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.