From the age of 18, I spent decades in prison confronting the devastating reality that I might never get a second chance. Nonetheless, I worked to become a person in service of my community, and to earn release. However, the system believed I was beyond repair and I was denied parole release again and again. Finally, after 30 years, I was given a fair hearing at the prompting of Erie County Judge Thomas Franczyk.
There are thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers who have transformed over decades just as I did, but they are still being denied pathways to return to their families because of a fundamentally broken parole system.
With parole reform we can finally give incarcerated New Yorkers a chance at redemption, instead of permanent punishment.
Unlike many in government who talk without action, I made real change while in prison. Along with my cell neighbor, I developed the Mentoring and Nurturing – or M.A.N. – Program. Reflecting on our own failures, we developed principles to mentor young men on what it means to be accountable to one’s self and community. We used our time spent in prisons to help keep others out.
Once I was released, I continued to mentor at-risk youth in Western New York so that they would not make the same terrible mistakes I made. I taught this same curriculum at Vertus Charter High School in Rochester.
My story is not an outlier. Benjamin Smalls became a selfless jailhouse lawyer known as the “Elder Statesman.” Valerie Gaiter transformed into a mentor at Bedford Hills prison. Leonard Carter planned to mentor youth through a nonprofit when he was released. Each of them turned their lives around and had loved ones awaiting them. But sadly all of these elders died behind bars.
But just like incarcerated people, the parole system is not beyond redemption and reform.
The Fair and Timely Parole Act would create a fairer parole system by centering release decisions on a person’s rehabilitation rather than solely on their conviction. The Elder Parole bill would provide opportunities for parole consideration to incarcerated New Yorkers aged 55 and older who have served at least 15 years. Together these parole reforms would offer incarcerated people, on a case-by-case basis, the chance to restart their lives.
As a deacon, faith guides my life. A core tenet is the healing power of forgiveness. For far too long, New York’s parole system has defined people by their worst mistake – the one thing they can never change. Our lawmakers must enact parole reforms that prioritize redemption over permanent punishment. If we fail to act, we’ll continue to lose good people like Benjamin Smalls, Valerie Gaiter and Leonard Carter.
Jerome Wright is a deacon at the Elim Christian Fellowship Church in Buffalo, the vice chair of VOICE Buffalo and the statewide organizer for the #HALTsolitary campaign.