The Unlikely Friendship Helping Drive NY Parole Reform Fight

A middle aged white woman and a middle aged Black Hispanic man sit on a sectional couch, holding a piece of artwork. Two other pieces of artwork are on the wall behind them.

Carol Shapiro, a former member of New York’s parole board, and Jose Saldana, whom she voted to release on parole in 2017 and now serves as director of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, sit together at Shapiro’s apartment in Manhattan in September. The two have become good friends in recent years as they advocate for parole reform in New York. Between them, they hold a collage that Shapiro, who dabbles in art alongside her advocacy work, made to represent her view of parole. (Ben Jay | Law360)

Jose Saldana had long passed his minimum 25-year prison sentence as he prepared for his fifth parole hearing in November 2017.

After being arrested at 28, by 66 he had built a reputation inside Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, New York — not one connected to the 1979 attempted murder of an NYPD sergeant that landed him in prison, but one based on the mentorship he offered to other men inside.

This is what Saldana had hoped New York’s parole board would see when he was first up for release in 2010, but nearly eight years and four denials later, he was jaded. The first parole hearings took place in person, but for the later ones Saldana gazed at the commissioners through a computer screen. They felt as far away mentally as they were physically, he said. While Saldana’s file brimmed with degrees, certifications and letters of recommendation, the commissioner in charge of his hearing instead pressed him about his decades-old crime: What were you thinking? What would you say to the victim’s family? How would you feel if that were you?

Saldana’s answers could hardly change, because the crime hadn’t changed. So he started making peace with the notion that New York would never set him free, that he would die in prison. He had seen it happen to better men, he thought. The first year Saldana was eligible for parole, two of his closest friends died suddenly of cardiac arrest. One was 57, another was 58.

“I didn’t know how much time I had,” he said. “You have to consider it. I’m not Superman. So if it’s happening to other people, it could very well happen to me.”

But a sliver of hope arrived in the form of Carol Shapiro, a longtime criminal justice reform advocate who was appointed to the parole board by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017.

And so, for the first time in a decade of parole hearings, Saldana found himself discussing his accomplishments in prison with someone who was listening.

“[Shapiro] said, ‘OK, let’s talk about what else you’ve done in your life,’ so we spent the next 10 to 12 minutes talking, and that was very encouraging,” he said. “She really wanted to understand.”

One of the things Saldana could talk about was a program he developed called “The Challenge to Change Handbook” aimed at helping incarcerated men reflect on what led them into the criminal justice system and what to do to turn their lives around.

Going into the hearing, Shapiro had read about the program. She had already developed a great deal of respect for Saldana.

“I had read through his file and had been incredibly impressed,” she said. “What he had done while in prison for other people was stellar.”

In the end, Shapiro managed to convince the board that Saldana deserved parole, and he ultimately walked free in January 2018. Since then, he’s gone on to become a leading voice for parole reform in the state as director of the Release Aging People In Prison campaign.

Shapiro’s time on the board, meanwhile, was short-lived. After being appointed in the wake of reports about racial disparities in parole decisions, she stepped down in June 2019 out of frustration with the system.

On a Thursday in September, the two are in a room together again. Saldana’s socks rest on the wood floor of Shapiro’s NoHo loft as he leans forward on her black leather couch, Shapiro’s Chihuahua mix, Cassie, lying at his feet. She’s sitting on a chair nearby. They’re discussing what Saldana will say at a meeting the next day with the chair of New York’s parole board.

Shapiro, 69, and Saldana, 72, have become very good friends, though their backgrounds are “kind of black and white,” Shapiro said.

Saldana grew up in a desperately poor Spanish Harlem in the ’60s and ’70s. He started selling drugs at a young age and later joined the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican militant group similar to the Black Panthers. When he went to prison in the early 1980s, he left behind four children between the ages of 2 and 8.

Meanwhile, growing up in Philadelphia, Shapiro’s first experience in a jail was as a 16-year-old when she interviewed a warden after learning about racial disparities in bail as a high school student. She said she’s conscious of the fact that she’s never been inside a prison she couldn’t freely walk out of.

The pair might be unlikely friends, but they’re aligned in a common goal: to reform parole in New York.

Parole in New York

For something that seems so ingrained in the justice system, parole is a relatively recent development. In the 18th century, and most of the 19th, the United States relied solely on determinate sentencing, meaning there was no flexibility or leniency in sentences.

This system caused overcrowding in the prisons, particularly in New York, where officials developed a first-in-the-country system of conditional release which evolved into the modern parole system, according to an article in the Fordham Urban Law Journal. Although New York began issuing more flexible sentences in the 1870s, a formal parole board wasn’t instituted until 1930. And it wasn’t until 1967 that the state Legislature officially gave the board authority to grant conditional release.

Under the state’s model, when a person serving a range of time in prison has reached their minimum sentence, they can ask the parole board if they can be released under the state’s supervision. If the board denies their request, they’ll have to spend another two years in prison before they can go before the board again.

Today, the board consists of 17 members, who conduct thousands of interviews every year with inmates eligible for release. The number of interviews has gotten smaller over the years, dipping from over 12,000 in 2017 to just under 6,500 in 2022.

The percentage of applicants being released every year has also shrunk. In 1998, nearly 60% of inmates who were interviewed for parole were approved for release. In 2022, only 36% were approved.

This discrepancy has a lot to do with politics, and the prison population, according to New York State Sentencing Commission executive director Martin Horn.

Horn previously served as executive director of New York’s Division of Parole under Gov. Mario Cuomo. During that time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Horn said a dramatic spike in the prison population led to economic pressure to release more people. So, in order to stay in line with the state budget, the parole board was expected to release 65% of first-time applicants.

But when George Pataki was elected governor promising to be “tough on crime” in 1995, the rate of release dropped, and has stayed below 60% ever since. In fact, the rate hasn’t reached 50% since 2005.

“So if anyone doubts that the basic policy direction the parole board sets is established by the governor, I submit that as Exhibit A,” Horn said.

The Purpose of Parole

Shapiro’s appointment to the board followed a New York Times report from 2016 finding that incarcerated Black men stood a significantly smaller chance of being released on parole in New York than their white counterparts. Fewer than one in six Black or Hispanic men were released at their first parole board hearing, the report found, versus one in four white men.

Newly released data looking at parole releases in 2022 and the first quarter of 2023 show that this disparity still exists. Statistics published by The Center on Race Inequality and the Law at the NYU School of Law show that New York’s parole board released 41% of all white people appearing before it and only 30% of people of color.

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to diversify the parole board in the wake of the report, some of Shapiro’s colleagues put her name into the ring. Although she is white, Shapiro’s background fit the profile of someone who could shake up the board. She was the founder and president of La Bodega de la Familia and Family Justice, an organization based in the Lower East Side of Manhattan aimed at reducing incarceration and recidivism by providing support for the families of incarcerated individuals. Shapiro had also worked with various academic institutions to counsel the government and law enforcement on how to more effectively address crime prevention, and even served at one point as an assistant commissioner on Rikers Island.

When another parole board commissioner departed with five years still left on their six-year term, Shapiro got the nod from the governor. She said she had no idea what she was in for.

New York’s parole board can have up to 19 commissioners, but when Shapiro was appointed, there were only about a dozen. Commissioners would sometimes have to do more than 20 hearings a day, sitting in a room with no windows while they teleconferenced with prisoners from across the state.

“It was conveyor-belt justice,” she said. “You have no preparation ahead of time to get to know this person. It’s very impersonal. If you’re not the person who runs the interview, you’re busy preparing and writing up decisions. You’re multitasking, which you just can’t do. These are people’s lives.”

The system has been like this forever, Horn said. His first job was as a parole officer inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where he would prepare reports about individual inmates for the parole board to consider. He’d watch the board members come in every month and interview over 100 people across a three-day period. The conversations didn’t lend themselves to much depth, he said.

“But I think it’s naive to believe that any parole board member, no matter how well qualified, no matter how much time he or she has, can really look into the mind of the inmate sitting before him or her and determine, ‘Is this a person likely to live and remain at liberty going forward without breaking the law?'” Horn said. “How can anybody make that prediction?”

But Shapiro believes in presumptive parole, which means an applicant doesn’t need to prove why they should be free. Instead, the board would have to point to a real tangible reason for keeping someone in prison in order to deny their application. Although this was certainly not the defining principle of the board when she joined in 2017, she said.

According to a 2021 study by Vera Institute of Justice of more than 168 parole hearing transcripts in New York, most parole denials focused on the crime for which the person was originally convicted: 90% of denials pointed to the parole seeker’s original crime. And 85% of those who were denied were scored as being low risk for possible future violence or arrest.

“The most horrifying thing for me, honestly, was how disrespectful my colleagues were to the people coming up for parole,” Shapiro said. “They insist on holding on to the crime of conviction as the end-all be-all of the interview.”

Though Horn is less convinced that parole decisions should center around the work a person has done while incarcerated.

“You have two people, same prior record, same crime, same sentence: One of them’s a lazy slob, and does nothing. The other one is a go-getter. He reads books, he gets educated, and he does good deeds,” Horn said. “Do you think those people should be treated differently? No, because what they did is the same. We’re sending them to prison because of what they deserve for what they did, and that isn’t changed by something they do for their own benefit.”

It’s for this reason, though, that Horn thinks parole shouldn’t exist at all. He sees it as “a piece of the criminal sentencing system that perpetuates a fraud on the people.”

“A prosecutor says to the defendant, ‘Look, if you plead guilty to X, I will agree to a sentence of five to 10.’ So the public defender says, ‘If you take the plea and you do everything you’re supposed to do in prison, you’ll get out at the end of five,'” Horn said. “But meanwhile, the district attorney is saying to the victim, ‘I got the guy sentenced to 10 years.’ So the victim goes home thinking the guy’s gonna serve 10 years in prison, the guy goes to prison thinking he’s gonna get out in five.”

Horn views parole as a way of passing the buck, and no matter what, one party is disappointed. This is particularly a problem for prison administrators, he said.

“It affects the perception inmates have of whether they’re being treated fairly,” he said. “In my experience, inmates who believe they are being treated fairly are more likely to be cooperative than inmates who don’t.”

Releasing Aging People from Prison

On the front page of The New York Times‘ metro section on July 4, 1979, a headline read “Officer Loses an Eye in Harlem Shootout.” Bullets were fired from a stolen Chevrolet Malibu at New York Police Department Sgt. Patrick Pellicano and his partner.

A trial later showed that Saldana did not fire the gun that hit Pellicano square in the face. But he was in that car, and he’d spend the next nearly 40 years in prison paying for it.

Saldana said the day he got out was the best day of his life.

“I felt a joy that was so powerful, I don’t think I had a happier day in my life, because I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” he said. “Everybody in prison should experience this.”

A middle aged white woman and a middle aged Black Hispanic man chat while sitting on a sectional sofa. The photo is taken from over the woman's shoulder, and is focused on the man.

Jose Saldana has been free for more than five years now, and through his work with RAPP has become an effective political force in Albany, where he champions reform bills and monitors whom the governor is appointing to the parole board. (Ben Jay | Law360)

Ever since, Saldana has been the director of the organization Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP, aimed at fighting to reform New York’s carceral system with a particular focus on releasing seniors. He took over shortly after he was released from prison.

Saldana had already been working on the campaign inside of Green Haven, and had developed a close rapport with its founders, three formerly incarcerated individuals and a longtime civil rights attorney.

Under Saldana’s leadership, the organization has grown to have 10 full-time staff, 14 part-time and hundreds of volunteers, he said, and it has evolved into a lobbying force in Albany.

Saldana and his team look closely at the makeup of New York’s parole board and the people that the governor’s office considers to fill it. Through research and relationships with more progressive state senators, they were successful in blocking a handful of Cuomo appointees who Saldana said had a history of racist behavior. Now they’re focused on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s possible appointees for next year.

“We’re at the table now with these discussions,” Saldana said. “They respect when we come up with legitimate information that should be referenced in deciding whether these commissioners should be confirmed. I think our role there has changed this to the point where we’re getting better commissioners, but the board is still dominated by law enforcement and commissioners who just think they’re there to punish.”

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera said RAPP’s help is especially welcome because the governor’s office will often present the Senate with appointments for bodies like the parole board late in the legislative session, giving the senators little time to review the candidates.

“There is a lot of research that the RAPP folks are able to do very quickly because they’re kind of primed for it,” Rivera said. “They’ve already done some research into the people whose names have been floating around: their professional experience, whether they have writings or quotes in the press that can tell us a little bit about who they are. It gives us a sense of what questions we should ask when they come before us.”

RAPP’s other aim is to pass legislation. State Sen. Julia Salazar, the current chair of the Senate’s Committee on Crime Victims, Crime & Correction, which is in charge of confirming parole board members, is sponsoring a RAPP-supported bill called The Fair and Timely Parole Bill aimed at changing the law governing how commissioners view parole applications.

The current law asks the parole board to determine whether a person’s release on parole would “depreciate the seriousness of the crime.”

“In other words, it’s written into law that there are things you can do in your life which would mark you for the rest of it, regardless of what you do to repair the harm that you may have caused,” said Rivera, who originally sponsored the bill before Salazar took it over.

The new bill proposes to eliminate this language from the code, and instead emphasize that the board must consider who a person has become inside prison when making determinations.

“Under the bill, the commissioners would not measure public safety based on the crime that was committed decades ago — public safety can’t be defined by something that is so static,” Saldana said. “So we’re trying to get commissioners that really believe human beings can continue to transform their lives and be an asset to the communities and society at large.”

Pressure

There were, and still are, some board members who share Shapiro’s reform-minded convictions, she said. But they also face a variety of outside pressures, the greatest of which Shapiro said came from the governor’s office.

Parole board commissioners, whose jobs come with annual salaries of some $170,000, are appointed by the governor, and then confirmed by the New York State Senate to serve six-year terms. But many commissioners, like Shapiro, are filling in for someone, so their terms can be much shorter. Although technically the state Senate must reconfirm a commissioner once their term is up, the governor is also empowered to keep commissioners on the board indefinitely as so-called holdovers, serving at the governor’s pleasure even after their terms have expired.

As of right now, 10 of New York’s 17 parole board commissioners hold their seats as holdovers, and another two have less than a year left on their terms. What this means, Shapiro said, is those commissioners are vulnerable. The governor could choose to fire them at any moment.

“They were just there at the governor’s behest basically, and they weren’t going to challenge a governor who didn’t believe that this person should get out of prison,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said it was also a part of her job to conduct hearings to take statements from the victims, as well their family and friends, of the more “heinous” crimes committed by potential parolees. Transcripts of the hearings were considered so crucial to commissioners’ deliberations that they were expected to initial each page to confirm they’d read them. She views this aspect of the job as a “conflict of interest,” that commissioners could potentially conduct these victim panels and then later be the decision-maker in a parole hearing.

“I’ve had colleagues say, ‘Well, I just met the mother, I can’t release this person who killed her son,'” Shapiro said. “And that’s just not right.”

Shapiro said crime victims had become entirely embedded in New York’s parole process, something that only started in the last 40 years.

“It started really in the mid ’80s at the heart of mass incarceration, where victim impact statements were gathered at parole,” she said. “You have organizations like the Police Benevolent Association and district attorneys and others fueling it. They’re the ones telling victims, ‘Make a fuss. Don’t let this person out of prison.’ It’s part of the narrative they want to portray, and it’s how they run for office.”

Horn, however, said the law is retributive by nature, and there’s good reason for it.

“If you take somebody who’s committed a heinous crime and you release them too early, what is the message that you’re sending?” he said. “If someone kills my child, the state has to impose a sufficient penalty on the perpetrator so that I don’t feel that I have to take the law into my own hands. Part of the purpose of sentencing is to prevent vigilantism.”

The greatest backlash Shapiro faced during her time on the board came after she and a colleague decided to release Herman Bell in April 2018. Bell, then 70, had spent four decades in prison for the murder of two New York City police officers as a member of The Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party. He had already been denied parole many times, and there was a huge campaign led by the NYPD, the mayor’s office and the governor’s office to keep him in prison, Shapiro said. When she and another board member decided to grant Bell parole, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted the decision as “tragic and incomprehensible.”

Shapiro said she received death threats. She had press outside her door. All of the state’s major political leaders had come out against her.

A few months later, with three years left on her term, she decided to leave the board. But she said it wasn’t the Bell case that led her to step down.

“It had nothing to do with that,” she said. “I just couldn’t stay in the job. I can’t explain it to you. It’s all very real and visceral. I was just depressed that I couldn’t make a difference. I couldn’t take it. I felt like Sisyphus.”

Life After Parole

If she had stuck out her full term, Shapiro would have exited the parole board last year. She can’t help but look back with some regret.

“I feel like I didn’t just let myself down, but I let down my colleagues, the community of advocates, and the people who really pushed to have me on the board,” she said. “But at some point, you have to make a decision for yourself. And I think I made the right one. If I had stayed, I don’t know, maybe another 10, 20 people would have been released, but not the hundreds that it should be.”

A middle aged white woman and a middle aged Black Hispanic man chat while sitting on a sectional sofa. The photo is taken from a perspective just behind the man, and is focused on the woman.

Carol Shapiro and Jose Saldana discuss RAPP’s parole reform efforts during a visit at Shapiro’s Manhattan apartment last month. Shapiro said she’s been a “supporter of redemption” since she was 5 years old and her mother was struck by a drunk driver, breaking 95 bones in her body. She survived, but spent two years in the hospital. The experience got Shapiro interested in labels like “victim,” and “perpetrator.” They seemed too simple, and not helpful, she said. (Ben Jay | Law360)

Shapiro felt like she could accomplish more outside the system, so she could speak out about issues she was prohibited from discussing publicly while on the board. She’s written op-eds and made videos, testified before the state Legislature in support of parole reform bills. But the best thing that’s come out of Shapiro leaving the board has been getting to meet the people she helped to release.

She said she’s been contacted by a number of people, some who work now at the Vera Institute for Justice or the Marshall Project. But the strongest relationship she’s been able to build has been with Saldana.

Saldana had been out for a year or so when one of his RAPP colleagues asked him if he’d like to have lunch with Shapiro.

“It was unreal,” he said. “I asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ And when I started talking about the case, everything lit up and she said ‘I remember. I couldn’t understand why they kept you so long.'”

Saldana asked Shapiro if she ever thought maybe she made the wrong decision, letting him out of prison.

“And she said, ‘Never. I was convinced that you are who you say you are,'” Saldana said. “I know now that she really looked at everything that I put forward and she gave it a lot of weight. She even read my kids’ letters. I needed to know that she had that kind of faith in me.”

For Shapiro, meeting Saldana is “one of the nicest things to come out of being on the parole board.”

“I consider him a very close friend and I would do anything for him, honestly. I really would.”

–Graphics by Ben Jay.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

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