Views Around New York
From: Sochie Nnaemeka and TeAna Taylor. special to the Utica Observer-Dispatch.
There’s no doubt that Albany is undergoing a transformation.
Voters across the state turned out in record numbers to elect Democratic and Working Families champions to the Legislature last year, winning super-majorities in both houses. And this April, the results were made clear: New York passed a budget that provides historic funding to our public school students, tenants, immigrants and Black and brown communities. We legalized cannabis for adults with provisions to ensure the benefits are shared by the communities directly impacted by the drug war. And we finally passed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act to restrict the use of “the box” in prisons and replace it with safe, humane alternatives. Electing progressive leaders is helping to deliver a future for New York rooted in equity and justice.
As we come down the final stretch of the legislative session, our elected leaders must resist complacency and continue to deliver long-overdue changes to our criminal justice systems that New Yorkers have been demanding.
Family members of incarcerated people, community leaders, and criminal justice advocates call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant emergency clemencies to older people in prison and others with compromised immune systems in response to the death of a person incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility who tested positive for COVID-19 April 3, 2020 outside the prison in Ossining, New York. Juan Mosquero was the first incarcerated person with the virus to die in a state prison.
Next on the agenda is parole reform. After decades of our state’s brutal sentencing laws compounded by blanket denials of release by the state parole board, there’s a crisis of aging and dying New Yorkers in our state prisons. With roughly 9,000 New Yorkers serving life sentences, our state ranks among the harshest in doling out life sentences in the nation—surpassing states like Texas and Georgia. Some were as young as 15 when they were sent to prison. No matter what they have accomplished during their decades behind bars or how they have changed and grown, many will die in custody—unless we pass reforms.
The story of Benjamin Smalls may shed light on the injustice. At 72, he was called “the Elder Statesman” by fellow incarcerated people at Green Haven prison. He served as the unofficial dean of the prison’s law library, helping hundreds of men to assert their legal rights to appeals, family visits and more. He was on the leadership board of Project for a Calculated Transition, or PACT — a partnership between Yale Law School and incarcerated people that offers courses on accountability, forgiveness, and personal growth. Smalls was an asset, not a risk, to any community and he deserved to come home.
In the spring of 2020, Smalls contracted COVID-19. With support from his attorney and advocates, he responded by filing emergency medical parole and clemency applications, knowing his old age and under-lying health issues made him more susceptible to a serious case of the virus. Tragically, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his prison agency denied the emergency release requests and Smalls died in prison on May 4, 2020 After he passed, his daughter found a breathless message from him in her voicemail asking, “How long will I have to be here?”
Even without the spread of COVID-19, New York’s sentencing and parole laws wouldn’t have offered Smalls a chance of release until his 82nd birthday.
Fortunately, many of our legislative champions are committed to end this racial injustice and pass the Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole bills. Together, they would ensure that people in prison have a meaningful opportunity for parole release based on individual considerations of who they are today, what they have done to change and whether they’re ready to return to their communities. These are modest yet necessary reforms that will move us closer toward ending the crisis of mass incarceration and curbing racial disparities in the system.
Families across New York are counting on parole justice, and with so many people aging rapidly behind bars, our law-makers must move with urgency.
Sochie Nnaemeka is executive director of the New York Working Families Party and lives in Mount Vernon. TeAna Taylor is an advocate with the People’s Campaign for Parole Justice.