Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jeff Deskovic

Advocating For Prisoner Re-Entry
Issues And Prison Conditions

The Community Service Society (CSS) is an organization with a 160-year history representing the needs of low income New Yorkers. Their mission statement states the following, “We recognize the challenges facing residents who return to their families and communities after
periods of incarceration. Most striking is the concentration of this population in a handful of neighborhoods in the city. As the rate of incarcerations has increased and recidivism has undermined family stability, it has become clear that these individuals and their families fall within the universe of New Yorkers whose life chances are limited by their lack of economic opportunity and political voice. As a result of our research, we initiated a series of roundtables called the New York Reentry Roundtable, which resulted in a successful Reentry Advocacy
Day in May 2007. CSS recognizes the importance of playing a more direct role in challenging systematic barriers to civic participation facing formerly incarcerated persons. On June 7, 2006, Governor Pataki signed into law a monumental change affecting sentencing in New York, amending the Penal Law to add ‘promotion of successful and productive reentry and reintegration into society’ to the four traditional
goals of deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution, and incapacitation.

This change re-flected a broader movement by advocates, family and community members, and formerly incarcerated individuals who understand that removing unfair barriers faced by people with criminal records trying to meet their most basic needs is crucial to increasing public safety while decreasing public spending on jails and prisons. In a time of budget shortfalls, the following proposals address costly and ineffective sentencing policies, unnecessary criminal justice expenditures, and counter-productive obstacles faced by individuals who have had criminal justice involvement”.

It then goes on to list a variety of proposals, which I will discuss further on. Their primary focus is prisoner re-entry, with some prison condition issues included. Every month, a reentry roundtable meeting is held, in which both concerned citizens, advocates, and organizations,
discuss issues related to the above. Free discussion of ideas, viewpoints, and strategies is encouraged, as is networking.

I became aware of the New York Reentry Roundtable through reading an email flyer about it. I have always wanted to get involved in trying to bring about changes in prison conditions. But because my life has gotten so hectic I haven’t had a chance to do so.

There is a lot of work I have had to do on all fronts since being released after serving the 16 years for a crime I was innocent of, in terms of getting my life in order. Some of those issues include readjustment to being back in the free world, coping with what I went through, trying to re-establish family relations, catching up on technology, and continuing my formal education which was interrupted when Gov. Pataki
cut the funding for college education for prisoners. Additionally, I needed to prepare for the LSATS in an attempt to get into law school, and of course there is my continuing effort to try to develop some social life, while constantly dealing with the financial pressures that many of us face even without having been incarcerated.

I have spent a lot of time working against wrongful convictions and the death penalty, to date having made over 40 presentations and written over 40 articles on related subjects, not to mention numerous television, radio, and print media interviews by means of raising public awareness. Additionally, I have engaged in lobbying activity with numerous State Senators and Assembly persons in an effort to bring about legislation to help prevent wrongful convictions.

The fact I have not had more time to work on prison reform troubles me, because I cannot forget the horrendous conditions that I endured in prison, nor the people that I left behind. People are people, and whether guilty or innocent, they should not be mistreated. I have never believed that people who are guilty of crimes should not be punished, but rather that society has elected to punish by means of depriving people of freedom, not the mistreatment, abuse, lack of Constitutional rights, human rights, and basic human dignity that goes on daily in prison.

Since I am now free and am able to speak about things that I witnessed, and in many cases experienced, and now have a public voice and some credibility because of what happened to me, I feel a moral obligation to try to bring about changes and to eliminate the injustices that I witnessed, even if it is nothing more than by simply exposing things.

When I learned that the Community Service Society deals with some prison issues, I reasoned that I could be one of the voices. I thought that the perspective of someone who saw, first-hand, life in prison would be valuable to lawmakers.

I, too, have experienced the difficulty of reintegrating into society. It is tough enough for me as an exoneree. However, I know that it would be even harder if I had a criminal record to overcome, as do those who are on parole. Nevertheless, many of the difficulties parolees face are
the same as I face. Thus, being involved in advocacy relative to prisoner re-entry issues is a natural extension of the work that I do. In addition to helping the group with the issues at hand, I was looking forward to networking with others who would be willing to float the idea to colleges, universities, high schools, and other community organizations that might permit me to make presentations about wrongful convictions and the death penalty.

On May 20, 2008, I traveled to Albany with members of the Society. Taking public transportation was not only more economical than driving to Albany myself, but provided an opportunity to become acquainted with several members of the organization as well as many other groups.

The groups included: Rights for Imprisoned People With Psychiatric Disabilities, represented by Carlos Sabater, Bronx Defenders, represented by Kate Rubin; Covenant House, represented by Nancy Downing; Center for Employment Opportunities, represented by Mara
Nelson; e Fortune Society, represented by Glenn Martin; Women’s Prison Association, represented by Brenda Pearson; Angus Community, represented by Dianna Diaz; Civic Association, represented by Robert Kinnery; MFY Legal Services, represented by Bernadette Jentsch; Sociology Department at New School for Social Research, represented by Westerly Donahue; Brooklyn Public Library, represented by Nicholas Higgins; Community Access, represented by Judith Gittens; Fifth Avenue Committee, represented by Julia Duvall; Riverside Church Empire Prison, Empire State Pride, represented by Gary Paul Gilbert; Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment, represented by Susan Manereck; Prisons in Action Network, represented by Judith Brink; Citizens United for Rehabilitation
of Errants, represented by Amy S. James Oliveras; Correctional Association, Drop the Rock: represented by Caitlin Dunklee. Representing Community Service Society and coordinating Advocacy Day was Gabriel Torres Rivera, himself a former prisoner who is making great contributions to society through the program.

We were given breakfast, and then we were greeted with a short presentation by Assembyman Jeffrion Aubry, which was designed to set the tone for the day. He expressed how important the work was that we were here to do, and that we should not get upset if some lawmakers were not amenable to what we wanted them to do, but instead should remain dignified.

The Issues

Specific issues and proposals were put together. These issues and proposals were what we went to Albany to advocate for. The issues were a combination of prisoner re-entry matters, prison conditions, and incarceration itself. I cannot list all of the issues that we advocated for, due to space constraints. Instead, I will simply go over some of the proposals whose conditions give rise to the need for legislative action in that they are most shocking, and the public is most unlikely to be aware of.

Issues Related To Successful Prisoner Reintegration

When a prisoner returns to prison, everybody loses. There is often another victim and victim’s family who are affected; Society has to bear the burden of the $40,000 a year it takes to incarcerate someone; the offender themselves along with their family. There is the matter of
the loss of tax dollars that the re-offender would otherwise have to pay if they remained free and employed. It therefore makes sense to make the way as easy as possible for the former prisoner to successfully reintegrate. The following issues were advocated for:

• Restoration of Rights of individuals with prior criminal convictions through the passage of the Restoration of Rights Act, which amends Corrections Law 701 and 703 to replace the Certificate of Relief from Disabilities and Certificate of Good Conduct with a Certificate of Restoration with all of the same effects and functions of the existing certificates: The Certificate of Restoration overcomes automatic bars
to voting, employment, licensing, public housing, and any other civil disabilities imposed as a result of a criminal conviction.

It would also amend New York State Human Rights Law (Subdivision 16 of section 296 of the Executive Law) to prohibit a prospective employer from making any inquiry about an applicant’s criminal record until a conditional offer of employment has been made contingent upon a satisfactory criminal background check. The offer could then be withdrawn only if, consistent with Correctional Law, the applicant’s
criminal conviction record bears direct relationship to the duties and responsibilities of the position or hiring the individual poses and unreasonable risk to person’s or property.

• We also advocated for amending existing laws prohibiting individuals with criminal records from working in restaurants, arenas, and convention centers, and to restore discretion in hiring decisions to individual employers.

• We advocated for supporting the Re- Entry Tax Credit (Senate Bill 2956) which would establish a re-entry employment incentive tax credit, providing a $10,000 tax credit to employers who hire individuals released from New York correctional facilities in full time jobs at 140% of the state minimum wage

• We advocated for passage of Assembly bill 5555, which would extend the right to register and vote in any election to individuals who have been released from prison on parole.

• We advocated for legislation prohibiting colleges and universities from banning the applications of formerly incarcerated persons solely based on the criminal record, or to have blanket policies of refusing to consider applications from students with criminal records.

• We advocated for an amendment to the Family Court Act and Domestic Relations Law in relation to setting or modifying child support obligations of incarcerated non-custodial parents so that incarceration is no longer defined as “willful unemployment.”

There must, at some point, come a time at which it is acknowledged by all that an offender has paid their debt to society and that they should be able to fully put it behind them. That means being allowed to work and obtain housing. It is essential to put protections in place, because
there are some who will not do the right thing morally and thus require a law, with teeth to enforce it.

Fully being able to participate in society necessarily means voting. To strip a person of their ability to get housing, work, and to vote is in many ways to render them powerless. To permanently disenfranchise people, simply because of one mistake, seems an excessive punishment, particularly when someone has remained crime free for a long time.

Issues Related To Prison Conditions

Most prisoners will eventually return to society. If they are mistreated when they are incarcerated, rehabilitation is less likely, and it is probable that they will return to society full of rage, which makes their committing a crime more likely. In addition, mistreating people and not giving them basic human dignity while they are in prison makes society in many ways no better than the offender. Therefore, our
agenda involved improving prison conditions.

The following issues were therefore advocated for:

• Assembly Bill 3787, which would require the New York State Department of Health to oversee and monitor HIV and Hepatitis C care in prison. As I witnessed myself personally while in prison, the medical care allotted is substandard, and therefore oversight is needed.

• Restoration of eligibility of prisoners for financial aid for college education

• Study and develop a plan for improving education in state prison

Issues Related To Incarceration

Incarcerating prisoners cost $40,000 a year. Therefore, when it is not necessary, or the length of a sentence is not necessary, it should be avoided. The issues we advocated for in this arena included: Assembly bill 04342A, which includes:

• Restoration of judicial discretion in all drug cases

• Expansion of community based drug treatment and other alternative to incarceration programs

• Reduction in lengths of sentences for all drug cases;

• Retroactive sentencing relief for all prisoners currently incarcerated under the Rockefeller era Drug Laws

It is absurd when those who are imprisoned for drug offenses-whether as users or sellers, while not excusable, should not result in sentences greater than that given to people who commit violent crime. Drug use is a disease which requires treatment in drug rehabs, not imprisonment. The Rockefeller Drug Law, which I wrote about in prior articles, is particularly draconian.

• We also advocated for S.3164, which would extend merit time release eligibility to domestic violence survivors incarcerated for committing violent crimes. Being a victim of domestic abuse certainly should be a mitigating circumstance. The abuse often has the effect of turning law abiding spouses into traumatized, desperate women who perceive violence to be their only way out. There should be a contrast of them with those who commit murder under different circumstance, and that difference should be reflected in the law.

The Way Forward

I found becoming involved in these issues very rewarding. I want to see people successfully reintegrate into society, and lead productive, crime-free lives. Re-entering society after a long period of incarceration is not easy, particularly with the obstacles that being on parole and having a criminal record present.

If we, as a society, place unreasonable barriers to reintegration and the ability to get meaningful employment, we are setting the stage for ex-offenders to give up trying to lead a law-abiding life and instead resorting back to crime. That often results in more victims, and the financial
cost to incarcerate, and all of the human costs associated thereto.

What legitimate interest does society have in preventing employment or placing barriers to obtaining housing? Therefore, on a legislative level, the laws should be changed. On an individual level, I encourage business owners, employers, and managers to give deserving ex-inmates
who have demonstrated by education and good conduct that they have turned their lives around, a chance by offering them meaningful jobs at a sustainable wage.

In that sense, we all have a moral obligation. If that approach is rejected, and businesses have a blanket policy of not hiring ex-prisoners, then they have a small hand, morally, when an ex-offender succumbs to temptation and returns to crime. Alternatives to incarceration, whenever
possible, should be sought, and when incarceration is deemed necessary, it should be the minimal amount needed to promote justice. Giving drug offenders Draconian sentencing, such as in the Rockefeller Drug Law, only serves to promote rage, thus destroying lives that could otherwise be crime-free and productive, and destroys families. Similarly, allowing abuse in prison and providing substandard medical care, both of which I witnessed on a regular basis, only serves to create resentment and rage, while morally lowering society to beneath the level of the very lawbreakers they seek to punish, while at the same time holding out a very poor role model.

I have long advocated for a restoration of college in prison, and I renew that call, because the recidivism rate is much lower for those who are allowed such education. It sets the stage for a future that includes hope, and being able to get jobs other than the dead-end variety. Vocational programs should be upgraded to include the current methods of doing things in various trades, taught by instructors who care. Similarly,
when released, former prisoners should not be denied college education.

The next roundtable discussion is scheduled for Wednesday, June 11, 2008, from 1-3pm. The address is 105 East 22nd Street, and Park Avenue. The guest speaker is, Lynn Goodman, Statewide Director of Reentry Services. The roundtable discussions are open to anyone who wants to attend. I personally encourage regular, everyday citizens, to attend, and get involved to the extent that you are comfortable.

You never know, one day it could be a family member, who, in a moment of bad judgment, breaks the law, ends up in prison, and then must face the reintegration issues. Wouldn’t you want the transition from prison to successful re-entry to be as easy as possible?

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