The man on the stage looked out into the audience with an amazed look, as if he couldn’t believe he was really there. He had gone into prison at the age of 17, he told us, and done 27 years. After his release earlier this year, he noticed that people on the outside have a lot of problems—but they’re good problems, and now he gets to have them too.
“My GPS went awry on my way here and took me half an hour out of the way,” he said to laughter. “That was a good problem.” He related that his son turned 10 this year, and that this was the first of his son’s birthdays he has been able to share. Spending too much money in one weekend for his son’s birthday? “That was a good problem.”
“And I wouldn’t have such good problems,” the man said, “if I didn’t have such good advocates.”
On November 15, hundreds of people trekked through the snow to attend the Parole Preparation Project‘s fifth annual Welcome Home party in Harlem. Since 2013, the nonprofit has trained over 400 volunteers to work on the parole process with people serving life sentences in New York State.
The Parole Preparation Project (PPP) also advocates at the state level for parole reform. As a recent report put out by PPP and Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) describes, the NY Parole Board is guilty of “unlawful, unethical and harmful behavior,” despite “repeated admonishments by the New York State judiciary and legislature.”
The board is understaffed, leading to “myriad procedural problems, over-worked Commissioners, higher caseloads, shorter parole interviews, and less time for individualized evaluations of parole applicant files.”
What’s more, the report states, two long-standing parole board commissioners—W. William Smith and Marc Coppola—routinely commit egregious acts, including mocking parole interviewees, “belching loudly” and mixing up or not paying attention to case details. The report points out that Smith has given thousands of dollars to the very state senators who continue to re-appoint him.
Over 120 participants in the Parole Preparation Project have nonetheless been released since it began in 2013. Sixty percent of participants who worked with PPP were granted freedom, compared with the overall rate of 35 percent.
I volunteered with the project earlier this year, working with someone who had been locked up for 33 years. He got out in May.
Many who had been freed in the past year were at last week’s event. They thanked the volunteers who had worked with and advocated for them and expressed gratitude to Michelle Lewin, executive director of PPP. One man said that the first thing he did when he got out was go to her office. “She greeted me with open arms.”
Lewin expressed joy at seeing so many people released from prison, while also drawing attention to a theme woven through the evening—all the people left behind. Nearly 22,000 people are currently serving indeterminate sentences in New York State prisons.
Many will never get a chance to come home. Since Governor Cuomo took office in 2011, 961 people have died in New York prisons. Fifty-four people died in New York State prisons between January and August of this year alone; nearly one-third were serving life sentences and eligible for parole.
Lewin spoke in particular of Joe James, who had been in prison since the 1970s. When PPP started working with him, he was 70 years old, and very sick with pancreatic cancer. But he had a Parole Board hearing coming up—his 10th—and hoped to come home to his family at last.
“The day came for him to have his interview,” Lewin said. “And the Parole Board never called him. They never came to get him; nobody from the prison came to check up on him. Nothing. They just never interviewed him.” A week later, he received an official denial letter saying, ‘You were denied parole because you refused to appear before us.'”
James and PPP tried to explain that a mistake had been made, but to no avail. Two weeks later, on July 15, James died.
He was buried at Elmira Correctional Facility.
“He was a wonderful person,” Lewin said. “He was obsessed with pastrami … So the next time you have a pastrami sandwich, I hope you think about Joe and all the other people who are still inside, who are alive, who are trying to come home, and the people who we’ve lost.”
“I want to hold the joy of the celebration tonight, and the homecoming of so many people who we love and care about, and hold the sadness too. Because that’s what this work is about.”
Image via DOCCS website