Opinion | Governors Shouldn’t Be the Only Ones Responsible for a Person’s Freedom

FALLSBURG, N.Y. — Bobby Ehrenberg knew he would probably die in prison.

Back in 1992, he killed a Long Island jewelry store owner during a robbery, and wound up with 50 years to life. He would be 83 by the time he’d have a chance to see a parole board.

I first met him in prison in 2004, when I was 27 and settling in for 28 years to life for murder and selling drugs. Bobby, then 45, had a combative personality, but we soon started talking smack and sniffing dope together in the yard. A couple of years later, I went to solitary, transferred to a different prison and lost touch with him.

Then last year I landed here in the Sullivan Correctional Facility and we reconnected. He’d changed his life in the years between. In 2012, he had what he called an epiphany. He’d gotten sober and earned a bachelor’s degree; he was class valedictorian. He taught an algebra class for several years and dedicated himself to mentoring younger guys.

“You can’t reach everyone but sometimes I reached a couple of guys in that classroom,” he said. “You can — not literally but figuratively — see the light come on. And that’s great.”

Last month, a corrections officer asked Bobby, now 62, to report to the disciplinary office immediately. He went in. A few minutes later, I saw the cell block gates motor open, and a wide-eyed Bobby, paper in hand, approached me: “John, I got clemency! I’m going home in September!”

In New York State, the governor has the power to grant clemency to prisoners in the form of reprieves, commutations and pardons, at her “sole discretion.” (Parole is handled by a separate entity.) A pardon wipes out a conviction, while a commutation reduces a sentence. Just before stepping down, Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted executive clemency to Bobby and nine others. Bobby’s term was commuted, and he would soon walk free.

Over the next few days, Bobby, who’s always seemed a bit miserable, was vibrating with joy. People around us seemed happy for him, too. Even a grumpy old man in our block who wasn’t on speaking terms with Bobby shook his hand. It’s moving to see someone get mercy, especially when you’re looking for it too.

But many of us are perplexed about clemency. Who deserves mercy? Can we earn it? If our victims won’t forgive us, will a governor? And why should mercy fall on the grace of the governor alone?

In Mr. Cuomo’s decade in office, he granted a total of 41 commutations. He left a heaping pile of petitions for his replacement, Kathy Hochul, to sort out: a total of 3,682 commutation and pardon applications have been filed since the beginning of 2020, according to the state corrections department.

The governor is supposed to consider a petitioner’s ability to “remain at liberty without violating the law” as well as “exceptional strides in self-development and improvement.” As Governor Hochul faces that stack of documents, she has a rare opportunity to bring more order and integrity to the clemency process.

For those serving life sentences for violent crimes, clemency can feel like the only way out. I can’t, for example, see my parole board before serving 28 years. But in many cases, you can apply for clemency after serving half your sentence. New York prisons hold 301 people serving life sentences without a chance of parole and 6,745 with sentences that have a maximum of life, according to the corrections department. That means that more than 20 percent of prisoners in the state face the chance of dying behind bars.

Yet getting clemency seems almost whimsical, with so much riding on unpredictable events like a governor’s sudden fall, a victim’s forgiveness or the representation of an effective lawyer. The process itself is opaque. In New York, the Executive Clemency Bureau, a unit of the state corrections department, receives applications and begins a review, then sends completed petitions to the governor for her to consider. But we need a panel that goes further: one that centers the voices and experiences of prisoners and their advocates.

Letters of recommendation written in our clemency applications play a major role. Though civilians like college professors, religious and other volunteers are technically able to submit comments, in reality tight restrictions and red tape make it very hard for them to be our advocates.

In other words, the people who know me best are unable to fully support me. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never applied for clemency, even though I’ve been eligible for six years. The creative writing instructor who taught the workshop in Attica that changed my life can’t explain how he saw me transform my cocky convict attitude into a confident voice on the page, and how that led to a career publishing features in national magazines from prison. My sponsor in the Attica 12-step program can’t relay conversations we had about what I’d done and who I hope to be, and how shame and pride — two sides of the same coin — are in constant conflict inside me.

Meanwhile, superintendents, usually former corrections officers, almost always make recommendations. But these people don’t know us. I’ve been incarcerated for two decades and served time in five maximum security joints. I’ve never once had a heart-to-heart conversation with a superintendent, and that’s typical. Even though I don’t like the word congratulations, since I don’t necessarily see clemency as an earned accomplishment (I wouldn’t note it on my C.V.), it stuck out to me that none of the administrators congratulated Bobby on getting clemency or wished him well.

To supplement the work of the Executive Clemency Bureau, Ms. Hochul should appoint a statewide clemency advisory panel with experts in rehabilitation, re-entry and restorative justice, as well as a formerly incarcerated person. The panel could recommend the most compelling candidates for the governor to commute every quarter. This would remind my peers that redemption is being recognized regularly, and motivate them to reform. Even conservative states like South Dakota and South Carolina have boards that either make clemency decisions directly or advise the governor, resulting in more grants of clemency than in some more liberal states.

I also wish prisoners had more of a voice in the clemency application processes of our peers. We often grow by being vulnerable with other men through years of lapping yard perimeters together.

If I could have written a letter in support of my friend Michael Tineo’s petition, for example, I would have described the times when he talked me through my depression as I stood outside his cell. I would have written about the time that Michael dedicated his college valedictorian speech at Sing Sing to his teenage daughter in the audience. We all wept.

I wish I could have written a letter for my friend Michael Shane Hale, who despite being ridiculed by others for being gay, did great work facilitating a re-entry class, teaching men to administer naloxone to reverse opiate overdoses, write strong résumés and find information on housing and employment. Shane, who earned a master’s degree in Sing Sing, is serving 50 years to life for killing his lover over 25 years ago. I was impressed with how he chose to help others prepare to leave the place where he would likely die.

Last month, Bobby drafted an oped essay arguing for his friend Stanley Bellamy’s sentence to be commuted. Stanley and Bobby graduated from college and tutored men together in Sullivan. While helping Bobby edit the draft, I was stuck on one line he wrote: “Stan had been a troubled young man when he committed the crimes that led to a death-by-incarceration sentence that left him no room for redemption.”

But, I asked, wasn’t his argument that Stanley’s redemption was being overlooked? Bobby told me through his cell bars that redemption can never be fully achieved in a correctional setting, only in society. I’m glad that Bobby gets to demonstrate his redemption as a free man, but I refuse to accept that a governor needs to validate redemption for it to exist.

Real redemption stories live in here, and I can only hope Ms. Hochul designates the right people to discover them in the pile of petitions that sit on her desk.

John J. Lennon, a contributing editor for Esquire, is incarcerated in the Sullivan Correctional Facility and will be eligible for parole in 2029.

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