Consider the prospects for a parolee in New York. He has spent the last two decades behind bars. He has been turned down again and again before parole boards. Now, after saying the right things and participating in the right programs, he walks out the prison gate. Where does he go? What does he do? All that he has is $40 and a bus ticket.
For the approximately 53,000 incarcerated New Yorkers and 36,000 on parole, the parole process allows early release from prison, giving the opportunity to reenter society while under community supervision. Our investigation explores the system from the parole hearing process to reentry. Here’s just a glimpse of what we found:
- We talk with parolees like 67-year-old Robert “Smitty” Smith who is sharing a 15-by-20-foot room with seven other men. Finding affordable housing in New York City is challenging for anyone; for those on parole it’s nearly impossible. “Because everyone is telling me sign right here and we’ll definitely gonna get you housing, and they’re lying to me – I’m in between the edges,” Smith told us.
- Suffering from depression and other mental health issues, Malik Elshabazz was on parole when he attempted suicide in 2014. Instead of receiving counseling, officials determined his suicide attempt was a parole violation and he was sent back to prison. Now, nearly two years later, he is back on parole and is still waiting for treatment.
- Mothers like Jean Coaxum describe the challenges of reuniting with their families after incarceration. After serving 23 years and missing weddings, holidays and other family events, Coaxum is still struggling to rebuild relationships with her three children.
- As a contentious 2016 presidential election looms, we examine voter disenfranchisement among parolees and explore a confusing and little-known process that allows parolees to apply for certificates that will restore their right to vote. We found some parolees with certificates who didn’t know they were allowed to vote, while others were issued certificates but never received notification of their approval. And we discover there is no centralized database of certificate holders, which leaves local election boards with no way of verifying which parolees have had their voting rights restored.
Each story spotlights individuals trying to navigate the parole system and struggling to succeed while “free but not free.” Their journey from prisoner to citizen is a haphazard one. The parolee is handed a set of byzantine rules to follow and assigned a parole officer. He is given $40 and a bus ticket by the prison where he served his time and walks out into a fractured and chaotic system. This is the story of turning that $40 and a bus ticket into a new life. This is life on parole in New York.