The Practical Case for Parole for Violent Offenders By MARC MORJÉ HOWARDAUG. 8, 2017

The American criminal justice system is exceptional, in the worst way possible: It combines exceptionally coercive plea bargaining, exceptionally long sentences, exceptionally brutal prison conditions and exceptionally difficult obstacles to societal re-entry.

This punitiveness makes us stand out as uniquely inhumane in comparison with other industrialized countries. To remedy this, along with other changes, we must consider opening the exit doors — and not just for the “easy” cases of nonviolent drug offenders. Yes, I’m suggesting that we release some of the people who once committed serious, violent crimes.

There’s widespread agreement that current practices are unsustainable. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The grim reality of American justice is that there are 2.3 million people behind bars, five million on parole or probation, 20 million with felony convictions and over 70 million with a criminal record.

That’s why sentencing reform — mainly consisting of reduced penalties for drug-related crimes — has received bipartisan support at both the federal and state levels. But this isn’t enough. We should also bring back discretionary parole — release before a sentence is completed — even for people convicted of violent crimes if they’ve demonstrated progress during their imprisonment.

Other democracies regularly allow such prisoners to be granted reduced sentences or conditional release. But in the United States the conversation about this common-sense policy became politicized decades ago. As a result, discretionary parole has largely disappeared in most states and was eliminated in the federal system. Prisoners whose sentences include a range of years — such as 15 to 25 years, or 25 years to life — can apply to their state’s parole board for discretionary parole, but they almost always face repeated denials and are sent back to wither away behind bars despite evidence of rehabilitation. (Inmates who have served their maximum sentence are released on what is called mandatory parole.)

Rejection is usually based on the “nature of the crime,” rather than an evaluation of a person’s transformation and accomplishments since they committed it. The deeper reason for the rejection of discretionary parole requests is simple: fear. Politicians and parole board members are terrified that a parolee will commit a new crime that attracts negative media attention.

But this fear-driven thinking is irrational, counterproductive and inhumane. It bears no connection to solid research on how criminals usually “age out” of crime, especially if they have had educational and vocational opportunities while incarcerated. It permanently excludes people who would be eager to contribute to society as law-abiding citizens, while taxpayers spend over $30,000 a year to house each prisoner. And it deprives hundreds of thousands of people of a meaningful chance to earn their freedom.

But are prisoners who have served long sentences for violent crimes genuinely capable of reforming and not reoffending? The evidence says yes. In fact, only about 1 percent of people convicted of homicide are arrested for homicide again after their release. Moreover, a recent “natural experiment” in Maryland is very telling. In 2012, the state’s highest court decided that Maryland juries in the 1970s had been given faulty instructions. Some defendants were retried, but many others accepted plea bargains for time served and were released. As a result, about 150 people who had been deemed the “worst of the worst” have been let out of prison — and none has committed a new crime or even violated parole.

This outcome may sound surprising, but having spent one afternoon a week for the past three years teaching in a maximum-security prison in Maryland, I’m not shocked at all. Many of the men I teach would succeed on the outside if given the chance. They openly recognize their past mistakes, deeply regret them and work every day to grow, learn and make amends. Many of them are serving life sentences with a theoretical chance of parole, but despite submitting thick dossiers of their accomplishments in prison along with letters of support from their supervisors and professors, they are routinely turned down.

Over the past several years, I have brought in hundreds of Georgetown students for tours that include a meeting with a panel of prisoners, and I have accompanied nearly 50 academic colleagues who have delivered lectures to my incarcerated students. Without fail, the things that stand out to visitors are the same things that haunt me: the compassion, engagement and intellect of people who made terrible mistakes long ago but should not be perpetually defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.

Until recently the political situation was favorable to bipartisan criminal justice reform. But the election of a self-described “law and order candidate,” the doubling of the stock prices of private-prison companies and the return of the discredited war on drugs gives an indication of the direction of the current administration.
But whenever a real discussion about reform does come, policy makers should look beyond the boundaries of the United States. To be clear, I am not suggesting that all long-term prisoners should be released nor that the perspectives of crime victims should be ignored. Serious crimes warrant long sentences. But other democracies provide better models for running criminal justice and prison systems. Perhaps we could learn from them and acquire a new mind-set — one that treats prisons as sites to temporarily separate people from society while creating opportunities for personal growth, renewal and eventual re-entry of those who are ready for it.

Marc Morjé Howard is the director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown, where he is a professor of government and law, and is the author of “Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment and the Real American Exceptionalism.”

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New York now considers youth as a factor for inmates’ parole Tweet email

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Parole officials in New York are now considering an offender’s age at the time of their crime in response to court rulings that juvenile offenders serving life sentences must have a meaningful shot at release. 

The Board of Parole immediately changed its procedures after a 2016 state appellate court decision and is working on final regulations to codify the change, according to state corrections agency spokeswoman Rachel Heath.
While New York has not sentenced juveniles to life in prison without parole, critics of the parole board said it made little difference if they routinely denied parole to offenders sentenced to decades or life in prison as juveniles. Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have significantly narrowed the instances in which those who commit offenses under age 18 can be subject to the harshest penalties.

The move to consider an offender’s age in New York is the latest example of how the state’s view of juvenile offenders is changing. Earlier this year, lawmakers voted to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York to 18, so 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer automatically prosecuted and incarcerated as adults. New York had been one of only two states — the other being North Carolina — to have such a policy on the books.

“It’s about time that New York state is recognizing that juveniles are different,” said Phil Desgranges, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The science bears this out: The brains of juveniles are not fully developed. They have greater impulsivity.”

The 2016 decision by New York state’s appellate division found that a juvenile offender’s youth must be considered during parole hearings in order to give them a meaningful chance at release.

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New York’s Parole System Is ‘Broken,’ But Cuomo Can Help Fix It by Victoria Law June 5, 2017

Judith Clark is what many would consider a model prisoner.
During her 35 years at a maximum-security women’s prison in Bedford Hills, New York, she created and worked in many programs for her fellow inmates, including those dedicated to AIDS counseling, college education, and parenting.
For Governor Andrew Cuomo, these deeds showed that the 67-year-old had changed drastically from the 32-year-old who, in 1981, acted as the getaway driver in a Brink’s armored car robbery in which a guard and two police officers were killed in Rockland County. She was convicted and sentenced to 75 years to life in prison, and she would not have been eligible for parole until she turned 106 if not for Cuomo commuting her sentence in 2016.
Even so, the parole board unanimously denied Clark’s request for parole in April, after interviewing her for seven hours over a two-day period.
“We do find that your release at this time is incompatible with the welfare of society as expressed by relevant officials and thousands of its members,” the board stated, noting the nearly 10,000 signatures opposing her release. “You are still a symbol of a terroristic crime.”
Parole denials based on the nature of the crime are so common that critics have called the parole system “broken.”
In March 2017, little more than 1/3 (259) of the 704 people who appeared before the parole board were released. Ninety-five applicants had violent felony convictions; only 36 (or 38 percent) were released. Among the 445 people denied and forced to wait two years for another hearing, 20 were aged 60 or older.
“People think of parole as early release,” said Laura Whitehorn, a formerly incarcerated woman and current organizer for the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign. “It’s not. It’s release after your minimum term is up. If you have a sentence of 25 to life, 25 is the minimum you have to do. Parole doesn’t mean you get out early.”
Parole board members are appointed by the governor, usually at the behest of a local state senator. These appointees must be confirmed by the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, a committee currently chaired by Patrick Gallivan, a former commissioner himself and a staunch opponent of Clark’s release, who went so far as to collect signatures against it on his state senate page.
The members, called commissioners, can serve an unlimited number of six-year terms, though they must be reappointed and reconfirmed. To qualify, a potential commissioner must have a college degree and five years’ experience in criminal justice, sociology, law, social work, or medicine. The annual salary is $101,600; the chairperson is paid $120,800.
The parole board can have up to nineteen commissioners; it currently has twelve. The terms of four commissioners, three of whom were appointed by Governor George Pataki, are ending this summer, while another is currently in “holdover,” meaning that, though her term has technically expired, she continues to make parole decisions. Cuomo’s office is currently interviewing candidates, who must be confirmed before June 21, when the legislative session ends.
Robert Dennison, a former commissioner, served on the board from 2000 to 2007, participating in hundreds of parole hearings. The average parole hearing, he told the Voice, lasted fifteen minutes. During that time, the applicant had to articulate how he or she was no longer a threat to society and why he or she deserved to be paroled.
“In practice, one commissioner presides over the hearing while the other two try to pay attention as they read files for upcoming cases,” he said. They saw forty people a day. Now, hearings are, for the most part, conducted by video.
By law, commissioners must consider not only the crime, but factors such as participation in rehabilitative programs, release plans, and the risk of recidivism. In reality, Dennison said, commissioners feel pressured to deny release to those convicted in the deaths of police officers or other high-profile cases.
“It’s so easy to hold a person, because you never get criticized for keeping a person in,” Dennison said.
He recalled one instance in which a fellow commissioner told him that he had voted to deny parole to Diana Ortiz, a woman convicted as a teenager in the death of an off-duty police officer. After more than seventeen years, she had served more time than her co-defendants, whose sentences were reduced on appeal.
“We should have let her go,” Dennison recalled his colleague telling him. But the junior commissioner was “intimidated” by another commissioner on the board and afraid of the backlash he might suffer if he granted parole to a woman convicted in the death of an officer.
Two years later, Dennison was on the board that allowed Ortiz to go home.
He does think that political pressure “occasionally” plays a role in parole denials. For example, the two commissioners who granted parole to Clark’s co-defendant Kathy Boudin in 2003 were not reappointed.
“That sends a message to any parole board commissioner,” he noted.
That message has also made its way to parole applicants — and can sometimes lead to despair.
On August 4, 2016, shortly after his tenth parole denial, 70-year-old John Mackenzie committed suicide at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York. He spent 41 years in prison on a sentence of 25 years to life for fatally shooting a police officer in 1975.
Though acknowledging his many programs and accomplishments as well as his low-risk assessment score, commissioners based each denial on his decades-old crime. His final parole denial stated, “After a review of the record and interview, the panel has determined that if released at this time, there is a reasonable probability that you would not live and remain at liberty without again violating the law.”
Mackenzie’s daughter Danielle is now advocating for changes in the parole system. These repeated parole denials meant her father not only missed out on her life, but will not get to see his ten-year-old granddaughter grow, either.
Danielle filled out the paperwork necessary to retrieve his belongings. She wanted the one existing photo of them together, taken in the prison visiting room during their very first visit when she was 21. She had let her father keep it.
“That was the only thing from Fishkill I wanted,” she said. But prison staff had thrown it away.
Instead, they returned the bed sheet that he had used to hang himself.
On April 24, 2017, Danielle took the day off from work and drove to Albany with members of RAPP to speak before the board’s monthly business meeting.
“I represent the somewhat voiceless in this process, the children of the incarcerated parents,” she told the commissioners. “In his last letters, my father expressed hopelessness. He felt there was nothing he could do to express how much he had changed. There was nothing left.”
She recalled that two commissioners were crying by the time she finished speaking.
Danielle wants more than tears and regrets. She wants the parole process to have more accountability and more recourse for inmates.
Dennison, the former parole commissioner, says “the only thing a judge can do is assign a new hearing.” But a new hearing does not necessarily mean a different result.
In June 2016, Cuomo nominated five new commissioners, but the senate committee never held their confirmation hearings.
With more commissioners’ terms set to expire, advocates see an opportunity for change.
“He can appoint seven new people,” Whitehorn, the formerly incarcerated activist, said. “And he can fight for them.”
A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not respond to our requests for comment — we’ll update if they do.

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International Conference to Discuss “Mandela Rules” on Prison Reforms  April 25-29 in Costa Rica

Representatives from around the world will meet in San Jose, Costa Rica, from April 25 to 29 to discuss landmark United Nation reforms governing the treatment of prisoners.

The 7th International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform will examine the “Mandela Rules,” adopted unanimously in 2015 and named after former South African President Nelson Mandela.

“At past conferences, there were many prison reform speeches,” says Charles Sullivan, President of International CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants), which is sponsoring the event. “But there were no guidelines for structuring prison reforms.”

“The Mandela Rules have not only given us the framework for treatment of prisoners in the 21st century,” Sullivan says, “but aim to transform imprisonment from wasted time to an opportunity for personal development, resulting in substantially less crime.”

Ten panels with participants from 17 countries will make presentations on different aspects of prison reform based on the revised guidelines, officially known as the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. They represent Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, India, Japan, Malawi, Panama, Peru, Rwanda, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United States, and Zambia.

The conference will take place at the Courtyard Marriott (near the airport) in San Jose. See the attachment for the full agenda.

The last International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform was held in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2014. Previous conferences took place in New York City, Washington, Geneva, and Abuja, Nigeria.

For more information, please contact Samuel Kaplan at 202-531-4932 or Sam@CURE-DC.org.

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Political Interests in Albany Could Finally Align to ‘Raise The Age’ Of Criminal Responsibility BY CHRISTINA VEIGA  Chalkbeat March 16, 2017

New York State’s practice of charging all 16- and 17-year olds as adults in the criminal justice system could finally end this year, as both houses of the legislature and the governor are tentatively supporting a change.
 
The Republican-led Senate included a provision to support raising the age of criminal responsibility in its budget proposal that passed Wednesday. The Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight lawmakers who collaborate with Republicans in the Senate, has rallied to “Raise the Age.”
 
New York is one of only two states that automatically treats 16- and 17-year olds as adults in the criminal justice system, according to Raise the Age, a coalition of community organizations. That means holding teens in adult jails after arrest, trying them in adult court and sending them to adult prisons if convicted — potentially leaving teens with a criminal record.
 
“There are hundreds of people involved in the campaign, spreading information. That helps us better understand why this is good not just for the young people, but for public safety as well,” said Naomi Post, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of New York state, one of the organizations leading the Raise the Age campaign. “I think the amplification of voices has really had an impact on making the issue more salient.”
 
The state Assembly, which passed its own budget proposal on Wednesday, has long been supportive of raising the age of criminal responsibility, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also included provisions to do so in previous years’ budget proposals.
 
But Tami Steckler, attorney-in-charge of the juvenile rights practice at the Legal Aid Society, isn’t ready to declare victory. She said it’s important that the final bill include wide protections for young people — regardless of the crime they are charged with — including requirements that all teens be held in juvenile facilities and that their cases be handled under family court law.
 
“You can reduce recidivism and improve public safety by treating children as children, because that’s what works best,” Steckler said. “What happens now is meaningful because it’s really hard to get more later.”
 

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The Context for the Trump Phenomenon

by David Gilbert (Written February 19, 2017) Published March 16, 2017
The bizarre and dangerous rise of Donald Trump did not just pop up out of the thin air. The very foundation of the U.S. is white supremacy. This country is, at its core, imperialist, patriarchal and based in a range of ways human beings are delimited and demeaned. Nor are the specific and terribly virulent politics of racial scapegoating brand new. Always a part of U.S. culture, that approach became more central in mainstream politics, with various ups and downs in the rhetoric, since the end of the 1960s. A stable imperialism prefers to rule by keeping the population passive, with large sectors at home placated by relative prosperity. But when the system is in crisis, those running the economy often resort to diverting anger by scapegoating the racial “other.” The sectors of the population who buy into that get the “satisfaction” of stomping on their “inferiors,” which is a lot easier than confronting the mega-powerful ruling class.
The eruption of mass protest against Trump has been exciting, and so far it’s been sustained. People seem to have a feel for the critical need for ongoing education, organizing, and mobilization. The movement also has to be prepared, both psychologically and in terms of legal and support networks, for greater repression, both state and extralegal.
The Democrats in blaming “those damn Russkies” are deflecting attention away from the real reason they lost: they represented the prevailing global capitalism and all the associated frustrations stemming from the decline of U.S. manufacturing and the erosion of job security. Trump spoke to those anxieties – in a totally demagogic and dishonest way. For example, during the campaign he railed against Goldman Sachs as the prime example of how Wall Street banks screw the working man; then, as president he selected seven of his top economic appointments from the ranks of Goldman Sachs. The Democrats could not provide a compelling alternative to this racist scam artist because they too are fully based in the long bipartisan history of white supremacy, capitalism, and wars of aggression.
Regardless of these questionable charges, Russia can’t hold a candle to the U.S. when it comes to interfering in other countries’ elections, let alone more intrusive and violent means of regime change. The big push by the Democrats and allied sectors of the security apparatus for confronting Russia is not only unjustified but also runs the risk of leading to a horribly destructive war. As much as we’re scandalized, and rightly so, by Trump’s more blatant racism and misogyny, we need to look at the continuities as well as the departures.
President Obama, with his kinder and more inclusive rhetoric, provided trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. He presided over seven wars (drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians and are acts of war under international law). His administration deported a record number of immigrants. In his last year, Obama sought to burnish his legacy around climate change and mass incarceration. He issued a record number of clemencies, but earlier took legal action to keep far more in prison. After Congress passed a law somewhat reducing what had been draconian sentences for crack cocaine, the Justice Department went to court to prevent any retroactive application, and thus kept some 6,000 people behind bars. Similarly, Obama issued a number of executive orders, most of which can be readily reversed, to modestly rein in greenhouse gases. But earlier his administration played a key role in sabotaging the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of Parties, which was the best chance to get a binding international treaty with some teeth in it, at a time when Democrats held a majority in Congress.
Recalling these dire problems is a reminder of how much the most basic issue is the very nature of the system. Nonetheless, there is something new and particularly threatening about Trump’s election: the way he has enlarged, energized and emboldened an active and aggressive base for white supremacy. Immigrants, Muslims, Native American water protectors, Black Lives Matter activists, women who’ve faced sexual assault, LGBTQ folks, those who can’t afford health insurance, and more all feel under the gun. The prospect of an unbridled pouring of more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is terrifying.
We can’t forget that an imperialism in crisis will turn to racist mobilizations to supersede obstacles to continued domination and expansion. The U.S. hasn’t yet reached that dramatic turning point, but it has been teetering in and out of economic and political crises since 1971. And on top of that, we now are on the brink of environmental disasters that can’t be resolved under capitalism.
As of this writing (February 2017) major sectors of the ruling class are still wary of Trump as too much of a loose cannon. They are making an effort at least to rein him in if not bring him down, although leading with the very dangerous push toward greater confrontation with Russia. It remains to be seen if Trump’s amalgam of billionaire businessmen and ultra-Right white nationalists can provide a coherent program or even hold together. Whatever happens with his presidency, we likely are in for a burgeoning of white supremacist movements. If Trump’s economic policies appear to be successful (possible in the short run of a couple of years but, if so, with giant dislocations and problems in the longer run), he’s a hero to those embittered sectors of the white working and middle classes who voted for him. On the other hand, if his administration implodes, millions of his fervent supporters will see it as the “elites” bringing down their champion. In either case our job, our challenge, is to build a strong movement that can articulate the real issues and clearly present humane, international and sustainable alternatives.
There’s been an outpouring of Left analysis on who voted for Trump and why. Some of it is very helpful about race, class, and the economy. From what I’ve seen there’s been very little that puts all that in the global context, with the U.S. as the premier imperial power but in decline. Nor has there been enough that has rooted Trump’s rise in the developments of the past 45 years. This is the challenge for our ongoing project of analysis and action.

David Gilbert #83-A-6158
Wende Correctional Facility
3040 Wende Road
Alden, New York 14004-1187

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‘Those Visits Were Everything’: How Prison Visitation Cuts Devastate Families

by Victoria Law – March 22, 2017
Jenise Britt sees her husband at Sing Sing, one of New York’s 17 maximum-security prisons, at least twice a week. From her job in Bryant Park, it’s only a short walk to Grand Central and the 7:19 train to Ossining. She tries to visit on weekdays to avoid the more crowded weekends, when the noise and nearby bodies make intimate conversations nearly impossible. The twice-weekly visits help the couple remain close despite her husband’s 18-to-life sentence and the fact that his first parole hearing isn’t until 2024.
But New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget means that Britt—and other family members—will have no choice but to contend with crowds, longer waits and the possibility of shorter visits to see their incarcerated loved ones. Buried in the governor’s budget is a proposal to reduce the number of visiting days in maximum-security prisons from seven to just Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, a move that he told Democrats would save the state $2.6 million by eliminating 39 staff positions. Family members and advocates say the cuts will discourage visiting with more crowded visiting rooms, longer waits, and shorter visits, impacting relationships already strained by lengthy prison sentences.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” said 16-year-old Margarita, whose father has been incarcerated since she was three or four years old. “If we have a vacation during the week, we want to see our parents.” She recalls going to visit her father two days before her 15th birthday. “Usually, if we talk on the phone, it’s like, ‘Happy birthday. Have fun,'” she recalled. But that day, they spent several hours together talking, walking around the outside visiting area and playing Monopoly. “Kids—they want to see their parents more,” she added. “[These cuts] are just taking away time from our parents.”
As of March 14, 2017, 50,476 people were incarcerated in New York state prisons. Similar to policing policies and practices across the country, incarceration disproportionately impacts communities of color, particularly African-American communities. Almost half (49 percent) of people in the state’s prisons are Black; the other half are white (24.4 percent) and Latino (24 percent). Sixty percent are parents to living children, and the impact of parental incarceration, like incarceration itself, disproportionately affects families of color. African-American children are seven times more likely, and Latino children are twice as likely, to have a parent in prison as their white peers. Incarceration doesn’t affect just children and parents—other family members, such as spouses, non-married partners, parents and siblings, also feel the brunt of their loved ones’ absence. In-person visits allow families to maintain their relationships despite long periods of separation. But Cuomo’s cuts mean that the 21,525 people in maximum-security prisons face the possibility of fewer—and shorter—visits.
Jolene Russ relies on visits to stay connected to her husband, who has served 17 years of a 49-year sentence at the prison in Elmira. Russ works full-time and typically visits on the weekends, which she describes as “elbow-to-elbow. There’s no room to move.” But there have been times during her husband’s incarceration that her visit couldn’t wait. Last year, for instance, death hit her husband’s family hard—first his father died, followed by his brother and then his nephew.
Kids—they want to see their parents more. [These cuts] are just taking away time from our parents.
“Have you ever had to call the chaplain?” Russ asked, her question laden with frustration from repeated experiences. That’s the start of the standard prison procedure for a death in the family—a family member calls the prison chaplain to report the death and the funeral arrangements. The chaplain takes down the information, which prison administrators then verify, a process that may take a few days. Once they do, the prisoner is called into the chaplain’s office, where he is told about the death and the date of the funeral. “That’s the way it goes. There’s no compassion, no sit-down counseling or services offered.”
When her husband’s brother died, Russ still had to call the chaplain. But she took the following day off work and drove the three hours to the prison to tell her husband in person. “We’re able to talk about it,” she explained. “He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his cell.” The chaplain didn’t call her husband into the office until two days after her visit.
It works the other way as well. Russ recalls a time when she was feeling overwhelmed by the plethora of responsibilities that she had to manage without her husband’s presence and physical support. “I was taken out of work by my physician, and he encouraged me to engage in tasks that would bring me peace and get me organized,” she recalled. She spent that Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday visiting her husband. During those six-hour visits, the couple talked about her tasks and responsibilities. Together, they created a feasible time management schedule and financial budget. In addition, working to help create a budget and schedule enabled her husband to feel like a participating member of the family. Russ recalled him telling her, “For the first time in a long time I don’t feel like your husband that’s locked up. I just feel like your husband.”
Cutting weekday visits would mean longer lines and more crowded visiting rooms. Elmira’s visiting policy dictates that, when the visiting room is overcrowded, visitors who live within 100 miles of the prison are the first to have their visits ended early. But, even though Russ lives nearly 200 miles away, she’s had her visits cut short on weekends as well.
The governor’s budget proposal calls for expanding the use of video visits to replace weekday visits. Russ insists that this won’t be the same. “It would mean not being able to reach across the table and touch his hand or, if we’re having an intimate moment, to kiss his face,” she mused. “It’s human contact.”
Video visits are how 16-year-old Jamaill sees his father, who went to prison before the boy’s first birthday. His father is incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, approximately 260 miles from New York City. The distance means that Jamaill can only visit twice a year. For the past two years, he’s been using the Osborne Association’s video visiting program twice a month. But nothing compares to being able to see his father in person. “I can be myself,” he told Broadly. “I can touch him; we can play cards.” If Jamaill has something personal to tell his father, he doesn’t feel comfortable doing so during a video visit.
Cuomo’s proposed cuts won’t affect him personally, but Jamaill knows firsthand the toll it takes on a family to see each other primarily through video chat. “That’s not right,” he said. “Some people want to see their parents in person instead of seeing them on a television. They might express their feelings more in person.”
He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his cell.
It’s not just outside family members who will profoundly feel these cuts. Elizabeth Harris went to prison when her daughters were two and twelve. During her 17 years at Bedford Hills, the state’s maximum-security prison, family members brought her daughters to visit at least twice a week, and sometimes even three to four times a week. During weekday visits, the visiting room was less crowded and less noisy. “I was able to spend quality time with them,” she recounted. Harris didn’t need to try to keep her toddler in her seat; instead, the mother and daughter could walk around the visiting room or outside to the play area.
On the weekends, however, the crowds and accompanying noise meant a much different visit. Officers insisted that she keep her toddler from wandering; if they were in the play area, she had to worry that another child might run over or push the two-year-old. Even with her older daughter, weekend visits were a challenge. “You find yourself screaming to have a conversation,” she recalled.
The visits allowed Harris to parent despite her lengthy sentence. “So much happened on visits,” Harris recounted. She recalls one visit with her older daughter, then a teenager. They saw a couple at another table. “It was two women and they kissed. That was her chance to tell me she was attracted to girls,” Harris said. Had they been limited to the crowded and noisy weekend visits, she doesn’t think her daughter would have told her—but because of the less crowded weekday visit, “she was able to have a conversation with her mom.”
By the time Harris was released, her daughters were grown. However, their bond had remained close despite her lengthy absence, which made reacclimating to life outside of prison far easier. “I didn’t have to focus so hard on building a relationship with my children because it was already there,” she said. “I had more energy to focus on finding employment, housing. I wanted to go back to school. I had time to focus on me because I knew our relationship was secure.”
Some people want to see their parents in person instead of seeing them on a television. They might express their feelings more in person.
What’s in Cuomo’s proposed budget isn’t necessarily what will be enacted. The Assembly and Senate propose their own budgets. Then the leaders of each house and the governor sit down to thrash out the final budget, which needs to be passed by April 1. Meanwhile, advocates and family members are trying to ensure that visiting cuts aren’t part of the final version.
Russ learned about the proposed visiting cuts from a newspaper article. She then told her husband, who had heard nothing about the changes—even though they would affect him and thousands of others. “It’s not being done through legislation,” she reflected. “It’s being done in the inner workings of the government that most people don’t pay attention to because they’re busy grinding to get their life in order, because their lives are so difficult.” But she’s determined to make sure that the governor—and her legislators—are aware of the impact on family members. She has written letters to Cuomo and to Assemblyman David Weprin, the chair of the Committee on Correction and an opponent of the cuts to visiting hours. She also took the day off work to attend Weprin’s rally in Albany against these cuts. Britt also attended the Albany rally as well as another on the steps of City Hall in New York City. “It was important for me to show up that day,” she said.
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State legislators seem to understand their concerns. The budget proposals from both houses restore the $2.6 million for daily visits at maximum-security prisons; the Assembly proposal also “includes new legislation to prohibit the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision from reducing visitation opportunities at maximum security prisons.” Cuomo’s office has not responded to Broadly’s request for comment.
“This [reduced visiting] will be a hardship for a lot of people,” said Britt. Harris, who has now been out of prison for four years, agrees. “Those visits were everything to me,” she remembered. Looking at Cuomo’s proposal to replace in-person visits with expanded video visiting, she asks, “How can you have a personal relationship with someone on a TV screen?”

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