[Pnews] Herman Bell and the Future of NYS Parole

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Apr 24 10:08:56 EDT 2018

gaycitynews.nyc <http://gaycitynews.nyc/herman-bell-future-nys-parole/>

  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,” 
<https://www.amazon.com/Snidelines-Talking-Trash-Susie-Day-ebook/dp/B00PBHEENQ> published 
by Abingdon Square Publishing./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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