By David Weprin
Special to the Eagle
On Wednesday, Judith Clark was granted parole after serving nearly four decades in prison for her role in an armed robbery. Throughout her period of incarceration she disavowed her past criminal views and atoned for her crimes becoming a model for other prisoners. Her release shows that our New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision can fulfill its vision of rehabilitating inmates and reducing criminal behavior. It also underscores that we need to strengthen our system so people like Judith Clark are not the exception but the norm.
I have met Judith Clark personally and her journey is one of immense change. During her trial she chose to represent herself and her radical testimony led the trial judge to consider her irredeemable. She was subsequently sentenced to 75 years in prison. However, during her time at the Bedford Hills correctional facility she earned a master’s degree, started an AIDS counseling and education program that became a model for prisons nationwide, and publicly apologized to the victims of her crime. Every woman I meet who was formerly incarcerated at Bedford Hills has told me that Ms. Clark was influential in helping them through their period of incarceration and in helping them become a productive member of society. She served 38 years in prison and attributes much of the change to her desire to build a relationship with her daughter.
Two factors stand out in Judith Clark’s story: family and age. As Chair of the Assembly Committee on Correction, I have visited many prisons, interacted with prisoners, and spoken with prison reform advocates. These two factors make a difference in the rehabilitation of prisoners and the safety of the public.
Research has shown that family plays an important role in the rehabilitation of prisoners. Inmates who receive visits from family and friends are significantly less likely to commit crimes than inmates who do not receive visits. Visitation also motivates prisoners to complete programs and follow facility rules. Importantly, visitation allows inmates to keep in contact with people who will become their primary source of support upon release from prison.
Beyond the inmates themselves, visitation also has a positive effect on their families. About 72% of women and 62% of men in New York State prisons are parents. Research has shown that children who have the opportunity to visit their incarcerated parents are better adjusted and associated with higher self-esteem and improved non-verbal IQ scores.
While visitation is already allowed in our state prison system, it is not grounded in law. Furthermore, visitation is often impaired by state funding cuts, long distances, and access to transportation.
Establishing visitation as a right and not a privilege will make our prison system and communities safer. That is why I have introduced bill, A2483, to codify visitation rights for prisoners in state and local correctional facilities. Building upon this I have also introduced, A4339, establishing a pilot program placing certain inmates in facilities closer to the communities where their children reside. I am a co-sponsor of, A05942, restore transportation for prison visitors from certain cities to state correctional facilities.
Secondly, age is factor in recidivism. Most crimes are committed by younger individuals. However, our prison population is aging due to long sentences. New York States prison population over the age of 50 has increased by 81 percent since 2000. Since the risk of elderly prisoners reoffending is low, I have introduced bill, A04319, which permits the Board of Parole to evaluate all inmates over the age of 55 who have served at least 15 years in prison for possible parole release. Older inmates who have served long sentences present the lowest risk of recidivism of any other class of inmates.
Judith Clark’s journey of repentance is inspiring but unfortunately it is not a story shared by most prisoners. As a state, we must work to reform our aging correction laws and make sure that the focus is on rehabilitation. We must pass visitation and elder parole laws to ensure that our inmates are motivated to behave and those that pose a low risk are not needlessly kept away from reintegrating into society.
Assemblymember David Weprin represents the 24th Assembly District in Queens and has devoted his career to making government more responsive, efficient and accountable.