From: GayCityNews.com

On Primary Eve, Cuomo Pressed at Home on Prisoner Clemency

By Nathan Riley
September 7, 2014

 

Former inmate Donna Hylton addresses the September 6 vigil. | DONNA ACETO
Former inmate Donna Hylton addresses the September 6 vigil. | DONNA ACETO


A candlelight protest outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pastoral Westchester County home delivered a demand that he grant clemency to elderly prisoners with extensive records of good behavior.

The coalition of prison rights activists, feminists, and gays, in a September 6 early evening vigil, charged the governor has granted no petitions for clemency to prisoners, while former New York Governor Hugh Carey, between 1975 and 1982, granted 155 and Ronald Reagan granted 575 while in the California State House from 1967 until 1975.

A former chairman of the New York State Parole Board, Robert Dennison, called it “astonishing” that Cuomo could not find that “even one prisoner deserves clemency” and warned this failure will add to “rising” public concern about “abuses in the criminal justice system.”

Harsh sentences are driving a sharp spike in the number of prisoners over 60 years old in New York State prisons. In 2000, that group accounted for 1.2 percent of the prison population. By 2007, it had increased to 2.5 percent, and in 2013 it was 4 percent, with no sign of the growth leveling off. Between 2007 and 2013, this population climbed from 1,574 to 2,104, a 34 percent increase. Even though these prisoners’ medical bills are expensive and they pose a small risk to the public, New York policy hasn’t softened.

Prisoners’ rights groups have long been frustrated by the governor’s refusal to act. Attorney Sara Bennett said petitions she has filed on behalf of inmates don’t get denied, they simply go unanswered. She represents Judith Clark, a lesbian, who drove the getaway car in a 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored car in which a Brinks guard and two police officers were killed. She has been in prison for 33 years and mentors young mothers serving short sentences who give birth in prison.

A crowd of roughly 150 turned out for the "Candles For Clemency" vigil outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's home. | DONNA ACETO
A crowd of roughly 150 turned out for the “Candles For Clemency” vigil outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s home. | DONNA ACETO

Prison rights groups argue that convicts’ lives are more than just the bad acts of their youth, that their good behavior and subsequent efforts to redeem themselves are real, and that should make for opportunities for release.

A veteran gay activist and political organizer, Allen Roskoff, heard about Clark’s plight and proposed the groups form a coalition “Candles for Clemency” to conduct a vigil at the governor’s Mount Kisco home. Their goal, vigil leaders said, was to call attention to what they described as Cuomo’s “heartless” refusal to offer executive clemency.

The idea quickly attracted an enthusiastic response. Roskoff, the president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an LGBT group, enlisted the help of Tony Hoffman, president of the Village Independent Democrats (VID), who organized a bus from Chelsea to Westchester. Kathryn Erbe, who starred in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” co-emceed the vigil and organized participants from the entertainment industry.

Actor Catherine Curtin, from the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” | DONNA ACETO
Actor Catherine Curtin, from the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” | DONNA ACETO

Catherine Curtin, an actor in the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” –– in which an affluent white woman is incarcerated in a prison in which most of the inmates are poor women of color –– spoke at the vigil, emphasizing the possibility of rehabilitation. Women who are released, she said, have much to give back to their communities and praised Whole Foods for hiring and promoting ex-offenders.

In all, about 150 people showed up to make a respectful but adamant demand that the governor stop stonewalling when it comes to requests for mercy.

In stirring remarks, Donna Hylton, who was released after 27 years in prison, recounted the silent scream she –– and other inmates –– felt when even after their best efforts, parole officials wouldn’t believe they had changed.

“We know the depth of what we have done, but we are no longer what we were,” she said, her voice cracking.

Another former inmate, Laura Whitehorn –– who is the partner of Gay City News columnist Susie Day –– decried “a system of permanent punishment” and urged a new focus on “what we are doing with our lives now.”

On the bus ride up to Mount Kisco, one former inmate who asked that his name not be used said the government must reverse direction.

“The United States is confronting a crisis of mass incarceration,” he said. “We should do all the methods to reduce” the prison population and to curtail policies that feed the prison system.


Allen Roskoff addresses the crowd, as attorney Sara Bennett and Zenaida Mendes, president of the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women, look on.  | DONNA ACETO
Allen Roskoff addresses the crowd, as attorney Sara Bennett and Zenaida Mendes, president of the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women, look on. | DONNA ACETO

Roskoff drew cheers by promising, “If clemencies are not issued before the holiday season, we will be back again.”

Speaking to the energy shown by the diverse coalition of groups, groups, Bill Dobbs, a veteran gay activist and civil liberties advocate, said the event signaled the gay movement was “starting to open our eyes to criminal justice issues.” The focus of community efforts, he said, has, to date, “been all about locking up” gay bashers, but “the larger justice issues” were missed.

Among the concerns voiced by speakers at the vigil were the treatment of incarcerated LGBT youth, the spread of HIV in prisons, and that punishment is meted out in a discriminatory manner. People of color go to prison, speakers said, while white offenders doing the same thing go unpunished or receive light sentences –– a claim backed up by incarceration rates for drug offenses.

Other public events are scheduled. From September 11 to November 16, the Interference Archive, at 131 Eighth Street near Third Avenue in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, will host “Self-Determination Inside/ Out,” an exhibition of materials created by inmates. The aim, the group says, is to show “incarcerated people not simply as objects of state repression or social justice activism, but as active initiators and leaders in the critique of criminal justice.”

For Hoffman of VID, the cause is “honorable and important.” It offers help to “people who are suffering and they are not very popular.”

Both VID and the Jim Owles Club have endorsed Cuomo’s September 9 Democratic primary challenger, law professor Zephyr Teachout.

 

 

Officers

BOARD OF GOVERNORS

  1. Hon. Eric Adams
  2. George Arzt
  3. Lance Bass
  4. Charles Bayor
  5. John Blair
  6. Mark Benoit
  7. Hon. Rodneyse Bichotte
  8. Hon. Jonathan Bing
  9. Matthew Bond
  10. Erik Bottcher
  11. Hon. Gale Brewer
  12. Danny Burstein
  13. Robin Byrd
  14. Tiffany Cabán
  15. Christian Campbell
  16. Gus Christensen
  17. Hon. Martin Connor
  18. Tom Connor
  19. Hon. Jon Cooper
  20. Wilson Cruz
  21. Hon. Laurie Cumbo
  22. Alan Cumming
  23. Michael Czaczkes
  24. Hon. Bill de Blasio
  25. Aries Dela Cruz
  26. Jon Del Giorno
  27. Kyan Douglas
  28. James Duff
  29. Hon. Ronnie Eldridge
  30. Hon. Rafael Espinal
  31. Hon. Alan Fleishman
  32. Marc Fliedner
  33. Hon. Dan Garodnick
  34. William Gerlich
  35. Dan Gettleman
  36. Jason Goldman
  37. Emily Jane Goodman
  38. Hon. Mark Green
  39. Tony Hoffmann
  40. Hon. Brad Hoylman
  41. Binn Jakupi
  42. Hon. Letitia James
  43. Hon. Corey Johnson
  44. Camille Joseph
  45. Phillip Keane
  46. Suzanne Kessler
  47. Yetta Kurland
  48. Dodge Landesman
  49. Hon. Melissa Mark-Viverito
  50. Phillip McCarthy
  51. Matt McMorrow
  52. Michael Mallon
  53. Mike C. Manning
  54. David Mansur
  55. Cathy Marino-Thomas
  56. Troy Masters
  57. Hon. Carlos Menchaca
  58. Hon. Rosie Mendez
  59. John Cameron Mitchell
  60. Donny Moss
  61. Barry Mullineaux
  62. Denis O'Hare
  63. America Olivo Campbell
  64. Noah Pfefferbilt
  65. Josue Pierre
  66. Bob Pontarelli
  67. Billy Porter
  68. Hon. Keith Powers
  69. Randy Rainbow
  70. Hon. Gustavo Rivera
  71. Hon. Helen Rosenthal
  72. Maer Roshan
  73. Sheila Rule
  74. Toby Russo
  75. Bill Samuels
  76. James Sansum
  77. Scott Sartiano
  78. Hon. Arthur Schwartz
  79. Lynn Schulman
  80. Cecile Scott
  81. Frank Selvaggi
  82. Rev. Al Sharpton
  83. David Siffert
  84. Hon. Jo Anne Simon
  85. Kathy Slawinski
  86. Tom Smith
  87. Anne Strahle
  88. Hon. Scott Stringer
  89. Wayne Sunday
  90. Hon. Bill Thompson
  91. JD Thompson
  92. Bjorn Thorstad
  93. Hon. Matt Titone
  94. Jessica Walter
  95. Barry Weinberg
  96. Seth Weissman
  97. Hon. Jumaane Williams
  98. Emma Wolfe
  99. Hon. Keith Wright
  100. Zephyr Teachout