Saturday, April 29, 2006

John Caher:Parole Suit Proceeds in Light Of 'Steep' Decline in Releases - John Caher, Albany Bureau Chief, NY Law Journal

07-20-2006  ALBANY 
— The "abrupt and steep decline" in the parole release rate for A-1 violent felons presents "at least circumstantial evidence" that the parole board is relying on gubernatorial policy rather than legislatively directed law, a federal judge has held. 

Southern District Judge Charles L. Brieant, who sits in White Plains, denied the state's motion to dismiss a pending class action suit in which thousands of New York state prison inmates claim they are being denied parole by a board appointed by Governor George E. Pataki and that is following his directives rather than statutory criteria. Earlier this year, the New York Law Journal reported that under Mr. Pataki the release rate for A-1 violent felons has dropped from 28 percent to 3 percent (NYLJ, Jan. 31). 

Judge Brieant said that while there is no due process right to parole release, there is a constitutional right to have parole determinations made in accordance with the statute — a potentially key finding that recognizes a "distinction between a challenge to the process of determining a parole decision, and a challenge to the actual outcome." 

Under Executive Law §259-I, the parole board is required to take into consideration a number of factors, including the seriousness of the offense, the inmate's institutional adjustment, and academic and other achievements. While the parole board clearly has the discretion to give as much weight as it deems appropriate to any of those factors, it may not refuse to exercise any discretion at all and automatically deny release to violent felons, Judge Brieant said. That is what the plaintiffs in Graziano v. Pataki, 06-cv-00480, allege the board is doing. 

"Without suggesting that he has done so, the Court can hold with confidence that the Governor would not be permitted to effect a 'policy' as an end run around the legislature, in order to accomplish the goal of amending the statutory criteria to deny parole to a class of violent offenders," Judge Brieant wrote. "Such an end run is precisely what is alleged by the Plaintiffs." 

Mr. Pataki's disdain for parole is a matter of public record. He has succeeded in eliminating parole for violent felons, prospectively, but has not persuaded the Legislature to eliminate parole entirely and replace it with a determinate sentencing structure. Critics and the plaintiffs in this case allege the governor has sought to achieve through a parole board he appointed that which he cannot achieve in the Legislature. 

Judge Brieant's decision, dated July 17, was prompted by a motion by the attorney general to dismiss the action. Assistant Attorneys General Neil Shevlin and Jennifer L. Johnson had argued that there is no policy to deny parole to violent felons solely because of the severity of their crimes. They also argued that the federal courts should abstain from interference in what is a state matter. 

But Judge Brieant held for the plaintiffs. 

Robert N. Isseks, counsel for the plaintiffs, said the ruling indicates that members of the yet-to-be-certified class will "finally have an opportunity to prove that the board is denying them parole solely because they have committed A-1 violent felonies and without any concern for the statutory objectives of rehabilitation and readiness for release." 

Handling the case with Mr. Isseks are Alex Smith of Middletown and Peter A. Sell of Manhattan. "Under the parole challenges that have come before, this class action enables the plaintiffs to present proof that the Pataki parole board has been systematically using the fact of a murder conviction, without more, to keep prisoners from being considered for release," Mr. Isseks said.  Both the Division of Parole and the attorney general's office declined to comment. 

Unofficial Policy 
Judge Brieant acknowledged that there have been dozens of actions in which individuals denied parole have made allegations similar to those in this case. However, he said the allegation here of a "policy or practice to deny parole based solely" on the offense "transcends what all previous Court decisions have addressed, namely, whether a particular parole denial constituted a violation of one or more Constitutional rights."

The state had argued on an equal protection claim that the plaintiffs here — all of whom are violent felons — are not similarly suited to non-violent offenders eligible for parole. However, while agreeing that there may be reasons to deny a violent prisoner parole and grant parole to a non-violent convict, Judge Brieant said both are entitled to the same statutory consideration. "The violent nature of the offense may obviously be considered, but may not serve to make a denial a foregone conclusion, in contravention of the statutorily-prescribed process of consideration," Judge Brieant wrote. 

He acknowledged that the pendency of this case "brings confusion to pending cases in the Division of Parole and adds unrest in the prisons." Judge Brieant ordered a conference for July 28, at which time he will consider permitting an immediate interlocutory appeal of his ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals. 

Judge Brieant's decision comes on the heels of another lawsuit on his docket alleging that the parole board has adopted an "unofficial policy or practice" to "unlawfully eliminate or substantially curtail the Parole Board's discretion when making parole release determinations concerning prisoners serving sentences for A-1 violent felonies."  That case, Frederick v. Pataki, 06-CV-5132, filed on July 6, centers on an inmate who was granted parole by one board and was about to walk out the prison door — he had given away his belongings and his in-prison job — when his release was abruptly rescinded. 

Parole Rescinded 
Court records show that in August 2003 parole commissioners Vernon C. Manley and Daizzee D. Bouey voted to release Mr. Frederick.  Although Mr. Frederick had murdered one woman and attempted to kill another, the commissioners were persuaded he had reformed. Mr. Frederick had immediately taken responsibility for his crime, made considerable accomplishments in prison, compiled a spotless institutional record and won endorsements from, among others, the superintendent of Sing Sing. The superintendent described Mr. Frederick as a "poster child" for the type of offender for whom the parole system is supposed to work.  However, the same commissioners who voted to release Mr. Frederick were also responsible for the release of Kathy Boudin, a 1960s radical convicted of felony murder and robbery in connection with an incident that left two police officers and a Brinks security guard dead. That decision was publicly denounced by Mr. Pataki.  While Mr. Frederick was preparing for release, another member of the board, Robert Dennison, met with relatives of one of the victims. After Mr. Dennison asked if they thought Mr. Frederick "should die in jail," a relative agreed that the convict should never go free, according to court records. Mr. Frederick was then subjected to a parole rescission hearing based on newly discovered evidence. The newly discovered evidence was that the victim's relatives opposed release.  Messrs. Manley and Bouey, who voted to release Ms. Boudin and Mr. Frederick, were suspended and a new parole board, with Mr. Dennison sitting on the panel, reconsidered and voted to deny release, according to the complaint.  Mr. Dennison was promoted to chairman of the commission and the chairman who had been presiding when Ms. Boudin was released was replaced. The governor recently replaced Messrs. Bouey and Manley.  Officials have said there is no correlation between Mr. Dennison's promotion and the Frederick case, and no correlation between the Boudin decision and the former chairman's reassignment.  But attorney Vivian Shevitz of South Salem, Westchester County, contends the parole board and state court judges who upheld the rescission "were apparently intimidated by the Governor's political agenda." 
"The policy and practice carried forward by Commissioner Dennison and approved by the New York courts was a sham; it is a violation of due process and equal protection in that it forwards a political agenda. " Ms. Shevitz said in the complaint. She is seeking a federal court order that the rescission hearing and resultant state court decisions violated several of her client's federal constitutional rights.

 — John Caher

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

John Caher: Dismantling Parole

'Dismantling Parole'
Parole Release Rates Plunge Under Pataki's Tough Policy

John Caher

01-31-2006 NY Law Journal

Thousands of New York prison inmates sentenced at a time when parole release was a realistic prospect are now lingering behind bars as the Pataki Administration has dramatically restricted parole for violent felons, arguably going beyond anything authorized by the Legislature, a probe by the New York Law Journal reveals.

Through an administrative process subject to scant judicial review, Governor George E. Pataki's appointees to the New York State Board of Parole have evidently used their broad discretion to implement a gubernatorial policy to keep violent felons behind bars as long as possible, notwithstanding the recommendations of sentencing judges guided by a different and more lenient legal, political and legislative framework.

Parole release rates have declined radically since Mr. Pataki, a Republican elected initially on a tough-on-crime platform, became governor in 1995 and as the board members appointed by his predecessor, Democrat Mario M. Cuomo, have all been replaced.

The results are telling: In fiscal year 1992-93, the state released 23 percent of prisoners eligible for parole who had committed so-called A-1 felonies — murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and arson. By 2004-2005, that had plummeted to 3 percent, just nine prisoners. At the same time, the release rate for other violent criminals who appeared for interviews before the parole board plummeted to 18 percent, or 337 inmates, from 51 percent.

In a 2003 ruling, Acting Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Sheridan of Albany observed that since taking office, the governor has annually called for the elimination of parole. The judge, citing the sharp drop in parole releases since Mr. Pataki took office, found an "undeniable inference that the Board has 'gotten the message' and is implementing executive policy."

Critics of the administration's parole practices say inmates convicted under prior regimes — -especially inmates who plea bargained and had reason to expect that they would be freed after serving the lower end of an indeterminate sentence — -are getting a raw deal.

"It's fine, a legitimate political decision to do things prospectively," said Alfred A. O'Connor, an attorney with the New York State Defenders Association in Albany. "It's quite a different matter when you are victimizing people who are in [prison] under a completely different set of circumstances, a set of assumptions about what would happen."

Consider Brian E. Jacques, who plea-bargained for a term of 15 years to life (see sidebar).

When Mr. Jacques pleaded guilty to an Albany County murder in 1983, he expected to be released after 15, maybe 17, years. At the time, that was a reasonable expectation. But Mr. Jacques had the misfortune of coming up for parole when government attitudes about early release had changed.

Despite a good prison record and no prior history of violent behavior, Mr. Jacques has been denied parole four times since Mr. Pataki took office and has spent 23 years behind bars. Mr. Jacques' fate is in the hands of the parole board. He could be released after his next parole hearing in August, or never, and the fact that the sentencing judge gave him the minimum is of no consequence.

"I wholeheartedly believe they are following Governor Pataki's agenda not to release violent felons," Mr. Jacques said. "I believe his message to the parole board is, 'Do not let these people out,' and they are following that standard."

Several parole board members either declined to be interviewed or did not return repeated telephone calls. Scott E. Steinhardt, spokesman for the Division of Parole, said in a statement that each of the board's decisions "reflect a careful and independent level of consideration."

By law, parole is a possibility, not a guarantee or reward for good behavior, and an inmate has no legal expectation of securing parole release (see sidebar). Moreover, the parole board has broad discretion in making its decisions. While the board is required to take into consideration a number of factors — such as the seriousness of the crime and the inmate's rehabilitative effort — -it can place any weight on those factors and need not explain itself. Current commissioners often give more weight to the seriousness of inmates' crimes than to claims of rehabilitation.

Public Safety

Chauncey G. Parker, the governor's director of criminal justice and commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services, which encompasses the Division of Parole, does not deny that the parole board shares the governor's philosophy and, to the extent permitted by law, follows his agenda. He said it is axiomatic that a panel appointed by a long-term governor would reflect the philosophy of the executive. But he sidestepped questions on whether it is fair to impose today's attitudes on inmates sentenced during another era.

"The governor's focus as a matter of public safety is to make sure . . . that people convicted of violent crimes serve the longest possible sentences," Mr. Parker said. "It is clear that the governor thinks as a matter of public policy and public safety that a more effective way to do this would be to have a determinate sentencing structure and have the judges make the decision, except for murder where it would be life without parole or something like that."

Mr. Steinhardt, the Parole Division, spokesman, stressed that in the past decade, new crimes by parolees have decreased and the number of parolees returned on new felony convictions has dropped 48 percent.

Although exact numbers were not available, a large portion of New York's 63,000 inmates were sentenced to indeterminate, parole-eligible terms, the 2004 New York State Statistical Yearbook suggests. Mr. O'Connor said those convicts should be judged for parole purposes under the rules and protocols in effect when they were sentenced.

"It is one thing to have a determinate sentencing system. It is another to be retroactively imposing that," Mr. O'Connor said. "Now, there is no difference between a 15-year-to-life sentence and a 25-year-to life sentence."

Since taking office, Mr. Pataki has sought to redesign New York's sentencing structure to more closely mirror the federal system. The federal government abolished parole in 1984, substituting for the parole system one in which inmates serve a determinate sentence followed by a period of supervised release. Mr. Pataki would follow the federal government's lead.

"What the governor is proposing is a clear, transparent sentencing structure investing the discretion in the court and not in the parole board," Mr. Parker said. "Under current law, what the judge says is a factor, but ultimate discretion is vested in the parole board. If the governor's proposal went through, the judge's sentence would be the sentence."

But the Legislature has gone only half way, eliminating parole for some offenses, maintaining it in others — and leaving the thousands of inmates convicted under older laws at the mercy of the current parole board.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1995 abolished parole for second felony offenders and Jenna's Law in 1998 abolished parole for all violent offenders and added a post-release supervision component. As it now stands, only non-violent, non-drug offenders receive an indeterminate sentence. All other felons are sentenced, prospectively, to a determinate term.

As the result of changes in the law, the number of violent inmates eligible for parole has plummeted to 2,414 from 7,623 since 1992-93, a decline of 68.3 percent. But the number of eligible violent felons released each year has declined more rapidly — by 88.4 percent. Overall, the state released only 38 percent of the violent and nonviolent inmates before it last year, down from 62 percent in 1992-93.

"The parole board is acting as a second sentencing court, imposing its own sentence in place of the sentence imposed by the judge," said Robert N. Isseks, a criminal defense attorney in Middletown. "That is particularly clear in those cases where the judge imposed a sentence less than the maximum [such as 15-years-to-life rather than 25-to-life]. Then, the parole board steps in and imposes a sentence that is twice as much."

Mr. Isseks recently filed a federal class action in the Southern District accusing the Pataki Administration of side-stepping the parole law in order to advance its agenda. Nine named plaintiffs who were sentenced to less-than-the-maximum for second-degree murder, but have been repeatedly denied parole, allege that the parole boards relied on the seriousness of their offense while paying little attention to other statutory criteria.

A Life Sentence

A convict serving, say 5 to 15 years, has to be released eventually. But one serving a sentence where the upper limit is life is guaranteed only a parole hearing every other year after serving the minimum. Almost 20 percent of the people in New York prisons are serving a term where the top end is life — the highest percentage in the nation and nearly twice the national average.

Gerald T. Balone has served more than 30 years on a 25-years-to-life sentence for three murders (see sidebar). During his three decades in prison, Mr. Balone has completed rehabilitation and vocational programs. He says he does not know what more he can do to obtain the parole release he believes was presumed by his legislatively defined sentence.

"I am at a loss," Mr. Balone said. "I don't know what to do."

Alfred Mancuso, a 72-year-old career felon, received a 25-years-to-life sentence for murder in 1978. He has been denied parole eight times — every two years for the last 16 years — even though he claims to have a spotless prison record and continues to maintain his innocence.

"The bottom line is, they are afraid of Governor Pataki," contended Mr. Mancuso, a prisoner at the Collins Correctional Facility near Buffalo. "Every time they grant someone parole, [Mr. Pataki] comes out against it in the newspaper. I honestly believe they are hitting me because they are afraid of the repercussions."

Mr. Mancuso and other prisoners and advocates point repeatedly to the case of Kathy Boudin, a 1960s radical involved in the infamous 1982 Brinks armored truck heist. Three people were killed, and Ms. Boudin was convicted of felony murder.

After serving 22 years of a 20-years- to-life term, Ms. Boudin, who had numerous individuals and organizations lobbying for her release, was paroled in 2003 (see sidebar). Mr. Pataki promptly denounced the decision and, within months, replaced longtime Parole Board Chairman Brion Travis. There have been no controversial parole releases since then.

'No Accountability'

"The lack of any established criteria and the unlimited discretion of the parole board begs for problems," said advocate Amy James-Oliveras of Wappinger's Falls, whose husband, George Oliveras, served 27 years of a 25-years-to-life term before he was paroled on a murder conviction. Ms. James-Oliveras is active in the Coalition for Parole Restoration, an organization comprised largely of wives of parole-eligible prisoners whose release has been blocked by the parole board.

"There is no accountability, and no real avenue of judicial review," she said.

Some trial judges have overturned or challenged parole board determinations on the grounds that the appointed panel is following executive policy rather than the law (see sidebar), a charge the Division of Parole disputes. But even if a prisoner convinces a court to order a new hearing, his efforts may be for naught.

A review of scores of cases and records reveals a pattern: An inmate is denied parole, files and loses an administrative appeal, files and loses an Article 78 petition and appeals to an appellate panel. Since the courts can do nothing other than order a new parole hearing, and the inmate gets a hearing automatically every two years, by the time the matter gets to the appellate court, another hearing has been scheduled, and the whole court issue is moot.

Mr. Oliveras, for instance, was convicted of murder and robbery in the Bronx in 1975. His 25-years-to-life sentence made him eligible for parole in 2000. But at the time of his hearing, about a third of his record on his rehabilitation was missing. There was no record of his academic achievements or his participation in anger management courses.

He challenged his parole denial administratively, but lost. He went to Supreme Court and was denied again. He appealed to the Appellate Division. When the appeal finally got to court, Mr. Oliveras was four days from another parole hearing. So the court dismissed his claim for mootness.

At his next appearance — when Mr. Oliveras was prepared to go to court over the missing records — he was granted parole, so the issue of the lost records was never adjudicated. He was one of 10 A-1 violent felons paroled in 2002, out of 242 eligible — a release rate of about 4 percent.

"They [parole commissioners] are playing a role they are not supposed to play," Mr. Oliveras said. "They are re-sentencing in effect. They are playing a judicial role."

Critics say that, after a few adverse court rulings, the parole board now covers itself by stating, in its denial, that it took into account the statutory factors. But the critics suspect that the board makes determinations based on the instant offense alone.

"There are cases where it is obvious [that denial of parole] is based on the instant offense, and only lip service is being applied to the statutory criteria," Mr. Isseks said.

Joy Pujas of Ulster County is also active in the parole restoration movement. Her husband is doing time for a murder 24 years ago. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in New York City in 1982, came up for parole in 2002 and has been denied twice since then.

"If a judge can impose 25-to-life but instead imposes [20]-to-life, that indicates the judge thinks that under some circumstances [20] is sufficient," Ms. Pujas insisted. "But the parole board says it is not."

Ms. Pujas is urging legislation that would change the way commissioners are appointed. At least three lawmakers — Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, D-Queens, and Senators Velmanette Montgomery, D-Brooklyn, and Thomas K. Duane, D-Manhattan — are sympathetic and have proposed legislation or sponsored forums to discuss the issue. So far, there has been little movement in either house.

Political Considerations

"Clearly, there are political considerations in these appointments," said S. Earl Eichelberger, who served as a parole commissioner between 1985 and 1999 as a Cuomo appointee.

Mr. Eichelberger, whose term extended four years into the Pataki era, said there was a sense that commissioners were expected to carry out the general parole policies of both the Cuomo and Pataki administrations.

However, Mr. Eichelberger said he is unaware of a commissioner ever receiving direct orders from the executive chamber during either administration. Rather, he said, it was assumed that the board should respect the criminal justice philosophy of the sitting governor.

Retired Commissioner Henri C. Raffalli, who served on the parole board from 1987 to 1998, said the panel was influenced not by politics or politicians, but by changing social values.

"I never felt any pressure, not from Cuomo and not from Pataki," said Mr. Raffalli. "The social pendulum kept swinging back and forth. The board is very sensitive to the expressions of society, as expressed in the newspapers. So we would try to run along those lines."

At one hearing shortly after Mr. Pataki came into office, Mr. Raffalli told a prisoner up for parole that "society says murder is a heinous crime" and the voters had elected a governor who "doesn't say we ought to put you in prison for 15 to life. He says we ought to get rid of you completely and kill you," according to a transcript of the proceeding.

Mr. Raffalli, in an interview, said his point was that prevailing attitudes had shifted fundamentally since the prisoner was sentenced to a 15-year-to-life term, and that those sentiments weighed heavily against his release. The prisoner was denied parole.

Inmates and their families say they are losing hope that parole decisions will be made based on the objective criteria of the law as written.

"You want to believe in a system, a system where there's righteousness, where people pay their dues and that it is all about correcting and rehabilitating and not only about punishment," said Ms. Pujas, who testified at Mr. Aubry's hearing. "We have come to the point where it is total punishment. Financially, it is devastating. Emotionally, it is crippling."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

April 2006

Building Bridges
April 2006

Dear Members, We have many interesting things to share with you in this issue. One is our NEW TELEPHONE #: 518 253 7533. Please make a note of that.

1. Awaiting Real Rockefeller Reform
2. Call for Prison Abuse Reports
4. Death Penalty Bills - Take Action Now
5. Family Empowerment Day 2: Date is Set
6. From Inside: 1. Getting Free, 2. Community-Ready
7. Gang Crime Bill
8. G.E.O. [Governmental Education Organization] at Mid-Orange
9. Meetings in Albany and Poughkeepsie
10. Prison Arts and Crafts Shows
11. Prisoner Voting Rights
12. Proposed Merit Time Bill, Explained
13. Spitzer meets with Justice Advocates
14. Telephone Justice
15. Transportation to Prisons
16. Volunteers Make Travel Kits for Kids
17. What's New from Prisoners of the Census
18. Words From Ramon
19. Wrongful Convictions Legal Pool

1. Awaiting Real Rockefeller Reform
By Anthony Papa, AlterNet

Julia Diaco, the so-called "Pot Princess" was sentenced on March 22 in Manhattan Supreme Court to five years probation for drug dealing. Diaco was 18 years old when she was arrested for multiple sales of drugs to undercover narcotic officers from her dorm room at NYU University. Despite having a "strong" case against her and facing up to 25 years in prison if convicted, she received probation upon completing a drug rehab and education program.

This follows the high-profile case of Caroline Quartararo, a former spokeswoman on Rockefeller drug law reform for Governor Pataki who received a similar minor sentence after being arrested with crack cocaine. Quartararo was given treatment and a $250 fine. She was arrested on December 20 for possessing three rocks of crack cocaine. She pleaded guilty to seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.
Cheri O'Donoghue, whose son Ashley is currently serving a sentence of 7-21 years for a first-time non-violent drug offense said the cases of Julia Diaco and Caroline Quartararo prove that, "if you are rich and privileged you will likely receive compassion from the courts."
"While I support the notion of compassion and access to treatment for people who use and abuse drugs," said O'Donoghue, "the reality is that people of color who get caught up in the criminal justice system generally receive neither." While drug use rates are similar between blacks and whites, approximately 92 percent of the people in prison on drug charges in New York are black and Latino.

O'Donoghue's 23-year-old son, who is black, sold cocaine to two white students, who in turn sought to re-sell the drugs on their Hamilton College campus. The students were caught, and received probation. Ashley O'Donoghue was left to languish in prison, another casualty of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. He is one of more than 4,000 people sitting in New York state prisons convicted of B-level Rockefeller drug law felonies. The modest reforms to the state's drug laws in 2004 and 2005 have no impact on these B-level offenders.

Gabriel Sayegh, director of the State Organizing and Policy Project of the Drug Policy Alliance says New Yorkers want to see meaningful Rockefeller Drug Law reform. "Even after the reforms last year, the vast majority of people incarcerated under these failed laws are still languishing behind bars. Our elected officials in Albany need to take action to enact real reform of these laws, so that young men like Ashley O'Donoghue can receive the same compassion as those who are rich, well-connected, or are employed by the governor."

[Anthony Papa is the author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom (Feral House). ]

2. Call for Prison Abuse Reports
Greetings Friends, The Presente Film Collective is in the process of developing a documentary about the history of torture in the U.S., going back to the beginning.  In one of the segments of the film, we want to address abuse and torture in jails and prisons.  Do you know a prisoner who might want to write an account of abuse/torture he/she experienced or witnessed?  If so, would you be able to put it in an e-mail and send it to us at  Thanks so much.  (We can't promise to put all the stories we receive in the film, but will use as many as we can.) In peace and justice, Presente Film Collective

3. CURE-NY Annual Meeting and Lobby Day
Capital Hill Deli,42 Eagle St., Albany NY
Meeting starts at 9AM,then lobbying key Legislators after lunch
Keynote speakers to be announced
Advocates’ education on key criminal justice issues.
Comradeship in the struggles for reform.
Legislative visits to educate and learn.
Continental breakfast and lunch provided
Suggested donation of $20; ex-offenders and families free
Reserve your space now; Contact CURE-NY
Box 102, Katonah NY 10536; or;

4. NY State Senate to Vote on New Death Penalty Bills - You Can Take Action Now:
They're at it again.  Governor Pataki is pushing for reinstatement of the death penalty and, on March 7, the Senate obliged him by voting 2 bills onto the floor, one for murders of policemen and one for broader reinstatement.  We expect a lot of grandstanding with no real debate or hearings.  They haven't gotten the message: New Yorkers don't want and don't need the death penalty.  They're out of touch with New Yorkers, who paid close attention to the testimony at Assembly hearings and have learned from 10 years experience with an intrinsically flawed system. The full Senate will vote very soon. We need to act now.

Please let your all State Senators hear from you with letters, faxes, calls and emails. To find them, please visit remember you need your STATE SENATOR. Please make sure that you include your address in contacting your legislators. And thanks for all you do, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty.

5. Date Set for Family Empowerment Day 2: October 21, 2006
You and your friends and family are invited to meet others who want the return of our loved ones from prison. The topic will be Parole. The day will consist of speakers, discussion groups, making friends, and deciding on a plan of action. Free food and childcare will be provided. SAVE THE DATE! [If you or your organization want to help organize/promote/pay for/ this event, please contact PAN. October 21, 2006
11 noon - 3:30 pm
Middle Collegiate Church
Second Avenue and 7th Street, NYC 10003

6. From Inside:
Edwin Castro sent in the next article, which is too long to print in one issue. We will publish it in installments, but those with internet access can find the full version right now at

Getting Free
“ hold a man forever between a lack and an excess; a lack of work, and an excess of punishment.” Les Miserables, Victor Hugo [1802-1885]

In 1988, the then Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals directed the NYS Judicial Commission on Minorities to examine the presence and effects of racism in the state’s criminal courts. In April 1991, the commission reported that there was, in fact, evidence of race-based disparities in the court’s rate of conviction and type of sentence imposed.1 This invidious trend has carried over into the 21st century. In 2006, 93% of New York’s prison population are people of color.

Recently, a Russian prisoner observed how, in Russia, when a prisoner misbehaves, the consequence is an increased work detail. In the penal realms of NY, when a prisoner violates the sanctity of bounded space [institutional rules], termination from his/her work-assignment is a routine result of official sanctions. The russian captive observes that this practice is “backwards.” The official excuse for this continuance of this questionable practice is that, in the penal realms-- as in free society -- work is a privilege that provides the prisoner with the incentive to obtain a maintain employment, once released from captivity. A recent article in a NY City daily newspaper provides further evidence of how bounded spaces distort reality. The article, by Julie Moult, is headlined: RACIAL OUTRAGE IN N.Y. JOB HUNT. In part it reads, “A white man with a criminal record has a better chance of getting an entry-level job in New York than a black man with a squeaky-clean record, a study has found.”2

Building Bridges will leave it there for this month. The May issue will describe the study mentioned.

This next was written by Willie Thomas, founder of the Otisville Lifers Group.


The term ‘community-ready’, absent of a clear definition and often misused, is in danger of losing its significance or even withering away. Tossed around in discussions by radio commentators [mostly on alternative radio stations] the term has essentially evolved into a glow phrase. Yet, in the context of the argument for parole reform, its meaning has often been left open and hard to pin down. Not only is that a gross disservice to supporters but it threatens to deteriorate the concept into a buzz word.

In 1999, when members of the Otisville Lifers Self-help group coined and began using the term, it was to clearly distinguish between parole-ready and community-ready individuals. In making the distinction, we examined traits, expectations, acquired knowledge, skill levels and behavior patterns, using our own insight, growth and development as measuring tools. We wanted a word to define those worthy men and women whose efforts far exceed the standards of parole-ready and who, if released, could immediately serve as assets to their community. The discussion led to the identification of 7 components of the community-ready person: 1. family-oriented, 2. spiritually grounded, 3. community conscious, 4. politically astute, 5. economically able, 6. socially interactive and 7. self actualized.

Next Month Building Bridges will continue this article with the Lifers’ definitions of those adjectives.

7. Gang Crime Bill
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, 18th Senate District, wrote a letter to criminal justice advocates on 3/24/06, informing us of legislation [A.10268] proposed by Assemblyman Peter Rivera, and sponsored by members Weisenberg, Errigo, Boyland, Clark, Greene, and Titus, that would add additional prison time to a gang member’s sentence. If convicted of a nonviolent crime an extra two to five years could be added to the prison sentence; for violent felonies, gang members could serve an extra ten years. She says, “this bill is aimed at reducing gang activity. However, this is obviously another way to avoid addressing the contributing factors to gang activity, such as lack of educational resources, after-school programs, as well as jobs and job training for young people.” Senator Velmannette Montgomery hopes we will make our views and concerns known to Assemblyman Rivera concerning this legislation.

The bill, and an article from the Troy Record about it, are available at, or you can contact PAN for a copy.

8. G.E.O. [Governmental Education Organization] at Mid-Orange:
Mid-Orange Correctional Facility‘s G.E.O. [Governmental Education Organization], founded by Jason B. Nicholas, reports that the G.E.O.’s over-riding mission is to provide a platform from which prisoners in the organization can make their voices heard on topics of the day. They write government officials. They also disseminate information about actions of the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government to government officials and members of the media, and publish a newsletter concerning such matters. You can view their brochure at or ask PAN to send you a copy.

9. Meetings in Albany and Poughkeepsie

Prison Families of New York Support Group 7 - 8:30 pm every Monday at The Womens Building, 79 Central Ave. Ring the bell for the Library and Lounge to get in. Alison at 518 453 6659.

Justice Committee of FUUSA. April 30, 12 noon. Planning group for prison and criminal justice reform actions. Unitarian Church, 405 Washington Ave. Contact Thayer Heath at 518 861 0035 or

CURE ANNUAL MEETING and LOBBY DAY - Save the date: May 9, 2006
9AM-4PM Capital Hill Deli,42 Eagle St., Albany NY. Meeting starts at 9AM, then lobbying key Legislators after lunch. More details above [#3].


Prison Families of New York Support Group 7 - 8:30 pm on the 2nd and 4th Mondays at the Family Partnership building, 29 North Hamilton Street. Deb at 845/616-9698,

Citizens for Restorative Justice. Thursday April 6 at 6:30 pm at the Family Partnership building at 29 North Hamilton Street . Justice advocacy group. All are welcome. Deb at 845/616-9698 or at for more info.

10. Prison Arts and Crafts Shows
If you are located in or are traveling to Washington, DC, be sure to visit our two spring Prison Arts and Crafts Shows on Saturday, April 1 and 8, at First Trinity Lutheran Church, 309 E Street, NW from 10 AM to 5 PM, with free admission, live entertainment and more than 1000 pieces of prison art for sale from prisons across America. Proceeds benefit prison artists, victims of crime, and programs that support rehabilitation and reentry. For further information contact: Prisons Foundation,
1718 M Street NW, #151 Washington, DC 20036 202-393-1511

11. Prisoner Voting Rights
From the CURE-NY Newsletter Spring ‘99: “Canadian Prisoners Can Vote: the Canadian supreme Court ruled in February, 1996 that prisoners at Canadian federal prisons have the right to vote. Prisoners will cast their ballots in their prior residences, rather than in the location of the institution in which they are being held. In the decision, the Supreme Court Justice wrote, ‘the electorate chooses the government; the government does not choose the electorate.’”

You can write Hon. John M. Walker, Chief Judge, United States Court of Appeals, 2d Circuit, Connecticut Financial Center, 157 Church Street, New Haven, CT 06510 Re: Muntaqim v. Coombe, and tell Judge Walker that you want your voting rights restored. The more letters he receives, the better your chances of voting your way OUT of prison. Your letter signals your awareness that voting is your birthright.

Write on!
-Edwin Castro from Green Haven

12. Proposed Merit Time Bill, Explained:
Current Merit Time Law: The NYS legislature has provided an additional incentive for inmates to behave in prison: “Merit time Allowances” [see Correction Law 803 practice commentaries]. Merit time is significant because inmates can earn up to one-sixth time off the front or the back of their sentence, not to exceed - in the aggregate - one-third of the sentence imposed by the court. Such allowances may be granted for good behavior and efficient and willing performance of duties assigned or progress and achievement in an assigned treatment program. Merit time may be withheld, forfeited or canceled in whole or in part for bad behavior, violation of facility rules or failure to participate in duties or programs assigned.

Every inmate, however, is not eligible for merit time considerations: inmates who were sentenced to a term with a maximum of life imprisonment are ineligible, inmates who were convicted of violent felony offenses, offenses that are sexual in nature, and finally aggravated harassment on an employee [of DOCS] by an inmate, are the charges that make one ineligible for merit time consideration.

Proposed Merit Time Bill: Senate bill S1701, is distinct in that it proposes to furnish inmates with an opportunity to earn up to one-third off the front or the back of their sentences. Also once merit time is granted it cannot be taken away for any reason. Additionally, if an evaluation denies merit time it cannot be made up at a later date.

Here’s how the implementation of S.1701 would work if passed into law. Every six months inmates would be evaluated by viewing their records and a determination would be made for or against issuing merit time. If an inmate is considered to have met the requirements [good behavior, program/assigned duty participation] then he/she would receive two months credit for the prior six month period. When the accumulated time reaches one-third of the minimum period of incarceration, the inmate is then scheduled to go before the parole board. If the person has a determinate sentence, i.e. a set number of years, then he/she would be released after serving two-thirds of the sentence.

In the case where an inmate, for any reason, is not released at their earliest possible release date, then the merit time earned would apply to the maximum release date,not to exceed one-third of that time. For example, if a person is serving an indeterminate sentence of 6-12 years and has earned the maximum amount of merit time (2 years] toward their minimum period of incarceration [6 years], yet he/she was not released by the parole board, that inmate could continue earning merit time [only 2 more years] toward their maximum period of incarceration [12 years].

As stated above, merit time does not apply to anyone convicted of a crime that is determined to be a violent felony offense.3 Therefore, women convicted of crimes where they were defending themselves against known abusers are not eligible for merit time consideration. Even if the proposed bill is not passed into law, this is one aspect of the current merit time law that should be changed.

DOCS already has a system in place that could accommodate the changes S.1701 would cause. Nevertheless, if the department had to hire someone to help with the volume of inmates’ evaluations, the cost would be offset by the inmates that are released.

- Ben Wilson, 93A6674

13. Spitzer Meets with Justice Advocates:
March 12, 2006, Caribbean Life Brooklyn/Staten Island Edition:
Senator Montgomery, Attorney General Spitzer and Criminal Justice Advocates Meet to Discuss Support Services and Opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated People

Albany, New York (March 2, 2006): At a recent meeting organized by State Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn), criminal justice advocates from throughout the state were invited to engage in a dialogue with State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, chief prosecutor for New York, regarding proposals to help ensure that individuals released from prison are provided with adequate services and opportunities to support their successful transition back into community living.

During the exchange, Mr. Spitzer heard from several previously incarcerated people who are now professionals leading organizations that provide a myriad of services designed to help former prisoners navigate a positive path upon their release from prison. Other meeting participants included representatives of long-standing nonprofit organizations that serve prisoners and their families in a wide variety of ways.

The groups that were represented include the Osborne Association; Fortune Society; Citizens for Restorative Justice; Women’s Prison Association; Bard Prison Initiative of Bard College; New York Therapeutic Communities; NuLeadership Policy Group of Medgar Evers College; New York State Defender’s Association; Prison Families of New York; Legal Action Center; Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment; and the Urban Justice Center.

Commenting on the meeting, Senator Montgomery said, "I believe it is important for Attorney General Spitzer to hear about the shortcomings of the current system and to hear ideas for reform from the people who have really and truly been there. If our state is going to implement successful transition programs, dialogues like these help to set the stage.

"New York’s policy makers need to hear directly from men and women who have lived behind bars and who are now on the outside looking in with an eye towards helping others who have shared similar fates."

Senator Montgomery pointed out that the advocates’ testimony focused on the need for an statewide plan to address the obstacles that impede a successful re-entry. This plan -- which would designed and implemented by various governmental agencies, community-based groups and individual criminal justice advocates -- would be put in motion at the time of sentencing and continue throughout incarceration and upon release from prison.

The advocates emphasized that an effective re-entry plan must include a continuum of comprehensive programs and services that address the education, job, housing, substance abuse treatment, primary health care, mental health and other needs of men and women who are striving to reenter society and be productive, law-abiding citizens. 

"An important part of the equation for their success is a permanent funding stream that will support existing community-based providers that are on the front lines delivering the services and support the creation of new initiatives statewide," underscored the Senator. 

Mr. Spitzer expressed his willingness to participate in future meetings on this issue with Senator Montgomery and criminal justice advocates.

14. Telephone Justice
Having Problems with Verizon-MCI?
1. Have you been contacted by Verizon/MCI about a new billing method?
2. Has it caused you problems?   What problems?
3. Did you hear about it because Verizon/MCI left a message on your answering machine?
4. If not, how did you hear about it? In other words, did you find out because Verizon/MCI put a block on your phone? Another way?
5. Have you received anything in the mail from Verizon/MCI about this new billing?
6. Were you asked to give $100 to Verizon/MCI upfront in order to keep getting prison calls?
7. Did you do this by credit card, money order or check?  How long did it take to do this?
8. Was a block put on your phone while you were going through this process?
9. Is this new billing process a hardship for you? If so, why?
10. Have you tried to talk to Verizon/MCI about it? If so, what were you told?
11. Do you use Verizon/MCI for your other phone services like local and regular long distance calling? 
12. If no, who is your present telephone company?
13. Have you ever paid Verizon/MCI bills late in the past?

If you'd like to, please include a message to the CEO of Verizon/MCI about the prison telephone contract.  It can be anonymous or you may provide name, phone, address, and email. We will send them in collectively.

Thank you for your participation on this survey. Please send your responses back to and pass it on to others you know!

The NY Campaign for Telephone Justice is a project of The Center for Constitutional Rights, Prison Families Community Forum and Prison Families of New York, Inc.

Marion Rodriguez, Organizer / The New York Campaign Justice/  212.614.6421 / Boycott MCI!

15. Transportation to Prisons:
A. The NEST prison shuttle
The NEST prison shuttle schedule: Mt. McGregor, Washington, and Great Meadow Facilities on Sat, April 1 ($30 adults, $20 children), and the Coxsackie, Greene, and Hudson Correctional Facilities on Sat, April 8, and Sat, April 22  ($15  adults and $10 children), leaving Oakwood Ave Presbyt. Church parking lot, Troy at 7 AM, and Albany Greyhound Bus station at 7:15. Trip to the Utica Hub (Midstate, Marcy, Mohawk, Oneida) Sat, April 15 leaving at 5 AM ($40 adults, $25 children). Call for reservations and information: Linda O'Malley 518- 273-5199.

B. Prison Action Network:
Call 518 253-7533 if you need a ride to visit your incarcerated loved one.
Rides are available from Albany. If you and/or your family need transportation to visit your loved one in prison, and the following limitations work for you, please call, email, or send a letter to PAN and we will connect you to your driver [there is no charge for this service]:

the prison must be within 150 miles of Albany [300 miles round trip].
driver is willing to wait 2-3 hours for visit to be concluded.
driver is willing to start, from the visitor's residence, as early as 8:00 A.M.
driver is willing to get back home as late as 6:00 P.M.
driver is available on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays [and, in a pinch, on Fridays].
car seats 5, though, for a trip of 150 miles, sitting in the middle of the back seat would be a tight squeeze.

C. Free-Bus Meetups: On April 8, PAN volunteers will be meeting the DOCS bus traveling to Collins and Gowanda at 12:45 am. Packets of information [which can include any relevant information you send us] are distributed to adult travelers and [thanks to PFNY] snacks and travel toys are given to young children. On May 20 we will meet the bus to Bedford Hills and Taconic at 6am. Buses stop in Albany on their way to ALBION, ATTICA, BEDFORD HILLS, COLLINS, COXSACKIE, FISHKILL, GOWANDA , GREAT MEADOW, GREENE, GREEN HAVEN, GROVELAND, LIVINGSTON, ORLEANS, TACONIC, WASHINGTON, and WYOMING . To join us meeting any of these buses, please call PAN at 518 253-7533. To travel on these buses, your incarcerated loved one must make the arrangements with his/her counselor.

16. Volunteers Make Travel Kits for Kids Traveling to PrisonVisits
Prison Families of New York, Inc. has been working with students at local colleges and faith-based groups to create travel kits for prisoners' children who have to ride long (2-10 hours) distances, by bus or car, to visit their parent (or other family member) in a NYS prison. These kits generally include a package of crackers and juice box, coloring book/work book, paperback book (of various reading levels and interests), quiet toys, wetwipes, etc.

Activity kits for young adults and bags of personal care items for older adults are also being created. All are then passed on to PAN or other groups doing prison transportation or able to access those families who do travel long distances. If you would like to assist with this project, please contact Alison at PFNY, 518-453-6659

17. What's New from Prisoners of the Census A project of the Prison Policy Initiative:

Distorting political reality
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial, March 17, 2006

Excerpts: Read entire article at:
[URL: ]

Juneau County is the 43rd fastest-growing county in the country,owing to a nearly 5% increase in population between 2004 and 2005. Put bluntly, Juneau County's gain is Milwaukee County's pain... Of the gain of 1,251 people, 950 were inmates at the relatively new New Lisbon Correctional Institution... The pain comes in how the U.S. Census Bureau counts prison inmates. The prison is viewed as inmates' "usual residence," the standard the bureau uses to count us all. But those census numbers are traditionally used, for instance, in redrawing state political and congressional boundaries every 10 years and in disbursing federal funds... A solution: Count where inmates are from, not where they've been forced to live. Have that money that comes with their headcount go to where their kids live and go to school. Have their numbers counted for the homes they will in all likelihood return to.

[Those without internet access can contact PAN for a copy of the complete article.]

18. Words From Ramon
Ramon Gonzalez is a board member of Prison Action Network, and a regular contributor to these pages so we’ve decided to give him his own column. In this month’s column he urges all prisoners to get involved in the struggle for parole reform:

To those in and out of the struggle; Greetings! Hopefully this message will be absorbed and taken as the voice of reason by readers within a DOCS facility. I have been imprisoned for 15.5 years; been subjected to 2 parole denials. Since 1994 I have aggressively fought for prisoners’ issues on the facility level via positioning within both the Inmate Grievance and Inmate Liaison Committees. In 1996 I was the target of Central Office’s wrath on numerous occasions. In 1997 I was instrumental in the opening of criminal cases against correctional staff in 5 instances for staff-on-inmate assault. In 1999 I was the target of Y2K allegations, in which I was given 48 months in the SHU, only served 6, and got an Article 78 reversal. Since 2001 I have been involved with the Lifers’ struggle. In 2005 I was offered an advisory board member position with Prison Action Network, and accepted. In 2006 I was offered the Coalition for Parole Restoration - Otisville liaison position which I also accepted. I am currently chairman of the Otisville Lifers Group and Director of the Social Interaction Initiatives Committee, and deeply entrenched with obtaining fair parole policies and educating the misinformed and unaware public.

The one most important thing Lifers everywhere should know is that I do not have Life. I have a 12.5 to 25 year sentence, and am rapidly approaching my 3rd and final board and inevitable CR date. If I can walk, talk and fight like a Lifer, why can’t you? Our struggle is not an easy one and I can count more deaths of Lifers than I can releases of them. So I hope deep down in my soul, I pray from my heart, I appeal to all you Lifers who aren’t in the struggle, to step up, wake up, smell the coffee and look at the current state of parole seriously. Get involved with the Lifers or any other progressive group in your facility. If there’s not one, start one! Our struggle needs soldiers; soldiers with pens, soldiers with typewriters, soldiers with conviction and voices. Silent soldiers can’t be heard. To those groups in the battle, if you take a good look at your group you may find that within your ranks there are men without Life [long-termers], like me, fighting for you. Applaud them, appreciate them. It’s not their battle it’s yours. But if they fight you should stand with them!

Dedicated to my Brothers,
Ramon [M.O.] Gonzalez

19 Wrongful Convictions LegaL Pool

PAN hears from many family members who are fighting for the exoneration of their incarcerated loved ones. Unfortunately many more wrongfully convicted prisoners have no one on the outside, or have exhausted all their resources. PAN calls for any lawyer who would be willing to help someone in that situation, to whatever extent he or she is able, to contact us for inclusion in a Wrongful Convictions Legal Pool. In the meantime, to see an example of what one family is doing to get justice for their loved one, you can visit - if you have internet access -

Readers are invited to submit notices or articles of interest for publication in this newsletter. Let us know if you want your name included.