By Martin Wilbur
September 7, 2014
Close to 200 demonstrators held a rally and candlelight vigil Saturday night near the New Castle home of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to protest his refusal to grant clemency to prisoners since he took office in 2011.
The event, called Candles for Clemency, was attended by various social justice activists and family and friends of prisoners. They gathered in front of the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco on Route 133 where organizers and guest speakers addressed the crowd on the importance of stepping up the pressure on Cuomo before taking the short walk to his house where they quietly filed onto the street holding conventional or electric candles.
Event co-organizer Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Democratic Liberal Club, which has endorsed Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo’s opponent in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, said his organization has taken up the issue because Cuomo is the first governor in decades who has refused to grant clemency to a single prisoner. During his time as California’s governor, for example, Ronald Reagan granted 575 clemencies, he said.
“It’s a governor’s responsibility to undo unjust acts such as sentences which are cruel and never should have been imposed,” Roskoff said. “But because of more stringent laws at a time when society was different, courts overcharged people and maximized their sentences beyond what is considered reasonable by a civilized society.”
Local protestors were joined by a busload of demonstrators from the city at about dusk. They heard from a variety of speakers who focused on different aspects of the issue, including a few who accused Cuomo of a calculated political maneuver.
Robert Dennison, the state’s chairman of parole under Gov. George Pataki, said it is critical that the public understands that clemency doesn’t release a person from prison but makes them eligible to be heard before the parole board sooner.
“It’s time for Andrew Cuomo to stop thinking about himself all the time and try to think about these powerless human beings who have totally changed their lives, are good people and hopefully he’ll wake up with vigils like this and media exposure because it’s really a tragedy,” Dennison said.
Former state Supreme Court justice Emily Jane Goodman said the toughening of guidelines has forced judges to impose mandatory sentences for certain crimes, which are out of sync with the offense or don’t take into account extenuating circumstances.
“When we talk about clemency what we mean is mercy and grace,” Goodman said.
Some in the crowd held signs in support of former political activist and Weather Underground Organization member Judith Clark, who was convicted for her role as the driver of a getaway car in the 1981 Brinks heist in Nyack that left a security guard and two police officers dead. Clark, an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, was sentenced to 75 years to life. She is not eligible for parole until 2056 despite having been portrayed as a model prisoner by Dennison, the prison’s former warden and several others.
Donna Hylton, who was paroled from Bedford Hills two-and-a-half years ago after spending 27 years in prison for murder, said Cuomo’s refusal to grant clemency makes the penal system only about punishment, not rehabilitation.
“We’re just asking, we’re begging, we’re pleading to have some compassion,” Hylton said. “This was a system that was developed, designed to rehabilitate and what this governor is saying (is) we have no redemptive qualities.”
One of the demonstrators, Rabbi Joanna Katz, the Jewish chaplain at Bedford Hills, said she sees firsthand how some prisoners have been transformed but continue to languish in prison with virtually no hope.
“How do we ever know if somebody has done enough time? It’s hard to measure,” Katz said. “But if they are obviously changed people and they’ve served long sentences and they’re no longer a threat, I think clemency is certainly possible.”
Roskoff vowed that the effort wasn’t simply a campaign season effort but an issue the protestors plan to follow up on unless Cuomo reconsiders before the end of the year.
“If clemencies are not issued before the holiday season we will be back here in December in larger numbers,” he said.