By Khorri Atkinson
It took the New York Parole Board eighteen years to release Thornwell Richburg based on the efforts he made to transform himself in prison. He had been eligible for parole since 1996 after serving the minimum of a 15 years to life sentence for attempted murder, assault and possession of a weapon.
During the 33 years he spent at more than five upstate correctional facilities, Richburg, now 57, had mentored young prisoners, took carpentry and plumbing classes, and cooked meals during Ramadan for Muslim inmates. Before his release, he had no idea what it would take to get the parole board to overlook the part of his file that described the crime he committed 36 years ago.
“They kept mentioning the nature of the crime each time, and I explained to them that ‘I apologize but I cannot change the nature of the crime,’” he said. “It felt like a resentence…I was going to trial again. It makes you want to give up because you have to wait for another two years. Sometimes I said ‘I’d rather be dead than being inside this place.’”
Richburg, elected officials and others who have gone through the system, said the 19 member politically appointed parole board, which has absolute, unreviewable authority, denies many people parole because it focuses entirely on the nature of the crime committed rather than efforts of rehabilitation and readiness for society. The failure of state lawmakers to reach a bipartisan consensus to reform the system is also a classic example of the fault lines of upstate and downstate politics.
“We need to have some guidelines. We’re over-incarcerated with people who are not given proper opportunities to be paroled,” said State Senator Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat. Parker wants to change the way the board evaluates parole applicants under a bill he proposed in 2013 called, The Safe and Fair Evaluation Parole Act.
But Patrick Gallivan, chair of the senate’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), said the bill does not considers public safety as a first priority. Gallivan, a former parole board commissioner and sheriff of Erie County, who sets the committee’s agenda, also worries that a violent inmate might abide by his recommendations mechanically and not make the effort to be fundamentally changed.
“When we look at criminal justice in the general sense, we should always look at it to make sure there’s public safety,” he said. “The SAFE Parole Act places too much emphasis on the inmate without enough consideration for society. And that’s concerning to me.”
Gallivan questioned whether a convicted multiple sex offender should be released on parole, even though he might have acquired vocational skills and exhibited good conduct in prison. The senator never stated whether he would release such person, but said, “There’s no guarantee they would never act that way [again].
“Some critics said the parole board is resentencing individuals, but I don’t see that as the case,” he added. “The judge might have sentenced someone to a minimum of 15 years to life. The offender looks upon it: ‘Oh it’s 15 years, I’m good.’ The victim looks upon it: ‘Thank God, they’re locked up for life.’ So when we look at it, we have to balance all those factors.”
A DOCCS spokesperson said the parole board does not make its final decision solely on the seriousness of the crime. It uses a data-analysis program that was adapted in 2011 called COMPAS, which measures inmates’ risk of reoffending.
“The Board must consider statements made by victims and victim’s families, consider an inmate’s criminal history, institutional accomplishments, potential to successfully transition back into the community, and perceived danger to public safety,” he said.
But data, and the experience of a number of former and current parolees and activists, suggest that the crime is weighted far more heavily than the inmate’s institutional accomplishments.
“If your professor gives you a “F” and doesn’t tell you what you did wrong and how to make those corrections, how do you learn from that experience?” Parker added. “Don’t you want to get some instructions on why you failed that assignment? If we deny parole to somebody, they should have an understanding of why they were denied parole and that’s not too much to ask.”
Under the measure, the board would be authorized to shift the overall focus of hearings to a parole applicant’s preparedness for reentry and reintegration. Whenever an applicant has been denied release, the board would be required by law to issue recommendations that can be use to get parole in the future.
In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, 11,237 people appeared before the board, but only 2,406 were granted parole. In the following fiscal year, only 1,443 of the 6,989 people were released. Data also show that in the early 1990s, the board voted to parole more than 60 percent of those eligible. But that rate started to decline by the late 1990s, dipping to 21 percent in 2010.
Parker said there is an underlying factor preventing Gallivan and other Republicans from supporting his measure.
“What we identify with most of these upstate Republicans is that they want to keep people in prisons because that is the best economic development in their communities. But these are people’s lives, and we shouldn’t be using prisons as an economic development tool,” he said.
In recent years, upstate Republicans have lashed out against proposals to close prisons. For example, in 2011 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) closed five upstate (and two New York City) correctional facilities that he said would save taxpayers about $184 million, many Republicans argued that their constituents who work in prisons would lose their jobs. At the time, Cuomo allocated $50 million in economic development funds to assist communities affected by the closings. It was also an attempt to “help end the reliance on prisons as a major source of employment and economic sustainability,” he said.
Robert Dennison, who served on the parole board as chairman and commissioner between 2000 and 2007, said COMPAS has done nothing to change the board’s decisions. He said lasting reform requires accountability.
“There’s no level of accountability because the parole board reports to no one. The judge can tell them what to do like ordering to release someone, [but] they’re very powerful,” said Dennison. “You have to change the mindset of the people who are appointed to the parole board, and you have to appoint people who are willing to take a chance on others who changed their lives.”
If the board is worried that some parolees might commit crimes, Nikki Zeichner, a former criminal attorney who helped prepped Richburg for his ninth hearing, said it could start releasing older inmates.
“It ends up being a huge financial burden,” said Zeichner. “There needs to be far greater scrutiny of these decisions — part of which is creating much more detailed standards that would limit the possibility of the parole board making decisions based on the nature of the crime.”
A recent report from the DOCCS shows that most violent prisoners — older inmates who have been spending decades in prison — are less likely to return and highly unlikely to commit the same crime. The Center for Justice at Columbia University said the population of incarcerated people age 50 and older, in New York has increased by 81 percent since the early 2000s. The aging inmate populace makes up 17 percent of the state’s entire prison population.
But as for the SAFE Parole Act, Dennison said it’s impossible to get the bill through the current Republican-controlled senate.
“Moreover, it ties the hands of the parole board to say you can’t deny someone because of what they did. The state legislature will never approve the bill because they don’t want the parole board to lose all its authority to deny someone,” he said. “Nothing has changed all these years, so I don’t see anything changing now.”
Parker, too, acknowledged that the bill has no chance to get passed, at least for now. But he’s confident that Democrats will reclaim a majority in the senate in 2017. If they do, he said the bill has a chance to get passed.
Until then, experts and activists anticipate more stories like Thornwell’s being commonplace, long stretches of rejections of denials by the parole board.
In December 2013, Thornwell’s luck changed. When he appeared before the board, he said he braced himself, anticipating, yet again, a reading of his 1981 file, after which he would return to his cell —at Groveland Correctional Facility, a medium security that houses more than 1,100 convicted felons —and cry. But this time, the board gave him credit for the efforts he made to change himself.
“It was the greatest feeling. It’s like they have given me life,” he said. “It’s almost like someone who had their foot on your neck for years finally let you go. And then you run, and then you just win. I told them that they would never see me again.”
After his release, Thornwell had worked five jobs before landing a steady job at a construction company in Queens. He said he hopes the system, which was stacked against him, could give prisoners with evidence of rehabilitation a second chance.