[Pnews] Parole justice moves forward in New York State despite police union publicity stunt

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 10 10:43:44 EDT 2019


  Parole justice moves forward in New York State despite police union
  publicity stunt

May 9, 2019

      Join us for Parole Justice Advocacy Day in Albany, Tuesday, May
      14, at the Capitol; see Facebook event page

*/by Naomi Jaffe, New York State Prisoner Justice Network/*

The tide is turning on parole injustice in New York, and the police 
unions do not like it one bit.

In early March, a newspaper article 
revealed that the New York City Police Benevolent Association was 
outraged to learn that a secret direct link from their website to the 
website of the New York State Parole Board had been discontinued. The 
PBA had used the link to allow any one person, with one click, to 
generate hundreds (perhaps thousands) of messages of opposition to 
parole for anyone whose release the PBA opposed.

Then the PBA claimed that thousands of people had written letters 
against that person’s release, and the Parole Board, in its rejections, 
often cited “community opposition” as a factor. Although the link was 
discontinued, the cozy relationship between the PBA and the Parole 
Board, and the politics of endless revenge that drove so many parole 
rejections, continued.

In April, the PBA unloaded a giant wall of boxes at Parole Board 
headquarters, claiming they were filled with “800,000 letters” of 
opposition to parole that should have been considered by the Parole 
Board but weren’t because the website link had been discontinued. No 
investigative reporter asked to look in the boxes to see if they 
contained even a single actual letter written by an actual person.

The illegal and discriminatory privileging of access to the Parole Board 
for a special interest group, such as the police, has long dominated 
parole decision-making in New York – but the winds are shifting. The 
police, the tabloids, the prison guards, the prosecutors and the 
right-wing legislators whose politicized pro-prison agenda has until now 
trumped justice, mercy and legality are on the defensive.

 From the point of view of advocates, family members, incarcerated and 
formerly incarcerated people whose persistence has begun to bring about 
some changes, the time for justice is long overdue. People who pose no 
danger and would be an asset to their families and communities are still 
locked inside for decades beyond their parole eligibility dates. The 
person’s original crime, which they can never change, still often 
outweighs everything positive they have done during their years in 
prison and their low risk of re-offending.

Elders, whose recidivism rates are close to zero, are still being denied 
parole based on a politicized culture of punishment instead of 

John MacKenzie was one such elder. He was incarcerated for more than 40 
years for killing a police officer during a robbery. Despite a sterling 
prison record and outstanding programming accomplishments, year after 
year he was denied parole due to his original crime.

When he received his 10th two-year parole denial in 2016, MacKenzie 
appealed on the grounds that a denial based solely on the underlying 
conviction was illegal. A judge agreed and ordered a new hearing. When 
the new hearing produced exactly the same result as all the previous 
ones, John MacKenzie took his own life.

Shortly after MacKenzie’s death, the court held the Parole Board in 
contempt for failing to follow the law and the court’s orders in 
MacKenzie’s re-hearing. On May 1, 2019, an appellate court, in an 
unprecedented move, upheld the lower court’s finding of contempt against 
the Parole Board.

In that decision, the judge stated that “the Board may not deny an 
inmate parole based solely on the seriousness of the offense” – a major 
victory for parole justice advocates.

The courts are not the only place where the times are changing. The 
parole commissioners who hold the hearings and make the parole release 
decisions are appointed by the governor, with the approval of the – 
until this year – Republican-dominated Senate. They have typically been 
drawn from the ranks of law enforcement and prosecution.

Last year, Gov. Cuomo, pressured by the reform community, appointed a 
handful of new commissioners drawn from social service and other non-law 
enforcement backgrounds. One of the new commissioners was even married 
to a formerly incarcerated person. The relationship was kept secret 
until “outed” by opponents, but the concept that directly impacted 
people should have a voice in the process had crept in by the back door.

This year, advocates are demanding that the understaffed Parole Board be 
filled with people who believe in rehabilitation, have experience in 
human services and have a background that allows them to be impartial 

*Liberal and mainstream media have recently jumped on the prison reform 
bandwagon. The New York Times even ran a favorable piece featuring a 
long-time advocate for prison abolition, Ruth Gilmore. *

The third arena of change is the New York State Legislature, where 
Democrats this year gained control of both houses. Although Democratic 
control by no means guarantees good legislation, it does open up 
possibilities that, until now, were completely closed. The 
Republican-controlled state Senate had tried to increase 
criminalization, lengthen sentences and impose harsher conditions – such 
as charging prisoners for medical care.

This year, some criminal justice reforms have already passed and others 
have a chance at passage. One that has a chance is the HALT Solitary 
Confinement Bill, which, if it passes without being watered down, will 
impose by far the greatest limitations in the country on the length, the 
conditions and the vulnerable populations subjected to solitary confinement.

Parole reform is admittedly a heavier lift, because it affects people 
who have been convicted of serious crimes. By the same token, however, 
it poses a deep challenge to the punitive ideology of mass incarceration 
and the demonization and racist imagery directed toward people in prison.

Over nearly a decade, advocates in New York State have built a series of 
parole reform coalitions fighting against that ideology. They agreed to 
hold the line against compromises which “throw under the bus” people 
convicted of certain crimes, such as killing a police officer.

Jose Saldaña, director of the coalition member group Release Aging 
People in Prison, says, “In our communities, the life of a police 
officer is not considered more valuable than the lives of our children.”

Out of this history, and a partnership with legislators who are 
committed to criminal justice reform, have come two strong parole reform 
bills which, if passed, would greatly improve the fairness of the parole 
process: the Elder Parole Bill, which would allow a parole hearing for 
incarcerated people age 55 and older who have served 15 or more years 
and who, because of the length of their sentence, are not parole 
eligible; and the Fair and Timely Parole Bill, which would require the 
Parole Board to release parole applicants unless there are demonstrable 
factors showing the person is a current risk to public safety.

The campaign for the passage of these two bills involves the fourth and 
most fiercely contested arena of change: public opinion and the media. 
The movement’s own anti-incarceration media (like the San Francisco Bay 
View) have paved the way with clear calls against incarceration and for 
prison abolition.

Liberal and mainstream media have recently jumped on the prison reform 
bandwagon. The New York Times even ran a favorable piece featuring a 
long-time advocate for prison abolition, Ruth Gilmore.

The liberal media, like liberal politicians, often advocate for 
so-called “reforms” that would actually make things worse, like more 
electronic monitoring. They poison the waters by separating “deserving” 
low-level non-violent offenders from “the worst of the worst,” violent 
thugs (cue racial dogwhistle) who deserve endless torture. And a vast 
array of conservative and tabloid media, along with blogs and social 
media, are always calling for more prisons and more punishment.

However, a media- and social media-savvy new generation of prison 
justice campaigners seems to be increasingly successful at spreading the 
word that prisons are harmful, unfair, racially discriminatory and 
ineffective at protecting anyone, and the people locked up in them are 
our children, parents, spouses and neighbors.

The outcome for parole reform, and for wider anti-incarceration change, 
hangs in the balance. But for now there is a new sense of possibility, 
and the movement for parole justice, which has helped to create this 
moment of opportunity, is well positioned to make the most of it to 
challenge and change mass incarceration in New York State.

/Naomi Jaffe is a founding member of New York State Prisoner Justice 
Network, Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration and Parole Justice 
Albany, and a long-time anti-incarceration activist in upstate New York. 
She has been visiting a loved one in New York’s maximum security prisons 
for 30 years. Email her at //naomi643 at gmail.com/ 
<mailto:naomi643 at gmail.com>/./

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