There are more than 2,000 people in prisons around the country who were convicted of murder as juveniles and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But recent Supreme Court decisions have found these sentences unconstitutional and set in motion a process for re-evaluating these “juvenile lifers.”
To close out the first season of The FRONTLINE Dispatch, we have three stories about juvenile lifers. This first is the story of a violent crime committed by a juvenile lifer whose second chance went horribly wrong. It is an intensely personal documentary, but it carries far-reaching implications that extend into public life and into the heart of our political and correctional systems.
This piece was produced by Samantha Broun and Jay Allison. It was originally made in 2016 for the public radio website, Transom.org. Listen to that version of the story here. We are presenting an update to a version that aired later that year on This American Life.
At 15, after committing a brutal murder, Kempis Songster was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But now he has a chance to be free, thanks to a series of recent Supreme Court rulings that found the sentences of thousands of inmates who, like Songster, committed their crimes as juveniles, to be unconstitutional. Listen Here
We <3 you Ghani, and hope to celebrate your freedom this September! There are so many behind bars who deserve a second chance at parole and commutation. Even after decades of incarceration, people are dreaming of contributing back to society and helping make things right. Support House Bill 135 in the Judiciary Committee so we can see more folks like Ghani get a second chance at parole! Read more here
Below are pictures from Ghani’s Community Resentencing which happened on Sunday July 23 in Philadelphia organized by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and pictures of us the next day, Monday July 24th outside the JV court house during Ghani’s actual appeal hearing.
Russell Shoats III and Theresa Shoats
Hanging outside Juvinile Court during Ghani’s hearing
Inside the community resentencing
Outside JV Courthouse
Sharon Shoatz and Russell Shoatz
outside JV court night before hearing reading the community’s ideas for resentencing ghani
On way to JV courthouse
Outside JV Courthouse
Wispy on the mic and Theresa in the back
etta and yvonne
On way to JV courthouse
The Community guidelines for resentencing
Flyer we handed out about ghani
Outside JV Courthouse
Mama Patricia Vickers talking about Hope is as Weapon!
Old comrades pose for a pic – Andy, etta and Theresa.
C O N T R A B A N D: Art Show and Fundraiser for Prison Justice
Opening Event: Friday April 7, 2017
6 – 10pm – Art Auction – Over 30 Framed Pieces
7pm Curator Talk, Campaign Overview, Singing and Speakers
Boom Gallery Open Hours in April – Tuesdays 5-9pm Fridays 12-6pm
Contraband is the name of a series of paintings on leaves created by Todd “Hyung – Rae” Tarselli. Leaves are considered contraband or forbidden possessions in prisons across Pennsylvania. This show will feature 6 of these delicate leaf paintings illustrating detailed images of animals and nature. Incarcerated as a teenager, Hyung-Rae has served 25 years of a life sentence.
Fawn by Hyung- Rae
Budda by Hyung-Rae
Racoon by Hung-Rae
Wolf by Hyung-Rae
Self Portrait 2003 – Todd Hyung-Rae
Schematics of Solitary cell by Hyung-Rae
Sands of Solitary by Hyung -Rae
At 7pm on Friday April 7th there will be speakers and songs including family members of people serving life, survivors of violence who support the campaign, readings from the writings of those sentenced to life as juveniles, and information on the Campaign to End Death by Incarceration.
The exhibit will showcase artists from both sides of the prison walls including Mary Dewitt’s profoundly moving portraits of women serving life in PA. Illustrations describing prison conditions and self portraits by incarcerated artists from The Prison Poster Project (PPP) will also be displayed. The PPP was a collaboration between artists across the razor wire to create a teaching tool about the prison industrial complex. There is a special portrait of Ce Ce McDonald painted by political prisoner Marius Mason. Now released, CeCe gained national attention for defending herself from a racist and transphobic attack and was sentenced to 4 years.
Portrait of Brenda by Mary Dewitt
Portrait of Ce Ce McDonald by Marius Mason
Education not Incarceration by Merideth Stern
Pencil Illustration by Maurice Scott
Mental Health Care in prison by Michael Mendoza
Death Penalty by Duane Motney
A life-size solitary confinement cell will also stand in the gallery, the walls of which are made from letters written from people incarcerated to Book ‘Em, Pittsburgh’s books to prisoner program. Projected on the walls of the cell will be a slideshow of women serving life presented by the Women Lifers Resume Project. There are approximately 200 women serving life; some were sentenced as teenagers and some were commuted from death and many are in their 4th decade of imprisonment.
There are over 30 brilliant framed pieces of art for sale and still more unframed pieces. Outside artists include: Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Merideth Stern, Jim Kidd, Alisha Wormsley, Bec Young, Leslie Stem, Ellen Melchiondo, Josh Macphee, Shaun Slifer, KT Tierney and Vanessa Adams. These are just a few of the many brilliant artists that have donated pieces. Justseeds donated hundreds of dollars of lino cuts and screen prints by artists including: Jesus Barraza, Fernando Martí, Kristine Virsis, Favianna Rodriguez, Mary Tremonte, Melanie Cervantes, Melanie Cervantes.
Save the date of Saturday April 22nd – 2pm, for an interfaith panel exploring how local religious institutions have influenced the transformation of society throughout history until the present, from the movement to abolish slavery through prison justice. Marcus Rediker will share stories from his latest book about the Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay, who in the early eighteenth century saw the destructive connections among slavery, race, incarceration, and capital punishment. Other panelists are still being confirmed.
Looking back on this year, Let’s Get Free has done a lot of work, made solid connections, grown in community, and has been supported and built by so many amazing folks. In 2016, we officially launched our Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation, hosted a legislator call-in day to begin laying tracks for future commutation reform, lobbied in Harrisburg and held a press conference in support of HB2135 and commutation reform. We sent our first newsletter, organized ongoing support for Juvenile Lifer cases in PA, began fundraising in earnest to be able to realize our goals for mobilizing and organizing across the state, and lobbied again with CADBI on October 18 to end Death By Incarceration.
The last 6 months have felt big, working to ride on the crest of the wave stirred up by our rally and lobbying efforts in June and October, and the introduction of HB2135–legislation for Parole Expansion for Lifers. We have been successfully fostering and growing relationships with PA state representatives who support HB2135, and have begun working with representatives in SW PA to craft a strategic approach to statewide campaigning for this legislation. We had the opportunity to participate in a historic Lifer’s Retreat at SCI Graterford, making incredible connections and community with others in the struggle across the state, and are collaborating to expand a scholarship fund. We hosted a deeply moving listening event with Samantha Broun, who has produced a singularly important radio piece about violence, harm, healing, and commutation. Our statewide collaboration and networking with other justice groups across the state has been growing stronger, and we have successfully started to expand our working group. Building our house up so we can invite more people in to keep on in 2017!
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation has gathered a Commutation Support Kit. It includes tips from Ellen, a copy of an application that ended up winning freedom for a lifer, and sample letters to write to family and friends to help them support you in this process.
Sarah banning the box!
Beautiful Women at Muncy
Samantha Broun Listening Event October 2016
October 18, CADBI Lobby Day
photo by Harmony
Carol Speaks at one of our weekly meetings
Strategy Meeting with Ed Gainey
Ed Gainey Talking to the People!
Brandi and Lauren by Traisaun
Commutation Lobby Day June 23
Char and her dog
Devon and Cat hold a banner “Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers” at the Fight for 15 labor march.
Please join members of Let’s Get Free on this National Day of action for Economic Justice and Living Wages for all. Meet up with us at 4pm at the Federal Building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday November 29th.
Saturday October 29, from 5pm – 7pm at the Dance Alloy Studios in East Liberty – 5300 Penn Avenue $ 5 – 25 Sliding Scale. Pay what you can. We want you here.
The event will involve listening to the piece together followed by a community discussion. The discussion afterwards would be led by producer Samantha Broun and former lifer, Tyrone Werts. We will be joined by Representative Ed Gainey, Co-Sponsor of HB 2135, the new bill that would expand parole eligibility for lifers. Darlene Williams and Donna Hill will be present as well, both of them mothers of a daughter serving life without parole.
In 1994, Jeremy Broun was 55 years old and living alone in Nyack, New York. On the evening of September 21st a stranger came into her backyard. The stranger attacked her from behind. Five hours later, he left her lying on her bed. Hands and feet bound with tape. Alive. She survived.
As told by Jeremy’s daughter, Samantha Broun, “A Life Sentence” is the story of this terrible crime and everything that followed. It looks at the acute and long-lasting impact the crime had on Jeremy and her family, as well as the societal and political impact, felt most acutely in Pennsylvania where the offender was from. It changed the outcome of a Governor’s race and altered the state constitution.
Twenty years later, Samantha teamed up with Jay Allison, Peabody Award Winner and public radio producer, to make this documentary, which was two and half years in production.
On October 18th, over 200 people traveled to the State Capitol to demand an end to Death By Incarceration and support House Bill 2135, which would make people serving life sentences parole-eligible after 15 years. Thank you so much to all who participated in this powerful action! #AbolishDBI
Photo Credit: Joe Piette, Emily McGrew, Patricia Vickers
The Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation Hits the Capitol
On Thursday, June 23, the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation hit the Capitol pushing a 12 point platform that would change regulations and practices of the barely functional commutation process. About 25 people traveled to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh and 10 more from Philly. Upon arrival from Pittsburgh a devoted crew raced up to the office of Jason Dawkins, co-author of HB 2135, where he met them with open arms. House Bill 2135 was introduced on June 9, and has the ambition to Expand Parole Eligibility for Life Sentences. This bill would make people eligible for parole after 15 years served, and as Jason said in our press conference, “This bill would abolish life without parole.” Can you believe a State Rep said those words?!
Rep Ed Gainey from Pittsburgh gave a rousing speech at our rally in support of the bill. This is extra powerful because, tragically, his sister was murdered just a month ago. Additional surprise speakers included: Rep Joanna E. McClinton from Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, who was extremely encouraging and really applauded our efforts, and Rep Patty Kim of Dauphin County, who also stepped to the mic, talking about an impactful meeting she had with women at Muncy.
Some of our speakers included Mae Hadley and Donna Pfender, who spoke on behalf of their daughters who are serving life. Lauren Stuparitz spoke from the perspective of a victim – being the survivor of a brutal attack in Pittsburgh – she believes people deserve a second chance.
Reforms to the Commutation process we were pushing included: Rescinding the Unanimous Vote by the Board of Pardons in case of Life Sentences, Video interviews with lifer applicants before merit review hearing, and Written Reason for Denial of lifer commutation applications. And last but not least, HB 2135 Parole Eligibility for Lifers.
We scheduled meetings with legislators we thought could be potential allies, but were impressed with how many of them had visited prisons and met people serving Life. This included Republican Rep Tom Murt from Philadelphia, who deeply cares about veterans, and spoke of a friend of his who is a Vietnam war vet incarcerated since the 70’s. Tom wants to organize a public hearing in the Human services committee about LWOP, relating how LWOP affects the elderly, veterans, and its connections to mental health and addiction.
On the Senate side of things, Art Haywood, Shirley Kitchen and Greenleaf’s offices were encouraging, informative and uplifting. Liana, the amazing legislative assistant of Mr. Haywood’s staff, said they were interested in aging prisoners, and the idea of having a public hearing was talked about in several meetings from several perspectives. Rep.Vanessa Brown, another ally, had just visited Muncy and saw a lot of elderly women who she thought should be at home with their families. One of our lobby groups randomly met up with Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York, who committed to co-sponsoring bill HB 2135 and gave group a tour of the House. What support!
Anne Gingrich Cornick, the legal advisor for the Board of Pardons, was present in the Governor’s meeting. Ann read our whole platform in front of us and said that most of our points on our platform would require constitutional amendments. Constitutional Amendments require a 2/3’s majority vote – they need to pass through the House and Senate twice before being put to referendum – a public vote. All regulatory changes for the Board of Pardons must go through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. (IRCC)
We learned the Victim’s Advocate position of the Board of Pardons was filled by a Pittsburgh resident named Marsha Grayson. For those of you in Pittsburgh, it is her family that started the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center in the Hill district. Senator Greenleaf’s aid told us she is appropriate for the position not only because she has the victim’s perspective, having lost her son, but that also, coming from the Black community, she understands the impact of incarceration on families and neighborhoods and seems to embrace many perspectives.
One official advised that our biggest obstacle was the District Attorney’s Lobby. It was said they have great authority and do not stand with us.
And so, where does this leave us? There is a to do list a mile long including writing op eds, meeting with lawmakers locally, coordinating statewide efforts to push HB 2135 and commutation reform, following up about public hearings, and building alliances with victims rights organizations. Leaving the Capitol we felt very excited and hopeful. We also felt the realness of the difficulty that lay before us. There is a long hard road ahead.
How a man who served 33 years on a 15-to-life sentence is pushing New York’s intransigent parole board to release violent offenders who have aged out of crime, the fastest growing segment of the prison population.
Back in 1978, Mujahid Farid had already decided to turn his life around when he entered the New York prison system to begin a 15-year-to-life sentence for attempted murder of an NYPD officer.
Held in Rikers Island while his trial was pending, Farid studied for — and passed — a high school equivalency exam. Over the next decade and a half “behind the walls” he earned four college degrees, including a master’s in sociology from SUNY New Paltz and another in ministry from New York Theological Seminary.
In the late 1980s he helped establish an HIV/AIDS peer education project that grew into the acclaimed program known as PACE, Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education, and began teaching sociology courses to people seeking their alcohol and substance Abuse counseling certification.
By 1993, Farid had served his minimum sentence and was eligible for a hearing before the New York Parole Board. Given how hard he had worked to redeem himself, no one could blame him for being optimistic that they would agree to his release.
Instead, they spent five minutes asking him curt questions focused entirely on his original offense. Then the hearing ended.
“Not one bit of my progress and rehabilitative efforts mattered,” Farid recalls. “I was denied parole because of something that was immutable, that could never change.”
He was denied parole “again and again,” until his 10th attempt in 2011, when he was 61 years old.
“Over the years, the process breaks a lot of people down,” he says. “Many take it personally. I realized it was common parole board practice.”
• • •
Now aged 66, Farid recently met me at 8:30 am on a Monday morning at his office in Harlem, where he had been at work since the building opened hours earlier. In a firm and encouraging tone, tinged with polite impatience, he explained how upon his release from prison, he couldn’t forget “the broken parole system I had dealt with” and the men he left behind.
New York’s prison population has greyed rapidly in the last 15 years. Even as the number of people locked up fell by 23 percent, those aged 50 or older ballooned nearly 85 percent, reaching 9,200 people. This echoes a national trend of the elderly being the fastest growing part of the prison population. By 2030, they will number 400,000, or nearly one-third of the U.S. prison population.
While 50 may not seem that old, most medical experts agree that incarcerated people age much faster than those on the outside. They suffer higher rates of chronic illness and conditions related to drug and alcohol abuse, such as liver disease and hepatitis. Data from the New York Department of Corrections show prisoners aged 51 to 60 have the highest rate of mortality due to illness of any age group behind bars.
Most of these older prisoners are serving long sentences for committing violent crimes. Their first hurdle to release is a parole board that refuses to provide them with fair and objective hearings because of their original offense, even though they have not posed a threat to society in years.
“The parole board is co-opted by the punishment paradigm,” Farid says. “Even though the elderly have the lowest of risk of committing a crime upon release, they are being denied similarly to everyone else.”
Meanwhile, this public health and humanitarian crisis has gone unaddressed despite a renewed interest in criminal justice reform that has focused narrowly on nonviolent offenders.
So in 2013, Farid founded a group called Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP.
“We realized we had to change the narrative from talking about long termers and lifers — which people in the community couldn’t really connect with — to talking about the elderly,” he says.
RAPP’s slogan—- “If the Risk is Low, Let Them Go” — draws on the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s own data.
According to the state’s most recently available report on recidivism by age, those released after the age of 65 return for new commitment at a rate of just 1 percent, compared to a 40-60 percent return rate for the general prison population
Farid Mujahid at a meeting of Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP). Photo: Dave Sanders
• • •
In 2011, the same year Farid was released, New York actually passed a law that requires the parole board to adopt a more forward-looking approach when deciding whether to release someone. Tacked onto the budget bill as an amendment, it instructed the board to “establish written guidelines” that include rational standards that measure a potential parolee’s current risk to society, in addition to noting their initial crime.
New York is one of at least 23 other states that measures those standards with a risk and assessment tool called COMPAS, which has proven to be more accurate than human intuition in predicting the likelihood that a prisoner will break the law again if freed.
“Even though COMPAS isn’t perfect, it gives us an advantage,” Farid notes, “because the aging population we are focused on scores low risk.”
It seemed like a victory. But even after COMPAS was adopted, the parole board waited until December of 2014 to issue formal rules on how to use the tool in its decisions. Afterwards, most of its denials remained focused on the criminal history of potential parolees.
This was the case for Dempsey Hawkins, who had been denied parole since he became eligible in 2000. Hawkins murdered his teenage girlfriend in 1976 when he was 16 years old. He had spent his entire adult life in prison and made extensive efforts to rehabilitate in the other areas the parole board would consider: he completed counseling programs and educational courses and had an excellent behavior record.
But in 2002, the board said Hawkins had “demonstrated no remorse nor compassion for her family,” even though he had written a long letter of apology to the family taking full responsibility for his crime with an extended discussion of shame, remorse and consideration of the family’s pain and suffering.
Then in 2004, all but two words of the board’s written decision were about the teenager who committed the crime, not the man before them: “We note your positive programming but find more compelling your total disregard for human life.”
During the hearing, Hawkins asked if there was anything he could do to “increase my chances for my next hearing.” A commissioner responded, “You’ve done many of the right things. You’ve continued to program well, and stayed out of trouble. Clearly, there’s no, you know, 14-year-old girls here to kill in prison, so we have to consider the crime.”
After the 2011 reform, Hawkins continued to be denied parole. In 2012, the board refused his release but noted that “[c]onsideration has been given to the assessment of your risks and needs for success on parole, any program completion, and any satisfactory behavior.”
In 2014, board members spent most of his brief hearing asking about the crime he had committed more than 35 years earlier and denied him again.
• • •
At this point, Farid’s legal instincts kicked in from his days as a jailhouse lawyer.
“I always knew the parole board was contemptuous,” he recalls.
He suspected board members were now violating state law by failing to consider all factors in a person’s record when deciding whether or not to release them. So he began advising prisoners to file what is called an “Article 78” with the state Supreme Court, which is basically a request for a judge to review a decision made by a New York State agency.
Some judges responded positively and ordered the board to hold a new hearing — called a de novo hearing. Farid realized the parole board would likely issue similar denials. But this would allow a prisoner to then file a contempt of court motion.
“It is not common, especially for someone behind the walls, to get a contempt order in their favor against government authorities,” Farid says. “But the dynamics at play now are that the courts feel they are being disrespected by the parole board.”
“One of the real positive things about a contempt petition is it allows the person to escape an onerous process called exhaustion,” he adds, pausing. “I don’t want to lose you on this.”
Before a prisoner can even ask a court to review the parole board’s decision, they have to complete every other means of appeal. While this process can take as long as a year, he notes, “a judge can review a contempt petition within a month.”
In May of 2015, Judge Sandra Sciortino issued the first contempt of court decision for the parole board’s “failure to have complied” with her order to give a prisoner named Michael Cassidy a de novo hearing “consistent with the law.”
Cassidy was convicted in 1984 of killing his girlfriend and had covered up the murder until her body was discovered. Over the past three decades in prison he had worked hard to redeem himself, and his favorable COMPAS ratings predicted a low risk for violence, re-arrest, absconding or criminal involvement. But after his new hearing, the board again said his release “would be incompatible with the welfare of society and would so deprecate the serious nature of the crime as to undermine respect for the law.”
Judge Sciortino responded that while “the Parole Board retains substantial discretion, and need not enunciate every factor considered, a denial that focused almost exclusively on the inmate’s crime while failing to take into account other relevant statutory factors, or merely giving them a ‘passing mention’ [is] inadequate, arbitrary and capricious.”
The state appealed. Then about a year later, a second judge held the board in contempt. This time the case involved John Mackenzie, an older prisoner who sought Farid’s advice after reading instructions in a packet distributed by RAPP that includes boilerplate samples of how to file a contempt motion.
“It’s not a lot of paperwork,” he says. “I explain some of the complications a person may encounter so they don’t get summarily dismissed.”
Mackenzie’s motion succeeded.
“It is undisputed that it is unlawful for the parole board to deny parole solely on the basis of the underlying conviction,” an exasperated New York Supreme Court Judge Maria Rosa wrote in her May 24 response to the board’s denial of parole to Mackenzie. “Yet the court can reach no other conclusion but that this is exactly what the parole board did in this case.”
MacKenzie was convicted of murdering a Long Island police officer in 1975, and went on to turn his life around, earning degrees and even establishing a victims impact program. The board has denied him parole eight times since he became eligible in 2000. He is now 69 years old.
“This petitioner has a perfect institutional record for the past 35 years,” Judge Rosa wrote in her order, as she demanded to know: “If parole isn’t granted to this petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted?”
She ordered the state to pay a $500-per-day fine for each day it delayed giving him another de novo hearing. Again, the state appealed.
In June a higher court dealt reformers a setback when it reversed the Cassidy decision. It said the board had recognized factors other than his original crime when it noted he “had serious alcohol problems since he was a teenager,” and concluding he had “a high probability of a return to substance abuse upon his reentry into society” even though he had been sober since 1997.
Cassidy’s lawyer Alan Lewis plans to ask the Court of Appeals to reinstate the lower court’s contempt finding.
“Every litigant has an obligation to abide by a court’s order, government agencies included,” Lewis told The Indypendent.
He praised RAPPs work on similar cases, saying, “It raises awareness of the plight of aging inmates and the injustices sometimes suffered by them.”
“Judges are starting to realize there is this huge problem,” agrees MacKenzie’s lawyer, Kathy Manley. She says other attorneys have sought her advice and are filing additional contempt motions.
• • •
As these contempt cases wind through the legal system, no judge has taken the next step to override the parole board and release a prisoner who has been denied a fair hearing, out of deference to separation of powers. But Manley notes this concept can be applied in another way.
“If the original judge sentences a person to 30-years-to-life, then once they reach the minimum point there is an expectation they should be released if they’ve done well,” Manley explains. “But in my client’s case the judge said the board is applying its own penal philosophy.”
The former chair of the state’s parole board, Edward Hammock, made a similar point in an essay titled, “A Perspective on Some Procedures That Unfairly Delay Prisoner Release.”
“Some of these determinations fly in the face of judicial sentencing and sentences that flow from plea agreements between the court, counsel for the defendant, and the prosecutor,” Hammock observed.
Ultimately, the parole board falls under the authority of the executive branch. Its members are appointed by the governor for 6-year terms. But beyond backing the reform in 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo has done little to address the problem, and cut the board down from 19 to 14 members during his first year in office and appointed as its chair Tina Stanford, former Director of the state’s Office of Victim Services. She has been Chairwoman of the Crime Victims Board since 2007 and before that was an Assistant District Attorney and prosecutor.
Advocates note New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office could also decline to file appeals as it represents the board in the contempt of court cases. RAPP is currently approaching state lawmakers to ask them to request that Schneiderman issue an advisory to the board in response to the contempt rulings.
Meanwhile these lawmakers continue to consider additional legislative reform, such as the SAFE Parole Act, which would require parole hearings to take place in person instead of via video stream. It would also record the hearings, which are currently closed to the public. But this is the second year it failed to reach a vote.
• • •
As the legislature’s 2016 session ends and advocates wait to hear from the attorney general whether he plans to reign in the state’s parole board, RAPP continues its community outreach. When the group’s older members meet with policy makers and the public, their very presence helps give a face to elders who are still behind bars and could be included in the push to end mass incarceration.
At a recent RAPP meeting, 71-year-old Abdul Rahman, who served 45 years in prison, apologized for being late, noting he was suffering from a cold that had “slowed me down.” At the same time, he pulled out a stack of business cards he collected after speaking to advocates for the elderly in Brooklyn.
“Many of them approached me afterwards with great interest,” he said.
The meeting was a mix of people over age 60 who had been released from prison in recent years or had loved ones still inside, and interns in their twenties. One asked for advice on discussing the needs of elders during an upcoming exchange with the city’s Department for the Aging or DFTA.
“They should be ready for more people getting out than before,” Farid responded.
“Emphasize their post-prison potential and the contributions they can make to society,” added Laura Whitehorn. “People should be judged on who they are now.”
Whitehorn spent 14 years behind bars for a conspiracy to blow up symbols of domestic racism and U.S. foreign policy, and has helped ensure aging political prisoners and their analysis are included in RAPP’s efforts.
This comes across in the lineup of a July 9 event RAPP is hosting with the Senior Citizen & Health Committee of Community Board 12 in Queens, an area that is home to 10 senior centers and where many former inmates are being released. The event includes a workshop titled “Breaking the Cycle of Permanent Punishment,” and one of the speakers is Sekou Odinga, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who spent 33 years in federal and state custody.
“We incorporate the political prisoner issue in our work because we are dealing with the punishment paradigm as the root of what we have to get at,” Farid notes.
In early June, a former Black Panther locked up on charges related to his activities more than three decades ago was denied parole, and another lost his Article 78 challenge: Robert Seth Hayes and Maliki Shakur Latine, who both have at exemplary records, and COMPAS scores that show them to be at low risk of reoffending. Hayes suffers from Hepatitis C and Type II diabetes.
“These are the people who I consider to have been the the canaries in the coal mine,” Farid says. “I don’t think we’re going to really see anything substantive take place unless we see it happen with them.”
It is another example of how RAPP is making sure that no one is left behind.
“It’s not about getting handrails in the prisons,” Farid says of RAPP’s strategy. “It’s about getting people out.”
Then he turns to answer the phone call of a prisoner who says he’s been denied parole, again.
RAPP EVENT on JULY 9
Release Aging People from Prison presents speakers and workshops on Saturday, July 9 from 9-3pm at the Queens Educational Opportunity Center, located at 158-29 Archer Avenue. The theme will be “Elders in Prison: Bringing Them Home & Rebuilding Our Communities.” Details: RAPPcampaign.com
Paroled in a Wheelchair
Expenses from medical and geriatric care for elderly prisoners mean they cost two to four times as much as others. But there is a human cost to delaying their release as well.
In May, RAPP member Mohaman Koti died just two months after he was released to a nursing home in Staten Island. His birth certificate says he was born in 1928, though his mother insisted the year was 1926.
“We’ve got too many old people in wheelchairs like I am locked up,” Koti said just weeks before he died.
He was convicted in 1978 of attempted murder of an NYPD officer who he said “tried to shake me down for money and I wouldn’t give it to him, so we got to fighting.” The officer recovered, and Koti was offered a plea deal of seven and a half years. He insisted on a trial, and got 25 years to life.
In the decades that followed, Koti gained respect from both inmates and guards for counseling young men who found themselves sent upstate to some of the most violent prisons in the country. He became eligible for parole in 2003, but like so many others, he got the usual denials.
When he appeared before the board for a sixth time in 2013, he was so hard of hearing that commissioners had to keep repeating their questions to him. By then he was also suffering from several long-term illnesses. But the board decided he was still at risk of committing another crime, citing the nature of his offense.
After a judge ruled the denials were irrational, he was given a new hearing, and commissioners granted Koti parole in September 2014. But he was then ordered to serve an additional year in prison at a federal medical center in North Carolina because of a pending charge from the time of his arrest nearly four decades ago.
On March 16 of this year Koti was finally released. It was a pyrrhic victory.
“The kind of life Koti lived when he got out — confined to a nursing home because he was not able to care for himself — shows that it was ludicrous to think he would have posed a threat to society all these years,” said his longtime lawyer, Susan Tipograph.
— Renée Feltz
The Indypendent is a monthly New York City-based newspaper and website. Subscribe to our print edition here. You can make a donation or become a monthly sustainer here.