Will New York’s parole system give Jerome Wright’s decade of community contributions and family support the weight they deserve?
Yesterday, Radley Balko of the Washington Post wrote about Jerome Wright, a deacon, activist, father, and husband in Buffalo, New York, who has been in jail for six months after nearly a decade of a spotless record on parole.
In his piece, Balko captures the enormous gap between the official reason Jerome is in jail—alleged technical violations—and the consequences: he has been away from his family for nearly half a year, unable to care for his bedridden wife and an adult son who has Down syndrome. Balko’s piece also shows how community supervision systems assign little value to what actually builds community well-being and safety: people’s bonds with their families, their engagement with their communities, and the stability and self-worth that come from being allowed to build on both.
I call Jerome, who is in his late 50s, by his first name because that is how I know him. I met him through his activism with the HALT Solitary campaign, an effort to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement in New York prisons and jails.
Balko writes about how Jerome was convicted of second-degree murder and related charges as an 18-year-old and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. He spent the next 30 years there. When he was finally released, he was placed under parole supervision.
There has been increasing attention in recent years to the onerous, counterproductive restrictions that parole supervision places on a person’s life. As of last November, Jerome had been under parole supervision for almost a decade, a lengthy period that flies in the face of evidence of what people returning home from prison need and the role parole can and should play in that.
“Each year,” Balko wrote, “New York finds 7,000 parolees in violation, more than any state but Illinois. And about 65 percent of the parolees are sent back to prison for technical violations, not for committing new crimes.”
Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University and a former New York City probation commissioner, told Balko that New York State’s parole system is a “a Wild, Wild West type of system.” The departmental incentives make jailing someone an easier decision than allowing them to remain free. “You have parole officers with dozens of cases who get nothing if a client successfully completes their sentence, but who could lose their job if a client commits a new crime,” Schiraldi said. “It’s just a deeply profound trivialization of people’s liberty.”
In his State of the State briefing last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged this, noting that 33 percent of people released from prison were sent back to prison within three years on technical violations. The governor’s agenda said: “New York jails and prisons should not be filled with people who may have violated the conditions of their parole, but present no danger to our communities.’’
By 2018, Jerome’s successful re-entry was so evident that a former chairperson of the state Parole Board wrote a letter supporting his application for termination of supervision.
“As a former Chairman of the NYS Board of Parole, I am aware of the reluctance to grant early discharge for violent felony offenders, yet, Mr. Wright’s diligence in not only turning his life around but the lives of countless youths, I think makes him worthy of such consideration,” wrote George Alexander.
“He no longer poses a threat to any segment of society, in fact, he has proven himself to be an invaluable asset. To continue him under supervision serves no purpose other than as a detriment to his ability to positively impact the lives of others.”
“Impact” was exactly the word that Pastor James Giles, who knows Jerome well, used in describing him. Giles is the president and CEO of Back to Basics, a set of re-entry programs in Buffalo. He spoke with me about first meeting Jerome when Jerome was still in prison and how impressed he was with Jerome’s ability to connect with and inspire youth. Giles wrote letters in support of Jerome’s release on parole, and soon after it happened in January 2009, he hired him as a re-entry coordinator to work with other people returning home from prison.
Jerome quickly became a valuable part of the community. “One of the pastors of one of the biggest churches in Buffalo recognized him and ordained him as a deacon,” said Giles. “He was just a real good example, of fatherhood and as a husband. We gave him an award, about great strength and character, about who’s making a contribution, about the tremendous work he’s doing in the community. For 10 years, this man’s been serving the community, in a real significant way. This is not the kind of person you want to see in prison, because of the significant impact he makes outside.”
A few years ago, Harvard Kennedy School’s criminal justice management and policy program convened an executive session on community corrections. Session members, who included corrections and law enforcement officials, met over the course of three years. It became clear that “there was strong consensus developing over principles and practices that should guide the reform of community corrections going forward.” That consensus became “Toward an Approach to Community Corrections for the 21st Century,” a report that identifies aspirations for community corrections systems that are grounded in democratic principles.
The first is community well-being, described as “stability in everyday life, rooted in the social bonds of neighborhoods and families that allow individuals to flourish.” The second principle is that the authority to “arrest, discipline, and incarcerate is an awesome state power” that must be used “parsimoniously and justly.” Third is that “community corrections agents must recognize the worth of justice-involved individuals.” Fourth is that agencies themselves must be “pillars of the rule of law” and respect “the human dignity of people under supervision,” treating them in a way that is “free of arbitrary treatment, disrespect, and abuses of power.” And finally, they write, they aspire to “infuse justice and fairness” into a criminal legal system “that so often runs afoul of it.” Importantly, the report says, “We aspire to help people become better parents and siblings, neighbors, and citizens than when they entered the penal realm.”
Jerome’s case shows how far the operations of parole agencies can be from these aspirations. He was jailed, Balko writes, merely on the word of parole officers, with no opportunity for release under state law, in a way that undermines his and his family’s stability. Jerome’s attorney told Balko that he believed a major contributor to Jerome’s arrest was that his parole officer simply did not like the idea of him having meaningful employment, standing in the community, and advocating for change. Finally, nothing about Jerome’s incarceration contributes to his ability to be a parent, husband, neighbor, or citizen.
I spoke with Susan, Jerome’s wife, at length about her illness and the effect of her husband being in jail. She spoke of Jerome’s role in caring for her, their family, and their home. Her 3-year-old granddaughter was with her.
“The first seven years he was home he filled the traditional role of a father and a husband. Two and a half years ago I started having problems with my health. We have a son, Justin, who has Down syndrome. So for Jerome that has always meant more than just being a father. It has meant being a mentor, being not just a parent but an advocate for our son in the community.
“When my health started to take a turn that was when Jerome’s role really changed a lot. We had a traditional life before that. He handled everything outside the house, I handled everything inside the house.
“He became responsible for everything in the home. He went from just mowing the lawn to mowing the lawn, cooking dinner, and doing laundry because I am no longer capable of using my hands to do all the traditional things I used to do. I mostly operate with just one index finger.
“To add insult to injury I broke my leg in February. When the cast came off, I couldn’t walk.
“He’s been gone for— My granddaughter just said, ‘He’s been gone forever.’ … He’s been gone for six and a half months and for that time I’ve been upstairs for all of that time except for maybe six days. I go outside for doctor’s appointments and for a rally for Jerome yesterday.
“It’s the safest place for me to be. I can’t put the responsibility of going up and down on my 24-year-old-son who has Down syndrome.
“Jerome’s absence has been … I can’t even find the words to explain what his absence has done to Justin and I.”
Susan said it was hard for her son in ways she hadn’t even realized until he refused to attend yesterday’s rally. “The last time he saw his dad was November 13, 2018, and his entire life he’s never gone this long without seeing his father. Even though he was born while Jerome was incarcerated, I took him to see his dad every week.”
Because of her health condition, Susan hasn’t been able to visit Jerome. She hasn’t seen him since the day he left to go to the parole office.
“The last time I saw Jerome, he left here around 3:30. If I close my eyes, I can see him standing at the foot of the bed, telling me he’s going down, he’s going to get this travel pass. Because he was going to this Unlock the Box conference down in Baltimore. That was the last time I saw him.
“It’s been exactly 36 years since I’ve gone this long without seeing him.”
“Sometimes I think this is a dream and I’m going to wake up and he’s going to be here. Other times, I acknowledge the system that I’m dealing with…”
“Parole knows my situation,” she said. “And Jerome had three parole officers before the one that he has now. And nine years and 10 months in the community. And I think all of that should count for something.”