Queens based lawmakers and formerly incarcerated advocates rally for new prison reform bills

Rallygoers call for the passage of new parole bills that support elderly incarcerated individuals
RAPP campaign

Lawmakers from Queens, alongside prison reform advocates, converged in Albany Wednesday to champion parole justice for families in Queens. They urged the legislature to pass parole reform bills focused on providing relief to incarcerated elders.

Participants at the rally threw their support behind two specific pieces of legislation: the Elder Parole Bill and the Fair and Timely Parole Bill, advocating for a more just parole system.

The first bill would allow the State Board of Parole to evaluate possible parole for older adults that are 55 or older. The bill emphasizes consideration for the state’s oldest and sickest incarcerated people. The latter bill would provide more in depth parole reviews for  incarcerated individuals that are eligible for parole.

Organizers  classify the amount of Queens residents aging and dying in prison as an ongoing crisis. They feel that decades of harsh sentencing for Black and BIPOC families lead to extreme sentencing and widespread denial of parole releases due to racial bias.

According to FOIL request information obtained by the organizers, statistically, 18% of Queens County residents in NY State prisons are age 55 or older, and 53% of Queens County residents currently incarcerated in New York State prisons are Black and 91% are People of Color. 

Advocates feel many of the elders who are still serving time can be rehabilitated outside of prison, and aid in serving their communities. They believe many people have evolved after serving decades long sentences in prison.  “Parole should be about who a person is today. The nature of the crime will never change. But the nature of the individual does change… and that’s what parole should be about, ” said Queens Assembly Member David Weprin (D-24),  a sponsor and co-sponsor of both bills.

The press conference coincides with ‘Queens for Parole Justice Advocacy Day’, a part of a series of awareness events led by statewide leaders.  

Attendees celebrated the ways that the formerly incarcerated advocates have worked to uplift their communities upon re-entry into society. Many of the advocates serve as re-entry counselors, small business owners, harm reduction advocates and nonprofit leaders within their communities. 

Long Island City resident Vanessa Santiago served over 17 years in prison, and currently runs a mutual aid organization called Gift It Away Inc. In addition, Santiago is  a Queen’s based leader for the Elder Release Prison campaign. Santiago said she knew she wanted to become an asset to her community once she got out of prison.  Of course there have been challenges, but persistence breaks down resistance. At Gift It Away, Inc., we provide new and gently used furniture and appliances to people in need because they’re critical to healthy and safe living environments,” she said.

Robert Ehrenberg, another Queensl leader with the elder release campaign, is also familiar with the prison system. Ehrenberg served 30 years in prison, and currently works as the assistant director of  Redemption House, a Queens-based non profit. Ehrenberg, who was granted clemency from his 50 year sentence- feels saddened that many older inmates pass away behind bars. “ I know who’s still in there. I know the work they can do in our community. It saddens me that they still dwell and perish behind bars. I work at a safe place for people coming home from prison. It’s my personal belief that so many I left behind should be home. We have to stay together and keep pushing forward,” he said.

Queens Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi -representing Forest Hills(D-28)- echoed his support for the new legislation. “2024 must be the year we achieve parole justice by passing both the fair and timely and elder parole bills. Criminal justice should be focused on rehabilitation, not perpetual punishment,” he said.