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Protestors rally for older inmates’ release from Adirondack facility

A crowd of protesters gathers Monday on state Route 86 in Ray Brook, urging the state to release the older inmates at Adirondack Correctional Facility due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

RAY BROOK — More than 30 activists stood Monday at the corner of state Route 86 and Ray Brook Road, calling on New York state to release the nearly 100 older inmates recently moved to the nearby Adirondack Correctional Facility.

Standing below the “Adirondack C.F.” sign a mile from where the medium-security prison sits, they chanted, “Hey! Hey! Cuomo. Free our elders, let them go,” and “We say ‘no’ to Cuomo’s prison nursing home.”

Jose Saldana, a longtime inmate who is now director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the authority to grant older inmates clemency during the coronavirus pandemic, but has chosen not to.

“We are calling on our elected officials to stand on the right side of history or be judged by history,” Saldana said. “For those who are afraid of people returning from prison back into their communities, let me tell you: In New York City, the people who are addressing crime, gang violence and all the other social ills are people like me, who have spent time in prison.”

Adirondack Correctional was converted last month from an adolescent facility to one for inmates 55 and older. Protestors said they worry about the coronavirus, to which older people are most vulnerable, spreading in the prison like it has in nursing homes around the state and nation.

One Adirondack Correctional inmate has been diagnosed with COVID-19 but is asymptomatic, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision confirmed Monday.

On Sunday, Saldana gave a speech at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. There he talked about Darlene “LuLu” Benson, the first woman in a New York prison who died of COVID-19. He said she was a lifetime survivor of domestic violence and had spent seven years at the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Saldana said Benson had a clemency petition pending, with widespread community support, but before Cuomo granted her clemency she died on April 28, 13 days before she turned 62.

“Cuomo stands in the way of releases,” Saldana said after his Sunday speech. “These people were not sentenced to death.”

Martha Swan, director of the Westport-based John Brown Lives, said to refuse these releases is “merciless.” She called on Cuomo to “Let our neighbors go.”

Representatives from RAPP said there are two bills in the state Legislature that, if passed, would have “solved this problem.”

“Elder Parole” would give every inmate over 55 years old who has served over 15 years in prison the chance to appear before the state Parole Board. Going before the board is not a guarantee to be released.

The Fair and Timely Parole Act, would change the standard for the parole release process for everyone, focusing more on the individual’s rehabilitation than the crimes they are convicted of.

Saldana said he believes the prisons are trying to solve a medical crisis through punishment.

“All they know is to punish,” Saldana said. “They are not correctional facilities. They do not correct anything.”

Local reformers

Local activists spoke Monday about their perceived future of North Country corrections.

Jane Haugh of Wake the North Country said most people gathered there know people who work at state prisons and wondered what will happen if policing downstate changes, resulting in fewer incarcerations.

“We must envision a new economic future that does not depend on cruelty,” Haugh said.

Zohar Gitlis, a co-chair of the High Peaks chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said in the seven years she has lived in the area she has slowly learned about the region’s “reliance on prisons” and talked about how, as a bartender, she’s seen corrections officers “drinking though the trauma” of their jobs while talking about how the pay is too good for them to walk away from it.

Swan added, “The North Country made a bargain with the devil over four decades ago by hitching the region’s economy and our personal livelihoods to mass incarceration and the imprisonment of fellow New Yorkers, mostly and disproportionately Black and Latino (men).”

Saldana’s story

Saldana said he is out prison today because of RAPP. While serving his 38th year of a 25-to-life sentence for bank robbery and attempted murder of a New York City police sergeant, Saldana said RAPP was able to convince the state to transform its parole system.

He said he changed while in prison. He said the programs other inmates created led him acknowledge the crime and see the pain his actions had brought.

“Before, I didn’t see myself as somebody who inflicted a lot of harm on people,” Saldana said. “I just didn’t see it that way.”

He had been denied parole repeatedly; he said this was because the Parole Board was dominated by law enforcement members. After advocacy from prison reform groups, Cuomo appointed six new board members, this time with backgrounds in social service, the clergy and teaching.

His last Parole Board hearing was before a woman with a social service background.

“I got a chance. What about the ones who did not?” Saldana said.

He said many of his mentors are still in prison.

Saldana said older inmates have lower rates of recidivism and are often assets to their prisons, and could be assets to their home communities.

“Our communities need these elder men to be educators,” Saldana said “We are the only ones who will go to the worst communities in New York City and reach these kids who have been abandoned and neglected their whole lives.”

He said older inmates are often leaders in prisons, creating programs to change younger inmates’ trajectories.

“We create the programs that help us rehabilitate ourselves and transform our lives, not them,” Saldana said, referring to DOCCS.

He said the state’s programs do not have value and are “an insult to people’s intelligence.” He said none of these programs led him to acknowledge his crime or think about the harm it caused. They prepare inmates with actions to mimic before the Parole Board, he said, instead of empowering them to change.

David George, associate director of RAPP, said he doesn’t believe Cuomo will release the Adirondack Correctional inmates immediately and said the campaign is preparing to continue pressuring for change in Albany and the North Country.

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