In upstate New York, the suspected suicide of 70-year-old prisoner John MacKenzie has drawn attention to how the state is refusing to release aging prisoners who have a low risk of recidivism. MacKenzie reportedly hung himself in his cell at Fishkill Correctional Facility after he was denied parole the previous week. It was his 10th denial of parole since he became eligible in 2000. We speak with Kathy Manley, a longtime lawyer and advocate for prisoner rights who represented John MacKenzie in his court case against the New York state parole board. And here in New York, Mujahid Farid is lead organizer with the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) Campaign. He founded the group after he was released from prison in 2011, after serving 33 years on a 15-to-life sentence.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end our show in upstate New York, where the suspected suicide of a 70-year-old New York prisoner has drawn attention to how the state is refusing to release aging prisoners who have a low risk of recidivism. Last Thursday, John MacKenzie reportedly hung himself in his cell at Fishkill Correctional Facility after he was denied parole the previous week. It was his 10th denial of parole since he became eligible in 2000. MacKenzie was serving a 25-to-life sentence for the murder of a police officer named Matthew Giglio in 1975. Not long after he entered prison, he helped establish a Victims Awareness program that helped other inmates better understand the impact of their actions by meeting with crime victims. He continued this type of work for decades.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2014, John MacKenzie filed a lawsuit that argued the New York Parole Board was violating state law by failing to consider his remorse and achievements, as well as tests that showed he had the low risk of committing a crime, if released. In a major victory, a New York Supreme Court judge agreed with him and found the board in contempt of court. Justice Maria Rosa issued the unusual ruling after she had ordered the board to give MacKenzie a new hearing, and it again denied him parole. She wrote in her May 24th response to the board’s denial of parole to MacKenzie, quote, “It is undisputed that it is unlawful for the parole board to deny parole solely on the basis of the underlying conviction. … Yet the court can reach no other conclusion but that this is exactly what the parole board did in this case,” unquote. Judge Rosa also ordered the state to pay a $500-per-day fine for each day it delayed giving him a new hearing, and demanded to know, quote, “If parole isn’t granted to this petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted?” unquote. The ruling was under appeal by the state at the time of John MacKenzie’s death.
Just weeks before his death, The New York Times wrote an editorial supporting his release from prison. On Monday, dozens rallied outside the Parole Board headquarters in the state capital of Albany to urge the Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to direct the board to follow the law. All this comes as elderly inmates have become the fastest-growing part of the prison population in New York and in many other states around the country.
For more, we go directly to Albany to Kathy Manley, longtime lawyer and advocate for prisoner rights who represented John MacKenzie in his contempt-of-court case against the New York state Parole Board.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what happened and why you believe that he committed suicide just after he was denied parole.
KATHY MANLEY: Good morning, Amy. Thanks for having me.
Yeah, I was approached to do an appeal for John about four years ago. The first one was denied. The second one, as you said, was granted. And John was the poster boy for people who should be released on parole. As you said, he had an amazing record. He ran that victim impact program in Green Haven prison. It was very successful. He worked with parents of murdered children and other victim groups. He got a grant to expand the program; instead, Green Haven shut it down, apparently because they didn’t want a prisoner-run program to be so successful, and they cared more about that than rehabilitation.
So, I filed the appeal. It was granted, as you said, by Judge Rosa. He got a new hearing in December, last December. And again, they violated her order saying they can’t deny parole based only the circumstances of that one day in 1975. And so, then I filed for contempt, and she granted that. And as you said, that was being appealed, when he was denied again at a regular hearing. And he just couldn’t take it anymore. He just couldn’t take it anymore. And what people don’t —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Kathy Manley —
KATHY MANLEY: Yeah?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about this whole issue of these political decisions of parole boards in not granting parole to inmates, especially in cases that may involve, for instance, in this case, the murder of a police officer?
KATHY MANLEY: Right, that’s a huge part of it. I mean, what people may not think about is that it’s the judge who sentences somebody, sentences people. They sentence them to a minimum term. And he reached that minimum term in 2000 and then was denied parole 10 times after that. He should have been released then. The Parole Board resentences people according to — because they listen to the Police Benevolent Association in cases where the victim is a police officer. And the police, the PBA, in John’s case, every two years, they would go to the board and say, “Never let him out. We don’t care how remorseful he is. Never let him out. He killed a police officer. End of story.” Well, that’s not the law.
AMY GOODMAN: He was in — he was in jail for over 40 years. We’re joined by Mujahid Farid also, here in our studio in New York, who served 33 years on a 15-to-life sentence in New York, now organizer of RAPP, Release of Aging People in Prison. We don’t have much time, Farid, but you were corresponding with John MacKenzie until, what, the day before he died.
MUJAHID FARID: The day before. We talked on the phone the day before. Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did he tell you?
MUJAHID FARID: Well, he told me how he had been to a recent board again and that he was denied parole. He was upset about the fact that a commissioner, who had been forbidden to sit on a future panel, was actually on that panel that denied him parole again. The contempt order actually specified — it prohibited certain people from sitting on a future parole board.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this issue of the aging of our prison population, people who basically — the state has thrown away the key and is just letting them wither away in prison?
MUJAHID FARID: Yeah, one of the reasons that our campaign focused on the elderly is because they present the lowest risk of recidivism. And if parole boards were really concerned about public safety when a person comes up for release, these are the people who should be released. We are actually concerned about mass incarceration, in general, and the whole spectrum, but we thought that by focusing on this particular population, it would present us as the voice of reason and show how this punitive policy that is in place has really gone amok.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is it like for elderly prisoners in New York state prisons these days?
MUJAHID FARID: A lot of them are losing hope, I mean, actually losing hope, as we see in the case of John MacKenzie. I’ve seen the same thing happen with other individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: Mujahid Farid, you were denied parole repeatedly.
MUJAHID FARID: Ten times — I mean, nine times. I made the actual 10th parole board, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you feel?
MUJAHID FARID: I felt great. I felt relieved.
AMY GOODMAN: When you finally got it.
MUJAHID FARID: When I finally —
AMY GOODMAN: But each other time before that?
MUJAHID FARID: I pretty much understood that it was a broad policy, that it wasn’t specifically directed at me. And that helped me to cope with it, the fact that I knew something was going on that was bigger than the Parole Board simply denying me release.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the SAFE Parole Act?
MUJAHID FARID: The SAFE Parole Act is an act that would pretty much preclude the Parole Board from focusing on the nature of the crime. It would require them to look at how a person developed over the course of their time in prison, and to base release decisions on that and whether or not they present a risk to public safety.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kathy Manley, we only have about 30 seconds or so, but is your hope now that there will be some substantive reform as a result of what has happened in the tragic result with John MacKenzie here?
KATHY MANLEY: Yes, I really hope that John’s death serves as a wake-up call to fix this broken, dysfunctional system. There needs to be a presumption that when someone gets to their minimum term and they have a good record, they should be released. That should be automatic, unless there’s something else they can point to. There was nothing else they could point to in John’s case. He should have been released, like so many other people.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Mujahid, what are you demanding of Governor Cuomo?
MUJAHID FARID: We have four demands. First of all, let me say that, over the years, we have seen the Parole Board demonstrate contempt for the community.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
MUJAHID FARID: And so, we are demanding that Governor Cuomo get involved, immediately get involved, and take control of the Parole Board and direct them to our use public safety concerns when they are considering a person’s release.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for joining us. Mujahid Farid served 33 years on a 15-to-life sentence in New York, now lead organizer of RAPP, Release of Aging People in Prison. And thanks so much to our guest in Albany, to Kathy Manley, lawyer for prisoner John MacKenzie, who committed suicide.