By Nora Carroll
To the casual observer, opponents of mass incarceration are ubiquitous. The Justice Department is inviting nonviolent drug offenders to apply for clemency, there have been congressional hearings on solitary confinement, and everyone is talking about the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. But for those who envision a world without prisons, “progress” is always bittersweet. In New York State and New York City, we have plenty to celebrate, but the struggle is unrelenting.
Though we heralded Mayor De Blasio’s appointment of Joseph Ponte to be Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, we also mourn the deaths of Jason Echevarria, Kyam Livingston, Bradley Ballard, Jerome Murdough among others, who died horrific deaths while in custody. And though 2014 saw the introduction of the HALT (Humane Alternatives to Long-Term) Solitary Confinement Act—a bill that would formally recognize prolonged solitary confinement as torture—in both houses of the New York State legislature, its path to becoming law is challenging.
The United States prison population has declined slightly in recent years, but the Board of Parole’s abuses continue unabated. Though New York State courts and the legislature have taken some interest in curtailing the tendencies of the Board of Parole to deny parole reflexively based on the nature of the crime of conviction, the Board has continued with business as usual. The legislative mandate to consider risk and needs in determining whether an individual is suitable for release has taken a backseat to the commissioners’ usual fear of being criticized the New York Post. Cases like that of Daniel St. Hubert, the mentally ill parolee accused of multiple stabbings (including two young children), create a difficult political climate for the thousands of New Yorkers who have served many years more than their minimum sentences but continue to be denied parole. Most press coverage glosses over the fact that Mr. St. Hubert had not, in fact, been granted parole by the Board at all, but instead was released after serving his maximum sentence.
In this fraught political environment the New York City Mass Incarceration Committee (MIC) seeks to oppose mass incarceration at the most basic level – by working to free rehabilitated people from prison. Our Parole Preparation Project, which is ramping up and has already grown tenfold this summer alone, is working with long-termers in New York State prisons who have been denied parole before, and who would benefit from counseling and assistance in preparing to go before the Parole Board.
The Parole Prep Project deploys volunteers to work with parole applicants by gathering needed documents and letters of support, counseling the individual before the Parole Board interview, and writing a letter to the Board advocating release. We are learning in depth about the failures of the parole system, and connecting with incarcerated people who are leaders in the movement for change.
Our volunteers are law students, legal workers, attorneys, social workers, and even some friends and family members of people in prison. We do not provide attorneys to the parole applicants we work with, but we do provide a level of guidance and expertise that is generally unavailable to people preparing for a Parole Board appearance.
Our project exists in recognition of the immense structural barriers to legal work by and for people in prison. Everyone is constitutionally entitled to legal counsel when charged with a crime, and many NLG attorneys are criminal defense attorneys. We fight as hard as we can, but ultimately more than 90 percent of our clients plead guilty and go to prison. Many long-termers (and not just in New York) have not had the advice of counsel since their crime of conviction and its appeal. Onerous laws keep people in prison out of court and prevent their attorneys from making any money, ensuring that this vulnerable population is forgotten, particularly by the legal community.
Reducing mass incarceration and getting people out of prison restores families and communities one individual at a time. The parole system in New York State is disgraceful and profoundly unfair, but its harms are often hidden from mainstream society. The Parole Prep Project seeks to expose the broken parole system, which along with an array of other efforts, will pressure the legislative, judicial, and executive branches to make meaningful change.
If recent attention to the ills of mass incarceration has taught us anything, surely a significant lesson is that prisons are places where legal services are desperately needed. Prisons are closed off to journalists and granted the most extreme deference by the courts in how security is enforced, and people in prison suffer as a result.
The Mass Incarceration Committee calls on lawyers and legal workers of conscience to use our legal skills and political power to reduce mass incarceration, help get people out of prison, and end the worst abuses in the prisons we can’t close down.
For more information or to join the MIC and/or the Parole Preparation Project, please contact Nora at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Convention will feature programming on mass incarceration, including the major panel Furthering the Movement to Stop Mass Incarceration and the workshop, Stopping the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Chicago Public Schools. There will also be an MIC meeting for new and current members.