On Monday, April 24, RAPP members and other advocates challenged the New York State Parole Board to release greater numbers of people who have served long sentences.
New York Times, The Opinion Pages
September 6, 2016
By Jesse Wegman, Editorial Observer
On July 26, John MacKenzie went before the parole board at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y., and made the case, once again, for his freedom. He had been locked up since 1975 for shooting and killing a Long Island police officer, Matthew Giglio, during a bungled robbery attempt. His sentence was 25 years to life — the maximum under state law.
On Aug. 2, he learned that the board had voted 2 to 1 against him. It was the 10th time in 16 years that he had been denied parole.
Later that day, he sent a handwritten letter to his daughter Denise, saying that “they’re hell bent on keeping me in prison” and “I don’t believe I’ll last much longer.”
On Aug. 4, another inmate found Mr. MacKenzie hanging by the neck from a bedsheet tied to the window bars of his cell. He was 70.
John MacKenzie was no ordinary prisoner. In the more than 40 years he spent behind bars, he became one of the most respected inmates in the state’s penal system. He had a spotless disciplinary record. He took full responsibility for the murder of Mr. Giglio. He earned degrees in business and the arts. He started a program to give victims the opportunity to speak directly to inmates about the impact of their crimes. The state’s own risk-assessment program found that he posed little to no risk of re-offending. Prison guards, judges, clergy members and prosecutors wrote letters supporting him.
None of this seemed to matter to the parole board. Because of the seriousness of his crime, one denial said, his release would “undermine respect for the law.” Another referred to “significant community opposition.” The wording would vary, but the message was always the same: Mr. MacKenzie’s sentence, which appeared to give him a real chance at freedom after 25 years, was a sham. No matter what he did to atone for his crime, he was never getting out.
Some see this as a just result, particularly law enforcement groups, which steadfastly opposed Mr. MacKenzie’s release. But New York criminal law provides for the possibility of parole, which is based on the idea that people can change.
Under state law, the parole board is required to weigh a prisoner’s entire history: his degree of remorse, his behavior behind bars and the likelihood that he will be able to live lawfully outside prison. Those factors never got more than a cursory mention, at best, when the board denied Mr. MacKenzie’s requests. In May, a State Supreme Court justice, Maria Rosa, held the board in contempt for failing to give any reason for denying Mr. MacKenzie parole other than the nature of his crime. Justice Rosa wrote that “if parole isn’t granted to this petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted?” She ordered the board to hold a new hearing, with different board members. The state appealed that order. The case was still pending when Mr. MacKenzie killed himself.
Certainly crime victims and police officers should have a voice in the parole process, but they should not have a veto. Otherwise, parole is a meaningless promise.
Some years ago, Mr. MacKenzie wrote an essay about the frustrations of living at the whim of parole commissioners. “If society wishes to rehabilitate as well as punish wrongdoers through imprisonment,” he wrote, then “society — through its lawmakers — must bear the responsibility of tempering justice with mercy. Giving a man legitimate hope is a laudable goal; giving him false hope is utterly inhuman.”
A version of this editorial appears in print on September 6, 2016, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: False Hope and a Needless Death Behind Bars.
For more on John MacKenzie, see RAPPCampaign.com/press
Saturday night, September 26, 2015 was not the first time Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP – along with about 100 or so other New Yorkers committed to ending mass incarceration and prison injustice – held up lighted candles outside Governor Cuomo’s home in Mt. Kisco. “Candles for Clemency” started last year, when we first stood outside the governor’s home, urging him to grow a heart and a spine and begin taking steps to reduce New York’s huge prison population.
The target issue of the Candles for Clemency vigils has been the governor’s executive power to release people from prison when other channels are not available. RAPP has been crucial to expanding these efforts, because we emphasize that, beyond clemency, the governor could also instruct his parole commissioners to release applicants when they clearly pose no danger to public safety.
Last year, Governor Cuomo did not appear at or respond to Candles for Clemency. This year the governor sent his counsel, Alphonso David, to address the crowd. And on the governor’s behalf, David insulted us all. He threw the burden for the governor’s lack of compassion (zero commutations in his five years in office) back on incarcerated people and their families. The obstacle, David said, has been the lack of “viable candidates” for commutation, a dearth of robust applications submitted to the governor. Individual candle-holders began to challenge David’s statements, calling them fabrications. After all, many people at the vigil had friends or family members who have in fact submitted files and papers requesting commutation—and who have waited in vain for a response.
But we don’t need to cite those files to expose the fabrications mouthed by David for his boss. All we need to do is look at the records of parole board releases—and denials.
There are more than 9,500 elders (people 50 and older) in the prisons of New York, and 2/3 of them have parole-eligible sentences. Put those numbers together with the regulations governing parole—the use of evidence-based methods for determining whether a person of, say, 62 years of age poses any risk of committing a crime of the nature he or she may have committed many decades earlier—plus the statistics showing that older people who have served long sentences pose the very lowest risk of recidivism, and you get a recipe for simultaneously promoting public safety and human rights. Yet Governor Cuomo and his administrators continue to deny some 75% of parole applicants over and over. That is a main reason why the population of people aged 50 and older in New York State prisons has risen by 81% since about 2000.
With a series of quick strokes of his pen (to sign clemency petitions) or just one phone call (instructing his parole board to do the right thing), the governor could put New York in the lead in ending the internationally embarrassing racist policies and practices that have filled prisons with people of color, damaging their families and destabilizing their communities. He could take the courageous—but totally sensible—step of releasing many elders, instead of turning prisons into nursing facilities. He could immediately save the millions of dollars being wasted on security and incarceration and funnel those funds into community health and welfare.
In other words, Governor Cuomo could be a leader. But first he desperately needs some heart. Instead of asking the community to nominate individual cases for clemency consideration, he, like the lion from the Wizard of Oz, should have asked us to help him find some courage. When he does that, we will know he truly cares about communities and justice.
Follow RAPP on Twitter @RAPPCampaign
Life Outside: Rosalie Comes Home
April 28 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Part of the: Release Aging People from Prison Film Series
Directed by Frances Negrón-Muntaner
Life Outside tells the story of Rosalie Cutting as she navigates finding a job and housing at 71, after serving a 27-year prison sentence.
Heyman Center for the Humanities at
74 Morningside Dr,
(Enter on 116th Street)
New York, NY 10027
RAPP & Raise the Age (with Saigon and Messiah!) “What’s Age Got to Do with It? Incarcerating Children and the Elderly”
Sunday, September 14, 2014 at 2 p.m.
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor
Representatives of the Correctional Association’s “Raise the Age” and “Release of Aging People in Prison” campaigns engage in a dynamic dialogue with each other and the audience about how we are addressing these problems—and how we can make change, as well as art that supports that change. The event concludes with special performances by Saigon from the TV show Love & Hip Hop and by spoken word artist Messiah, who also works with youth on Rikers Island.
Tanesha Ingram, Youth and Community Coordinator of CA’s Juvenile Justice Project, moderates the afternoon’s conversation with participants including Mujahid Farid, Soros Fellow at the “Release of Aging People in Prison” project; spoken word artist Messiah; advocate Gloria Rubero; actor and rapper Saigon; and Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, Director of CA’s Juvenile Justice Project.
Part of the series “States of Denial: The Illegal Incarceration of Women, Children, and People of Color,” presented by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in partnership with the Correctional Association of New York.
Free with Museum admission ($10).
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