February 9, 2021
For immediate release
February 9, 2021
Contact: Nick Encalada-Malinowski / email@example.com or 347-259-4835
VOCAL-NY Civil Rights Union Launches 2021 Legislative Campaign Platform to Push New York State Legislature To Acknowledge the Humanity of Incarcerated People & Enact Immediate Reforms
NEW YORK — Today the VOCAL-NY Civil Rights Union launched our legislative platform for 2021, which focuses, in part, on the failure of government to adequately respond to the urgent needs of its incarcerated constituents during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the historic and racialized injustices of mass incarceration. People in prison are people, despite best efforts to hide incarcerated people away and to ignore the humanitarian crises playing out in jails and prisons across the state. Learning from previous movements, we believe that eradicating the stigma and marginalization directed at incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and demanding an understanding of these issues as systemic, rather than related to so-called individual failings, is a key initial step to addressing these issues.
**To our friends in the media, we offer this letter on language from the great Eddie Ellis, so that journalists do not remain complicit in the dehumanization of historically marginalized groups**
Background on VOCAL-NY: VOCAL-NY is a statewide grassroots membership organization that builds power among low-income people directly impacted by HIV/AIDS, the drug war, mass incarceration, and homelessness. We accomplish this through community organizing, leadership development, advocacy, direct services, and direct action. We have active chapters in New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and Westchester County.
Our Civil Rights Union is one of four unions at VOCAL-NY, each with their own legislative platforms.
View the entire Civil Rights Union 2021 platform here and below.
Quotes from VOCAL-NY’s Civil Rights Union Community Leaders:
“At a certain point in my life, I was affected by many of the things we are advocating for. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to go through this and this platform is important to support people who are not in a position to help themselves. And if we win, for example restoring the right to vote, that will give incarcerated people that voice and power they don’t have now,” said Darryl Herring, VOCAL-NY, Community Leader.
“We need to scrap this entire system and start it over again. We are fighting against the Department of Corruption and those legislators in Albany that want to shove incarcerated people under the rug as if they do not exist,” said Eileen Maher, VOCAL-NY, Community Leader.
“We are fighting for freedom. Everybody should have a chance to be free. We are humans, not animals. No jails, support communities,” said Carl Stubbs, VOCAL-NY, Community Leader.
“As Dr. King said, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ I will not be silent. End Solitary Confinement,” said VOCAL-NY Community Leader Jusinta Jaggassar.
“The VOCAL-NY civil rights platform is a cumulation of humanitarian initiatives meant to foster the upliftment of black, brown, and low-income folks who have been stuck on a merry-go-round of oppressive laws and racially motivated tactics that have stifled the existence of the marginalized in our state for decades, if not hundreds of years. Our members wholeheartedly support these initiatives with the objective and ultimate goal of putting an end to mass incarceration, building power with interested stakeholders, and securing legislation promoting elements of a decarceral society,” said Jon McFarlane, VOCAL-NY Community Leader.
Quotes from the bill sponsors of legislation included in the platform:
“In the midst of a global pandemic, we have seen how those living at the intersections and in the margins—namely BIPOC, low-income and incarcerated populations— have been hit the hardest,” said Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa. “It is more important than ever for us to think about how the pandemic has affected already difficult situations and adjust our advocacy to ensure we are delivering life-saving changes. This is the reason why we must reform our criminal justice system NOW: it’s imperative to end solitary confinement—which has been used to quarantine those who test positive for COVID-19–and pass elder parole to ensure that those that are over 55 and have served their minimum sentence are eligible for parole and protected from the disproportionate effects of COVID-19.”
“It is clear that for too long our State’s laws have focused on criminalizing and incarcerating Black, brown, immigrant, and low-income communities,” said State Senator Gustavo Rivera. “This year, we must continue to push boldly forward and pass legislation that will systematically reduce our State’s incarcerated population. I look forward to continue working with VOCAL-NY to end the mass incarceration that is bleeding our communities dry by passing my Fair and Timely Parole bill and the rest of VOCAL’s Civil Rights Legislative Platform for 2021.”
“I’m proud to stand with VOCAL-NY to fight for the rights and humanity of incarcerated New Yorkers,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman. “Our correctional system must offer incarcerated people a meaningful opportunity for rehabilitation and reentry into their communities. My elder parole legislation would provide incarcerated seniors that opportunity, and ensure that our policies are consistent with the values of redemption, mercy and compassion shared by most New Yorkers. With a Democratic supermajority in both houses of the State Legislature I’ve never felt more certain that now is the moment to act, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to incarcerated people in jails and prisons across the State.”
“I am proud to have VOCAL’s support in the fight to end the racist practice of prohibiting people who are incarcerated from casting their vote. As legislators, we represent every single person in our districts, regardless of whether they are incarcerated or not. Other states have already recognized the racist roots of policies preventing incarcerated people from voting and have acted accordingly. I look forward to partnering with VOCAL-NY to protect and enhance civil rights for all New Yorkers,” said Assemblymember Harvey Epstein.
“Wrongful convictions derail lives, shatter families, and undermine the integrity of our criminal justice system,” said Assemblymember Dan Quart. “My legislation with Senator Myrie removes existing barriers to post-conviction relief and ensures that innocent people have a real shot at clearing their names in our state courts. VOCAL-NY’s 2021 legislative platform is urgent and necessary, and I look forward to working with them to advance their agenda.”
“Wrongful convictions are a stain on our criminal legal system, and the costs have been borne largely by Black and Brown communities. Our legislation will make it easier to clear your name after a wrongful conviction, and improve trust in our system of laws for all New Yorkers,” said State Senator Zellnor Myrie
“As the Chairman of the New York State Assembly Correction Committee, I introduced the bill for Fair and Timely Parole,” said Assemblymember David Weprin. “People who have completed the minimum terms of incarceration, and who do not pose a threat to others, should be considered for parole and community supervision. People who have demonstrated that who they are today is not the same person as who they were when they first entered the criminal justice system should have a chance to re-enter society. Thank you, VOCAL-NY, for remaining vocal on this issue and for your commitment to building a better society.”
“At a time when voting rights, the bedrock of our democracy, are being threatened across the country, it is critical that New York finally enshrines the voting rights of every New Yorker released on parole in our state’s laws,” said Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell. “Restoring voting rights for people on parole would ensure that every adult citizen living in our community would have the right to vote. This is not just about expanding democracy, but also about helping people released on parole to rejoin our community and rebuild their lives. I have carried this bill for over 12 years, and it has been a long fight; but I am hopeful that this year we can finally push this over the finish line and bring voting justice here in our state. I want to thank the advocates, especially VOCAL-NY and the Brennan Center for being steadfast and committed allies in this fight.“
VOCAL-NY Civil Rights Union State Legislative Platform for 2021
Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY) is a statewide grassroots membership organization that builds power among low-income people affected by HIV/AIDS, the drug war, mass incarceration, and homelessness in order to create healthy and just communities. We accomplish this through community organizing, leadership development, public education, direct services, participatory research and direct action.
The VOCAL-NY Civil Rights Union is organized and led by people directly impacted by mass incarceration. We advocate for policy changes to the Criminal Legal System to create a more fair and just system, based on our personal experiences. Here is our 2021 State Legislative Agenda.
ARE PEOPLE IN PRISON PEOPLE?
We believe this to be the fundamental question facing the legislature in 2021, with respect to reforms for our criminal punishment system. If we cannot agree on this, what are we even talking about? While the ostensible purpose of prison is to take away a person’s liberty, our current incarceration regime in New York State prisons and jails is characterized by abuse, brutality, violence, racism and efforts to fully degrade the humanity of incarcerated people. Additionally, the government operates under false understandings that crimes are the result of personal, moral failings rather than the result of structural, intersectional issues in our society, including racism. Until clarity on these issues are realized, the state will always be working within a faulty and inaccurate premise, leading, undoubtedly, to at best, reforms that will not mitigate the system as a whole, and at worst, reforms that further entrench mass incarceration as a tool of social control.
Our legislative platform aims to get at the root of this fundamental barrier.
RESTORING VOTING RIGHTS FOR PEOPLE IN PRISON
The Problem: Voting is the core civic action of the U.S. democracy — a fundamental right of all citizens. Throughout our nation’s history, efforts have been made to restrict the right to vote from certain populations — most explicitly from Black people following emancipation and in response to new rights won by struggle. New York’s voting prohibitions track along this same racist trend. People convicted of a felony and incarcerated are denied the right to vote because of Jim Crow era laws intended to prevent Black people from voting. These laws had and continue to have their desired effect.
The Solution: A8677A (Epstein) & S3073/A8909 (Salazar/Epstein) Restoring the right to vote for all people. Once you have registered to vote, you should never lose this right. Two states, Maine and Vermont, already provide for this. So too should New York. First: as mentioned above the voting bans have a racist origin and should be removed for this reason alone. Second: people who are in prison are nonetheless ruled over by elected officials and thus should have a say in who represents them, just like any other citizen in the U.S. Third: the criminal legal system is illegitimate — many people are wrongfully convicted and race remains a determining factor in outcomes, thus no loss of rights should follow from convictions.
ADDITIONALLY: S830A & A4448 (Comrie/O’Donnell) will codify and improve upon the Governor’s executive order extending discretionary pardons for people on parole for the purpose of voting. The bill will restore the right to vote to everyone currently on parole and outside of prison. The current executive order has created undue confusion among the potential voting public as well as poll workers and the board of elections.
ENDING THE TORTURE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN NY STATE
The Problem: Every day in New York State thousands of people in jails and prisons are isolated in solitary confinement — starved of human interaction for 22 or 24 hours a day in cells the size of a common elevator. People have been known to physically deteriorate and to lose their minds in these conditions, which have been defined by the United Nations as torture. This is a human rights crisis in New York State.
Many people are released directly from solitary confinement back into our communities. New York State utilizes this type of torture at rates well above the national average and people can spend weeks, months and even years in isolation without reprieve.
The Solution: S2836/A2277A (Salazar/Aubry) We must pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Bill which would create alternatives to isolation to respond to specific incidents in jails and prisons while prohibiting especially vulnerable populations like pregnant women or people with mental illness from ever being held in these conditions. For all others there would be a 15-day limit to the time they could spend in isolation. The bill would also require prisons and jails to provide real due process and procedural protections for people accused of infractions while in custody.
CHALLENGING WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS
The Problem: New York has a wrongful conviction crisis, ranking third in the nation in numbers of wrongful convictions. We also have a high rate of plea bargaining — 98% of all felony cases — a result of the tremendous power differential between prosecutors and the people they accuse and substantial trial penalties. People plead guilty all the time rather than risk losing at trial — this is true of people who are innocent as well as others who were victimized in other ways by police and prosecutors during their case. Nevertheless there are almost no avenues for people to get back into court to challenge their conviction even after a witness recants or additional exculpatory evidence comes to light.
The Solution: Reforming Criminal Procedure Law 440.10 — S266/A98 (Myrie/Quart) Reforms to 440 should provide meaningful access to vacature of convictions secured in violation of the law. People who pleaded guilty must not be barred from relief. Procedural roadblocks must be limited to ensure judicial review in most cases. People must have access to full discovery in their case, post-conviction. If there is evidence of injustice in your case, that evidence must be considered by a court. If an offense is no longer a crime, people should be able to immediately have their records vacated. 440 reform must be narrowly tailored to protect non-citizens so that they, too, can benefit from 440 relief.
RELEASING ELDERS FROM PRISON
The Problem: More than 10,000 people in NYS prisons—20% of the prison population—are aged 50 or older. The vast majority are Black and Latinx people. While the prison population in NYS fell by 27% between 2000 and 2016, the percentage of incarcerated older people more than doubled from 4,706 to 10,239 people. NYS has the fifth highest number of people serving a life sentence in the country—roughly 8,900 people. More than 1,000 of them are serving Life Without Parole or virtual life without parole—with a minimum sentence of 50 years—sentences. COVID-19 has created an additional threat to elderly incarcerated people.
The Solution: S1415/A4231 (Rivera/Weprin) Fair and Timely Parole. Ensures that the parole release process is based on who people are today and their many accomplishments in prison, not their crime of conviction. And Elder Parole S15/A3475 (Hoylman/de la Rosa) which allows for the consideration of parole release for people aged 55 and older who have served at least 15 consecutive years in prison. Older people, especially those who have been convicted of the most serious crimes, have the lowest recidivism rates of any age cohort, posing little, if any risk to public safety.
For more information contact: Nick Encalada-Malinowski — 347-259-4835 or firstname.lastname@example.org