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Another Voice: David Gilbert, other elder inmates deserve clemency

Another Voice: David Gilbert, other elder inmates deserve clemency

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By Jerome Wright

I am in my 12th year on parole after having spent 30-plus consecutive years in various correctional facilities in New York State. Since my release on parole , I strive each and every day to reach out to angry, bewildered and vulnerable young people through the work I do with the Mentoring and Nurturing Program I created while incarcerated and currently run for at-risk youth and justice-involved individuals in Western New York.

The person who more than anyone is responsible for helping me – and literally hundreds of other young people – become productive and contributing members of society is still in prison today. David Gilbert, 75 years old, is in Shawangunk Correctional Facility, Ulster County, in his 39th year of a life sentence. In the interests of justice, mercy and the good of society, he – and others – deserves to be released.

I was incarcerated with a sentence of 18½ years to life for my involvement in crimes that transpired while I was 18 years old in March 1979. I was sent to Great Meadow Correctional Facility, where as an aimless and angry young Black man I met Dave, a white man who was also serving a life sentence for his involvement in a tragic crime connected with the Black Liberation movement. It was in this violent and highly segregated environment that Dave reached out to me to encourage me to attend college, stay out of trouble and find something other than my delinquent self to promote.

Due to Dave’s insistence, I enrolled in Skidmore College after several stints in solitary confinement for assorted and sometimes violent encounters.

Having been moved around a lot during our sentences, both of us saw each other at times over the rest of my incarceration, but no time was more telling than when we both suffered the loss of a mutual friend to HIV/AIDS. It was in those early years when the epidemic had just taken hold.

It was at Dave’s urging that I took the HIV/AIDS Peer Training class, which he had developed. It changed my life and that of so many family and friends.

Over the years, Dave has continued to inspire, mentor and in many ways “father” the thousands of fatherless young and older men who find themselves in his company.

David Gilbert is not the only person in New York State’s prisons who is serving long years beyond any possible benefit to society, but he is one example of the unnecessary cruelty and vengeance that too often marks that system. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo can and should bring justice, reasonableness and compassion into the system by granting clemency to David and other elders so they can return to their communities and families that need them.

Jerome Wright, of Buffalo, is the statewide coordinator for the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.

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