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Meet four women lobbying to be among the lucky few prisoners who will likely receive clemency from Governor George Pataki next week. All are longtime inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County. And like hundreds of other prisoners across the state, these four women have spent the last several months or, in some cases, years trying to convince the governor to set them free.
Every Christmas, New York State's governor traditionally commutes the sentences of a handful of inmates. Since 1995, Pataki has granted clemency to 13 inmates, freeing them from prison early pending approval from the parole board. Almost all were nonviolent drug offenders serving lengthy prison sentences for a first offense. "These cases the governor has a great deal of sympathy for," says Paul Shechtman, Pataki's former criminal justice coordinator. "I think he sees clemency as way to mitigate the harshness of the Rockefeller drug laws."
These drug laws, signed 25 years ago by governor Nelson Rockefeller, require stiff mandatory sentences for narcotics possession and sales. Critics charge that clemency allows the governor to look compassionate on this issue without risking political backlash. "Granting clemency to a few very sympathetic cases does nothing to correct the system," says Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York, which lobbies for repealing the laws.
The official qualifications for clemency are simple: You must have a minimum sentence of a year, have served at least half of it, and be more than a year away from your parole date. But there are many more unofficial rules you should know. You have a better shot at clemency if you earned a college degree while imprisoned, and if the warden likes you enough to write a letter on your behalf. Your chances are rather slim if you ever punched a guard or got caught smoking a joint in your cell or tried to scale the prison's razor-ribbon fences.
To apply for clemency, all you have to do is write to the governor. Even a note scribbled on a brown paper bag will do. But your chances improve if you can find advocates lawyers or activists or family members or friends who will devote hundreds of unpaid hours to your campaign. It helps your cause if the governor knows that a lot of people care about you. So you may want to woo politicians, convince journalists to tell your story, and collect letters of support from everyone you can think of prison guards, siblings, fellow inmates, childhood friends, past employers, even complete strangers.
To beat out hundreds of competitors and win the prize of stripping off your cotton uniform, you will need plenty of perseverance, political savvy, and, of course, luck. Just ask Anthony Papa. A self-described "PR wizard," Papa waged a successful two-year clemency campaign and got himself out of Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1997.
"It's a very political game," says Papa, who became an accomplished painter while incarcerated on a first-time drug offense. "You have to separate yourself from the others because there are so many people who are fully rehabilitated and ready to reenter society. My art is how I separated myself from the crowd."
All clemency applications wind up at the Executive Clemency Bureau, an office within the state's Division of Parole. Staffers weed out prisoners who do not meet the guidelines. Then they investigate. They collect behavior records and medical reports. And they solicit the opinions of the parole board, judges, prosecutors, and victims. Every December, a dozen or so of the strongest applications land on the governor's desk. After consulting with his top aides, he makes his choice.
As the governor's aides are scrambling to finish this process before Christmas, tension builds inside the state's prisons. Clemency candidates know the odds are against them. (Seven state prisoners received clemency in 1996. But only three two men and one woman got it last year.) Nowhere is the sense of competition greater than at Bedford Hills. Because it is the state's only maximum-security facility for women, Bedford Hills is also home to many of the strongest clemency contenders. There, some women research each other's crimes in the law library to see how they stack up. Others snub fellow inmates who manage to get a coveted interview with a reporter.
"It's a terrible process," says Thea DuBow, who spent three and a half years at Bedford Hills in the mid 1980s. "It pits woman against woman, possibly friend against friend. The women feel, 'Why would you get it and not me?' "
Here, four female inmates tell how they are campaigning for clemency, and why they believe the governor should commute their sentences. All have been model prisoners, and all are anxiously awaiting word of their fate in this high-stakes lottery. Come next week, one or more may find out that the governor has bestowed on her a priceless Christmas present: the chance to go free.