September 12, 2014
What drew more than 200 people to a candlelight vigil in Mount Kisco on a rainy weekend night in early September? Why did a busload of New Yorkers join local residents in the Mount Kisco Presbyterian Church parking lot on a day of severe thunderstorms and then form a procession down Route 133 to the nearby home of Gov. Andrew Cuomo?
They wanted Mr. Cuomo to take action on clemency. Clemency is not a “get out of jail free” card. Being granted clemency is no guarantee of release, but it offers inmates with a strong record of positive contributions while incarcerated and stated and sincere remorse a chance to plead their case for parole.
The event, called “Candles for Clemency,” was organized by New York City’s Allen Roskoff of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club. Don’t let the word “Democratic” fool you: New York’s Democrats, especially Mr. Cuomo, want nothing to do with this group.
Never mind that Ronald Reagan, as the Republican governor of California, issued 575 clemencies or that then-governor of New York Hugh Carey issued 155 of them during his years in office from 1975 to 1982. But clearly those were different times. The whole subject of clemency, parole and compassionate release for inmates became derailed as politicians around the country realized that appearing “soft” on criminals left them vulnerable at the polls. In 2013, there were more than 9,000 inmates over the age of 50 in prison, and today, 2,000 petitions for clemency sit on Mr. Cuomo’s desk without response.
Mr. Roskoff and the hundreds in the crowd, who included co-chair of the event Kathryn Erbe, a star of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and Catherine Curtin and Joel Marsh Garland from “Orange is the New Black” as well as advocates for social justice and prison reform, detailed the case for clemency.
Robert Dennison, former chairman of parole under George Pataki, was among those at the vigil. Mr. Dennison cited as examples two cases in Bedford Hills: Roslyn Smith, who was convicted of murder at age 17 and received a sentence of 50 years to life, and Judith Clark, who received a sentence of 75 years to life. During her incarceration Ms. Smith has taught parenting classes, participated in a nationally acclaimed writing workshop and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mercy College, but after 24 years is no closer to an opportunity to go before the parole board.
Ms. Clark, described as a respected educator and caring role model, has inspired almost 1,000 letters supporting her petition for clemency, among them one from Sister Elaine Roulet, beloved in Bedford for her role in founding the Children’s Center at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility: “In all my dealings (and there were many) I watched Judy not only touch remorse, but embrace it, own it, and carry it with her every day,” she wrote.
Ms. Erbe’s voice was choked with emotion as she spoke. “I think it’s un-American for people not to give people the chance for a hearing,” she said. “I believe in leniency, I believe in mercy, and I believe that people can change around their lives and that people deserve the opportunity to do so.”
Ms. Curtin of “Orange is the New Black” reminded the crowd “there but for the grace of God go I. When you send a woman to prison, you send the family,” she said. “We need to give people a second chance and not discount or dismiss them.”
Donna Hylton, a former Bedford Hills prison inmate, was released 2 1/2 years ago after 27 years behind bars. “People look at us like we are aberrations, we are monsters,” she said. “I am a human being, they are human beings, women. They are sisters, they are mothers, they are grandmothers, they are friends — they are people. We’re begging to have some compassion. This was a system that was designed to rehabilitate, and what this governor is saying is that we have no redemptive qualities. I myself applied for clemency and was denied. If people hadn’t gathered to support me, I wouldn’t be here. I would be doing life. We know we did mistakes, we live with that much more than anyone will ever do. We understand the depth of what we caused, and we have changed. We want you to see that.”
In last season’s “Orange is the New Black,” a subplot revolves around an inmate’s request for a furlough to attend her grandmother’s funeral. “No one ever gets a furlough,” she is told by prison officials and inmates alike, but miraculously she receives permission to attend the event. That her request was granted gave others a sliver of hope that their own dreams might be realized.
Unfortunately, this was only a TV show. Inmates in New York have little hope of being heard, of having their cases reviewed, no matter the merits. Isn’t there even one out of the thousands of clemency petitions that deserves review?
The people who showed up last Saturday night are true heroes — motivated to pursue fairness and demonstrate their faith in their fellow men and women. They sent a message, but just like the thousands of pleas for clemency, they were ignored. Their march along Route 133 to the governor’s home on Bittersweet Lane — yes, its real name — was met with silence.
They are entitled to more than Mr. Cuomo’s cynical nonresponse.