A second chance: How the parole justice movement has gained steam in New York state

Black Lives Matters activists and criminal justice reform advocates hold a protest rally calling for the abolishment of all jails and prisons outside the Tombs, the Manhattan jail renamed the Manhattan Detention Complex, on June 20, 2020 in New York City.
Photo Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Without a second chance, Donna Hylton would have never transformed her life.

Without a second chance, Hylton may only be remembered for a traumatic childhood that included repeatedly being trafficked from native Jamaica and sexually and physically abused. Subsequently, Hylton would end up serving a  27-year prison stint for the kidnapping, torture, and murder of 62-year-old Long Island real-estate broker Thomas Vigliarolo who was held prisoner by Hylton and two accomplices for 15-20 days.

And without that second chance, Hylton would’ve never had the chance to earn a master’s degree, pen a widely-acclaimed memoir about her traumatic childhood and struggles behind bars, or to be one of the voices in the parole justice movement — an effort that promotes fair and meaningful release opportunities for incarcerated people in New York’s state prisons.

Perhaps no one knows the importance of a second chance more than Donna Hylton, whose chronicled her life journey from childhood trauma to prison and beyond in her memoir “A Little Piece of Light.” Photo courtesy Donna Hylton

“The philosophy of the parole justice movement is that everyone deserves a second chance,” Hylton told the Times. “For many people, they didn’t get their first chance, and that may have led them to a life of crime or to one mistake that put them in prison for a chunk of their life … If prison is supposed to be a place of rehabilitation — why shouldn’t those who’ve served 20-plus years get a second chance to be reintegrated into society.”

The parole justice movement scored a major policy win this fall when Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law the Less Is More Act providing paroled prisoners with 30 days of earned time credit for every 30 days in the community without a parole violation — it goes into full effect next month.

She also introduced a host of reforms, including an end to automatic detention and incarceration for certain technical violations and an improvement to due process allowing parolees a right to counsel at every stage of the parole revocation process.

And while nearly 200 New Yorkers were released from the heavily-scrutinized Rikers Island facility — where rampant accounts of abuse and poor conditions imperiled staff and prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic — and rejoined their families as soon as the bill became law, the fight for parole justice continues.

But advocates say that more needs to be done to secure the successful release of New York state parolees, particularly elderly inmates and inmates of color.

“We can’t declare victory just yet. ‘Less Is More’ doesn’t go fully into effect until March. For many people, a four-month wait is a matter of life or death. It needs to be put into effect immediately, and Governor Hochul should take the necessary steps to do so,” penned Ashish Prashar, a justice reform activist in an op-ed to the Gotham Gazette.

In 2021 alone, 16 New Yorkers lost their lives in city jails and may still lack access to critical medical care.

There are roughly 35,000 people incarcerated in New York state prisons, and nearly half the people in New York prisons, 47.9%, are Black —by comparison 24.1% of incarcerated New Yorkers are Latino and 24.7% are white — and nearly 1 in 4 inmates in New York prisoners are 50 and older.

The percentage of older New Yorkers in prison continues to grow despite the state’s declining prison population. In 2007, for example, roughly 11% of the prison population was 50 or older, and in 2017, the number rose to around 15%.

Additionally, the average age of death from so-called natural cause in state prisons is around 57, an impetus advocates stress for the importance of a bill introduced by state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, which would give New York inmates aged 55 and older a chance for parole, regardless of their crime, as long as they have served 15 years of their sentence.

About 4,800 inmates are currently eligible for parole in New York, and 1 in 5 people in prison — about 7,500 people — are eligible for parole within the next year, according to state prison data obtained by the Times. Roughly 40% of all people in the state’s prisons — about 21,000 — are serving a parole-eligible sentence.

Once those serving indeterminate sentences have reached their minimum sentence — for example, 25 years on a 25-life sentence — they become eligible for parole. Advocates from the People’s Campaign for Parole Justice state that this shouldn’t be considered an “early release,” but instead “an opportunity for people to serve the remainder of their sentence at home under parole supervision.”

While the state’s parole release numbers were increasing from a 10%-15% release rate to 35-40% before the pandemic, it went the opposite direction once COVID-19 took shape. Advocates also cite not only slower releases since the pandemic but a system that is increasingly political and disorganized.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that prisons nationwide released 10% fewer people in 2020 than in 2019. Data and Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice public policy think tank, suggests that the decline in prison population is not a result of increasing releases, but reduced prison populations.

Nearly 200 New Yorkers were released from Rikers Island after Gov. Kathy Hochul signed The Less Is More Act into law last fall. The full law goes into effect in March. Photo courtesy Getty Images

“The significant drop in admissions to prisons was largely an unintended consequence of court delays and suspension of transfers from local jails early in the pandemic, rather than any dedicated decarceration efforts,” said Emily Widra, a senior research analyst at Prison Policy Initiative.

Additionally, prison reform progress that ramped upon during the tail-end of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, have been scrapped by new Mayor Eric Adams who favors a return to solitary confinement.

“We’re seeing this movement really be driven by people on the ground, and they aren’t backing down from what we see as a reform of the New York state criminal justice system and state and city prisons,” said Lorenzo Jones, co-founder and co-director of the Brooklyn-based Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. “But we also see that progress threatened by Eric Adams and criminal justice policies that we know continue to disproportionately affect Black populations in the city.”

But providing second chances, particularly for those incarcerated for long periods of time, also includes providing safety nets for parolees to prevent newly-released prisoners from being another statistic in the state’s 43% recidivism rate.

“It’s about investment, it’s about successfully providing people, human beings who spent possibly most of their life behind a prison cell, a chance to start anew and make the most of new opportunity,” said Hylton. “But I also think a lot of that involves compassion, empathy and possibly changing our mindsets on how we view the prison population and how we preserve their humanity.”

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.