Written by Alana Stephens
What is clemency anyway? It is a powerful tool used with the sole discretion by the President on a federal level and by the Governor on a state level to show mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Clemency has two forms: Pardons (overturning a conviction post-release) and commutations (shortening a sentence allowing for early release). For the purpose of this article, when I mention clemency, I am referring to commutations — the form of clemency that has the tremendous potential to right the wrongs and remedy the failings of the criminal legal system on a wide scale. What are the requirements for executive clemency in the state of New York? Technically, the New York State constitution allows the governor to grant clemency to any person incarcerated in the state’s prison system with an affirmative signature—the literal stroke of a pen. That’s it. However, Governor Andrew Cuomo created guidelines in order to designate ideal candidates who have demonstrated remorse and made “exceptional strides in self-development and improvement.” My brother is one of many remarkable candidates who exceeds the guidelines, so I’m trying to understand why he hasn’t been released. For thousands of incarcerated individuals like my brother, the hope of mercy, forgiveness and freedom is met with contradictory resistance.
In 2015, Governor Cuomo announced that he was “taking a critical step toward a more just, more fair, and more compassionate New York… to help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality.” We have not seen action to back up his words. In fact, since this announcement, the hopes of clemency for thousands of families has only led to deep disappointment and great frustration. We honestly feel abandoned by the one person who claimed to want to help us and has the absolute power to follow through. Of the more than 2,500 New Yorkers who applied for clemency in 2020 (during a world-wide health crisis), Governor Cuomo granted clemency to only 12 incarcerated people — that’s less than 1% of all who applied. And as someone with an incarcerated loved one, it is exceptionally difficult to comprehend why the Governor would express his belief in clemency, but fail to meet his own goal.
Patrick Stephens is serving 25 years-to-life at Sing Sing Correctional Facility for 2nd degree murder. Despite incarceration, Patrick’s resumé is extraordinary. His accomplishments include a Bachelor’s degree from Bard College and a Master’s degree from New York Theological Seminary. He is also committed to educating and encouraging others to live better. Patrick even had the unlikely opportunity to reconcile with the brother of the man whose life was lost. He carefully detailed the encounter in a two-part blog post discussing accountability and the need for safe restorative dialogue.
Patrick, without a doubt, deserves the second chance that Governor Cuomo can easily grant. Especially with the threat that COVID-19 adds to the hazardous conditions in New York’s prisons, the utilization of clemency to decarcerate and show compassion just makes sense. Patrick is one of thousands with unanswered clemency requests. Over the past two years, our family has waited anxiously for a phone call that Patrick can finally come home. In December 2018, we submitted Patrick’s initial clemency request to Governor Cuomo via the Executive Clemency Bureau. Since then, we’ve created a public petition and a website to give petition supporters additional information about Patrick’s accomplishments and deep accountability. We have support from over 6500 people including a letter of support from a NY Senator. And in our latest supplemental package, we recapped everything we’ve ever submitted and added in some special touches including USB drive containing a video of family and friends imploring Governor Cuomo to grant clemency to Patrick.
The most terrifying aspect of this process has been the added stress of COVID-19 breaching prison walls. In April 2020, Patrick contracted COVID-19. Despite his serious symptoms, he received no medical attention, no testing, no hand sanitizer or adequate PPE. He did his best to limit contact with other people, but it’s impossible to social distance in prison. It was the scariest two weeks for me. He avoided using the phones (really he was too exhausted), so our communication was even more limited. I was afraid he was getting sicker and I was scared to tell our mother. Thankfully, he recovered. But the fear of a second wave remains. Just a few days ago, he told me that a guy in his area tested positive, has pneumonia and is in the hospital… no one else in their area was tested or quarantined. Needless to say, the COVID-19 response in New York prisons is not what NYDOCCS would have you believe. I’ll leave my thoughts on that for another article.
The most frustrating aspect of this process is the utter lack of transparency and communication. Not once in the past two years have we received a written response acknowledging receipt of our clemency requests. We are one of thousands of families who have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars preparing clemency applications that are seemingly collecting dust somewhere in Albany. We are under the impression that the Executive Clemency Bureau doesn’t actually exist, that there is no longer someone truly assigned the responsibility to accept and keep track of each clemency request. We are left in this brutal limbo. Truth be told, it is insulting to suggest that less than 1% of candidates are “good enough” to be forgiven.
Families are wondering when Governor Cuomo will hear our cries, but my question is when will he truly address our cries? Why is it so difficult to use a power that you have the sole authority to use, Mr. Governor? It’s hard to put myself in the Governor’s shoes, to empathize, to consider what he may be struggling with or up against in this process. If expressing mercy by using this tool to right the wrongs of a counterproductive prison system and mass incarceration does not give him a sense of accomplishment or if he doesn’t have enough support from inside the State House, then what is the incentive for him to grant clemency frequently and at a much higher rate? We can call him out all day long, but how do we effectively call him in to make the changes we so desperately need? Not only do we need the support of our elected officials, but we also need community support. We need our community to be open-minded; the part of the community that is not directly impacted by the “justice” system, the part of the community that has no experience of having a loved one behind bars. We need that part of the community to have a willingness to introduce truthful information to their preconceived notions.
There is an unrealistic fear that the community-at-large has with regards to incarcerated individuals, particularly those in for violent crimes. What people should know and understand is that being convicted of a violent crime does not mean the person is actually a violent person. Mass incarceration exists partially because of inflated charges and excessive sentences on Black people. But more than that, people need to remember that incarcerated people are just that — people. No one deserves to be caged like an animal for decades upon decades. And if we believe that prisons are meant to be corrective and rehabilitative, then we must also believe that people are capable of transformation.
Patrick, like so many others, is not at all the same person he was when he was convicted. He has gained such widespread respect among every person he’s ever come in contact with. He, a “violent criminal” is exactly the kind of person who should live freely so that he can contribute to society. He has positively impacted more lives while behind bars than most free people have in their lifetime. Roy Bolus, granted clemency in 2018, speaks about Patrick in such high regard. In the video we submitted to the Governor, Bolus says, “I think the world should know that people like Patrick actually exist because the misnomer is that so many of us are actually incarcerated and we’re not worthy of freedom or we’re not worthy of a second chance.”
But they are worthy of a second chance. And we, as a nation, should be willing to witness actual rehabilitation and reconciliation and restoration — that is one thing we need a true example of, and on a wide scale, in this nation. Our elected officials cannot support something they don’t understand but they must not be resistant to learning and they must be open to truth-seeking dialogue with their constituents. They were voted into their positions to represent all of us, including incarcerated individuals and their families. So Governor Cuomo, all NY decision-makers, and every person reading this, I invite you to take the time to re-educate yourself. Decarceration does not mean that there will be chaos in the streets. Decarceration does not mean that there will be a drastic increase in crime. Decarceration does not mean that the people and families harmed are not on our minds. Decarceration does not mean that there is no accountability for crime committed. Decarceration does mean that lives will be saved, our loved ones will go out into society and help prevent others from making similar mistakes, and we will begin to rectify the injustices of mass incarceration.