Jose Saldana Good evening everyone. It’s always an honor to talk to people about the work that the Release Aging People in Prisons campaign does. I am the director of RAPP, and I’m also formerly incarcerated. About two and half years ago I was released from New Haven State Prison after thirty-eight years of incarceration. And when I walked out of prison, I realized that I should have had company. Some of the men I was leaving behind should have been walking out with me, but instead they would likely die inside. It was this urgency that caused me to become passionate about this movement to end mass incarceration, and to approach the mission in a very realistic way: by trying to get men and women who have already languished in prison for three and four decades—some forty-five years, forty-seven years—home to their families. So they could spend the rest of their lives at peace, with some type of dignity.
RAPP advocates for two bills that would do just that. The elder parole bill is a bill that legislates that everyone who has served fifteen years would automatically be entitled to a parole interview. This doesn’t guarantee automatic release, but at least gives these men and women some degree of hope. Secondly, the Fair and Timely Parole bill transforms the release process of the New York State parole board, which has for decades been another entity designed to add layers of punishment on top of punishment. The parole board’s supposed to evaluate whether a person is fit to return back to their families and community, but instead, they perpetually punish people for crimes that were committed four or five decades ago. So these two bills would transform the legal system and correct some of the injustices that were created by racist policies of mass incarceration.
Michelle Lewin I’m Michelle Lewin, I’m the executive director of the Parole Preparation Project. I’m an attorney and I’ve been doing this work for, I don’t know, for maybe ten, twelve years, something like that. The Parole Preparation Project got our start at Otisville Correctional Facility, which is a prison not too far outside of New York City where many people are serving life and long sentences, and where many people are in their sixties, seventies, eighties. Every year Otisville hosts an event where lifers and long-termers there hold a conversation with advocates on the outside and people on the inside about different topics relating to incarceration: conditions of confinement, the parole release system, whatever it might be. And in 2013, there came a call from people in prison saying that they wanted support and assistance in preparing to go before the parole board.
We can kind of get into the weeds a little bit more about parole later, but essentially in New York state there’s a huge group of people, thousands of people in prison, who cannot get out unless they go before the parole board and are granted release. Their freedom and their liberation depends on parole board commissioners granting them parole and granting them parole release. So our work emerged to help prepare people for that process of going before the board. We train community volunteers to collaborate directly with people in prison as they’re preparing to interview with parole commissioners, and preparing written submissions for the parole boards. We’ve trained somewhere around five or six hundred volunteers in the last seven years, and worked with almost 300 people in prison. And then on top of all that, we’re doing lots of policy and advocacy work with Jose and others at RAPP, and organizing around all the different issues that affect people doing life in prison.
Anthony Dixon I work with Parole Preparation Project as director of community engagement. My work started when I was on the inside—I was in for thirty-two years. During that time I was an organizing activist; I led two lifers groups. I also launched, along with five other individuals, a famous case that tried to address racial discrimination on the inside. And when I came home four years ago, I got involved because I wanted to see the individuals who I left behind come home. These are individuals who went in at an extremely young age, did some horrible things at that age, but they had since changed. And I felt such a connection with them that when I left the max facility to go to a medium, I started crying. I realized that I was leaving people who were my family behind, where I’d spent more time than anyplace else, and they deserved to come home. So I started working with RAPP. I love to interface with individuals when they come home, which is part of the work that we do. It isn’t enough to get them home—we have to help them prepare for the rough barriers and stuff that they have to face, rather than collateral consequences. I also help to train attorneys and volunteers to prepare individuals for a successful parole interview. And occasionally I interface with policymakers—as Jose had mentioned earlier, we have two bills on the table that we believe could in fact help decarcerate.
We did an incredible amount of work in the past four years, but so much work lies ahead of us. While New York state has been decreasing in its prison population rate, there has been a mass incarceration of elderly people. One out of every five now has a life sentence. Because of excessive sentences that were dealt out during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, it’s projected that in the next ten years, around 25 to 40 percent of people in New York state prisons will be elderly people. We are now turning our prisons into hospices.
Sarah Resnick Since both organizations really work predominantly with older people, and since, as we know, older people make up the population most at risk for life-threatening complications from the virus, I wanted to ask whether and how this has changed the focus of your work at all in the past few months, and how you’ve responded. And of course, if you wanted to talk about some of what you’ve been hearing from people inside, that would be great.
Michelle Lewin The onset of a global pandemic changed our work completely, in a really dramatic way. In the very beginning we were strategizing a lot around how to get people out before there’s mass sickness, mass death, behind bars. I think we knew that once Covid got behind the walls, the spread would be rapid and lethal and tortuous. In New York state prisons and in all prisons across the country, all of the kinds of cautions that people can take in the free world are essentially nonexistent; social distancing is not a possibility inside state prisons. People live in crowded dorm-like facilities, they live in cells with open bars next to each other, there’s not widely accessible soap or hand sanitizer or even hot water. So the pandemic has created a sense of unbelievable emergency and urgency in our work, which I think didn’t exist before, around decarceration and mass releases.
And then I think it has also exposed what we knew was there all along, which is incredibly inhumane conditions, incredibly unsanitary conditions, conditions that are not conducive to human life, that are really actually about encouraging mass suffering and, in some cases, death. And not only are you dealing with an incredible physical threat of actual sickness and actual death, but also the mental turmoil of having no concept of how far the virus might go, how many people around you would get sick, how sick you might get. What the pandemic really did to people in prison was not only make them sick and kill people, but also tormented people and caused unbelievable hardship and stress. But I don’t want to say that it’s the virus’s fault. I think it’s very much a failing or an intentional act on the part of the state and of the Department of Corrections. Because I don’t think that they value the lives of incarcerated people. They don’t care what happens to people behind bars.
Jose Saldana For older men and women in prison—and I’ll speak about New York prisons because that’s what I’m familiar with—we confronted a health crisis every day of our lives for years, sometimes for decades, before Covid-19 hit. Covid-19 just made it super urgent because now we’re dealing with a virus that has been proven to be fatal to the men and women we’re trying to get out of prison: the elderly with underlying health conditions, which is most of the elderly people in prison. So we went from doing legislative advocacy, which takes time—it takes sessions and maybe years to actually move a bill through this process of it hitting the senate or the house floor for a vote, and then for the government to sign it. This is a long, drawn-out process. The men and women we’re fighting for—we felt they didn’t have this time. Covid-19 cut everything real short.
So the only things that we could advocate for were things that could grant immediate release. And that is executive clemency. We demanded that Governor Cuomo face this: look for humane solutions to an inhumane crisis, instead of looking for a punitive solution or correctional solution. We asked him to grant clemencies, mass clemencies, to remove this cohort of people who are most vulnerable to this virus. He didn’t do that. Instead he chose—and this was the result of our hard advocacy—to grant clemency to people convicted of nonviolent crimes. That’s great for those he let out. But, you know, we’re still fighting for the population that we advocate for.
Sarah Resnick We’ve seen a response to the virus that reinscribes distinctions between people who are considered violent and those who are considered nonviolent. I wanted to ask if you wanted to talk more about what your take is on these distinctions and what assumptions underlie them.
Anthony Dixon The individuals I left behind, they have aged out of crime. Everyone should know that people who commit some of the worst offenses are some of the best people to take a chance on. Because they don’t come back. That’s what the studies show. People who commit violent crimes are the least likely to return to prison. If you want to bank on a successful population, it’s people like Jose and me and others, who could really prove that “once a criminal always a criminal” is not true.
Michelle Lewin This distinction between violence and nonviolence is a false distinction. The state is determining what is violent versus nonviolent, and I think this distinction discourages us from actually having a real conversation about violence. What do we want to imagine in this world that we’re all trying to create together? In this future world, do we want a world in which violence and people who cause harm are tortured and warehoused in cages? Is that our answer to violence? I think we have to really actually grapple with harm in a different way, that doesn’t involve punishment, that doesn’t involve torture. People who have done harm and been a part of violence are often some of the people who know best how to heal it and how best to resolve it and how best to teach us about redemption and remorse and responsibility and accountability. Saying that everyone convicted of violence is disposable is not only dehumanizing, racist, and white supremacist, but it’s also erasing this incredible knowledge and wisdom that’s contained within a group of people. And I think that’s really devastating.
Anthony Dixon I’m appalled whenever I hear people talk about violent crimes. I think it’s a proxy for racism. In this country, us blacks have suffered more violence at the hands of white people than any other people. When I hear it, I think: what if we were never to forgive white people that perpetuated violence against us? What if we were never to forgive when we see things that happen to some of our young kids, who are killed by law enforcement, at alarming rates? I just look at it as a proxy to just keep black people inside, to never forgive them, but yet they—white people—want forgiveness. So I think that this has a profound connection to how white supremacy is playing out in this whole narrative. We need to really question that at this time.
Jose Saldana We wholeheartedly support Black Lives Matter. That concept is wonderful, is great, is awesome. We just believe that incarcerated Black Lives Matter also. So when a person is sentenced to twenty-five years to life, in twenty-five years he or she will appeal to the parole board for release consideration. And that’s the law. We appear for release consideration in order not to be punished again, not to have more layers of punishment. But the problem that we encounter is that the New York State parole board is dominated by law enforcement. People from rural areas of New York state, for the most part, as a favor were given these jobs. They became political hacks. And to keep the job, they would perpetually deny parole to everyone that came before them. There was a point, at the height of mass incarceration, where the release rate was under 5 percent. That means no matter what you did or didn’t do, you were not going to be released.
One of the founders of RAPP went to the parole board—he was sentenced to fifteen years to life—and the first time he went to the parole board, he had two masters degrees. And he had created what became known as the PACE, a workshop that educated incarcerated people about the HIV/AIDS crisis. He did this at a time when they didn’t even know what the virus was. People were terrified, thinking that if someone looked at you, you might catch the disease. So he created this program to educate. This was the one of most effective programs in the history of New York state, and the parole board just did not value that. They would deny him parole for eighteen more years. This is that paradigm of punishment. When he was released, he got together with Laura Whitehorn and Kathy Boudin and created the RAPP Campaign. And one of the things he did was try to change the composition within New York state’s parole board. He had some success; early RAPP members had some success in this because they were able to vet people for the parole board commissioners spot and give their names to the governor’s office. One of the names that they gave was the parole commissioner who let me go. She asked me one question about the crime I committed in 1979 and then she said, Let’s talk about what you’ve been doing the last thirty-eight years. And then she let me go. So that’s why it’s so important that we change the composition of the New York state parole board: to give men and women a fair opportunity to return back to their family.
Michelle Lewin I think it’s really important for people to understand what we’re actually talking about when we talk about the parole board, and what that process is like. We’re talking about, for the most part, people who have been in prison for decades, who are going before a video-conferencing system. The parole interviews are, for the most part, not in person. They’re sitting in front of two or three strangers, or video-conferencing with two or three strangers, and having a conversation or an interrogation about what was probably the worst moment of their life, the most traumatic thing that probably ever happened to them, all of it being exposed and discussed and talked about. And then there’s maybe about five minutes left for all the things that person has accomplished in the last twenty, thirty, forty years. Jose’s story about Mujahid Farid, who was one of the founders of RAPP, is an awful story and also not an aberration. We work with so many people at the Parole Preparation Project who have been in for thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five years, people have been denied five, ten, fifteen times in front of the parole board. We’re working with someone right now who’s been denied seventeen times in front of the parole board. And the parole board’s justification for that is the nature of the person’s crime. They essentially are holding people accountable and holding people in prison until they die, because they believe there’s nothing a person can do to ever outweigh the seriousness of what they did all those decades ago. I think we all agree that no person should ever be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done; that that process just makes absolutely no sense and probably was designed to do exactly what it’s doing, which is keeping black and brown people in prison for decades longer than anyone ever suspected or intended.
Sarah Resnick At the end of May, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, sparking massive demonstrations nationwide against racist police violence. Protestors were and are still calling for the police to be abolished, and these demands imply the end of mass incarceration but don’t necessarily make them explicit. I wondered if any of you have thoughts about how to draw a connection here: How is racist police violence on the street mirrored in jails and prisons? And how are the demonstrations connected to the work that you guys do?
Jose Saldana It’s racism. This entire criminal legal system is dominated by racism. From policing to prosecution to incarceration and even to parole supervision, it’s the entire system. We can’t isolate this. We can’t defeat it in isolation. We have to remove it from the root to completely dismantle it. What happens in prison is the beatings. They don’t shoot us; they beat us to death. And this is something that the public doesn’t see. There are no cellphones in prison, or if there are, they’re not supposed to be there. So we don’t get pictures. We don’t get eight minutes and forty-six seconds of someone being beaten to death. We—those who are incarcerated in New York state prisons, as in all over the country—we have been brutalized for decades. The same way the New York City police officers open up on an unarmed person and just brutally murder him: we face the same type of brutality. And the women in the New York state prison system face a similar brutality. It’s race-oriented. They are dehumanized, assaulted, degraded in unique ways and this does not leave them when they leave prison. And this whole system that brutalizes and devalues the humanity of people who are incarcerated also affects their families. Because when I was in the box, my kids used to come up and they would spend the whole visit crying because I was behind, I was in a prison within a prison and they had to visit me through a gate. This system just does not value our lives or our dignity.
Anthony Dixon We know that we’re living in a racist society. If people were to come from another planet they’d say, something is wrong about this. And yet we’ve been so easy with it. I don’t think it’s enough to address what happened to Floyd by saying “defund the police.” It’s not enough to tear down statues of individuals. It’s not enough to rename things after famous people, and we’ve been through this cycle before: Malcolm X Boulevard, Martin Luther King Highway, and, you know, bridges and all this other stuff. And nothing changed. It isn’t enough to just rename stuff. We want these politicians to push individuals to the parole board who are going to die if they don’t see the parole board. We’re dealing with death by incarceration and now we’re dealing with a public safety issue, where people will die under this pandemic if they aren’t seen by the parole board. And if they do not die, their health condition will worsen. So that later they will die a quicker death, because nothing was done.
Michelle Lewin The whole criminal legal system, like Jose and Anthony said, is founded on white supremacy, is inherently anti-black, and so is inextricably linked to the murder of George Floyd and all the incredible resistance that’s happening right now. I think one of the most devastating parts of this whole thing has been talking to people in prison while the marches and the rallies are happening and hearing the grief and the sorrow that people in prison feel for not being able to participate and be in the streets with their loved ones, with their friends and family members. And just remembering that prison is, yes, a system of racialized oppression, yes, a system of warehousing and killing people—and also a way of squashing political organizing. It’s a way of locking people up, and keeping people away from each other, and not giving people access to each other so they can organize, so they can build a movement together.