New York Governor-Elect Cuomo Right on Point: Shut Down Half-Empty Prisons

The Associated Press reported last week that Governor-Elect Andrew Cuomo toured the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, a hospital run by the state's Office of Mental Health and Sing Sing prison. After the tour he said that "the state cannot continue to employ people at prisons or other public facilities if their jobs are no longer needed. Some prisons in New York are underused and no longer needed but the state continues to employ people to run them."


What hit home to me was his visit to Sing Sing, the hellhole where I spent 12 years for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. I was sentenced to 15-to-Life under the Rockefeller Drug Laws before I was granted clemency by Governor George Pataki in 1997. A few years later I met Andrew Cuomo when he made his first run for Governor of New York. He rolled out his Rockefeller Drug Law reform agenda at a press conference I had helped organize at a church in Harlem. He even used my story and my art to make a point about the draconian nature of the Rockefeller Laws. And in 2004 he arranged to have a book party for me with the help of hedge fund wizard Larry Goldfarb at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Back then I saw the fire in Andrew's eyes when he spoke with unbelievable passion about the injustice he saw in New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws. Although his attempt to be governor in 2002 failed I knew one day he would be back and accomplish his desire to lead the state of New York.

Now Andrew's dream has become a reality and he's starting to make good on his promises to clean up Albany. He's searching for ways to cut the budget and reduce economic waste. The gov-elect saw that one of the ways to do this is to quickly shut down half-empty prisons.

The same day he made the statements about shutting down prisons, opposition began building from the New York State Correction Officers Association and the Police Benevolent Association. It's no surprise, since these half-empty prisons in question have become cash cows for the correction officers' union and political leaders in rural upstate communities that house these facilities.

Many of the offenders they talk about are non-violent drug offenders (like myself) that have fallen through the cracks of past Rockefeller Drug Law reforms and are stuck in prison because of procedural roadblocks that are used by prosecutors to stop them from gaining judicial relief. A case in point is Amir Varick Amma, who was sentenced to 25 years to life for a non-violent drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

In 2004, the legislature passed some incremental Rockefeller reforms that would help individuals like Amir who were sentenced to extraordinary amounts of time. Amir filed an application under the new law but the judge could not even address his motion because he had been busted for smoking a joint in prison. For this they gave him 60 days in solitary confinement and took away his merit time, rendering him ineligible for judicial relief under the new reforms of 2004. His denial cost the state of New York more than $250,000 to keep him imprisoned for an additional 5 years before he was released.

In this time of economic crisis in New York State, when politicians are looking for solutions to reduce the budget deficit, they need look no further than the state's correctional system. Was it worth keeping Amir Varick in prison and punishing him for an additional 5 years over a single marijuana joint, after he already served 14 years for a first-time non-violent drug law violation? How many other Amirs are wasting away in our gulags? Only about 1,350 of the 2,500 people eligible for relief under the Rockefeller reforms of 2004/05 and 2009 have been released. And according to the report "Drug Law Sentencing: Saving Tax Dollars with Minimal Community Risk" by the Legal Aid Society, the release of 1,023 individuals following the 2004/05 reforms resulted in $41 million in savings for New York State.

We need a political leader like Andrew to halt the waste of scarce tax dollars on half-empty prisons, and to remove the roadblocks to Rockefeller reform implementation. When Andrew Cuomo is sworn in as governor of New York State he will have the ability to correct the economic waste that has been generated by the archaic prison-industrial complex. He can implement a smarter economic approach that eventually will lead to a better functioning criminal justice system that will also be cost efficient for the people of New York.


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