After more than a year of experience with a pandemic, we all can ask ourselves this question: How have we changed? Have we re-evaluated our priorities? Our friendships? Our life goals?
As we ask ourselves these questions, I believe it is crucial for us also to put these same questions to a population we too often ignore: The incarcerated women and men of the state, many of whom have been working for years — and decades — to transform their former selves.
For the long-term incarcerated population in our state, the chance of a timely parole hearing — let alone parole itself — is a dream deferred. Many among the state’s prison population are not youthful offenders. One in four incarcerated New Yorkers are older than 50, and New York has the third-largest population serving life sentences.
These facts result in a relatively older prison population, as the median age creeps upward annually. These men and women have had years — decades, even — to transform themselves. If anyone cared to learn more about who they are, they would find men and women engaged in a daily struggle to become the best people, role model, and citizens they can be.
I learned about them because I teach history courses at a correctional facility.
There are two bills in the state legislature that would allow a measure of fairness to people who are serving long-term sentences and have worked at redemption. Both pieces of legislation are, or will soon be, before the codes committee, chaired by our local Assemblyman, Jeffrey Dinowitz.
The Elder Parole Act would permit inmates older than 55 to have a parole hearing. The Fair and Timely Parole Act would make those first-time parole applicants more likely to be released.
Neither of the bills would simply open prison doors. The process of review is still in place, as firmly as ever. Both bills have been proposed previously, but have died in committee.
The past year has caused many of us to reflect upon the pandemic’s impact, and the cumulative effects of a legal system that is punitive and wrongly purports to secure the public safety through mass incarceration rather than redemption and rehabilitation.
As a professor in a maximum security correctional facility, I have met regularly with men who struggle to transform their former selves. Communication with my students at Sullivan Correctional Facility has been very difficult since March 2020, as the men there have no internet or remote-learning access.
The pandemic has only compounded problems of this population — disproportionately from Black and brown communities, and a number older than 50 serving life sentences. They are pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social science. Their coursework exposes them to philosophy, to women’s history, to forensic psychology.
They gain critical thinking skills. They evaluate research methods. And they marshal evidence to make arguments in policy, history and economics.
They work as a cohort, a learning community. They debate the causes of the Vietnam War in their cellblocks. The stronger students assist the weaker, and pay it forward by tutoring English-language learners and GED hopefuls.
The last graduating class of men at Sullivan — 18 of them — had an average age of 48. Most have been serving sentences just above or below 20 years, the median time served driven up by the several students who had been incarcerated for more than three decades.
On graduation day, they gather with their loved ones. Now they have a bachelor’s degree, a status which makes them role models in their communities. Some of my students bet their families that they can beat their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, in obtaining their college degree.
They pose almost no risk to the public’s safety. Among formerly incarcerated men and women with a college degree — those who graduate from colleges like mine in collaboration with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison — there is a 2 percent recidivism rate. Formerly incarcerated individuals older than 50 have a 2 percent rate of recidivism, and those older than 65 almost never return to prison.
We want these men and women to be judged on their merits, and upon who they are today. We want them to be able to come before the parole board. We want them to have their day in court. The enlightened and educated community of the Northwest Bronx knows the power of a liberal arts education to humanize and transform individuals.
Please let Assemblyman Dinowitz, who is not a sponsor of either bill, know that he can be humane and preserve the public’s safety by supporting these bills.
The author is a history professor at St. Thomas Aquinas College, which partners with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison to provide college educations to men at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg.