Opinion: Let hundreds out of N.Y.’s jails and prisons now

Jessica Ramos

Originally published in New York Daily News

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of accompanying my father on his visits with fellow immigrants in prison — experiences that shape my work as a lawmaker today. When I was young, my father had a Spanish talk-radio program where he discussed the issues that were relevant to our neighbors and community in the diaspora. He started to receive letters from men who were incarcerated and were listening to his show for the comfort of familiarity, and quickly realized that they had no family nearby. Because these men were detained far from their loved ones, my father began the practice of visiting them consistently and was adamant that I join him.

I was 10 years old when we started these visits, and even at that young age, I understood that our state was keeping people in prison for endless years and decades, even though they had personally transformed and made amends. Through my father’s eyes, I learned to look past the dehumanizing environment — the prison scrubs, the absurd visiting room rules — and see people as people, often with big hearts and even bigger life stories to share. I could see clearly that their continued incarceration was unfair.

Years later, there is a crisis of aging, sickness and death in New York’s prisons because of decades of extreme sentencing and blanket denials of parole release by a racially biased Parole Board. A new report by researchers at Columbia University finds nearly 1,300 people died in prison in the last decade under Gov. Cuomo — more than the total number of New Yorkers executed by the state during the more than 350 years in which capital punishment was permitted. On average, a New Yorker dies in state prison every three days. Without reforms to the parole release process in New York, New Yorkers, especially those who are Black and Brown, will continue to perish in prison regardless of their rehabilitation and commitment to serving their communities.

As a state senator, I continue to visit with people in prisons and jails, but now I have a greater responsibility. In fact, state lawmakers have the legal authority to enter into any facility unannounced and inspect conditions, speak with incarcerated people and staff, and share what we learn with the public.

In my recent visits, I’ve been horrified to see a lack of recognition of the humanity and dignity of people who have been incarcerated. The crisis of death and despair I’ve witnessed demands urgent action. One step we in the state government can take is to pass the parole justice platform as soon as the legislative session resumes in January.

The Elder Parole bill would ensure that people classified by NYSDOCCS as older adults who have already served 15 years can appear before the Parole Board for case-by-case consideration. The Fair & Timely Parole bill would restore the board to its original purpose, requiring that people are evaluated based on who they are today, and not solely their original conviction from however many years and decades ago.

At the same time, Gov. Hochul must demonstrate her commitment to reuniting families of color by using her power to grant clemencies. There are 3,682 applications for clemency on the governor’s desk awaiting action, including applications for commutations and pardons. Her predecessor used this power only on holidays, as if he were Santa Claus and Black and Brown people’s freedom were toys. Hochul must regularly review the applications before her and grant release to all who are community-ready.

Beyond that, I can’t stress enough how important it is for my colleagues in government to visit with their incarcerated constituents — and to speak out about what they learn. The more people in power see firsthand what incarcerated people go through behind those walls, the sooner we can end this crisis.

Ramos represents Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst and other neighborhoods in the state Senate.