Building Bridges

The monthly newsletter of the Prison Action Network

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Thursday, September 03, 2015

September 2015



Welcome to the site of Building Bridges, Prison Action Network's newsletter 

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During the month we post late breaking news and announcements here, so please check back now and then.  Scroll down now to go directly to the August newsletter.

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Posted September 22 - Women in Prison Project

The 2015 Anti-Shackling Bill (A.6430/ S.983) will be on the Governor's desk for signing any day now!  Your voice is needed TODAY to pass the bill which prohibits handcuffing and chaining incarcerated pregnant women.  

Call the Governor at 518 474 8390:

“Hello, my name is ______.  I’m calling to ask Governor Cuomo to sign the 2015 Anti-Shackling bill sponsored by Senator Montgomery and Assemblymember Perry.  The bill numbers are A.6430-A/S.983-A.  I stand with women’s rights, human rights and reproductive justice groups and thousands of people across the state to urge the Governor to do the right thing and put an end to the barbaric, unsafe and degrading practice of shackling incarcerated pregnant women.  Thank you.” 


Posted September 21 - Candles for Clemency


Tell the Governor you care about Clemencies (Sept 26 at 7pm)

            Governor Cuomo, we urge you to show mercy, issue clemencies to those who deserve them, and be guided by merit, not politics.
Candles for Clemency will hold its second Candle Light Vigil in front of the home where Governor Cuomo resides, in Mt. Kisco, NY, on Saturday, September 26th at 7:00 PM.  Our goal is to double the size of our previous vigil to show to the governor, and New Yorkers, that people care about clemencies. There are people in prison who are serving extraordinarily long sentences, many of whom are aged, remorseful and deserve a second chance. They shouldn’t be warehoused in prison. The elderly and sick shouldn’t die in prison.  
            We cancelled the last vigil on the request of his chief counsel, Alphonso David.  He indicated to us that Cuomo was seriously considering issuing clemencies. We have not seen the progress.  We will not cancel this vigil. We want him to understand that this is an issue to act on.
Directions:
Bus:  leaves 10th St between 16-17 St in Manhattan at 5 sharp.  $15 voluntary contribution.  Must RSVP: jim owles@gmail.com
Car:  Crow Hill Road and Millwood Road (rte 133), Mt. Kisco (town of New Castle)
Train: Metro North Railroad - Mt Kisco stop, short taxi ride


Building Bridges - September 2015

Dear Reader
September always feels to me like the beginning of a new year.  After a summer of long days and warm weather, I see a fresh year ahead and this year I’m hopeful will be ‘our year’!  If we work together, I believe it can be.  There’s a growing sense in the advocacy movement that a window of opportunity has opened (see articles 10 & 12) and we must take full advantage.  We need to increase our numbers and rachet up the intensity of our involvement.  We must put our all into it.  Otherwise we will be left with regret when our dreams don’t come true.  Don’t count on others to do it.  Act as if It’s totally up to you!  That’s what I will be doing. (But in reality it will take all of us to make it happen.)  

The Editor


Table of Contents
1.  Parole News - A1VO July Release Rates: very low (only one initial)
2.  Progress Report on the Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act, comments from inside Upstate prison

3.  NetWorks’ Labor Day column urges local unions and labor organizations to fulfill their mission of representing a better life for the working class by endorsing the SAFE Parole Act.

4.  Recidivism: what does it tell us? When we see two-thirds of all those released ultimately return to prison within three years, something is wrong.

5.  Letter to the New York Times by CEO of the Correctional Association calls for a complete overhaul of New York’s prison system if we have any hope of living in a humane and just society.

6.  Black Lives Matter “agitators” motivate Bernie Sanders to release a Racial Justice Agenda

7.  Phoenix Players Theatre Group at Auburn Prison uses theatre techniques to create an artistic and therapeutic space in which a transformative journey is initiated, leading to personal and social redemption. Poem by Demetrius Molina is an example

8.  Children of Promise, an after school program that among other things works with kids to help improve relationships with their incarcerated parents.

9.  National Public Radio program interviews George Chochos among other guests.

10.  Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy calls attention to the horror of solitary confinement in his decision of an unrelated case, and reporter Benjamin-Wallace-Wells observes a connection between Solitary and our society’s treatment of those convicted of violent crimes.

11.  Just out of prison.  Now what?  An inspiring story about two formerly incarcerated men who pick up released parolees and give them a one day re-entry crash course, rooted in their own experiences coming home

12.  NYS Assembly member Danny O’Donnell’s commentary in the Albany Times Union calls for NYS to lead in rehabilitating our prison system and refers to parole board’s dysfunctional policies as part of the problem.



1.  Parole News - July Release Rates
JULY 2015 PAROLE BOARD RELEASES - A1 VIOLENT FELONS DIN #s through 2001
unofficial research from parole database
July 2015 Interview Summaries

Interviews
Total Seen
# Released
# Denied
Rate of Release
Year to Date Release Rate
Initials 
21
1
20
5%
34%
Reappearances
68
13
55
19%
26%
Total 
89
14
75
24%
28%


July 2015 Age at Beginning of Incarceration Summary

Age Range
Total Seen
# Released
# Denied
Rate of Release
Year-to-Date Release Rate
16-20
15
1
14
7%
35%
21-25
26
3
23
12%
31%
over 25
48
10
38
21%
29%
Total
89
14
75
16%
31%


July 15 Releases of those 60 Years or Older at Their Parole Hearing

Age Range
Total Seen
# Released
# Denied 
Rate of Release
Year-to-Date Release Rate
60-69
12
1
11
8%
25%
70-79
6
1
5
17%
16%
over 80
1
0
1
0%
0%
Total
19
2
17
11%
22%


July 2015 Initial Release

Facility
Age
Age @ Commitment
Sentence
Offense
# of Board
Sing Sing
43
25
20-Life
Mrd 2
1


July 2015 Reappearance Release Rates

Facility
AGE
Age @ CMT
Sentence
Offense
# of Board
Albion-fem
48
25
20-Life
Mrd 2
2
Clinton
58
35
16-Life
Mrd 2
5
Fishkill
48
21
20-Life
Mrd 2
5- Spec. Consid. 
Fishkill
70
46
22-Life
Mrd 2
3
Grt Meadow
51
26
17-Life
Mrd 2
6
Greene
41
26
16-Life
Mrd 2
2
Livingston
69
43
25-Life
Mrd 2
4
Marcy
53
19
25-Life
Mrd 2
6
Marcy
50
27
22-Life
Mrd 2
2
Otisville
56
32
17-Life
Mrd 2
5
Otisville
44
26
15-Life
Att Mrd 1
3
Sing Sing
48
30
15-Life
Kidnap 1
4
Wyoming
50
27
15-Life
Kidnap 1
7




2.  Progress report on the Safe and Fair Evaluations Parole Act
Parole Justice NY is moving ahead, reaching out to faith-based groups, labor unions, and organizations who support safe and fair parole hearings for all parole applicants.  If your organization would like to publicly support the SAFE Parole Act, please contact us to sign a letter in support.  Since the last issue of this newsletter some new endorsers have signed on. 

Among them are: 
Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration
JustLeadership USA
Incarcerated Nation
Harlem Restoration Project
New York State Working Families Organization
Troy Labor Council
Judicial Process Commission of Rochester
Jewish Voice for Peace-Albany Chapter
New York State Council of Churches 
Back to Basics Outreach Ministry-Buffalo
End New Jim Crow Action Network
Logan Jaycees/NYS Jaycees  

If yours is not on the list, please consider adding it. (That includes prison organizations such as Lifers’ Groups, we hope you know.)

The 2015 Family Empowerment Tour stop in Hornell and Constantia has been postponed, but we’d love to hear from people in that area so we can plan a date for the future.

In the meantime families in Chili and Rochester are negotiating a space in Rochester for a mid-October Saturday, so if you live in that area, please start recruiting people.  

We are eager to come to your neighborhood.  Please visit parolejustice.org to request a visit. 
Words from Upstate: Those of us residing in prisons further north are being denied parole at a much higher rate

In the August issue of Building Bridges, statistics showed how many (A1VOs) were denied parole between 2010-2014.  I am one of the men included in those statistics.  When I came Upstate from Ryker’s in the 1990s’ A1VOs were allowed to participate in the work release program and were being released from prison instead of being housed in them, like we are right now.

Fishkill, Otisville and Woodbourne seem to be the prisons where Lifers and Long-termers convicted of A1 felonies have a greater chance of being paroled.  Those of us residing in prisons further north are being denied parole at a much higher rate, according to those statistics.

Realistically, the broken parole system won’t be abolished any time soon; so we need to make an effort to share our life experiences with as many on the outside as possible.  Nobody can tell our story better than us.

We’re good at getting family members and friends to accept phone calls, send packages, write letters, as well as visit us, but how many of us are encouraging them to attend events that seek parole reform?  It appears that many of us want to be comfortable in prison when our goal should be to get out and stay out of prison.

We need legislation that will unequivocally state that we cannot be denied parole solely on the nature of our crime. Then the courts will have legal authority to order our immediate release from prison when the law is broken. 

Let’s support the SAFE Parole Act!  ~ Parish at Upstate



3.  NetWORKS, monthly column of the New York State Prisoner Justice Network
Labor Day Thoughts: Organized Labor and Mass Incarceration

The Labor Movement in the U.S. faces daunting challenges. The percentage of U.S. workers who are unionized has fallen from its peak of approximately 35% in the 1950’s to 11% today, reflecting both major shifts in the nature of production and a concentrated attack on organized labor by corporations and their political allies. Public sector union membership has grown while participation in private sector unions has fallen drastically.  A radical critique of unions suggests that among the causes of their decline are their lack of militancy, the collaboration of their leaders with big capital, and their failure to fully include low-wage workers, people of color, and women. 

The continuing struggle for the soul of unions turns in part on whether and how they weigh in on the burning social and racial justice issues of our day. The so-called “bread and butter” issues of wages and economic justice are inseparable from social issues such as racism, the marginalization of poor communities, civil rights, unequal and violent law enforcement, government spying, and mass incarceration. These social issues disproportionately impact low-wage workers, especially workers of color, and the vulnerable communities from which they come. 

The national AFL-CIO, the umbrella for most of the unions in the U.S., adopted a platform on mass incarceration at its 2013 National Conference.  It describes the unjust and discriminatory impact of mass incarceration and resolves to support measures that curtail prison privatization, reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes, assist in reintegration, restore voting rights, treat substance abuse with a public health response, and interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. The platform incorporates some misleading myths; for example, it suggests that prison privatization and low-level nonviolent drug offenders are the driving forces behind mass incarceration, which is not the case. Nevertheless, it is an important first step in declaring that mass incarceration is an issue for the labor movement.

But reading between the lines of the AFL-CIO document, we find a key obstacle to labor’s serious engagement in opposition to mass incarceration: the loud voice of law enforcement, corrections officers, and other labor sectors who benefit from mass incarceration. “Adequate staffing” of prisons and jails is mentioned twice as part of the solution to mass incarceration. Not mentioned is the opposite, real solution: to close prisons and drastically reduce the number of people incarcerated.

UAW 2865, the union of student-workers of the University of California statewide system, recently wrote a public letter calling on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations. Although they are describing the role of police unions, the student-workers’ letter would apply equally to corrections officers and other law enforcement employees: “Historically and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of police as laborers. Instead, their ‘unionization’ allows police to masquerade as members of the working class and obfuscates their role in enforcing racism, capitalism, colonialism, and the oppression of the working class.”

The letter continues, “While it is true that police are workers, and thus hypothetically subject to the same kinds of exploitation as other laborers, they are also the militarized, coercive arm of the state. It is the job of the police to protect capital and, consequently, maintain class society. How can there ever be solidarity between law enforcement and the working class when elites call upon police and their organizations to quell mass resistance to poverty and inequality? The police force exists solely to uphold the status quo. Their material survival depends on it, and they hold a vested interest in the preservation and expansion of the most deplorable practices of the state.”

In New York State, as elsewhere in the country, unions and especially public sector unions play a role in influencing public policy, through lobbying, political contributions, and public education. The voice of labor in relation to public policy on mass incarceration has until now been dominated by the sectors which benefit economically from mass incarceration: law enforcement, corrections officers, and other criminal justice-related occupations. “Adequate staffing” and “public safety” are their code words for building more and bigger prisons, and for opposing any measures that might reduce incarceration or increase public oversight of racist and violent police and correction officers. 

This is the time to expose these tactics for the self-interested and anti-labor program they really are. As the public dialogue revealing the injustices of mass incarceration heats up, a climate is created in which we anti-mass-incarceration forces can demand of progressive and justice-seeking parts of the labor movement that they disassociate themselves from the anti-worker pro-mass-incarceration unions. We can insist that unions representing the vast majority of workers, who are harmed by mass incarceration and police injustice, speak up. 

That is the current strategy of Parole Justice New York, the new coalition promoting the SAFE Parole Act, which is actively seeking the endorsement of organizations of all types, including labor unions, to demonstrate the strength of public commitment to parole reform as an indispensable part of reducing mass incarceration. Parole Justice New York (formerly called Parole Justice Now!), a member of the New York State Prisoner Justice Network, is calling on all activists and advocates statewide to reach out to local unions and labor organizations and urge them to fulfill their mission of representing a better life for the working class by endorsing the SAFE Parole Act. Parole reform that allows community-ready people to leave prison and rejoin their families and communities, instead of punishing them for years on end when they are no danger to public safety, is in the best interests of the communities the labor movement represents, as well as the best interests of all who are concerned about justice, fairness, compassion, and genuine public well-being. 



4.  Recidivism: What Does It Tell Us?  by Karima Amin
Recidivism rates in the United States are among the highest in the world.

While America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, it is also a fact that recidivism rates among the states are among the highest in the world. These numbers indicate that the US prison system is a failure. Major prison mandates are five: care, custody, control, deterrence, and rehabilitation. When it comes to care, it seems that this mandate is frequently NOT fulfilled as I receive letters weekly from people who share stories of their incarcerated loved ones being physically and verbally abused by officers. This nation’s criminal justice system fails again when data demonstrates that deterrence seems to be of low priority and rehabilitation is practically non-existent. Both are factors that support high rates of recidivism. The kind of custody and control that ignore the humanity of persons confined, generally means that those who are released often return to society with the negative mindsets and behaviors that defined them in the past. When we see two-thirds of those released ultimately return to prison within three years, something is wrong.

Recently, a student from Canisius College produced a short documentary film entitled “The Very Same House: Recidivism in Buffalo.” This film will be screened at the next monthly meeting of PRISONERS ARE PEOPLE TOO, INC. and its producer, David Goodwin, will be our guest speaker.  

With the assistance of Canisius College’s Video Institute and its director, Dr. Barbara Irwin, Mr. Goodwin has produced a work that clearly defines “recidivism,” its causes and cures. Our Program Director, BaBa Eng, is interviewed in this film. Following 36 years of incarceration and years of research, his words ring with authority.

In the past, PRISONERS ARE PEOPLE TOO, INC. has always devoted its August meeting to “Black August.”highlighting COINTELPRO,-- a counterintelligence program  of the US government, operated by the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA designed to surveil, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt domestic political organizations. COINTELPRO was especially aimed at Black leadership in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In past Augusts, we have lifted the names of fallen Freedom Fighters and the names of men and women still confined and incarcerated for decades. If you want to see what has been highlighted in previous August programs, go to our website www.PRP2.ORG. Click on “Programs.” 


5.  Letter To the Editor  by Soffiyah Elijah, EO of the Correctional Association of NY:
The accounts by incarcerated people of beatings reported in “Brutal Interrogations After Two Escaped”, (NY Times, front page, Aug. 12), in the aftermath of the breakout at the Clinton Correctional Facility, once again confirm the pervasive and decades-long culture of violence and abuse in the institutions operated by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
This is the reality reported to the organization where I am executive director, the Correctional Association of New York, by those struggling to survive behind Department of Corrections prison walls that we have been reporting to the public, elected officials and policy makers for years.
A brutal beating occurred four years ago at Attica, where George Williams was so badly assaulted by guards that he suffered two broken legs, broken ribs, a broken eye socket and numerous other injuries. Investigations by the Justice Department of this facility and of Clinton, although limited in scope, are a start, but they must be expanded to a full-blown investigation of the systemic and pervasive culture of violence perpetrated by Department of Corrections security staff members.
If we have any hope of living in a humane and just society, we must all demand a complete overhaul of New York’s prison system. J. SOFFIYAH ELIJAH,  New York


6.  Black Lives Matter movement is doing just what change makers should do: agitating!
Bernie Sanders responds to a Black Lives Matter “disturbance” by unveiling his Racial Justice Agenda

Bernie Sanders is increasingly gaining name recognition, and in some areas he is ahead of Clinton.  Recently a couple of his campaign speeches were disrupted by supporters of Black Lives Matter.
Sanders didn’t address their concerns at the time but very quickly issued an impressive “Racial Justice” agenda and promised at a rally in Los Angeles, “There is no president that will fight harder to end institutional racism:” Unfortunately some of his supporters remained outraged by the “disrespectful and indecorous behavior of the protesters”.

Charles Blow, in the NY Times (August 17) on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Activists ‘Feel the Bern?’ countered with his opinion that the Black Lives Matter Movement is “an exercise in personal and collective advocacy by an oppressed people.  It says to America: You will not dictate the parameters of my expression; you will not assign the grammar of my pain; you will not tell me how I should feel. For these young activists, it’s not ideological but existential; it’s not about a political field but a battlefield, one from which they cannot escape, one on which their very bodies are marked and threatened with destruction.” 



7.  Blog posted by Bruce Levitt, Co-Facilitator of Phoenix Players Theatre Group

For the past five years [I have spent nearly every Friday night] at Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Auburn, New York. Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG) is a grassroots transformative theatre collective founded in 2009 by inmates Michael Rhynes and Clifton Williamson. The group uses theatre techniques to create an artistic and therapeutic space in which a transformative journey is initiated, leading to personal and social redemption. 

Michael Rhynes, one of the two original PPTG founders, has been incarcerated for over thirty years. “Phoenix” was selected because, to Michael, the Phoenix, rising out of the flames, represented transformation, not rehabilitation. For Michael, rehabilitation is about other people having control over your life while transformation is about taking your own life in your own hands.

We have collaborated with the men of PPTG in creating a training process that serves as a catalyst to transformation within the prison setting. After each cycle of training, the incarcerated men devise performances, with the guidance of the facilitators, which take place approximately every 18 months to two years.  The men perform for an audience of 80 invited civilians because they want to be witnessed – to alter the stereotypes about incarcerated people and to reveal themselves as unique/multi-faceted individuals who transcend the labels that define them within the greater society,

Witnessing is a critical concept for PPTG and one of the group’s main goals. It is part of the transformative power of the PPTG process. Through the sharing of stories and experiences that spread outside Auburn’s walls the incarcerated members of PPTG might open up in the minds of the public, alternate perceptions of themselves and of incarcerated 
people more generally. We are uniquely poised to bear witness to the group because as facilitators we create, perform, and explore alongside them. With one foot inside the walls and one foot outside, it is our charge to introduce PPTG’s process to a wider audience.

It’s challenging to frame how we participate with the men of PPTG because of their complete lack of “power” within their world and our limited ability to “collaborate” with many of those who hold “power” within the prison system, as well as our dependence on the administration to continue to “permit” the program to take place. 

You can learn more about PPTG, watch videos of performances, meet the players, facilitators, and collaborators and more by accessing the website herehttp://phoenixplayersatauburn.com.

Poem by Demetrius Molina, a piece written as part of his work in PPTG:
“Story of Words”
Showering drying dressing leaving. 
Driving arriving walking standing waiting.
Paying entering ordering drinking talking dancing drinking. 
Buzzing laughing partying slurring drinking drinking.
Sensing seeing tensing grouping watching.  
Waiting closing leaving avoiding warning yelling raging.
Pushing pushing swinging fighting.  
Pulling aiming shooting screaming running shooting driving speeding hiding.
Waiting hearing fearing disbelieving. 
Thinking regretting stressing blaming running hiding fearing.
Crying praying pleading hoping. Packing leaving driving. 
Stopped caught cuffed arrested.


8.  Children of Promise

After-school program in Bedford-Stuyvesant serves a Brooklyn neighborhood that has one of the city’s highest incarceration rates. 

Sharon Content, the founder of Children of Promise, started the organization in 2006. Content recruited kids by handing out flyers on the street. One of the first recipients was Widline, mother of 15-year-old Isaiah and 12-year-old Iyana. Their father had been in prison on murder and drug charges since Isaiah was 2 and Iyana was still in the womb. Isaiah had been acting out in school, becoming difficult for his teachers and mother to handle.

Children of Promise paired Isaiah with a mentor, Donald Garner, a Fordham Ph.D. student and recruiter for the New York Department of Education. Garner took Isaiah to class with him at Fordham, and went over to Sunday dinner at Isaiah’s house. The mentorship was supposed to be for one year, but Garner still hangs out with the family, offering support and consistency.

Children of Promise works with kids to help improve their relationship with their incarcerated parents. When he first began the program, Isaiah refused to talk with his dad. But with encouragement from Children of Promise staff, he began exchanging letters with his dad about his life and his progress in Children of Promise. Now, both he and his sister visit their father regularly in prison.

Since 2012, the program has operated a licensed outpatient mental health clinic for the families it helps, including one-on-one and family counseling, group therapy, and, if necessary, medication. The mental health care is sandwiched between dance classes and basketball, making it a normal part of the kids’ days.

In 2014, Isaiah won an Urban Hero Award, given by the Catalog of Giving of New York City, a fundraising group for youth-focused nonprofits. This summer, he began an internship at a law firm in Midtown.“I honestly can say I wouldn’t be here without Children of Promise,” he told BuzzFeed News, his sister beaming and nodding.


If you don’t have access to a computer where you can listen to the WNPR program linked above, perhaps someone who does can play it for you by phone.  It’s about an hour long; George Chochos gets a lot of the time.
This is the lede:  Back in 1990, there were more than 300 college-in-prison programs in the U.S. By 1997, the number was down to less than ten -- eliminated as part of the nation’s movement to get "tough on crime." Research shows that college-behind-bars can be among the most effective ways to stop prison’s revolving door, and give ex-offenders a chance to lead successful and productive lives once they’re on the outside.

The program features these guests:
  • George Chochos - Earned two degrees while serving a 14-year prison sentence in New York State; current student at Yale Divinity School
  • Dara Young - Program manager of Wesleyan University's Center for Prison Education
  • Michael McAlear - Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Wesleyan University
  • Dr. Lois Davis - Senior Policy Researcher with the RAND Corporation

10.  The Movement Against Solitary Confinement and How We Treat People with Violent Convictions
by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New York Magazine/Intelligencer 
Supreme Court’s centrist Justice Anthony Kennedy said in an unrelated decision that the appellant had "likely been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day; and in the one hour when he leaves it, he likely is allowed little or no opportunity for conversation or interaction with anyone." 
Kennedy closed by quoting Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Then wrote, "There is truth to this in our time."
Justice Kennedy observed that a great deal of attention was paid to adjudicating a defendant’s guilt or innocence, but that "too little attention has been paid to what happens next." 
Reporter  Benjamin Wallace-Wells added a seldom made observation: The most difficult moral question surrounding prison reform isn't how the state treats the innocents, or the nonviolent. The hardest question is how we ought to treat the many violent prisoners, the gang leaders and those who are actually guilty: the Hector Ayalas, the Todd Ashkers, the Arturo Castellanoses, the Antonio Guillens, the Sitawa Jamaas.
What to do about people with long records of genuine violence is the hardest question in the whole arena of crime, and the most stubborn issue in the social science that surrounds it.  Trying to fix solitary confinement begins to answer that question. 


11.  You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What?
Carlos and Roby are two ex-convicts with a simple mission: picking up inmates on the day they’re released from prison and guiding them through a changed world.

You can read the full article here:  

Prison Action Network thinks that every one in prison who is planning their reentry should read this article.  If you know someone in that situation, we suggest you send them the article.

We also think a service like the one Carlos and Roby are providing should be duplicated all over the United States.


12.  NY State's moment is now for correctional reform
By Daniel O'Donnell, Commentary published in the Albany Times Union, Saturday, August 8, 2015
  
New York can lead the nation on rehabilitating the prison system

 Criminal justice reform is having a “national moment.”    New York must take this opportunity to lead the way on what true correctional reform could and should look like: decreasing the prison population, improving conditions for people in prison, and improving mechanisms for people to leave prison, stay out and reintegrate into society.  These are some of the words written by Assembly member O’Donnell, and because we are only a 10 page newsletter, we are going to pick and choose from the jewels of his commentary and present a summary, mostly the parts relating to parole board policies.  Readers can google the article or request a copy from Prison Action Network.

There are more than 52, 000 people behind bars in our state, and from the perspective of public safety and the potential to successfully reintegrate inmates into society, it is no longer in the interest of the public to keep so many people behind bars.
   
Statewide, our overall parole release rate is 24 percent. There are certain prisons where this rate is even lower. Often the parole board simply serves as a resentencing board, refusing to let people out at their judicially determined minimum sentence. 

The current guidelines allow the board to deny parole because of “the nature of the crime.” Too many rejections are based on this provision, despite an inmate having recommendations for parole release from correction officers, superintendents and religious leaders, even when the inmate has a job and housing lined up in the community.  
Medical and geriatric parole are vastly underutilized. These forms of parole allow people who are terminally ill and medically frail, who clearly no longer pose a threat to society and cost extraordinary amounts of money to care for within the system, to leave prison on parole.  

 Clemency includes pardons, where someone is forgiven for their crime, and commutations, where it is determined that an inmate has served a sufficient amount of time, but does not speak to the nature of the crime, guilt or innocence. To date, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has only offered clemency to three people, all of whom were already out of prison. Clemency reform is needed to encourage greater use of this release option for deserving, rehabilitated prisoners. 

The United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a report last November classifying the excessive use of solitary confinement as torture. Yet, on any given day thousands of inmates across New York languish in 6-by-8-foot cells for 23 hours a day. The state took steps to ban this practice for people with serious mental illness in 2008, but we need to go further.

Finally, we need to create real opportunities for people to reintegrate once they leave prison.  We should extend the right to vote to those on parole.  Research consistently shows that education is the single most effective way to prevent recidivism. New York needs to allow TAP funds to be used by people who are incarcerated. 

 At the same time, we need more training opportunities for those who work in our prisons. Community colleges and state colleges should have programs and trainings to advance the educational opportunities for correctional officers.

How we treat inmates — and how we prepare them for their release into the community — is a measure of our collective sense of humanity. It is time for New York to incorporate an ethos of effective rehabilitation into the punishment function that lands so many people in prisons in the first place.

   • Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, D-Manhattan, is the chair of the Standing Committee on Correction.