The Case for Smarter Parole in New York
In the 3/18/20 episode of Social Impact LIVE, host Richard Hara talks to senior research scientist Vincent Schiraldi (bio) and youth counselor Marcellus Morris (bio) about the campaign to reform New York City’s parole system and how COVID-19 is affecting people who are incarcerated in New York State.
Richard Hara: Hello, I’m Richard Hara, and this is Social Impact LIVE, a weekly conversation with members of the Columbia School of Social Work community. Our program today is on parole reform in New York State. Obviously, given current circumstances we’re going to be discussing more broadly the impact of COVID-19 with our two guests, Vincent Schiraldi and Marcellus Morris. Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University, and also former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation. We’re also joined by Marcellus Morris, who’s founder of Reign 4 Life, a nonprofit dedicated to alternatives to incarceration, reentry, and gang prevention. Gentlemen, welcome to Social Impact LIVE.
Vincent Schiraldi: Thanks for having us.
Richard Hara: Before we go into the issue of parole reform, I just wonder if you have some thoughts more generally about how the current coronavirus outbreak is affecting people who are incarcerated, people who are on probation or parole, and what are the implications for current policy decisions? So who would like to start?
Marcellus Morris: Well, we need some stats to see what’s really going on, to figure out how we can help the community stay safe. If they’re withholding people’s release date because of the virus, and this person is inside and he’s hasn’t no effects or no signs and symptoms, he’s been past the two weeks, he’s been quarantined, and he’s been tested, what is the purpose for holding them inside the incubator? Because if it hits inside it is going to hit hard, you know what I’m saying, because there’s so many people, so congested. As you know, [it’s also an] older population. If you got a young healthy person, and I want to say even an older person that’s about to be released, [let’s find] a way to get them released safely from the facility back to the community. Not just leave them until we figure it out out here.
Richard Hara: Vinnie, would you care to comment? In the absence of substantive information from prisons, and obviously that’s a priority for us to get that data as Marcellus said. But what are your concerns?
Vincent Schiraldi: When we were talking earlier, Marcellus mentioned looking at what China and other countries have done. But one of the things that for us is a special challenge in the U.S. is no one else has our incarceration rate. You can’t look at Italy, because our incarceration rate is five to seven times European incarceration rates. So we actually won’t have a model as to how to deal with this. We have to start inventing that model today. Now I’ve run correctional facilities in addition to running probation. When I was in Washington, DC, I ran two juvenile correctional facilities. They were under consent decree, court oversight, for 20 years, partly because of medical conditions in the facility. When I got there, the medical system was a mess after 20 years of court oversight. This is true all around the country, and on top of that it’s a medically fragile population. They tend to have asthma more frequently, heart conditions, a whole host of medical conditions exist more frequently in incarcerated populations.
If you’re in prison and being transported, you’re handcuffed generally through a belly chain. If you cough or sneeze, you can’t cover your mouth. Very often you don’t have access to soap and water. The irony about the production of hand sanitizer by prison inmates in New York State is that they can’t use hand sanitizer because it has alcohol. The prisons and jails and juvenile facilities are no place to bring this virus, and we ought to be doing everything we possibly can to reduce the flow in and out of prisons, because it won’t just go in, it’ll come out. But also to come up with plans for how to deal with this inside our correctional facilities, and I don’t think we’re there yet.
Marcellus Morris: I think I spoke to somebody this morning while I was trying to get some research, and they said what they’ve done is they gave everybody a container of bleach. Made them sign for it.
Richard Hara: How can you practice social distancing, right, under those kinds of circumstances? I’m just wondering if medical care is so poor there, [and] people need medical care, are they going to be able to get it through a community hospital or something like that? I mean, what would be the backup plan?
Vincent Schiraldi: Typically, they go to the infirmary while they’re in prison if they get sick. In Rikers Island, if they get sick beyond a certain threshold, they’ll go to Bellevue. But there might come a point where Bellevue is too full to take them. It is disastrous, once you get one or two or three people beyond how much the infirmary or the jail hospital can hold, where are you going to put the folks? Because if one person on a 40-person tier has it, first of all, everybody else is potentially infected. But then isolating them means you have to have a whole tier for an additional person. It’s going to be super, super challenging, which is why the conversation we’re having today about reducing unnecessary incarceration for this population, and reducing especially the churn—the sort of two-day, three-day, one-month churn in and out of jail is especially important at this time. When I’ve talked to epidemiologists and physicians about it, they are absolutely breathless about the potential for damage and harm to come in and out of our correctional facilities.
Richard Hara: So if I could turn back to you, Marcellus, thinking about people who are on parole and probation who are out sort of trying to manage like the rest of us and so on, are they being impacted by what’s happening now with the restrictions on getting together? I mean, are they being somehow at a disadvantage because they have to report to their parole officers and so on and [risk getting] exposed?
Marcellus Morris: Well, I think they don’t have to report to their parole officers. If I’m not I’m mistaken and I don’t want to [state inaccurate] information on this channel, but they’ve closed most parole offices in my area. Now my area is Nassau County, so I can’t see what’s going on in the boroughs. But they’ve done in Nassau, right now they suspended it, they have to call in. Obviously, if they have [just been] released, they would have to initially report in, and I don’t know what’s going on with that. I happen to run groups inside of parole, so what we’re doing is we’re just trying to keep in touch with the guys who’s just coming home to give them some hope and direct them to places they can go to get some help. Hopefully DSS will step in and make sure we expedite their food stamps and expedite their cash benefits because that’s going to be a stressor right there. It really can start some serious problems to send them right back, because if they come home and they’re homeless, they’re in a shelter, they don’t have any funds, they don’t have any money—I mean, what are they going to do?
Richard Hara: Vinnie, what’s your impression been? Are we seeing a response from the parole system to address some of these needs?
Vincent Schiraldi: So I contacted the Legal Aid Society that represents most of the people being revoked on parole. They said that in the boroughs, at least when I contacted them which was this morning, they had not suspended office visits. Let’s think about an office visit now, what this is, right? You’re sitting in a room full of a bunch of other medically vulnerable people, and you’re there because if you don’t come you’re threatened with incarceration. You sit sometimes for hours—depends on how busy your parole officer is. At the end of that, pretty much they ask you the same five questions they asked you a week ago, and that as Marcellus said they could ask you by phone. I mean, that’s kind of what you’re getting out of parole, not because parole officers are bad people; some of them are, some of them aren’t—they are as good and bad as the rest of the population. But because they’re so busy, and people on their caseload have so many needs, they’re pretty much overwhelmed. You kind of have this meaningless process cycling people through. That’s the office visit part of it.
Then there’s the revocation part of it. New York revokes more people and sends them to prison for technical parole violations than any state in America except Illinois. It’s 8,000 people almost, and then there’s another 2,000 in local jails throughout the state awaiting the hearings that are going to revoke them, for the most part. That’s about 10,000 people that cost about $600 million last year in New York, and this is again for noncriminal activity. It’s for missing appointments. It’s for drug use. It’s for staying out past curfew. It’s for associating with somebody else with a criminal record. If there was ever any low-hanging fruit, for places where we could stop the flow in and out of our prisons, its technical parole violators. The governor should immediately cease technical violations, and they should pass the Less Is More Act, which reduces substantially technical violations in the budget, which they’re probably going to pass within a week or so.
Richard Hara: Marcellus, are you also involved or working on this Less Is More Act?
Marcellus Morris: Yes, I believe in Less is More. Let me clarify my stance on the parole system and give me a little history as Vinnie did. I came home on a determinist sentence of seven years after doing six years—I’ve done work release and I’ve done time in Texas. I’ve done state there in Texas. All together I did 17 years. Right now I have a son who’s incarcerated in juvenile facility, and I have a daughter who just came home from Virginia. I live and breathe this parole reentry because it’s going to affect what happens with the next generation I’m working with—and also my son if he continues to take the path that he’s taken.
Richard Hara: If you are on parole now could you associate with your son, or would that be forbidden because he has a criminal record?
Marcellus Morris: I mean it’s a line that they can’t really cross, and that family line they don’t usually cross. No, I don’t think they could stop me from seeing my son ever. I’d just have to get violated for something like that. I mean, that’s cruel and unusual punishment.
Vincent Schiraldi: I was on a panel in Syracuse last December, and a gentleman there had gotten a one-year revocation and did a year because he married a woman with a felony record. Then I met another guy at the Fortune Society, at the Fortune Society program, who was living in a homeless shelter, even though his mom had a bedroom for him, because his mom had an old felony conviction, and his parole officer said he couldn’t go.
Marcellus Morris: You stated earlier that there are some good parole officers and then there are some bad parole officer as in life in general. I have been fortunate to be around the kind of POs that when I made the right decision to go right, I could ask them for support, you know what I’m saying? That’s just my fortunate situation. [But there are also lots of stories where] the PO had it out for the individual and got them on some BS technicality. That happens all the time. Someone [may have been] bullied when they were in school. It could be as simple as that. And now they get to take their anger and frustration out on us when we come through, I mean us a whole, you understand what I’m saying?
Richard Hara: It certainly sounds like a broken system—putting people on this sort of track to be sent back into jail. But in the meantime, the prison system is able to save some money because people are out for a short period of time but they’re under supervision, which is a nice way of putting it. But they’re tripped up by these so-called technical violations and end up being reincarcerated and so on. I get that part of it, though my understanding is that despite support in the legislature, the Less is More bill didn’t pass. And I’m just curious, what has been the pushback? What is the resistance to fixing what seems to be a broken system?
Vincent Schiraldi: There’s a couple of answers to that question. One is probation and parole are very often forgotten in discussions around mass incarceration, so I’m so glad we’re doing this segment right now. Because people rightly focus on how horrible prisons and jails are in America and how overused they are. But people don’t realize there are twice as many people on probation and parole, 4.5 million people, and a quarter of everybody going to prison every year goes for technical violation of probation or parole. I think in part, the legislature just needed to be educated about that, and then in part, this is a crazy year. There’s a lot of pushback on bail reform. In a way, this [issue] is a bit different from bail reform because these people aren’t even accused of new crimes. And that’s in part why we have six district attorneys supporting us, including District Attorney Clark in the Bronx, District Attorney Vance in Manhattan, and District Attorney Gonzalez in Brooklyn. There is a lot of support for this across the aisle, if you will, or at least in different quarters. But I think it’s a very difficult year to kind of push through the noise, if you will.
Richard Hara: In the interest of time, I do want to turn to some of our viewers’ questions. The first question is: “Since we are in an election year can you weigh in on the different presidential candidates criminal justice reform platforms? Is it part of the national debate and part of the upcoming election as far as you’re able to tell?”
Vincent Schiraldi: Well, on the Democratic side, platforms I’ve looked at have all talked about ending mass incarceration, even people you’d consider conservative, like Bloomberg: he said he want to cut the prison population in half. I think that now, at least for the Democratic Party, this has become a very prominent issue in its plank. President Trump did pass the First Step Act. That’s certainly not what I would have hoped for out of federal legislation, but it’s better than nothing and released some people from prison. Who knows how bipartisan this will get in the future? But so far the Democrats are showing some pretty good signs.
Richard Hara: Okay, great. Next question, and I think this may be directed to Marcellus: “Would you be able to live in the same home as your son [given] what Vinnie was saying before regarding these rules and regulations about parole?”
Marcellus Morris: When you make parole, if they know my son is coming to stay with me, that parole officer will come to my house and [make] a determination if he’s allowed to come to my house. Again, and I’m not stating that I’m about breaking laws and I’m not telling anybody to break no rules and laws. If my son needed somewhere to stay, I’m going to fight for him to come stay with me, you understand what I’m saying? That just takes us back to slavery when they used to break the family up. That’s insane.
Richard Hara: Here’s another question: “Why is New York State so draconian compared to other states when it comes to this issue? Is there any traction on getting this Less is More legislation through this year?”
Vincent Schiraldi: I don’t think we know why it’s so crazy in New York, because New York has a lower than average incarceration rate compared to other states, but the second highest number of people locked up on technicals. People who come out of prison when they go back to prison are six times as likely to be coming back for a technical rather than a new crime. I don’t think we yet have an explanation other than it hasn’t been sufficiently raised and we’re going to get to see whether the legislature acts on this.
Marcellus Morris: Parole and possibly probation [officers] don’t have any oversight. They are like their own entities. I had a situation where I got a parole violation for carrying a Swiss army knife. I was working a regular job, I started a moving company [with] my own trucks, so I’m doing good. But then a guy messed up my paperwork and . . . called my parole officer. A parole officer said they can’t do anything unless the guy files a police report. He filed a police report, so [when] I come to the parole hearing, they search me and I got a Swiss army knife on me, the same knife I used to cut the boxes, unscrew the TVs and stuff like that, that I have to use at the job. Out of my frustration—because I really had changed my life, I was going straight at that point—I just didn’t handle this situation correctly. I wind up catching an assault on an elevator, one of the Correction Officers driving me up to the floor. Now let’s get into discovery. They lost the law book [recording] the incident…and the video disappeared. I wind up blowing trial and doing seven years. So that technical violation led to a seven-year sentence. So are they getting away with it? Hell yeah, they’re getting away with it. Most of us [who have been through this] need some psychotherapy and healing more than anything else. They got a group called H.O.L.L.A. [How Our Lives Link Altogether]. They need to send everybody like me to H.O.L.L.A., where they can get some healing going on. Peace.
Richard Hara: I mean, what you’re describing to me sounds like a dysfunctional bureaucracy. It’s not for the people that it serves, right? I mean, it’s sort of forgetting that there are people’s lives here that are being affected.
Marcellus Morris: Each time you get released from prison, it gets harder and harder to walk that right path.
Richard Hara: Vinnie, from your perspective and past history working within a bureaucracy like this, I mean, what can be done to at least in the short term to improve things and fix things so that more just decisions can be made?
Vincent Schiraldi: Before I get to that answer, we really did morph, by the way. Probation and parole started in the 1800s as a way to help people—probation at the front end, parole at the back end, when they were coming out of prison—make it on the streets, and it was very much a social work kind of profession. Parole officers and probation officers were actually volunteers and then eventually they were mostly social workers. In the 1970s we took a decidedly punitive turn in America. That was the beginning of the advent of mass incarceration, started somewhat by the Southern Strategy to sort of racialize correctional policies and make them more punitive. There was a belief that nothing worked to rehabilitate people, so we just started to trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em, and then we started taking much more of a law enforcement approach. And when that happened, we grew fourfold. There was a fourfold increase in the number of people under supervision right alongside the increase in incarceration. So parole and probation stopped being an alternative and became an add-on. The reason I told you that story is because now we have to come up with strategies to undo that. I think they come from the history. Part of the solution is to shrink the beast: to reduce the number of people that are on probation and parole, to shorten the amount of time they are on it, to reduce technical violations, to give people good time—earned time, they call it. Every 30 days you don’t messed up, you get 30 days off your supervision. We incentivize the kinds of behaviors we want and shrink the number of people that are on probation and parole, so that probation and parole officers can have manageable caseloads.
On the other side of that, then we need to make parole and probation more helpful and hopeful and less sort of trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em, and provide the kinds of resources that are going to help people make it in the community: job training, housing, and educational services, drug and alcohol treatment. Imagine what you would want to do—this is the School of Social Work we’re talking at here, right? What would you want to do to case manage people that have this variety of challenges? The last thing you’d want to do is reincarcerate them. What you’d want to do is have the kinds of resources and the relationship with them that’s going to help them make it. Right now, we’ve drifted so far away from that, you cannot really call the [criminal justice system] a social work profession anymore.
Richard Hara: Marcellus, maybe you can chime in here and tell us what you think would be helpful programs—either that you’ve seen or that you would like to see? How can we help folks get support and figure out the rules and restrictions that they face in making these sort of transitions?
Marcellus Morris: It’s us helping us, like the healing program, H.O.L.L.A, I just mentioned, which has a restorative justice component. Brownsville Think Tank in Brooklyn is another one. There’s also Man Up and the one I started, Reign 4 Life. Some are getting funding and some are not. But when we come together we’re able to help heal each other. When it’s in a structured manner, when we run our circles together we cry—grown men cry—people reveal things they never revealed before, and that’s the healing process. Some prisons are letting us in, some parole officers are letting us in, and we’re getting the work done as best we can. Philip White up there helping people get jobs and stuff like that, Jose Medina—all of this stuff comes from people inside. Ellie Ellis. (You have Ellie Ellis’s sister working with y’all.) He invented leadership training and used to send it out to us and make us take these classes. I didn’t know what we were taking them for. But he was instilling leadership in us for when we come out and so we could help lead others in the right direction. That’s what we need, more of us helping each other. Vinnie is exceptional because he studies and knows the whole picture. But a lot of people are just in it for the job, in it for a title, or in it because they knew somebody and they got a position and that’s it. They don’t have a heart for the people, and you got to find those heart-felt people and give them the resources they need. I keep saying H.O.L.L.A because they’re so dynamic in changing the lives of people that come home from prison.
Richard Hara: Thank you very much, Marcellus, for reminding us again that probably the resources or the solutions are out there, but we just have to properly support them in a more justice-based perspective. I want to thank you and Vinnie for joining us here today at Social Impact LIVE.
Vincent Schiraldi: Two quick points in conclusion. One is, I think, you were asking what could people do. The Katal Center, K-A-T-A-L Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. If you go on their website and look up their Less Is More campaign, it’ll tell you all about how to get involved in that campaign. Also, if you go to the Columbia Justice Lab’s website, we have now several reports, one of which showed very stark racial disparities in revocation in New York City’s jails. African Americans are locked up at 12 times the rate of whites, and Latinxs are locked up at four times the rate of whites for technical violations. I just wanted to add those two last points before we’re done. You can look us up on the Columbia Justice Lab.
Richard Hara: Absolutely. Thank you all for joining us on Social Impact LIVE. That concludes today’s episode. Next week, we’ll have Ovita Williams, associate director of field education here at the School of Social Work to talk about justice-based social work education. Until then have a great rest of the week. Be well, take care. See you all next time. Thanks very much.
- Justice Lab at Columbia University: Led by co-founders Vincent Schiraldi and Bruce Western, the Columbia Justice Lab combines original research, policy development, and community engagement to propel the project of justice reform.In this episode of Social Impact LIVE, Schiraldi references the Lab’s 3/12/20 paper “Racial Inequities in New York Parole Supervision.” See also their news page for the latest COVID-19-related recommendations from parole and probation officers, youth correctional leaders, and others.
- Katal Center for Equity and Justice: Referenced by Schiraldi in this episode, the Katal Center is a leading force in seeking an end to mass incarceration, the Center is spearheading passage of the Less Is More Act, which would reduce reincarceration for technical parole violations.
- Brownsville Think Tank Matters, H.O.L.L.A, Man Up Inc., and Reign 4 Life: Marcellus Morris lists these organizations as examples of the “us helping us” approach, providing community-based advocacy and services for returning youths and adults, including support circles. All are New York City-based organizations that support returning citizens.