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In 1978, 28–year-old Mujahid Farid was sentenced to 15 years to life for attempted murder. By 1993, when he first became eligible for parole, he had earned four college degrees as well as certificates for numerous programs. During his 33 years in prison, Farid was denied parole nine times.
Farid’s accomplishments didn’t matter to his parole commissioners, who repeatedly rejected his requests for freedom based on the nature of his crime. Farid told the Voice that at one hearing he asked, “Is there anything I can do to make myself eligible for release?” Though no one answered, he said he could tell by the changes in the commissioners’ facial expressions and body language that they didn’t appreciate his question. He was denied again. The denials ultimately added 18 years to his incarceration.
In 2011, he appeared for the tenth time. Nothing had changed for Farid except for the two commissioners before him, both of whom had high rates of granting parole. That was the year he was released.
Two years later, Igartua appeared before the board again. This time, he recalled, commissioners “went on and on about my accomplishments. They read every letter [into the transcript].” Then they denied him. He was finally granted parole in 2016 after nearly 30 years in prison.
These experiences are so common that many critics describe the state’s parole system as broken. In April 2017, of 850 parole applicants, only 32 percent (or 273 people) were released. Of the 577 people denied, 83 were aged sixty or older. By law, commissioners must consider participation in rehabilitative programs, release plans, and the risk of recidivism, not simply the nature of the crime. But for many, the denial still boils down to that original crime.
Parole commissioners are political appointees, nominated by the governor and confirmed by the senate. Commissioners can serve an unlimited number of six-year terms, sometimes outlasting governors and legislators.
This year, Governor Andrew Cuomo chose not to reappoint three commissioners — Julie Smith, James Ferguson, and G. Kevin Ludlow. However, this decision doesn’t necessarily signal their departure from the parole board. The governor can place them in an indefinite holdover period, meaning they can still make decisions as parole commissioners. Alternately, Cuomo can dismiss them, removing their power to decide prisoners’ futures.
According to parole reform advocates, Cuomo’s office has said it would not keep these three commissioners on the board past December 2017. A fourth commissioner, Lisa Elovich, has resigned from the board. The state’s legislative session ended on June 21.
In addition to appointing six new commissioners, Cuomo also chose to reappoint two, including W. William Smith, appointed in 1996 by then-governor George Pataki and known during his twenty years for frequently denying parole.
Nineteen state senators opposed Smith’s reappointment. “If we look at Mr. Smith’s record on the parole board, serving longer than any other commissioner, I think it is clear that, sadly and unfortunately, he does not believe in rehabilitation,” Bronx senator Gustavo Rivera stated during the confirmation hearing. Referring to transcripts from past hearings, Rivera lambasted Smith for “his unprofessional conduct, his humiliating conduct to individuals who have acknowledged their crime.”
Rivera invoked the name of 70-year-old John Mackenzie, who committed suicide after his tenth parole denial. Smith was one of the commissioners who denied Mackenzie parole during his final three hearings, despite a judge’s order barring him from participating in the last hearing.
Despite the unprecedented opposition, 32 votes were needed to block Cuomo’s choice. Smith was reappointed.
John Mackenzie’s daughter Danielle is dismayed about Smith’s reappointment. “The only reason ever given to my father [for the denials] was the nature of his crime. So you don’t believe in rehabilitation. Or you don’t believe in it in his case,” she told the Voice.
Still, she and other advocates are optimistic that these acts signal the start of greater change: “I think my father would be happy that the sacrifice he made was the catalyst for this change.”
They also recognize that more work is needed. “We need to demand a full board,” said Mujahid Farid, now the lead organizer for the Release Aging People in Prison campaign, noting that there are five vacancies left on the nineteen-commissioner board.
Advocates are also asking for community oversight, noting that commissioners are currently accountable only to the governor. “I don’t know any other job without any sort of evaluation system,” Danielle Mackenzie said, noting that, as a teacher, her performance is regularly evaluated. “Lives are depending on this.”
“I want to do things so that people can come home,” Igartua said. Reflecting on his nearly 30 years behind bars, Igartua acknowledged that “some people are not ready to come home. But even they deserve a fair shot at the parole board without being prejudged.”