On Thursday morning, 70-year-old John Mackenzie was found dead in what appears to have been a suicide at the Fishkill Correctional Facility. Nine days earlier, in a two-to-one decision, Mackenzie had been denied parole for the tenth time.
In 1975, Mackenzie, then 29, was sentenced to 25 years to life after fatally shooting a police officer following a burglary. During his 41 years in prison, Mackenzie earned three degrees, participated in various prison programs, and, in memory of his own victim, even secured $10,000 in funding to create a program that allowed victims the opportunity to speak directly to prisoners about the impact of their crimes.
But none of this seemed to matter to the parole board. During the past 16 years, Mackenzie appeared before the board ten times. Each time, the board denied his request. The reason remained the same — Mackenzie’s crime showed a “serious disregard for the law” and the board believed that granting him parole would “undermine respect for the law.” That decision was in violation of the state’s 2011 executive law requiring the parole board to consider not just the nature of the crime, but also factors such as participation in rehabilitative programs, release plans, and the risk of recidivism.
Mackenzie filed what’s known as an Article 78, or a request for a judge to review the decision of a state or local agency. State Supreme Court Judge Maria Rosa vacated the 2014 denial and ordered a new hearing. But the new hearing had the same outcome — parole was once again denied based on the nature of Mackenzie’s crime. In May 2016, Rosa ruled that the parole board had denied Mackenzie parole without considering all the factors, including risk assessment, required under the 2011 executive law. “It is undisputed that it is unlawful for the parole board to deny parole solely on the basis of the underlying conviction,” she wrote in her decision. “Yet the court can reach no other conclusion but that this is exactly what the parole board did in this case. No other basis has been stated by the parole board for the denial of parole in either of its determinations in December 2014 or December of 2015.” Rosa held the board in contempt, the second time in two years that a judge has done so, and issued a fine of $500 for each day until it held a new hearing and issued a decision in accordance with the law. She also ordered that none of the members from the 2014 or 2015 parole boards participate in Mackenzie’s new hearing.
On Monday, four days after Mackenzie’s death, his attorney Kathy Manley received a decision from Judge Rosa reaffirming the contempt order. Had he not ended his own life, she told the Voice, they would have gone on to fight the attorney general’s attempt to appeal the contempt order. Manley was hopeful that the appeal court would uphold the contempt order, forcing the board to hold a proper hearing in which, given Mackenzie’s spotless prison record, he would have been released. “I was optimistic,” she said, “but he couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Parole denials based on the nature of the crime, in violation of state law, are so common that advocates (as well as the New York Times, in a recent editorial) call the parole board “broken.” Judith Brink, an advocate with the Prison Action Network, receives hundreds of letters from state prisoners who have been denied parole. “The majority of the people I hear from are all denied because of the nature of their crime,” she told the Voice. Each month, Brink combs the parole database and compiles statistics of parole decisions. In June 2016, the board saw 895 applicants. Only 258 (or 29 percent) were released. Despite the state’s own findings that people over age 65 were least likely to commit new crimes, of the 33 applicants ages 60 or older, only 9 were released.
On Monday evening, approximately 75 people gathered across the street from Lincoln Correctional Facility in Harlem to remember John Mackenzie and demand changes to the parole system. With the evening sun beating down on their heads, they held signs denouncing the parole board for Mackenzie’s death. Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after spending three years at Rikers awaiting trial, led them in a call-and-response recitation of the facts of Mackenzie’s case. Then they marched along the sidewalks of St. Nicholas Avenue, chanting and handing out yellow flyers about Mackenzie’s death and the need for parole reform to passersby.
Some of the marchers knew Mackenzie from their own stretches of time in prison. Some also had their own experiences with the New York State parole system.
Mujahid Farid was sentenced to 15 years to life for the attempted murder of a police officer. He entered the state prison system in 1978. Like Mackenzie, he appeared before the parole board ten times and was denied each time due to the nature of his crime. In 2011, after 33 years in prison, he was finally granted parole and walked out of prison determined to help others, including Mackenzie. Now the lead organizer with Release Aging People in Prison, Farid spoke with Mackenzie the day before his death. Mackenzie had called him from Fishkill; the two talked about his latest parole denial and began planning next steps.
“We lay the responsibility of his death at the doorstep of Governor Cuomo,” he told the Voice, noting that Cuomo chose to reappoint several parole board members first appointed by Governor George Pataki. “Cuomo claims to want to reform the broken parole system, but then he reappoints members who are resistant to fair parole hearings.”
Ishmael Igartua served 29 years on a sentence of 25 to 50 years. He was denied parole twice. He declined to talk about his conviction, but noted, “I did not kill anyone or rape anyone. I took responsibility for the crimes I committed and was still denied parole again and again. It’s not a fair process.”
Igartua also knew Mackenzie personally. “John committed that crime 41 years ago. He changed his life and created programs inside the prison. He helped people every day with appeals.” But, he said, none of that mattered. “The only thing you can change is yourself. You can never change your crime.”
Donna Hylton agrees. Though she never met Mackenzie, she can testify firsthand about people’s capacity to change. At age 19, Hylton participated in a kidnapping that ended in murder. She was sentenced to 25 years to life. She was denied parole three times, spending 25 and a half years in prison. “The crime will never, ever change,” she reminded the Voice. “But people have the capacity to change — and they do.”
Adrian Marie Jones is an organizer with the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers. Like Hylton, she did not know Mackenzie, but she and other campaign members felt it was important to show up and voice their outrage. She compared Mackenzie’s parole denial, which she called “cruel and unusual punishment,” to the two years that Kalief Browder spent in solitary confinement at Rikers Island, an experience that led to his taking his own life. “These issues are all connected,” she told the Voice.
“This is an example in which the whole system is corrupt. It hurts everyone, regardless of skin color,” added Kenneth Shelton, another Shut Down Rikers campaign member.
Marchers lined up on the sidewalk outside the State Office Building on 125th Street. Striding back and forth, Johnny Perez, who spent 13 years in prison, led them in a call-and-response denouncing the board’s repeated denials. “He did his time. He was a changed man,” he said. “We all make mistakes. We are more than the worst mistake we’ve ever done.”
Advocates also read statements sent by Mackenzie’s two daughters. “Despite the odds, John Mackenzie found his own path to rehabilitation, in the face of adversity. He overcame; he did what was right. The parole board did not,” wrote his daughter Danielle. “While he took responsibility for his actions, the parole board has completely ignored theirs, and is without recourse. Now it is time for them to be held to the same standards that he was held to; it is time for the parole board to be brought to justice in memory of my father and for all other prisoners who have served their sentences.”
“The time for change is now,” exhorted his other daughter, Denise. “Let my father’s fight not be in vain. If anything good comes from his life and unnecessary, sad death, let it be change.”