“I Had Nothing”: How Parole Perpetuates a Cycle of Incarceration and Instability

Richard Cannon was born into a large family in Harlem. He was the third-eldest of five children. When his stepfather was diagnosed with cancer, Cannon felt pressure to start providing for his family. His stepfather was the sole provider of the household, but now couldn’t work. Just a teenager, Cannon tried to get help, or a job, but came up empty-handed. Desperate, he attempted to take money from a sleeping passenger on the train. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to a robbery charge, and was incarcerated for seven years.

That wouldn’t be Cannon’s last run-in with the criminal legal system. Less than a year after he was released, Cannon was stopped by police on his way home from a party. He later found out he was accused of committing multiple robberies. Cannon, who maintains his innocence, refused to take a plea deal and went to trial. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

In 2016, after Cannon had spent nearly 20 years behind bars, he was released on parole, one of the state’s supervision programs, for five years. While on parole, Cannon has to meet with his parole officer weekly and must be in his residence from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. Despite following his parole conditions consistently, Cannon soon found himself back in jail, accused of violating parole after he called the police during an altercation in his apartment and was arrested. Even though the charges against him were dismissed both in criminal court and in his parole case, returning to jail changed the course of his life.

Cannon’s story shows how the strict conditions of parole can do more harm than good and lead people back into incarceration for minor reasons. New York’s parole system is widely considered in need of reform. As of November 2017, 16 percent of New York City’s jail population comprised people who were there on state parole violations, according to a report by Columbia University’s Justice Lab, which noted that the total number of people being held on parole violations—1,460—was larger than every jail population in the state besides Rikers Island. The report found that as New York had reduced the number of people detained pretrial by double digits over the last four years, “only one population in the jail has increased, also by double digits: persons held in city jails for state parole violations.”

In New York, people on parole are required to do regular check-ins, and parole officers can search their residences and places of employment at any time. They are also expected to respond promptly to any communication with their parole officer, and cannot be in the company of other people that they know have a criminal record. Some on parole have additional special conditions, such as participating in a substance use program or abiding by a curfew.

Cannon has to meet all of these conditions. He isn’t allowed to get a license or drive a car and he isn’t allowed to leave the state—or even the five boroughs of New York City. Cannon says parole officers also search his electronic devices.

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Cannon had managed to abide by all the conditions of his release, though it was no easy feat. When he left state prison in 2016, most of his family had moved out of the city to different cities in the South, so he couldn’t visit them. He first went into the shelter system when he was released. After about a month, he found an apartment in a supportive housing building run by the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC), a nonprofit that runs shelters and supportive housing programs in the city.

The stable housing did wonders for Cannon. He lived with one roommate in a two-bedroom home with furniture and a television; he enjoyed cooking his own food and watching movies. The supportive housing program also connected many of its residents to different programs, including mental health and substance use programs. Cannon began seeing a psychiatrist, taking medication, and seeing a social worker. He continued to make his weekly parole check-ins.

At one point, Cannon said he was offered a job at Planet Fitness to clean up at night. However, because the job would require him to be out after 7 p.m. he was forced to turn it down.

Two years later, in 2018, an altercation occurred in Cannon’s home when, Cannon says, a friend became angry after he refused to give her money for cab fare. The situation escalated to the friend throwing things and breaking lamps.

At least two people in the building called 911: Cannon and his neighbor. Eventually, NYPD officers knocked on Cannon’s door. Before he could explain what happened, they asked him to turn around. Cannon was arrested and sent to central booking. His bail was set at $1, but he was stuck in jail anyway: An arrest is an automatic parole violation, regardless of the circumstances of arrest or whether the defendant is eventually convicted or acquitted. When Cannon was arrested, the NYPD alerted parole, which immediately placed him on a parole hold.

Cannon spent six months in jail—enough time to upend much of the progress he had made in his life. He lost his apartment and all his personal belongings inside it, except for three bags filled with items that his lawyer was able to save for him.

Gabriel Sayegh, co-director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, said New York’s current system incentivizes officers to use incarceration to handle slip-ups since there are few other resources at their disposal.

“The resources that we have made available to deal with some of these issues, we have invested in the carceral state, not in the community programs that these folks need,” Sayegh told The Appeal. “That just limits what the parole officers have available to them in terms of providing resources to these people.”

Sayegh is one of the advocates in the Less Is More campaign that announced legislation to reform parole along with New York State Senator Brian Benjamin, the Legal Aid Society, and others. The Less Is More: Community Supervision Revocation Reform Act would add due process protections by adding a recognizance hearing in criminal court before people are detained on a parole hold. The bill, announced in February, would additionally require speedy hearings for allegations of parole violations. Philadelphia enacted a similar change in December to give people the chance to appear at preliminary hearings with the opportunity for release rather than jail them before their parole hearings. So far, the results have been promising: All but 3.6 percent of the people released after the preliminary hearing have returned for their violation-of-probation hearing.

Additionally, the New York legislation would allow parolees to earn time off their supervision for every 30-day period in which they do not violate a condition of supervision. It would also end incarceration as a practice for technical violations like leaving the state or failing a drug test. According to the Columbia report, people returning to prison on technical parole violations were 29.2 percent of all admissions into the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in 2016. Although other segments of the population in New York City jails are decreasing, from 2014 to 2018, people incarcerated on technical parole violations have increased by 15 percent. By 2015, about a third of the people who had been released from incarceration in New York State three years ago had returned to prison on a technical parole violation.

And the racial differences are staggering: The report found that Black people on parole are 12 times more likely to be detained for a violation than a white person.

The bill is awaiting a committee hearing, but the reform could mark a big change for thousands under supervision in New York if enacted. People on parole and probation have been largely left out of the city’s criminal justice reforms. When the NYPD announced it would stop arresting people for smoking marijuana in public, for example, one of the exceptions to the new policy were people who were on probation or parole.

Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined to comment on parole reform, but disagreed that parole hinders people’s re-entry. He told The Appeal that the Department’s re-entry process begins four months before a person’s release date from prison and includes services like education, job readiness, community resources and substance abuse.

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During Cannon’s first two times behind bars, he says he experienced beatdowns by guards and spent multiple years in solitary confinement. The years in solitary gravely affected his mental health and led him to attempt suicide multiple times.

“Then I stay in the box for years. Then maybe after two years, I can’t take it no more,” he said. “So I hang up but they stopped me, cut me down [and] send me to the hospital. ”

When Cannon went back to jail in 2018 for the third time, he couldn’t get these memories out of his head.

“My mind got messed up a lot, a lot, when they put [me in for] six months,” Cannon said. “I get out of [prison], and now they going to put me back in jail again forever—and my mind goes crazy. And I’m not the same person I was before six months.”

Cannon’s lawyer, Deborah Lolai of the Bronx Defenders, said, “When I met him, when he was just arrested, his communication was very different. It deteriorated pretty rapidly when he was incarcerated. I think his mental health deteriorated.”

Due to Cannon’s family’s far distance, he had less support when he was in jail—meaning necessities from commissary were sometimes hard to get.

“I had no food. I had no soap and stuff,” Cannon said. “I had no T-shirt, underwear, socks, shoes. … I had nothing.”

Like everyone who is arrested while on parole, Cannon’s arrest led to two separate cases that simultaneously went through the criminal legal system and the parole board. Both the parole case and the case in the criminal legal system were dismissed after witnesses failed to appear in court multiple times.

When he was released in September, most of the progress Cannon had made had been lost. Cannon lost his psychiatrist and the social worker that has been assigned to him. Without housing, Cannon went back into the shelter system, where he still lives over six months later.

“I lose everything. Even nice building, nice neighbors, and everything. I lose everything that a person have when they have a house, and a community. It all got gone,” Cannon explained.

“I lose everything that was a little bit good in my life. Now I’m homeless, I don’t have no job, no nothing. I don’t get to watch movies, TV, music, take a bath or shower by myself [or] be alone by myself.”

But perhaps the most painful, was when Cannon found out his niece was killed while he was in jail. He hadn’t seen his niece, who was in her 20s, since she was a small child t because he couldn’t leave the state while on parole.

During his previous incarcerations, Cannon had experienced the deaths of his nephew and stepfather. He recalled how being entangled in the criminal legal system has affected his family bonds.

“Before police got involved in my life, I had a big family. Everyone’s together. After police got involved in my life, my whole family is tore apart. Nobody’s together,” Cannon said.

Sayegh of the Katal Center said he has heard stories similar to Cannon’s. In practice, parole is often a hindrance to people re-entering society after being released from prison.

“It ends up having all these other impacts. People lose their housing, they lose their jobs, they get taken from their kids. Jail, let alone prison, are these super traumatic institutions, structures to put people inside of,” Sayegh told The Appeal.

“It’s like we’ve created a system that makes it practically impossible for anybody to succeed,” he added.

“What really happened to me happens to a lot of people,” Cannon said. “They ruin people’s lives when you don’t have money, and you poor.”

Today, Cannon is still on parole and meets with his parole officer every Thursday; he has had multiple parole officers and says his current one is the best so far. He continues to have a 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew. He says the threat of jail is held over his head at all times.

They will “search your whole house, talk with everybody in the house, come in any time, day or night,” Cannon told The Appeal.

“And the 7 o’clock [curfew], even if I wanted to go to a movie or go to my friend’s house, if I had a friend, I got to run back at five something o’clock in the afternoon because [the parole officer] might be there. If [it’s] past 7 o’clock, they’re going to put me back in jail.”

For him, parole is just another prison.

“They say they going to let me go after 20-something years,” he said. “But they don’t let me go. They’re still in control.”