Malik Elshabazz, 50, thinks about his parole experience at the Quathra Cafe in South Brooklyn. Karen Savage/CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

The Technicalities of Recidivism

By Hayley Lind

When Malik Elshabazz was released from prison in 2013, he thought his life would improve. For the 22 years he’d spent in prison for killing a man he says tried to steal his gold necklace, he’d suffered from depression, which he was officially diagnosed with in 2001.

But Elshabazz, 50, refused to take medication—“Like putting a Band-Aid on a bulletwound, it just wasn’t gonna get better,” he said—and the events of his life on parole forced him into an even deeper depression.

Elshabazz says his wife, whom he divorced late last year, cheated on him and stole money from him while they were separated.

“When she did that, it hurt,” he said. “When people take these things, you’re done.”

In addition to stealing from him, Elshabazz says his wife went to extreme measures to try to get him re-arrested. According to Elshabazz, his wife lied to his parole officer on multiple occasions—one time saying that Elshabazz was selling drugs and another time saying that he had a gun.

“He was like ‘your wife called, she said there’s a gun in your house,’” Elshabazz said. “I said if it’s in there she put it there.”

The stress from his crumbling marriage led him to take 60 sleeping pills in June 2015 in order to kill himself.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “It was like, I’m tired of this, man.”

Before he fell asleep, he texted his then-girlfriend to say goodbye and told her to relay the same message to his mother.

“I took the pills, but it didn’t go according to plan because automatically she called my father,” Elshabazz said. “My father then called my ex-wife and then she called the cops.”

An unconscious Elshabazz was immediately taken to the hospital and eventually transferred to its mental health ward.

Malik Elshabazz sits at the Quathra Cafe in South Brooklyn on Friday, May 6, 2016. Karen Savage/CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

One week later, Elshabazz was released from the hospital and went to see his parole officer, who had called him to report after getting a call from the police. One of the rules that parolees must abide by is that they will not harm themselves or others, but Elshabazz says his officer did not want to write him up, so decided to have a hearing instead. The people at the hearing ultimately decided that Elshabazz violated his parole conditions. Elshabazz was not surprised, as he knew that a suicide attempt was a violation of his contract. He was then sentenced to 90 days in jail.

“I signed, I will not attempt to harm myself or others,” he said.

According to the release provisions listed on the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, parolees must sign a document given to them by the parole board that outlines the conditions of release. Within the following 24 hours, they must report to their parole officer to go over these standards and sign once again.

Although every parolee is aware of the conditions when they are released, a 2011 inmate release report from the DOCCS shows that 42 percent of New York State’s parolees return to prison each year due to parole violations. Also, about 80 percent of return offenders recidivate on account of parole violations rather than new crimes.

Recidivism is one of the most accepted measure of success of prison. But the numbers in recidivism reports can be misleading.

51 percent of inmates who released in 2010 through parole got re-arrested within three years. However, what people ignored was the vast majority of re-offenders were re-arrested for parole violations, not new crimes. Parole violations can be as trivial as breaking curfews or spitting on the street. The parolees re-arrested because they committed a new crime(8 percent) was much lower than that of inmates who served the full terms of convictions(18 percent).

Former parolees say that the reason this is happening is because of the stringent system—strict curfews, travel restrictions and personal biases.

According to Ronald Day, former parolee and associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society, a reentry program in Long Island City, nearly three quarters of the parolees recidivating commit transgressions called “technicalities.”

Curtis Rivers, who was formerly incarcerated, takes a break from his maintenance work for the Doe Fund in Brooklyn Bridge Park on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. Hayley Lind/ CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Ruben Hernandez, a former state parole officer, says that the most common violation is drugs.

“Those technical violations are not for something that is considered a crime,” said Day, who is working toward his doctorate in Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

“The claim is to protect public safety,” he said. But you don’t really protect public safety if you violate a person for committing a violation that doesn’t harm the public.”

The laws require parolees to have strict curfews, which Day says can prohibit them from doing everyday things such as visiting a significant other or watching a late-night movie with a friend.

Hernandez believes the curfew rules are fair, and even lenient, and says that typically parole officers will just write up a curfew violation and not issue a warrant if a parolee breaks curfew.

Generally, warrants are given for drug-related violations, and the write-ups are given for technical violations like breaking curfew. With a warrant, the parolee is arrested, but with a write-up, it is just a warning recorded on the parolee’s record.

Curtis Rivers, who spent three years in jail for drug possession in 1999, was on parole for three years when he violated his curfew and was sent back to jail for 90 days.

Though he admits he violated his 9 p.m. curfew multiple times, Rivers feels his reasons were legitimate.

“Majority of the time I was working or probably with my son,” he said.

In addition to stringent curfews, parolees have travel restrictions that prevent them from traveling outside of New York City’s five boroughs without obtaining a permit from their parole officer.

Day says that while on parole, he wanted to travel to Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala to help one of his friends who was writing a book, but was denied a travel pass. He says his parole officer initially approved his request, but when he went to finalize the permit he was told that he had to ask the Guatemalan embassy for permission to enter the country.

“They said, ‘go to the embassy of Guatemala and tell them you have a criminal record,’” Day explained. “That basically defeated my intention of going to Guatemala.”

Parolees also feel that they can be treated with personal biases. Sometimes the personality of the parole officer and the parolee don’t mesh, and Day says the relationship can be a make-or-break factor in determining a violation when the officer is on the fence.

“There is room for parole officers to make the decision to violate someone or not violate someone,” he said.

Day feels that if the violation laws remain as strict as they are today, the recidivating rate is only going to increase over time.

According to Day, “You want to do things, but you have all these restrictions. You have to ask yourself, are many of these restrictions even necessary?”

“If you’re a violator, it’s stagnant, but you have to deal with it,” said Elshabazz. “I have a jail mentality in terms of dealing with things.”