[Pnews] Herman Bell and the Future of NYS Parole
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Apr 24 10:08:56 EDT 2018
Herman Bell and the Future of NYS Parole
April 23, 2018
*BY SUSIE DAY |* Only a couple of years ago, the New York State Parole
Board was a draconian gimmick to keep people in prison — regardless of
how they had grown and changed over their years inside — until they died
of systemic abuse or neglect or, if they lived long enough, old age.
This was especially true for people convicted of killing police
officers: “offenders” who could expect never to leave prison alive,
because of the unchanging “nature of the original offense.”
John MacKenzie, for instance, accepted responsibility and expressed deep
remorse for his shooting of Officer Matthew Giglio in 1975. He spent
more than 40 years in New York prisons, during which he mentored other
prisoners, advocated for victims’ rights, became a Zen Buddhist, and
maintained a perfect disciplinary record. In August 2016, at the age of
70, MacKenzie killed himself after being denied parole for the 10th
time. In his last letter, he wrote his daughter about his latest denial,
quoting a Buddhist text: “Can a new wrong expiate old wrongs?”
MacKenzie is only one reason among hundreds why the Parole Board has
begun its own process of rehabilitation. In recent years, tireless
organizers (one of whom, full disclosure, is my esteemed partner, Laura
Whitehorn) have worked to push the Board to focus on “risk and need
assessments” in considering suitability for parole, including factors
beyond the original crime such as what someone’s done inside, their
family, job, and community awaiting them outside, and especially their
risk to public safety. The Board expanded and humanized parole
regulations, requiring commissioners to give factual, individualized
reasons for their parole decisions. In 2017, the State Senate approved
the hiring of six new parole commissioners.
PERSPECTIVE: Snide Lines
On March 13, the State Parole Board did something amazing — and
eminently reasonable. Using its new, progressive regulations, a panel of
three commissioners approved the parole of my friend, Herman Bell, on
his eighth try.
Herman, whom I’ve visited for years, is someone the Patrolmen’s
Benevolent Association and tabloids reflexively call “vermin,” a
“cold-blooded cop killer,” and “monster.” But I, being part of the queer
community, and having long internalized being seen as a “monster,” know
first-hand that most monsters are not what they’re cracked up to be.
Until only few weeks ago, I, a pinko dyke and card-carrying cynic, fully
expected to keep visiting Herman until he died in prison. After all,
Herman’s been behind bars more than 45 years because, in 1975, he, along
with two other men, was convicted of the fatal 1971 shooting of Officers
Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini in Harlem.
Herman is now 70 years old. Over his years inside, he’s come to express
deep sorrow for his actions. He’s never stopped learning, garnering
three college degrees; he’s never stopped trying, in small acts of human
kindness and larger acts of counseling young men and organizing outside
community projects, to make the world better. And, given the Parole
Board’s current “risk and need assessment” scale, Herman scores the
lowest possible risk to public safety, or “recidivism.” Herman’s not
perfect, but he is one of the strongest, gentlest people I know.
Herman’s original release date was April 17. But he’s still in prison. A
couple of weeks ago, he sent out a package of clothes he expects to wear
when he gets out. He’s all packed and ready to go — but can he?
Beginning March 13, the day Herman’s parole was announced, through the
rest of March and into April, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association
launched a series of attacks, demanding a suspension of Herman’s
release, saying the Board broke the law in failing to consider the 1975
judge’s sentencing minutes and the impact statements from the victims’
families. The Parole Board duly reviewed this evidence and reaffirmed
its decision to release Herman. Herman was good to go.
Until April 4, when Officer Piagentini’s widow, in tandem with the PBA,
sought and received a temporary restraining order to suspend Herman’s
release, pending an April 13hearing in Albany, before Judge Richard M.
Koweek. One week later, Koweek ruled that Mrs. Piagentini and the PBA
had no legal standing and that “[e]ven if the court was to consider the
Parole Board’s decision on its merits, it would still rule against the
Petitioner.” The PBA says it will appeal. And the judge also stayed
Herman’s release until 5 p.m. Friday, April 27.
Meanwhile, back at the Legislature, the New York State Black, Puerto
Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus — 53 state lawmakers
representing a quarter of New York State residents — released a
statement supporting the Board’s decision for Herman’s parole. This
historic action was predictably ignored by mainstream media, which
instead zeroed in on cop-killer-condemning PBA press conferences,
outraged editorials, and the NYPD police commissioner’s revulsion at the
release of Herman, a man he’s never met.
But thinking beyond Herman, this case could be a watershed. If Herman
Bell can be seen by the New York State Parole Board as a dimensional
human being; if he can be allowed out of prison on the strength of
sound, humane reasoning, so can — so should — thousands of other human
beings aging inside prison. People convicted of violent crimes who have
transformed their lives and deserve to spend their last years living
among the rest of us.
Writing about Herman’s parole is hard. The killing of police officers is
as wrong as the killing of anyone else, including the scores of unarmed
people of color, shot down by cops who almost never face trial. There is
grief on every side. But rather than being a springboard for vengeance,
grief, says the poet Rumi, can also be a springboard for compassion: “If
you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your
greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”
As I sit here, typing, it remains to be seen what, if anything, the PBA
may attempt to prevent Herman’s release. Which may — or may not — happen
after 5 p.m. this Friday. I’m keeping my cynical, pinko dyke heart open…
/Susie Day is the author of “Snidelines: Talking Trash to Power,”
by Abingdon Square Publishing./
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