Equity Parole Review Seminar

The following was a Keynote Address that Jonathan E. Gradess, the Executive Director of the New York State Defenders Association, gave at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napancoh, New York on January 30, 1982.

In my heart I believe that  early this morning deep in your hearts some of you must have felt that you could not stomach one more white man from outside these walls standing  up to address you with clichés.

Some others of you, I trust, at 7:00 this morning had only one thought in your mind about this symposium-how to use it as a tool to gain freedom.

Some of you I am sure in the midnight soul of your imprisonment conceive of it as crazy that an outsider should give the keynote address here.

Here being the place-the prison-where 945 human beings live away the moments of their lives. 945 people who have within themselves the most important speech ever to be delivered. Each of you has a speech to give. It is inside of you, and I have come here today to ask you to deliver it.

It is said that, “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” I think, however, that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is a freak. And here, in this alien environment, outsiders are freaks. Lawyers are freaks. Government officials are freaks. Anyone who isn’t doing time is a freak.

At the end of this symposium, when the correctional officers hustle the invited guests out the door, most of us will go home to sleep in houses or apartments that have heat. And light. And warmth. Where the sheets are clean and the pillows are fluffed. Where we are free. When we reach deep sleep, we sleep proud of our good day’s work on behalf of you.

So I say to you that our words, the words of invited guests and supporters, should be given only the weight they deserve-must be given only the weight they deserve. Anyone who stands on this platform should be held accountable for what they say and accountable for what they do.

If this were the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, the Kiwanis Club that is the way it would be. Well this is Napanoch Prison and that is the way it should be.

If you sleep in a nine by six room in a state paid prison built with the taxes of your mother and your father, your children and yourself-if you sleep in such a place–48 or 50 square feet-if you live in such a place and listen to clichés from this platform, and you don’t demand accountability from the speakers, you don’t yet know the address of the prison in which you reside.

I have come to ask you for your help. And I want to tell you a little bit of the “how” and the “why” of that.  I didn’t come to you first. No one who wants to transform the face of New York’s criminal justice system goes to a place in which the powerless and the broken are housed. At least they don’t go there first.

It is the job of those of us who want to change this system-and I don’t mean tinker with it-I mean tum it on its head-it is our job to translate for you sometimes because you have been restrained in your efforts to do that.  It is hard to carry the message of prisons and prison problems without help from you and your families.

In Albany they call us, sometimes, the “hoodlum lobby.” Because we do not deliver the votes of a union, because we do not come with the wealth of the banks, because we do not ride with those in political favor, our voice is not easily heard. And our message about how very, very wrong prisons are as institutions is sometimes easily ignored.

Any civilization that wanted  to change its penal system, any nation state that wanted to change its correctional system, any one of these United States that wanted to reform its criminal  justice system would come first here. Representatives would not be sent to great universities. They would not seek the public comment of the reformers and the sociologists. They would come first here or to one of the 32 other prisons just like this. And they wouldn’t dispatch a team of investigators. They wouldn’t come under the color of the protection of an invitation. They wouldn’t come in broad daylight. If government cared, it would have a constant presence in the halls of this building. It would be living up to its obligation to make you secure in the walls of this prison. It would dispatch its most caring and useful citizens to investigate and respond quickly to every complaint. And soon, if government cared, there would be no need for complaints. For soon the inevitable brutality of prison, not a philosophical issue but a gut issue, would be the daily fare of policymakers who cared.

There is no doubt in my mind that if Hugh Carey, the Governor; and Mario Cuomo, the Lieutenant Governor; and Edward Regan, the Comptroller; and Robert Abrams, the Attorney General; and Basil Patterson, the Secretary of State; and Lawrence Cooke, the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals; and Stanley Fink, the Speaker of the Assembly; and Warren Anderson, the Majority Leader of the Senate; and the 208 other members of the New York State Senate and Assembly, if they could spend a year with you, or even a month, or perhaps even a week, not under color of an invitation,  but living as you live, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that  the penal system of New York State would be transformed overnight.

They would see the truth, and the truth would set them free.

They would see that we have imprisoned guards and inmates alike in concentration camps of fear. They would feel the four o’clock in the afternoon agony of an inmate on work release who has to return to the institution as a dog. They would come to know the pain of men and women with long, hard, minimum sentences the pain that those men and women feel when they think of their children who grow ten years without father, or without mother.

I didn’t come first to you. I went first, with others, in one way or another, to the public officials I mentioned. I will tell you also that I have spent nearly half of my life engaged in criminal justice work. It took me almost all of that time to understand the principle of accountability. And I am only now beginning to understand it, to work with it, and I come here to share it with you. And I want to share that lesson with you because I accompany you, whether you believe it or not. I accompany you in your imprisonment.

There are others who share my feelings and my beliefs who accompany you as well. And as desperately unbelievable as it may seem, and I suspect that it is desperately unbelievable, there are thousands of people outside of these walls who believe as I believe, who speak as I speak, who share what I say, and who respect you as the unique and irreplaceable people you are. And let me add by way of reference point, so there absolutely is no mistake, I understand and know full well, not only because I am a defense attorney, but precisely because being a defense attorney  has not been my sole experience, that  many of you are here for cruel and brutal acts. I know that it is possible in the middle of the night for a human being to throw another human being off the roof of a building, less than 18 blocks from the Supreme Court House in Bronx, NY.  I know that it is possible to shoot someone to death.  I know that it is possible to shoot someone to death and not know that you have done it. I know that it is possible to bind the hands of another human being and force them to eat feces and to beat them again and again. I know that it is possible to spring trap a cellar door and to hit whoever falls through it with a lead pipe, steal their money and run, without ever so much as conceiving of their prey as a human being. I know that it is entirely possible to walk through a door from a Tuesday to a Wednesday, making the sum total of one mistake, one impulsive act, one desperate descent into cruelty and barbarism and have that change every moment of your life thereafter. I know all these things and I came here to talk to you because I know them.

I came to you to ask you for your help. It is hard to talk to people on the outside about crime. It is hard to talk to them about the people who commit it.

To tell them that despite their fear and despite the cruelty of crime, prisons are not the answer. Hard to tell people and to make them understand that prisons destroy the human soul.

It is hard to make public officials understand that their major fundamental responsibility in the area of crime and justice is to make the victims and the perpetrators of crime whole people, by whatever means necessary.

I learned a way to talk about this more gently, not surprisingly from an inmate at Ossining Prison. I want to share with you a story, a metaphor for mercy, if you will.  If I had only five minutes on this platform, this story would be the only thing I would say to you.

A father and his son were together in their apartment. The father had paperwork to do. The son wanted time to be with his father and to have his father play with him. And the father said he needed about half an hour to work. He took a magazine and thumbed through it. The father saw in the magazine a picture of the world. He tore the picture of the world into little pieces and laid it carefully on the floor and told his son that as soon as he could put the picture of the world back together he would have time to play with him. And he gave him scotch tape and let him go to work. And his son went to work, and in a few minutes had the picture of the world back together. He brought it to his father. The father was amazed and said to his son, “Son, You are only five years old. You have never even seen a picture of the world. How could you put it back together so quickly? I had torn it into a hundred pieces.” The boy turned the page of the magazine with the picture of the world over and showed his father a picture of a man that was on the other side. He said to his father, “It’s true. I don’t know what the world looks like, but I know what a man looks like. And when I put the man back together, the world came back together naturally.”

In September of this year, I received from Harvey Brown, here at the place where you reside, a copy of the Equity Parole Review Proposal. The argument in support of it was economic. In fact, it stated that the most compelling reason to support equity parole review was economic. I don’t believe that. The reason equity parole review makes sense is simply because long minimum sentences of incarceration make no sense. In fact, they are cruel, vindictive accidents of history.

Some of you have been in this prison system since the time that pizza cost five cents and the subway cost fifteen. The reason equity parole review makes sense, whether the economic argument is compelling or non-existent, is because long hard time destroys human beings. And the State of New York should not be engaged in the destruction of human beings.

I speak to politicians frequently. I am told by them that “the people in the streets” want more severe sentencing. I am told that “the people” want long, hard terms of incarceration. They tell me that “the people” want the death penalty. That “people” want to clean up the streets-to stop drugs-to stop muggings. The excuse of politicians when they explain away their support for this system must be then that the voters of New York want savagery.

It must then be that the voters want to destroy poor people’s families. It’s the voters who want to separate parents from tl1eir children. It must be the voters who want to insure inevitably a relationship between joblessness and crime-between crime and the inability of the poor to have decent housing. They say, “It’s not us, it’s them.”

Well, that was the exact position of white Southerners regarding segregated drinking fountains in 1947.  It was the exact position of white bigots in the North and the South concerning the maintenance of segregated schools in 1951.  That is the exact position that permitted the grandfather clause to keep Blacks across the South from voting.  That is exactly the rationale that that put you in the back of the bus.  And don’t make any mistake why I say you.  Seventy percent of this prison system that the so-called “people” want is Black and Hispanic, under 30, unskilled, without high school diplomas, and from the City of New York and Buffalo.

I believe that it is time for the price of oppression to go up. I tell you that there are thousands of people ready to move on criminal justice reform in this state. But they need you to help them to do it. They need to be registered to vote. The people I am talking about are the people who you love and who love you. They need to have their faith rekindled and they need to come to know that there are a lot of politicians who are staking their entire political careers on the proposition that there no longer exists in this country a massive interracial movement for peace and social justice.

Well I know that sometimes it feels like tl1at. But that isn’t the truth.  What is the truth is that there is need for the visibility of such a movement-for the rekindling of a non-violent movement that holds government accountable for its failure to serve the needs of people, for its failure to look into the eyes of starving children and feed them. For its failure to put aside its wealthy, wasteful ways, and to put broken people back together again. And there is something about accountability. Something that I have learned. And that is that everybody is accountable to somebody. And what we have to do is work our way up the chain of accountability. And that is why I am here to ask you for your help. Because we on the outside can’t work up that chain alone.

Some of the most powerful labor unions in the nation consist of fewer than 100,000 people. If each prisoner in the state of New York loved three other people on the outside and could convince them to register to vote, and to vote, they would create overnight a magnificent constituency of voters-voters who would have the power to raise the issue of what should be done with crime and justice, so that people like me and the “hood­lum lobby” could get on with our work and get the job done on building the future that ought to be.

But it happens that there is something more insidious about this prison business than meets the eye. Somehow the experience as a degrading institution is uniquely known to each of you and your families, but it doesn’t get translated to the Capital of his state. Caring about human beings is not a legitimate political position. The alien quality of prison, the destruction  of families, the separation  of you from the only city you may have known, the inability to see, to visit, to constructively communicate  with the people who are your only link to freedom-all of these things take their toll. But they are not yet important in Albany because they are not yet truly known.

We have found that time after time in visiting with people in prison that inmates keep a secret part of themselves as the only place where freedom can continue to reside-the freedom not to share your feelings, the freedom to maintain intact your innermost self. So what happens when outsiders come in under the color of the protection of an invitation? Rather than presenting the unique human being that exists, the unique human being is kept inside and the political being comes out. The person who says, “The most compelling reason for equity parole review is economic,” that simply isn’t so. Again, the most compelling reason for equity parole review is because lots of people who are currently kept in prison ought to be out of prison.

I have three simple propositions and I want to state them. The first is, and I alluded to it before, that inmates and guards are in prison together. The reason that prisons are perpetuated is because there is a need to maintain more than 12,000 jobs that are attached to running the Department of Correctional Services. There is a need for the public, and the guards union, and guards who want to operate in good faith, to talk about the very real union issues that are involved in retraining correctional officers to do productive work. The only way that alternatives to incarceration and the prison abolition movement will succeed is when we can guarantee to Council 82 that we will be liberating the inmates and the guards at the same time. There are thousands of correctional officers, as hard as this may be to believe, who don’t like to come to work. Who hate these prisons as much as inmates do? Who are saddened by the degradation and offended by the waste? It is necessary for you and your families and for us to understand this issue and to relate to it.

Secondly, it is necessary to have register to vote every person you love and every person who loves you, and to cast ballots at election time on behalf of a system of true  justice, to remove from office the cruel and barbarous. And to keep in office those who would bring the future about.

The third issue, and this is relevant to what I’ve said about how you present equity parole review, is you need to bring the legislators of the state of New York into the prisons by direct invitation. Right now you are as invisible to them as they are to you. Section 146 of the Correction Law of this state provides that any legislator at any time can enter a correctional facility at will. It is possible that the first five times you ask them to come, they will be too busy. Continue to ask them. Bring them here. Have them meet with you and your families. Bring them here until they have been here a hundred times-until they are recidivists for justice.

Deal with them as you would a minister and demand of them service. But talk gently to them because only you can civilize them and make them understand what at their hand is perpetuated in this system every day. And in talking gently to them try  to let them understand that it is entirely possible to walk through a door in any day of one’s life and completely and utterly change­ doing on Wednesday something  radically different than what one did on Tuesday.  As I said before, all of you know that that can happen. And that it can have terrible consequences. But you have to trust your ability to translate your experience to those who don’t understand it. And to know that one can walk through a doorway both positively and negatively.

If a senator or an assemblyman or a government official comes here, or a member of the Department of Corrections or Tom Coughlin or Ed Hammock or me, if we come here and hear you talk about the problems of temporary release or those of Good Time, or complaints about rules and regulations, or the appeals process, it is nowhere near as significant as hearing you talk about yourself-to talk about, and legitimately talk about, how bad prisons are. This prison culture is not alien because it is governed by the Correction Law and the rules and regulations of the Department of Correction, and a thousand directives that you have never gotten your hands on. It is an alien environment because it is artificial. It isn’t real.

Out there, beyond the walls, people say to me tl1at I’m not realistic, that  I live in a fantasy land. And I tell them, although you can understand it and they can’t, that there is no greater fantasy than the one that surrounds the idea that you can take people born to be free and stick them in concrete and steel cages under duress, in an invisible empire, impregnated by the Ku Klux Klan, and governed by a standardless system of perpetual punishment-there is no greater fantasy than that such a process will work to do anything positive in all the world. And I believe that the message can only get out over the walls by bringing politicians in here to talk to you. And I don’t mean a symposium. I mean on a one to one basis.

Legislative change, in my opinion, does not flow from a rational analysis of problems. I don’t even think it flows from meritorious proposals. And so far I have not seen it respond particularly well to issues of fairness, mercy or justice. Legislative change seems to flow from a subjective analysis of problems. There must, therefore, be a subjective understanding of the people in prison and their condition. Of prisons and what they do. All this before change will occur.

During the last session of the legislature I commenced with others a personal process of trying to bring legislators on a one to one basis to prison. Not for the purpose of discussing political issues or legislative proposals, but for the purpose of meeting and discussing people. Our first trip was unsuccessful. Inmates were interested in speaking a political message and hoping against hope that a legislator would bring it back and maybe bring legislative reform.

Our second trip was not much better.

But we went back. We met with inmates. And we prepared them for later trips by asking them to become vulnerable. To dig into that inner reserve that they never share with each other and that they never share with an outsider. And we did it by asking questions and asking them just to answer them so that  they could portray the reality of things as they are. What we did was simply ask if we could cross examine them on an issue of importance:

Question: What year were you convicted? Answer: 1971.

Question: What year were you sentenced to prison? 1972.

From where: Manhattan

When was the last time you were in Manhattan? 1972.

In the last ten years, when did you have your last visit? 1976.

When is the last time you saw your grandmother? 1974

Did you have a job when you were in Manhattan? Yes.

What did you do? Swept out a drugstore. Have you had a paying job since? No.

Have you ever been outside the state of New York? No.

Prior to your incarceration, did you ever live outside the City of New York? No.

Did you ever cross the Hudson River when you lived in Manhattan? No.

Have you ever been to Canada?  No. But I have been to Clinton County.

Have you ever walked on the main street of Dannemora?  No.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a freak. You are experts about yourself and it is the story of your life – the keynote speech of your existence-that you need to begin to tell. And you need to join with others to tell it. You need to take yourself up more gently and speak directly to the people that you and your families elect and re-elect to political office.  As if it was the Kiwanis Club.  As if you were the Rotary. As if this was Lions International.

I don’t know how to expect human beings raised in America to relate to a rational reform of the criminal justice system unless their inner most selves are exposed. And unless their inner most self reaches the inner most self of another human being. It is only in that way that the crime becomes unimportant and the process of the future takes on new meaning. And it is only when legislators on a one to one basis, upon your invitation, are confronted with the reality of prison and the experience of the lives of you and your family-it is only then that they will come to understand the length of time that is involved in a ten year minimum sentence.

When you speak to them translate to them in human terms. Many of them have daughters 26 years old. Sit down with them and plot with them the course of their daughter’s life from age 16 to 26. And compare it with what you have done in the last ten years in prison. Talk to them about the ache they felt when their son was but two years away in Vietnam. Ask them when was the last time they had Thanksgiving with their grandmother? You are not going to humanize this system, and neither am I, by talking about it in objective terms, any more than we can humanize you and me by talking about us in objective terms. If you expect people to be more than  the sum of their experiences, and I mean here people of wealth and power, but also people of good faith who know little of the world of poverty and pain. If you expect such people to be more than the sum of their experiences, you will be asking of them exactly the same thing that they ask of you. It is as much your job to civilize the policymakers of this state as it is mine.

I say to you as.clearly as I stand here that two things are necessary to change and transform the criminal justice system of New York. And I say it in the face of people who don’t believe it can be done. And who are gambling their entire political careers on the fact that it won’t be done. Get everyone you know and love and who can love you to register to vote. And in meaningful terms, translate that vote into a new agenda for change. One which assures the security of the streets, speaks truth to power, and makes politicians and legislators accountable for what they do.

Secondly, invite legislators and politicians to this prison all the time. Make sure they say yes. Collect their “no” answers. If they refuse to come, publish the fact that you have asked them ten times in the Albany Times Union. It will require you to become vulnerable and to tell about your inner most self and the love you deeply feel for the people you deeply love. And for this to work you will have to do it together, in the unified spirit of a single problem. With a faith to share with each other despite the hatred you may feel for some of the others in this room. And the unified spirit of doing it must include doing it for your brothers and sisters yet to come here. And with the idea that it should not be any one group alone but every group. And there are 102 of them in the state of New York recognized by volunteer services as legitimate organizations. At the same time that you ask politicians to respond to the human side of the problem, make sure they know that you are developing 75,000 votes on the outside, voters who are also interested in the human side of the problem. And if it should be that you love 5 people or that 5 people love you, register them too. And maybe that75,000 will grow to 125,000.

And so at the same time that I am here to sup­ port equity parole review and any other early release mechanism, I am here to ask you to help me. And I leave you with one more old saying that puts it into perspective. I learned it from Mercedes McCambridge, who herself, though an actress, came from the depths of alcoholism, from the pits of despair and depression. A woman who learned in her own heart that one becomes strong by becoming vulnerable.

She speaks about taking a little bit of clay and fashioning an image of you and an image of me, and then breaking them, and smashing them, and rebuilding that clay again so that  in the image of me there is a little bit of the image of you. And in the image of you there is a little bit of the image of me. And ever more together we shall be, and under the same quilt of peace shall we someday sleep.

Thank you for hearing me.