They’ve been through New York’s parole system. That’s why they want to change it.
These are the stories of three New Yorkers — either on parole or recently off it — and the work they are doing now in criminal justice.
In 2020, two major parole reform bills are on the table. One is elder parole, which would allow incarcerated individuals over the age of 55 who have served at least 15 years of their sentence an opportunity to go before the parole board — no matter their sentence.
The second bill, called Fair and Timely Parole, changes the standard of parole to base consideration for release on the person’s rehabilitation while incarcerated, rather than the severity of the crime that landed them behind bars.
The two bills would affect thousands of New Yorkers who appear before the state’s parole board every year.
At the forefront of the battle to reform the parole system are formerly incarcerated men and women who have themselves experienced being denied parole after going before the board. Now out of prison, they want to change what they call a punitive system, which weighs the original crime over an individual’s transformation.
The Brooklyn Eagle spoke to three criminal justice reform advocates — all of whom currently are or once were on parole for decades-old murder convictions — about their personal history with the parole system.
Between the three of them, the shortest prison term was 27 years. Their stories highlight the immense changes that people undergo in prison.
“Women in prison are the forgotten people. We really are.”
Roslyn Smith is currently on parole after serving 39 years in prison for a 1979 double homicide — committed when she was just 17 years old.
People change over the course of four decades, she says. The brain changes. At 17 she thought only of herself; now she is more cognizant of others and her interactions with them.
When she got out of prison last year, Smith sought to distance herself as much as possible from her past — but she struggled to find meaningful work. She had an interview with Access-A-Ride, but decided not to take the job since she had no interest in it.
Then she got a call from Eve Ensler, an artist who had featured Smith in a documentary about incarceration called “What I Want My Words To Do To You.”
Ensler offered Smith a job writing about her experience in prison as well as about her reentry. Smith also now speaks about mass incarceration at conferences across the country.
“I realized it was kind of selfish of me to not want to do work about criminal justice, because I left a few people behind that are going to be in prison for a while like I was, and I didn’t realize how much formerly incarcerated individuals out here are doing for the people inside,” Smith told the Eagle.
Smith wants people to understand that those on parole are no different from others out in the world. “I work. I’m just like everybody else. I go to work. I see the parole officer four times a year.”
She got approved for parole on her first hearing before the board, after spending more than three decades at the only women’s maximum security prison in the state: Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She’ll be on parole for at least two more years before she applies to get off.
Her initial sentence was two consecutively running sets of 25 years to life. That’s 50 years to life for the double homicide of which she was convicted under disgraced Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold.
After more than 30 years in prison, Smith’s sentence was reduced to 25 years to life in 2018. She was immediately granted an opportunity to go before the parole board.
“When I first went to prison, I was a kid,” Smith said. “I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect. You watch all these movies and you think you’re going to get raped, you’re going to get beat up. I was very fearful. When I realized it wasn’t exactly like that I started to get angry. I was angry about my sentence. I was angry about what happened to me. And I decided that I wasn’t going to participate and I decided I was going to do whatever I wanted to do.”
Angry with the system, Smith ended up doing drugs on and off at Bedford Hills during the first decade she was incarcerated.
Smith and her codefendant, Valerie Gaiter, were the longest-serving incarcerated women in New York, until Smith was released in 2018. Gaiter died this year. Though Smith and Gaiter were not close at Bedford Hills, they had a “respectful” relationship. Smith said that Gaiter’s death was one of the worst things that ever happened to her.
“I was devastated. I was hurt by it because she wasn’t able to experience the freedom that I did,” said Smith. She said Gaiter’s cancer was misdiagnosed as acid reflux by prison doctors. “Having the freedom and being out here, you know, it’s sort of like survivor’s guilt. I made it out and she didn’t.”
Gaiter’s death in prison at age 61 brought renewed calls for the passage of elder parole, which stalled in the state legislature during last session.
Smith can’t think of an older woman in prison who is violent.
“You age out of certain things. When you’re 55 years old you don’t think about the same things you thought about when you were 17 or 20. You don’t take risks like that. You start thinking about life. You start thinking about people, about your interactions with people,” she said.
She doesn’t believe elder parole’s opponents actually believe the passage of the bill would be dangerous.
“They just want an excuse to keep people in. The United States is so punitive. They just want to punish, punish, punish. But what they fail to realize is that the more you punish people — the more you treat people like they cannot be redeemed — they’re going to eventually get out. And it makes them angry. You put a wound into society because of that.”
Now living in Fort Greene, Smith’s main goal — aside from ending mass incarceration — is to repair relationships with her family members.
“I think I’m doing good. I’m loving being free … My goal is to collaborate with everyone in the movement to end mass incarceration. That’s the goal. And also to pay more attention to women. Because women in prison are the forgotten people. We really are,” she said.
“There’s so much going on for men. Women need to be heard and have a platform. But it’s hard, because it’s male dominated.”
“The crime is over with. They’re doing the time. Now it’s the rehabilitative process.”
James Royall served time at nine maximum security prisons throughout the state: Greenhaven Correctional Facility, Auburn Correctional Facility, Wende Correctional Facility, Great Meadows Correctional Facility, Elmira Correctional Facility, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Clinton Correctional Facility, Upstate Correctional Facility and Southport Correctional Facility.
Royall was incarcerated for nearly 28 years. The entire time, he stayed focused on getting out.
“I kept the same trend of thought from the inception of my incarceration, which was ‘I’m going home. I’m going home.’ It changed. It shifted a little bit, but that concept stayed.”
He served a 25-years-to-life sentence for a Coney Island murder in the 1980s.
Now Royall runs the Reentry Bureau for Brooklyn Defender Services, helping people who are getting out of prison — as well as other people impacted by the criminal justice system — reintegrate into society. As someone who was incarcerated himself, he understands how difficult it can be to get back on your feet.
“I came out in 2013. It was sensory overload to me. There were so many cars on the road. There’s people talking to themselves — that’s what I thought — but they are on their Bluetooth,” he said.
The hardest part was regaining the trust of his family. “They’re judging on the person they once knew.”
After first getting out on parole, he lived in East Flatbush. Then he moved into transitional housing in East New York. He got on public assistance and was receiving food stamps and working nights as a counselor for people getting home from prison.
For his job today, Royall coordinates employment opportunities, housing opportunities and substance abuse treatment for more than 200 clients.
“My goal is to help them to become the person that they are, the person that’s within them,” he said. “To reintegrate into the fabric of society. I know, for me it’s important because of what I’ve been through in my life. Being incarcerated for so long I know it’s not easy getting back on your feet. Being incarcerated is not the best thing for you. It’s probably one of the worst things.”
Royall does not believe people are defined by their worst mistakes, and he thinks that the Fair and Timely Parole bill would reorient the board to looking at all the good people have done while they are in prison, as opposed to focusing on the crime they committed.
“The crime is over with. They’re doing the time. Now it’s the rehabilitative process,” he said. “What’s your history? What’s your background? What have you worked on while inside? That’s what the whole purpose of serving time is. It’s not just punitive. You want them to go in there to address their issues and come out being a better person.”
“Thirty years to life, man, I felt like everybody gave up on me.”
When Anthony Dixon first got out of prison on parole in 2016, he was afraid to jay-walk.
He saw other New Yorkers crossing against the light, but he would stand on the corner of the street and wait for the walk sign.
“It takes a little while for us to get used to that,” Dixon said. “When I first got home, I would wait at the corner until I saw the sign change.”
His parole mandated a strict 9 p.m. curfew — so he made sure to be home by 7:30 p.m., to make sure it wasn’t even close. His parole officer could be sitting out in front of his house at any time, and he was not going to take any chances.
Dixon, now 58, began selling drugs as a teenager. Then he switched to robbing drug dealers. Then he started robbing the people who robbed drug dealers. The goal was to have as little contact with police as possible, but it led Dixon to live a life in fear, sitting in the corners of bars with his back to the wall, always ready for a shootout.
“I was looking for a quick fix,” he said. “Why wait when I could get it right now? When I saw other people do that, that really encouraged me. I could have a BMW, I could have all this style, all these women. I could go to Florida, real quick.”
Dixon eventually got caught. He was arrested and convicted on a robbery and a murder charge in the Bronx at age 22. His sentence was 30 years to life.
“I felt that after they sentenced me to 30 years to life, my life was over,” he said. “Thirty years to life, man, I felt like everybody gave up on me.”
In prison in 1984, Dixon’s transformation was spurred by “veteran” prisoners, many of whom were in with similar life sentences. They were men imprisoned in Attica for the uprising, and taught Dixon about activism and the struggle to end mass incarceration.
In 2016, after 33 years in prison, Dixon was granted parole. It was his third try.
His experience with the parole board led directly to the work that he does now.
“I was assigned three attorneys, pro bono, that came up and prepped me. In our legal system if you go to the parole board there’s no preparation. You just go. And you have to discuss the most intimate details of your life — that you’re ashamed of.”
Dixon believes the role of the parole board should be to look at the transformation of the individual before them. That’s why he supports the Fair and Timely Parole bill.
Now working for the Parole Preparation Project, Dixon lobbies government officials to pass legislation like fair and timely parole and elder parole. He helps attorneys and volunteers prepare incarcerated people for their parole hearings, and he helps people getting out of prison with reentry into society.
He created a group within the Parole Preparation Project called Survivors of the System. The group of formerly incarcerated people meet every other week at Dixon’s own Prospect-Lefferts Garden’s home.
Even though Dixon has been off parole since August, he is constantly reminded of his incarceration.
“I’m reminded every time I see a police officer,” he said. “In some way, I still look at myself as being from the inside. Most of my experience and life on this planet has been on the inside.”