By Joaquin Cotler
Imagine your only chance for freedom rests in the hands of three strangers. On the table in front of them are Manila folders filled with detailed descriptions of the worst things that you have ever done. To make matters worse, they’ll be deciding whether serving time has actually rehabilitated you or if your release is still incompatible with the welfare of society—based on your demeanor, your rap sheet, and your behavior in prison. If you are allowed out early, you’ll have to start your life over—equipped with nothing but forty dollars and a bus ticket.
This is the harrowing reality that faces nearly 30,000 people appearing before the parole board in New York each year, as they attempt to prove that despite their track records and everything they’ve seen, they belong back on the outside.
Parole is the early release from prison to community-based supervision, ideally with the cooperation of a parolee’s friends and family. Originally designed as a progressive practice, some version of parole has existed in New York since 1817.
The possibility of being granted parole can mean the promise of freedom for someone who has served his or her sentence’s minimum and is deemed ready to re-enter society. It’s not a sure thing—statistics show that despite prison reform in New York State, an inmate’s chances of receiving parole have actually consistently gone down.
New York has reduced its overall prison population by over 17,000 since the height of the era of Rockefeller drug laws in 1999. The overall number of parolees in New York has seen a dramatic decrease as well—according to Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), there are 36,000 people on parole in New York, down from about 60,000 in 1999. The likelihood of being granted parole remains quite low; right now, an inmate going before the Parole Board in a New York maximum security facility stands about a 22 percent chance of being granted parole, despite parole reform initiatives such as State Senator Kevin Parker’s Safe and Fair Evaluation Parole Act.
In an attempt to address the low numbers, in 2011, the Executive Budget Law, mandating that the Board Of Parole establish “written procedures for its use in making parole decisions” was implemented. This was New York’s attempt to provide an accurate, meaningful measurement of an inmate’s rehabilitation by creating consistent, uniform guidelines.
In order to better and more personally address individual cases, the state also merged the Department of Corrections with the Division of Parole to create the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). While the change was designed to improve the parole hearing process and give potential parolees a more standardized evaluation, statistics show little difference in the number of individuals granted parole, especially among those appearing before the board more than once.
Robert Goldsmith, who spent 34 years in prison for murder and robbery, went before the parole board seven times. “To me, it seems like it doesn’t matter who vouches for me,” said Goldsmith, who was denied six times, despite earning positive references and exemplifying strong leadership in prison. “It made me think that it’s not about rehab—it’s about crime and punishment.”
A 2013 study conducted by the Correctional Association of New York found that instead of fulfilling its proper function of “evaluating what people have accomplished, what risk they pose, and whether they are ready to return to society, [the hearing process] has usurped a sentencing role of inflicting punishment based on applicants’ crimes of conviction and past criminal history.” In other words, the parole hearings are heavily influenced by the “nature of the crime.”
“I think the parole board is afraid to release people with violent histories for fear they recommit the crime,” said New York State Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell (D-Manhattan). “They get a lot of pressure sometimes from the victim’s community, or from the police community.”
New York was the first state to launch the parole system in the U.S.. Penologist Zebulon Brockway introduced parole when he was the superintendent of a correctional facility in Elmira, New York. The system was initially used to control prison population. Later, some states implemented it with re-entry programs to ease prisoners back into society.
Getting parole has become increasingly hard in New York. The prison population has been declining since it hit the all-time high of 72,649 in 1999. But the possibility of parole has remained slim. In 2014, there were 44,889 prisoners eligible for parole, only 20 percent of them earned it.
CONVICTION AND SENTENCING
The conviction and subsequent sentence influence when—and if—an inmate will be granted parole. People are generally sentenced based on the severity of their crime. The sentence, along with a few other factors, including the victim’s attitude toward the crime and its effect on his or her life, the severity or “nature of the crime,” and the length of a person’s “rap sheet,” all dictate the parole circumstances.
With good behavior and participation in DOCCS-sanctioned prison programs, anyone serving an indeterminate sentence an be considered for early release after serving the mandatory minimum of his or her sentence. For instance, a person facing five to 15 years in prison would be eligible for a parole hearing after serving five years.
Sentencing reforms enacted in 1995 and 1998 affected sentences for violent felony offenders. Violent offenders receiving determinant prison sentences (e.g. 7 years), are released to parole supervision without appearing before the Board for release consideration, after serving 6/7 of their sentence. The Board still imposes conditions of release for these offenders.
Someone serving a life sentence may or may not be granted parole—it depends on the circumstances. Someone serving 15 years to life is eligible for parole after the first 15 years, though might encounter difficulty in securing release due to the nature of the crime.
As you might expect, someone convicted of an A1 felony and facing life without parole would not have the opportunity for reevaluation.
THE PAROLE BOARD
The New York State Parole Board, a subsidiary of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, plays the most critical role in an inmate’s provisional release. The Board currently consists of 14 members. Each member is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate for a six-year term.
Members of the Board, also called commissioners, must have at least a bachelor’s degree and five years experience in the fields of criminology, administration of criminal justice, law enforcement, sociology, law, social work, corrections, psychology, psychiatry or medicine.
Board commissioners monitor parolees from their initial release until the completion of their sentence. The system is designed to help re-integrate rehabilitated ex-criminals into society while minimizing culture shock.
Each parole-seeker is scheduled for a release interview. According to DOCCS, the interview takes place at least one month before the expiration of the minimum period of imprisonment, or upon request of an inmate seeking a trial or re-trial.
During a parole hearing, prisoners must make the case to a panel of parole commissioners that they have been successfully rehabilitated by the prison system, and deserve a conditional early release. The typical panel consists of two or three commissioners, who are responsible for interviewing the inmate, reviewing summary reports prepared by facility parole officers, and determining whether or not to grant a release to parole supervision. Many of the criteria used in making the decision are the same considered during sentencing, but also should include the person’s behavior during time served, as well as the type of environment waiting for him or her on the outside. What will the new living situation be? Is there a network of friends to support the parolee? Can the person move in with family?
An inmate seeking parole is allowed to apply for a hearing every two years. All decisions of Board panels and Administrative Hearing Officers may be appealed directly to the Parole Board. According to some former inmates however, the appeal process can take almost as long as the two-year mandatory wait in between parole hearings, and can effectively yield similar results in a denial.
OUT ON PAROLE
According to the DOCCS, on the morning of release, parolees are given at least $40; if they don’t have transportation available, they also given a bus ticket to the county where they were convicted.
Each parolee is assigned a parole officer. The officer’s goal is to ensure that the parolee lives–and remains–in the community at large, without violating the law or the stipulations of parole. A parolee’s experience is largely dictated by the officer assigned to him, and depending on the personal chemistry, a person can wind up successfully navigating the system, or potentially wind up right back in jail.
According to former parole officer Ruben Hernandez, a parolee’s home environment is crucial in their successful completion of parole. An officer will make home visits before and during the parolee’s release, observing and evaluating the conditions and environment. The officers also intervene when the parolee’s behavior or environment threatens to compromise the stipulations of their release.
The parole officer must consult with his/her supervisor about most matters concerning the parolee. In order to grant privileges such as travel outside the five boroughs and amended curfew, officers must ask their supervisors, who in some cases will defer to the judgment of their boss, the senior parole officer.
TERMS OF PAROLE
Upon being granted parole, parolees must agree to 14 basic conditions of release. They must proceed directly to the area to which they are released within 24 hours, and make an “arrival report” to the Division of Parole. They must make office and/or written reports throughout their time on parole.
While on parole, traveling outside the state is prohibited. Parolees in New York City are usually restricted to the five boroughs, The exact specifications of an individual’s conditions can vary. In addition, a parolee (and his or her family) must allow the officer to make unannounced home visits. Criminal activity of any kind is obviously forbidden—as is “fraternizing” with known criminals.
Special conditions, such as drug treatment, drug testing, and therapy can be assigned. Others, like a curfew, may be mandatory as well—but can be modified after a period of good behavior.
According to former parole officer Ruben Hernandez, some conditions are restrictive, but those conditions can be made flexible at some point if the parolee is proving that he or she complies with the terms of parole.
For instance, Anthony Brown, 31, who had been on parole for a year, wanted to go to a wedding outside the city. Based on his good behavior, his parole officer (after checking in with higher ups) granted him a travel pass, trusting him not to abscond and violate his parole.
Parole is by no means a ticket to freedom. Parolees still need to follow every rule and regulation until they are officially released from parole—or risk returning to prison and starting the process over.
Under Executive Law (Section 259-i (3) (f) (x)), the Board has the authority to revoke parole when it determines a parolee has violated the conditions of release “in an important respect.” Board action may return the individual to state prison or impose other appropriate sanctions.
In the case of parole violation, the parolee’s designated parole officer, along with his/her supervisor, determines under what circumstances delinquency action is warranted. For instance, depending on the assessment of the officers, a person who fails to check in with their primary officer during parole can expect to at least serve additional time on parole, but might not return to prison. Someone who tests positive for drugs won’t necessarily do more prison time either, but might have some of their time served “revoked” and subsequently need to have their parole “restored” and serve the missing the end of their sentence.
If that person is caught committing another crime punishable by imprisonment while on parole, their case would be subject to review by a parole revocation specialist, and if the (new) crime involved violence or burglaries, the offender can be sent back to prison, re-sentenced, and would have to wait to be released on parole again.
Parole violation is one of the main reasons for recidivism. 2011, 23,710 people were released from New York State prisons. Of that number, over 42 percent, returned to prison—but most not for committing new crimes. In fact, 80 percent—7,966 of the 10,007 who returned to prison—did so for violating their parole in some way.
In New York, those on parole lose their right to vote. But many individuals on parole don’t know about a process that allows them to use a Certificate of Good Standing or Certificate of Relief from Disability to restore their right to vote. Certificates are meant to indicate a “presumption of rehabilitation,” and to restore the disabilities—or restrictions –that otherwise prevent parolees from obtaining employment, housing and many professional licenses. As a result of widespread confusion about the certificates, many on parole think they don’t have the right to vote when in fact, their right to vote has been restored.
OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM
Survival on the inside requires a complete adaptation to the prison environment. “It’s a hell of an adjustment you have to make, said Larry White, 81, who was paroled in 2007 after serving 31 years in prison. “Now there’s nobody there other than other prisoners that you may meet or may know. Before you know it, you’ve developed what I call a prison lifestyle.”
The long journey back from prisoner to full-scale citizen can take a lifetime. Success on the outside requires meticulous attention to lifestyle guidelines—much greater than average civilians. The temptations are greater. The stakes are much higher. Parolees have everything in the world to lose.
Larry White, despite decades of rugged prison lifestyle, made it out. Like nearly 20,000 others who received the gift of freedom last year, he achieved something that for might have once existed only as a distant hope.
It can take time on parole, and the years beyond, for people who spent a major part of their life in prison to adjust to a vastly different world. Some people, like Anthony Brown, are lucky enough to be released in the prime of their lives with the tools and motivation they need to re-enter society—and the opportunity to live a long life outside the system.