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A plea for clemency before it's too late

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The Department of Justice has been considering the release of two well-known and well-connected Long Islanders from prison: Dean Skelos and Michael Cohen. In this pandemic, that makes sense. Skelos, the former State Senate majority leader, has COVID-19. Cohen, former fixer to President Donald Trump, is in danger from it. But what about the thousands of older, endangered, and less well-connected people in our state’s prisons?

Two months ago, I drove from Suffolk County to Sullivan Correctional Facility to visit my friend Bobby. Bobby and I met through my work a few years ago. He grew up in Commack and I grew up in Bay Shore. While we have similar Long Island backgrounds, we live completely different realities.

For 27 years, Bobby has been incarcerated upstate in maximum-security prisons. In the early 1990s, he made the worst decision of his life when he shot and killed a jeweler during a robbery. He took a life, devastated a family, and spread fear throughout the community. Bobby was sentenced to 50 years to life.

When we talk about his crime, Bobby is filled with profound regret. His voice cracks and tears run down his face for the tragedy he caused. Early in his incarceration, Bobby channeled his remorse into transforming his life and the lives of others. He earned college degrees with top honors, created rehabilitative programs, and organized fundraisers for a local animal shelter and children’s cancer fund. But Bobby won’t have his first evaluation for release until his 80th birthday. In the wake of COVID-19, I worry that his fate will be sealed far sooner.

Bobby is now 61 and has lived with HIV for more than three decades. He is confined with hundreds of others in a closed, congregate setting with poor ventilation and negligent medical care. Social distancing is impossible for Bobby and his peers.

In our state’s prisons, 1,000 incarcerated people and staff have already tested positive for COVID-19. It is just a matter of time before Bobby confronts the virus. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should grant him and others like him clemency before it’s too late.

For many, the mere thought of Bobby’s release stirs up genuine anger: Why should I urge Cuomo to grant Bobby and others like him clemency? Why should Bobby get a chance to reunite with his loved ones, when the person whose life he took will never get that chance? The answer lies in our shared humanity as Long Islanders.

In the last month, the Trump administration released dozens of people from federal prison in the wake of COVID-19. Cohen and Skelos didn’t physically take lives, but used their positions to unethically benefit themselves and those close to them. Both broke moral, social, and political codes on the national stage. Both will have served roughly one year in prison before their releases.

Releasing them is the right thing to do, but so is releasing other incarcerated Long Islanders. If we see Bobby and others in prison as fully human and capable of transformation, then we’ll support their release, too. If we believe in faith-based values of compassion, redemption, and mercy, then we’ll also extend them to Bobby and others. If we allow science and data to drive government decisions, then we’ll acknowledge that Bobby’s age, time served, and rehabilitation mean his chances of returning to prison are almost zero. And if our hunger for justice and fairness is stronger than our thirst for vengeance and punishment, then we’ll support the governor granting life-saving clemencies to Bobby and others. Their lives literally depend on it.

Dave George is associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign.

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