“Ending Parole Abuses – Reuniting Families”
The Riverside Church Prison Ministry’s Campaign to Overhaul the NYS Parole System
The Riverside Church Prison Ministry will honor its 40th anniversary with a weekend of events—Nov. 8-10, 2013—that launch a year-long campaign to overhaul New York State’s failed parole practices and procedures.
In the spirit of the Prison Ministry’s deeply held belief in forgiveness and second chances, the multi-pronged campaign will be cast in human terms rather than in abstract principles. As such, it will serve as an action-oriented, solution-based vehicle to honor the living legacy of Robert L. Polk, who founded the Prison Ministry in response to the 1971 Attica uprising—an articulation of rage over inhumane treatment and a fateful stand for human dignity—and set in motion the Ministry’s long history of service as a compassionate force for change, fairness and justice.
The year-long effort—which will intersect with the 2014 election year—will challenge a system that unfairly, vengefully and repeatedly denies parole every year to thousands of men and women who have clearly demonstrated that they are prepared to return home as contributing citizens. Among them are those who were convicted of violent crimes; members of this population are consistently denied parole even though the state’s own statistics show that they are the least likely to commit a new crime when they are paroled.
Such denials fuel an oppressive nationwide system of mass incarceration, with a crippling impact that is felt far beyond prison walls. With each unwarranted denial, the parole board further erodes the familial, economic, social and political life of the communities most affected by crime and imprisonment. As thousands of freedom-worthy men and women remain behind bars, their families struggle and sometimes fall apart; too many of their sons and daughters become ensnared in the criminal justice system; the communities they call home are bereft of husbands, wives, parents, tax-paying citizens, potential leaders. Poor neighborhoods become poorer in so many ways.
In short, as the Prison Ministry is challenging parole, it will be promoting the reunification of our families and communities.
By its very nature, the campaign cannot help but to challenge, too, the uncompromising stigma of incarceration, which makes its unyielding weight felt in myriad ways. The stigma obscured the humanity of the incarcerated men at Attica, feeding the state’s justification of their unconscionable treatment and the deadly response to their demands. And today, more than 40 years later, the stigma feeds the parole board’s contemptuous denial of countless hopes and dreams that contemplate reintegrating into society and building meaningful lives. The stigma makes stunningly inhumane treatment acceptable to the greater society.
So that our efforts have a lasting impact, we will seek the participation and collaboration of a range of stakeholders, including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people; ministers and the congregation of the Riverside Church, Convent Avenue Baptist Church, the Healing Communities network and others in the statewide faith community; local, state and federal elected officials (including legislative sponsors and co-sponsors of the SAFE Parole Act); campaign managers who have run successful campaigns; judges; former parole officials; celebrities; media outlets; government officials; criminal justice, civil and human rights advocates; business leaders; students and academics. As individuals and organizations unite in our cause, however, it will be important that we maintain clarity of vision so that our goals are not compromised.
Event: Nov. 8-10
A Friday evening event commemorating the 40th anniversary and kicking off the year-long campaign will highlight the Prison Ministry’s milestones/successes and include a call to action for the campaign. The event, which will include inspiring speakers and a music concert, will feature the start of a petition drive to overhaul parole/end decisions based on “the nature of the crime”—people will be asked to take out their cell phones, sign a petition on Change.org, and tap into their social media networks to spread the word. Saturday will be a day of workshops and plenary sessions around parole and related issues, featuring the faces of successful reintegration, i.e. formerly incarcerated people who were hit at the board and have successfully reintegrated. We will also note that we share the 40th anniversary with the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Sunday worship service will include a call to action around our campaign.
The multi-pronged campaign will undertake the following in order to bring attention and meaningful change to the parole system:
- A rarely-held statewide public hearing on parole: Working with state legislators, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and other stakeholders, we will sponsor a high-profile, well-publicized hearing that turns a bright spotlight on the parole board’s grossly unfair practices and the need for an overhaul. The hearing will address and offer solutions to, among other issues, the parole board’s consideration of “the nature of the crime” in its decisions; parole board members’ flagrant flouting of the law in certain instances; Governor Cuomo’s process of appointing parole board commissioners; the need for transparency, accountability and public confidence in the parole board. In preparation for such a hearing, we will call on other stakeholders—notably academics, researchers and criminal justice organizations that work on such issues—to provide solid research that offers solutions and combats the half-truths and lies promoted by opponents of fair parole. The campaign will integrate/build on outcomes of the hearing.
- Following in the footsteps of the Commission on Sentencing Reform, the campaign will pressure Gov. Cuomo to establish a bipartisan Commission on Parole to address the issues raised at the public hearing and bring about transparency, accountability and public confidence in the system. Such a commission, which would have oversight responsibilities, is necessary to ensure a lasting effect on parole policies—and to avoid the antiquated, inequitable parole board practices that have plagued this state and its citizens for the last 20 years. Commission members would comprehensively study and evaluate parole release considerations and decisions, and determine their public safety and fiscal implications. They would also be charged with presenting to the Governor actionable recommendations relating to a range of parole issues. The Commission—or until it is established, the Governor or Legislature—would require the NYS parole board to submit every year an evidence-based public safety report card that lays out the “state of parole.” This annual report card, which would be made available to the public via an online database, would be designed to bring about real-time transparency and accountability to the parole board, an independent body that currently has neither.
- A statewide petition drive—launched at the kick-off event—with specific, well-publicized “petition days” across the state to bring attention and change to the issues
- Active support of the Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act, which calls for parole applicants to be fairly considered. The legislation requires that parole applicants who have served their minimum sentences be evaluated on their readiness for reentry. In place of repeated parole denials based on the nature of the crime—which can never change—the act would require the parole board to specify in detail what it expects of parole applicants. Once those expectations have been fulfilled, the applicant must be released.
Join the End the Stigma/Expand Opportunities Campaign!
The stigma of incarceration has created nearly insurmountable obstacles that deny millions of Americans the essential components of full citizenship and successful lives, including—
The Think Outside the Cell Foundation is working to end the stigma and—through personal development, storytelling and other creative approaches—help the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their families to create their own opportunities.
We are launching the End the Stigma/Expand Opportunities Campaign because it is long past time to challenge the wholesale marginalization of those who live in the long shadow of incarceration and criminal conviction.
When we decrease the stigma, we:
To obtain permission to screen the film at your university, prison, conference or organization, contact Kimberly Soenen at kimberlyjsoenen[at]gmail.com