men, helping them manage their IEP, become better fathers and prepare for their release — even as he faces death behind bars.
Tackling Mass Incarceration
Nationwide in 2016, more than 161,000 people were serving life sentences or virtual life sentences — prison terms that exceed life expectancy — according to a report by the Sentencing Project.
Roughly one out of every five inmates in New York, nearly 10,000 total people, are incarcerated for life. That is the third highest number of life sentences in the country after California and Louisiana, the Sentencing Project reports.
Tackling the mass incarceration crisis means enacting major — and politically tricky — criminal justice reforms beyond legalizing marijuana offenses or wiping away past low level convictions, advocates say.
“If we are serious about addressing mass incarceration, we have to ask, ‘How much time should someone serve for violent act?’” CUNY Criminal Defense clinic director Steve Zeidman told the Eagle in September. “A lot of students who want to represent poor people accused of crimes grapple with the fact that [people] are not just [imprisoned for] marijuana sales.”
“They’re real people with real lives and we all have the capacity to change,” Zeidman continued.
The CUNY Law Defenders have made clemency their mission. The clinic currently represents 15 people seeking clemency from the governor, including Bellamy.
“They have the support of virtually everyone in prison and that includes the administrators, staff and volunteers,” Ziedman said. “But they will die in prison unless the governor grants them clemency.”
So far, two clinic clients have had their sentences commuted or have been granted clemency, he said.
One, a woman sentenced to 75 years. She had served 36 years before the governor commuted her sentence to a minimum of 36 years, which enabled her to become eligible for parole.
The other was an Indian man convicted of murder. After he served 20 years in a prison, the governor granted him clemency and he was immediately deported to India.
A Leader Behind Bars
Bellamy is a prime candidate for clemency because of the “amazing transformation” he has made since he was convicted for murder, Ansari said.
“So many of his accomplishments are to help people get out,” Ansari said. “He has helped people with their reentry packages, he has helped people advocate for parole and he has done all that knowing his earliest release date is 2048.”
For his part, Bellamy said he never thought clemency was possible.
“I didn’t see myself living that long,” he said. “Everything I’ve gotten involved in was to help other guys,” he said. “They ask me what can I do and I say ‘Don’t come back.’”
He said he began taking on a leadership role after his first few years in prison. That’s when he began to consider his role as a father to his children and mentor to other inmates.
“Some factors on the outside made me think of what I was doing,” Bellamy said. “I was not giving back to anybody, I was harming everybody.”
He learned that his children’s mother was using crack, which meant that he would have to be a more responsible parent.
“It was time for me to stop and think about how I could be a better man so I could be a father from prison. One of us had to be sensible,” he said. “I had to take the necessary steps and educating myself was the first step.”
Bellamy, a high school dropout, immersed himself in schoolwork and to social skills classes, including courses on parenting and communication.
“I went through my trials and tribulations, but one thing I can say about my sons is that they did not follow in my steps,” he said. “They did not get involved with crime and that’s what I’m proud of.”
The experience of parenting from prison — making sure he saw his children on positive occasions and not just when they were in trouble, for example — inspired him to exchange advice and guidance with other incarcerated men.
Bellamy began spearheading initiatives throughout the prisons where he has been incarcerated. He has led an anti-littering campaign to reduce the rats and pests in the prison. He has put a call to prisoners to send submissions for a book he plans to call 100 Ways to Give Back . So far, he has received 78 ideas.
Bellamy is preparing for an anti-violence seminar inside the prison on Feb. 24. Such programs can have a significant impact on the culture of the prison, he said.
“We are products of our environment, but at same time, the environment is a product of us,” he said.
This article is Part One in a series about criminal sentencing and clemency for people convicted of violent crimes.