[Pnews] Suicide of 70-Year-Old John Mackenzie After Tenth Parole Denial Illustrates Broken System

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 9 17:53:37 EDT 2017


  Suicide of 70-Year-Old John Mackenzie After Tenth Parole Denial
  Illustrates Broken System

    by Victoria Law <https://www.villagevoice.com/author/victorialaw/>-
    August 9, 2016


On Thursday morning, 70-year-old John Mackenzie was found dead in what 
appears to have been a suicide at the Fishkill Correctional Facility. 
Nine days earlier, in a two-to-one decision, Mackenzie had been denied 
parole for the tenth time.

In 1975, Mackenzie, then 29, was sentenced to 25 years to life after 
fatally shooting a police officer following a burglary. During his 41 
years in prison, Mackenzie earned three degrees, participated in various 
prison programs, and, in memory of his own victim, even secured $10,000 
in funding to create a program that allowed victims the opportunity to 
speak directly to prisoners about the impact of their crimes.

But none of this seemed to matter to the parole board. During the past 
16 years, Mackenzie appeared before the board ten times. Each time, the 
board denied his request. The reason remained the same — Mackenzie’s 
crime showed a “serious 
disregard for the law 
and the board believed that granting him parole would “undermine respect 
for the law.” That decision was in violation of the state’s 2011 
executive law 
requiring the parole board to consider not just the nature of the crime, 
but also factors such as participation in rehabilitative programs, 
release plans, and the risk of recidivism.

Mackenzie filed what’s known as an Article 
or a request for a judge to review the decision of a state or local 
agency.**State Supreme Court Judge Maria Rosa vacated the 2014 denial 
and ordered a new hearing. But the new hearing had the same outcome — 
parole was once again denied based on the nature of Mackenzie’s crime. 
In May 2016, Rosa ruled that the parole board had denied Mackenzie 
parole without considering all the factors, including risk assessment, 
required under the 2011 executive law. “It is undisputed that it is 
unlawful for the parole board to deny parole solely on the basis of the 
underlying conviction,” she wrote in her 
“Yet the court can reach no other conclusion but that this is exactly 
what the parole board did in this case. No other basis has been stated 
by the parole board for the denial of parole in either of its 
determinations in December 2014 or December of 2015.” Rosa held the 
board in contempt, the second time in two years that a judge has done so 
<http://www.clm.com/docs/17-06-52-0401.pdf>, and issued a fine of $500 
for each day until it held a new hearing and issued a decision in 
accordance with the law. She also ordered that none of the members from 
the 2014 or 2015 parole boards participate in Mackenzie’s new hearing.

On Monday, four days after Mackenzie’s death, his attorney Kathy Manley 
received a decision from Judge Rosa reaffirming the contempt order. Had 
he not ended his own life, she told the /Voice/, they would have gone on 
to fight the attorney general’s attempt to appeal the contempt order. 
Manley was hopeful that the appeal court would uphold the contempt 
order, forcing the board to hold a proper hearing in which, given 
Mackenzie’s spotless prison record, he would have been released. “I was 
optimistic,” she said, “but he couldn’t stand it anymore.”

Parole denials based on the nature of the crime, in violation of state 
law, are so common that advocates (as well as the /New York Times/ 
in a recent editorial) call the parole board “broken.” Judith Brink, an 
advocate with the Prison Action Network 
<http://prisonaction.blogspot.com/>, receives hundreds of letters from 
state prisoners who have been denied parole. “The majority of the people 
I hear from are all denied because of the nature of their crime,” she 
told the /Voice/. Each month, Brink combs the parole database and 
compiles statistics of parole decisions. In June 2016, the board saw 895 
<http://prisonaction.blogspot.com/2016/08/julyaugust-2016_90.html>. Only 
258 (or 29 percent) were released. Despite the state’s own findings that 
over age 65 were least likely to commit new crimes 
of the 33 applicants ages 60 or older, only 9 were released.

On Monday evening, approximately 75 people gathered across the street 
from Lincoln Correctional Facility in Harlem to remember John Mackenzie 
and demand changes to the parole system. With the evening sun beating 
down on their heads, they held signs denouncing the parole board for 
Mackenzie’s death. Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, who 
committed suicide after spending three years at Rikers awaiting trial, 
led them in a call-and-response recitation of the facts of Mackenzie’s 
case. Then they marched along the sidewalks of St. Nicholas Avenue, 
chanting and handing out yellow flyers about Mackenzie’s death and the 
need for parole reform to passersby.

Some of the marchers knew Mackenzie from their own stretches of time in 
prison. Some also had their own experiences with the New York State 
parole system.

Mujahid Farid was sentenced to 15 years to life for the attempted murder 
of a police officer. He entered the state prison system in 1978. Like 
Mackenzie, he appeared before the parole board ten times and was denied 
each time due to the nature of his crime. In 2011, after 33 years in 
prison, he was finally granted parole and walked out of prison 
determined to help others, including Mackenzie. Now the lead organizer 
with Release Aging People in Prison <http://rappcampaign.com/>, Farid 
spoke with Mackenzie the day before his death. Mackenzie had called him 
from Fishkill; the two talked about his latest parole denial and began 
planning next steps.

“We lay the responsibility of his death at the doorstep of Governor 
Cuomo,” he told the /Voice/, noting that Cuomo chose to reappoint 
several parole board members first appointed by Governor George Pataki. 
“Cuomo claims to want to reform the broken parole system, but then he 
reappoints members who are resistant to fair parole hearings.”

Ishmael Igartua served 29 years on a sentence of 25 to 50 years. He was 
denied parole twice. He declined to talk about his conviction, but 
noted, “I did not kill anyone or rape anyone. I took responsibility for 
the crimes I committed and was still denied parole again and again. It’s 
not a fair process.”

Igartua also knew Mackenzie personally. “John committed that crime 41 
years ago. He changed his life and created programs inside the prison. 
He helped people every day with appeals.” But, he said, none of that 
mattered. “The only thing you can change is yourself. You can never 
change your crime.”

Donna Hylton agrees. Though she never met Mackenzie, she can testify 
firsthand about people’s capacity to change. At age 19, Hylton 
participated in a kidnapping that ended in murder. She was sentenced to 
25 years to life. She was denied parole three times, spending 25 and a 
half years in prison. “The crime will never, ever change,” she reminded 
the /Voice/. “But people have the capacity to change — and they do.”

Adrian Marie Jones is an organizer with the Campaign to Shut Down 
Rikers. Like Hylton, she did not know Mackenzie, but she and other 
campaign members felt it was important to show up and voice their 
outrage. She compared Mackenzie’s parole denial, which she called “cruel 
and unusual punishment,” to the two years that Kalief Browder spent in 
solitary confinement at Rikers Island, an experience that led to his 
taking his own life. “These issues are all connected,” she told the /Voice/.

“This is an example in which the whole system is corrupt. It hurts 
everyone, regardless of skin color,” added Kenneth Shelton, another Shut 
Down Rikers campaign member.

Marchers lined up on the sidewalk outside the State Office Building on 
125th Street. Striding back and forth, Johnny Perez, who spent 13 years 
in prison, led them in a call-and-response denouncing the board’s 
repeated denials. “He did his time. He was a changed man,” he said. “We 
all make mistakes. We are more than the worst mistake we’ve ever done.”

Advocates also read statements sent by Mackenzie’s two daughters. 
“Despite the odds, John Mackenzie found his own path to rehabilitation, 
in the face of adversity. He overcame; he did what was right.  The 
parole board did not,” wrote his daughter Danielle. “While he took 
responsibility for his actions, the parole board has completely ignored 
theirs, and is without recourse. Now it is time for them to be held to 
the same standards that he was held to; it is time for the parole board 
to be brought to justice in memory of my father and for all other 
prisoners who have served their sentences.”

“The time for change is now,” exhorted his other daughter, Denise. “Let 
my father’s fight not be in vain. If anything good comes from his life 
and unnecessary, sad death, let it be change.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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