[Pnews] New York - Governor, how about clemency?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sat Nov 28 11:13:42 EST 2020


  Governor, how about clemency?

Steve Zeidman - November 28, 2020

It is clemency season. Traditionally, governors exercise their vast 
power to commute prison sentences and send people home at the end of the 
year. Yet the notion of clemency being coincident with the spirit of the 
holidays and the new year is quaint and indefensible. If someone merits 
clemency on Dec. 31, surely they were deserving on Nov. 30, June 30, or 
any other day. If a governor is serious about using his power to free 
people from prison, it should be exercised on an ongoing basis 
throughout the year.

While the need for clemency is ever-present, there is a growing 
imperative for Gov. Cuomo to act as COVID-19 rages through New York’s 
prisons. To date, about 3,400 staff and incarcerated persons have tested 
positive. Twenty-three have died. As COVID numbers rise statewide, they 
spike in congregate places where social distancing is impossible.

As we have become aware, age and COVID are a poisonous combination, and 
this mix becomes deadly in prison. Data received from the Department of 
Corrections and Community Supervision pursuant to FOIL reveals there are 
114 people in prison who are at least 70 years old and have served at 
least 30 years.

These 114 people are not simply members of a faceless, abstract cohort.

David Gilbert is one of the 114. He is 76 years old and has been 
incarcerated almost 40 years. He has been a mentor to many people inside 
prison and, apropos of the current pandemic, was instrumental in 
developing an HIV/AIDS prison education program that was replicated 
across the state and doubtless saved many lives.

David is among the thousands who submitted clemency applications and who 
merit release. It is crucial to say and recognize their names, to make 
clemency about real people rather than an abstract concept. Each person 
is an exemplar of countless others.

Arnie Raimondo is a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran. He has the support of 
the chief of the Kings County District Attorney’s clemency unit, and a 
letter from DA Eric Gonzalez urging the governor to grant clemency.

Lee Chalk is another of the many veterans who languish behind bars. Lee 
is 62 and has served 32 years.

Sheldon Johnson has a letter from state Sen. Zellnor Myrie urging his 
release. Myrie met Sheldon when he was a student at Cornell Law School 
and was enrolled in a class with incarcerated men.

Jacob Rouse has the support of the prison’s superintendent. So do Rodney 
Chandler and Gregory Mingo.

Bruce Bryant has developed programs that benefit people inside and 
outside of prison and earlier this year gave a powerful TEDx talk about 
the impact on children of incarcerated parents.

David Sell is active in the Youth Awareness Program and created a 
curriculum on gang prevention.

Bryon Russ is a facilitator for Alternatives to Violence and Aggression 
Replacement Therapy programs and organized a Book Bag Drive for local 

Julian Castillo, Craig Jackson, Paul Leon, Dontie Mitchell and Anthony 
Ruffin were 16 and 17 years old when arrested. Even the U.S. Supreme 
Court now recognizes the mitigating factor of youth, that brain 
development continues into our mid-20s and that everyone has the 
capacity to transform. Together, these men have served nearly 125 years.

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Many clemency applicants are respected elders who mentor young people 
and can be credible messengers on the outside. Stanley Bellamy, Ulysses 
Boyd, Paul Clark, Robert Ehrenberg, Matthew Lemon, Frank Pruitt, and 
Lance Sessoms are just a few of the older men who have the capacity and 
the desire to teach and mentor at-risk youth. Together, they have served 
nearly 250 years.

Many older people in prison are in failing health. Months ago, Yohannes 
Johnson was found unconscious in his cell and now has a loop recorder 
under his skin on his chest wall over his heart. Jose Medina lost one 
lung to cancer and now appears to have prostate cancer.

The list goes on. These individuals present no threat to public safety. 
They have served decades. They acknowledge and accept responsibility for 
any harm they caused. Their families and communities long for their 
return. What purpose is served by keeping them in prison?

In 2015, the governor announced a clemency project, proclaiming “a 
critical step toward a more just, more fair, and more compassionate New 
York,” and a desire to “identify those deserving of a second chance and 
to help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality.” 
Subsequently, he issued a press release encouraging family members to 
apply for clemency on behalf of loved ones.

People heeded the call. Clemency applications are on the governor’s 
desk. Yet since 2017, he has granted clemency and commuted the sentences 
of only 12 people. What happened to fairness, compassion, clemency as a 
tangible reality? What happened to leadership?

/Zeidman is co-director of the Defenders Clinic at CUNY Law School./

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