Parole reform movement gains traction statewide after years of advocacy

Activist Della Johnson attends an Albany rally to release older adults from prisons. Photo via RAPP.

Activist Della Johnson attends an Albany rally to release older adults from prisons. Photo via RAPP.

By Allen Arthur

Special to the Eagle

In the elegant foyer of Columbia University’s Low Library, dozens of students, professors, and business leaders gathered for a unique, and ultimately frustrating, lesson on parole.

Sue Ellen Allen, a fiery Southern veteran of seven years in federal prison, took the microphone and laid out the group’s goals: Using the few items she provided from a small plastic bag and the support of various “service providers” stationed around the hall, each attendee would have to navigate a re-entry and parole simulation.

After the first 15-minute round, participants said they felt discouraged, angry and hopeless. After 30 minutes, they were stealing from each other. The results were typical, said Allen, who travels the country facilitating the simulation to demonstrate the frustrating maze of parole supervision. She said people are typically astonished.

“Outrage and incredulity,” Allen said. “[They say] ‘I didn’t know it was this way. I had no idea. How can we do this? This is stupid. This is a waste of money. How can we change it?’ And the problem is changing it is not easy.”

For New York, that change might be coming.

While bail changes and closing Rikers Island typically command center stage in New York’s justice reform conversations, formerly incarcerated activists have long denounced New York’s parole system as one of the most punitive in the country.

Now, with multiple major changes to the state’s parole system under consideration, formerly incarcerated activists continue to share their stories and draw attention to a system they say fashions unpredictably enforced guidelines and outdated ideas of retribution into a system that makes success nearly impossible.

The Less Is More Act holds wide support in both chambers of the state legislature. The so-called “Elder Parole” bill has passed committee. And advocates are pressuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fully staff the state’s parole board, of which only 12 of 19 seats are currently filled. Together, the proposals could bring relief to thousands of people currently on or seeking parole. Combined, they represent a potential sea change in New York’s approach to supervision and a major show of power by New York’s formerly incarcerated community.  

Sent back without committing a crime

Far from being the guidelines needed to start fresh, parole conditions are regularly cited by formerly incarcerated people as the single greatest barrier to their reintegration.

On top of strict scheduling that can make holding a job a daily struggle, parole reform advocates frequently point to technical violations: acts which aren’t illegal, but which violate parole conditions and can lead to significant further jail or prison time.

Violations can range from drinking to missing curfew to associating with someone else on parole. Enforcement is uneven, however. Some parole officers provide assistance while others are quick to reincarcerate.

“When you get out, you have a parole officer who may be a good person who helps you find a job and a house, or who may try to lock you up again, because that’s easier,” said Laura Whitehorn, a community organizer with Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP).

Release Aging People in Prison advocates demonstrate in Manhattan.  Eagle  photo by Allen Arthur.

Release Aging People in Prison advocates demonstrate in Manhattan. Eagle photo by Allen Arthur.

Technical violations have a major effect on the system. The Marshall Project found more than 61,000 people in prison for technical violations in just 42 states, a number that doesn’t even include local jails.

In 2018 alone, the New York State Assembly Committee on Correction found 1,799 people returned to state prisons alone for technical violations. According to the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, Rikers Island currently holds more than 700 people for technical violations, the one category on Rikers that’s growing.

In response, Katal, alongside Unchained and the Columbia University Justice Lab, helped create the Less Is More Act, co-sponsored by State Sen. Brian Benjamin and Assemblymember Walter Mosley. The bill would eliminate many technical violations, cap potential time served for the ones remaining at 30 days, create a system for parole violation hearings and make individuals on parole eligible for time credits that could halve their supervision time.

“The thing Less Is More does [is] it incentivizes good behavior,” said Cedric Fulton of Katal.

Mosley said the genesis of the bill was the planned closure of Rikers, with lawmakers at the state level realizing that reducing the population there for technical violations could expedite the process.  He also said that current parole structure reinforces some of the ugly sides of the criminal legal system.

“It wasn’t because of the crime,” Mosley said of technical violations. “It wasn’t because they committed another offense, inside or out. It really speaks to those who have resources and those who don’t.”

Allen described parole restrictions as both unbearably numerous and inconsistently enforced.

“The parole officers, they all have a different agenda,” Allen said. “In this case we’re going to follow these rules, but we’re not going to pay attention to those rules. The rules have been built upon for decades. Nobody goes back to the beginning to say, ‘Wait a minute. This doesn’t make sense.’”

Help for those inside

Parole reform advocates are also pushing to help people who are currently incarcerated. Fulton said that, during his 17 years in prison, facing the parole board was the most emotional experience for him aside from witnessing violence. A person seeking parole often gets fewer than 10 minutes to make a case for freedom.

“We are faced with exactly who we were 30 years ago,” said Donna Hylton, director of Katal’s Women and Girls Project. “We get stuck in that moment, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. The remorse that we have, the rehabilitative steps that we’ve made, we are stuck in that moment. The parole board reinforces that every single time.”  

Spurred by notable struggles with the parole system — like the experience of John MacKenzie, who committed suicide at Fishkill Correctional Facility after his tenth parole denial — organizations like RAPP and the Parole Preparation Project have ramped up advocacy around the “Elder Parole” bill, a proposal that would give anyone older than 55 who was incarcerated in New York State for more than 15 years the chance to apply for a parole hearing, regardless of their sentence.

They are also putting pressure on Cuomo to fill the parole board’s seven vacancies, including with people from outside law enforcement. RAPP’s Whitehorn said the understaffed board means there are often two-person panels instead of the recommended three, leading to split decisions that keep people inside. It also means many hearings occur via teleconference, something Fulton says does not give the full impact of an incarcerated person’s current mindset.

“People are judging you based on what they see on a TV screen,” he said.

For RAPP, these changes are a culmination of years of advocacy that was often met with skepticism or a lack of knowledge, even among lawmakers.

“When we started, you couldn’t begin to get anyone to pay attention to the idea that parole should be a way of people getting out and not a way of keeping people in longer,” Whitehorn said. “No one understood parole. When we started going up to Albany and talking to people, they thought parole was early release.”

“A thing called punishment”

The obstacle, unsurprisingly for such proposals, remains law enforcement.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez support the measures,  but Republican lawmakers and law enforcement organizations — including the Queens and Staten Island DAs — mounted opposition.

In April, opponents got their poster child in Judith Clark, the getaway driver of the notorious 1981 Brinks truck robbery that resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a Brinks guard. Clark, 69, received parole after 37 years behind bars. The tagline wrote itself: Cop killers would be freed.

That same month, Republicans in Albany released what they call the Victims’ Justice Agenda, a package of bills that would increase sentences for certain violent offenses and require unanimous — instead of majority — parole decisions to grant release.

William Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County DA and former president of the National District Attorney’s Association, similarly opposes the bill.

He lists numerous horrific crimes that he has prosecuted, singling the perpetrators as people who could potentially receive parole after the proposed changes. Of the suggestion that those individuals might not actually qualify for parole, he said the legislature should “write them out of the bill.”

“Incarceration isn’t just about if a person is dangerous,” he told the Eagle. “There’s a thing called punishment and deterrence.”

He said state Democrats, unafraid of losing their seats, are pushing through any legislation they like. Though he said he might support opportunities for people given life sentences with minimums — such as 25 years to life — he said that life without parole replaced the death penalty in New York and should remain in place. The penalty carries weight for victims and their families.

“Life without parole has to mean life without parole,” Fitzpatrick said.  

Community assets remain locked up

But advocates point out that those who spent the longest amount of time in prison often have the most to offer on the outside, which means a potential wealth of expertise remains locked up.

“Inside, the people doing time are very caring people, very intelligent people, very talented people that can be an asset in their communities,” said Fulton. “There are a lot of people outside who could use that guidance.”

Mosley points out that neither bill guarantees anything. People still must make their case or hit benchmarks for success.

“There’s no question that guidelines should be a part of the system,” Mosley said. “But we don’t want guidelines to be so structured that they become innately punitive.”

For formerly incarcerated people working in the trenches on these issues, this is part of a larger reckoning, one that questions the basic premise that prison and punishment ultimately create safety.

“We’re having arguments we’ve had since Antebellum, about basic humanity,” Hylton said.

“We see this as a beginning of opening up the question of: What is the foundation of mass incarceration?” Whitehorn said. “Why have we allowed this to happen in our society?”

They’re less excited by the political moment, they say, than about formerly incarcerated people speaking out and teaching others. For Fulton, this storytelling hits close to home. He met one of the jurors on his case after he was released.

She told him the jury didn’t know he would get such a long sentence for a small amount of drugs. Angered, she’d since gotten involved in reform efforts.

“When it hits home, that’s when they get empathetic to people,” Fulton said. “There’s a lot of good people who believe the lie. All we can do is educate them.”