Rahson Johnson was going to vote for the first time in his life, at 43 years old. Arrested and sent to prison for armed robbery at age 16, Johnson had lost the right to vote before he was old enough to cast a ballot. He’d gotten out of prison in 2015, but never had the chance to vote,since New York law blocks people on parole from voting.
That changed in April, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 30,000 parolees, including Johnson. But he faced one more obstacle on Election Day last month.
“When I got there, my name wasn’t even in the system,” Johnson told City & State. “So I had to vote by way of affidavit, which was a learning experience for me. But I felt so proud that I was able to do that.”
Johnson was one of five parolees who spoke with City & State about his experiences with voting, keeping up with politics and negotiating the state Board of Parole.We met on an October morning in Long Island City at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization serving formerly incarcerated New Yorkers. Some of the parolees knew each other already, having served time together. Now they were now free together, commuting to their jobs, and coming and going as they pleased. They laughed about Johnson’s voting snafu, and his excitement in getting an “I voted” sticker. After the sweaty-palms, nerve-wracking experience of facing the will-they-or-won’t-they parole board, facing one little bump on the way to voting was a relative breeze.
Against the odds, parole has become a hot political issues going into New York’s November elections. Republican candidate for governor Marc Molinaro released a digital ad accusing Cuomo and the parole board of setting free “cold-blooded killer” Herman Bell, who had been imprisoned since his 1971 conviction for killing two New York City police officers. “Then,” the ad continues, “Governor Cuomo gave him the right to vote.” Molinaro then appeared on Fox News with Diane Piagentini, the widow of one of the officers killed by Bell.
Republican state senators made parole a campaign issue too, holding public hearings on back-to-back days in October to address both Cuomo’s executive order granting voting rights and the parole board’s alleged leniency towards “cop killers, sex offenders and violent felons.” State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who attended the hearings, made his focus on the governor clear in a public statement. “Andrew Cuomo's Get-Out-The-Vote operation includes pardoning the worst of the worst offenders,” he said. “Cop killers, pedophiles and rapists should not be rewarded with a vote and the peace and freedom that they destroyed for others."
Democrats were invited but chose not to take part. They called the hearings politically motivated, pointing to their timing a month before the election as well as their location, with one hearing held in the district of state Sen. Elaine Phillips, a Republican trying to win re-election in a race that could determine control of the state Senate next session. Alphonso David, counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, noted that two thirds of parolees in New York state are non-white.
“These voting laws are relics of the past where we wanted to prevent black men from having the ability to vote,” he told City & State. “And we used the prison industrial complex as a tool to prevent them from voting.”
Of the five recent parolees City & State interviewed, three were black and two Latino. Four had their voting rights restored by Cuomo’s executive order, and voted for the first time in years – or for the first time ever – in the September primary election this year. The fifth parolee, Wesley Caines, had his voting rights restored upon release from prison in 2014. They talked about whether they felt a debt to Cuomo, getting politically conscious in prison and the techniques they used to get the parole board to pay attention to them. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Does voting feel more like a privilege or a right to you?
Naquasia Pollard: For me to come home and have my voting rights restored, it made me feel empowered to be able to have a voice in how our state is ran, how our country is ran. It’s not a privilege, it’s a right as a citizen of the United States.
We were released because we did what we were supposed to do while we were incarcerated. So for us to come home and be marginalized is a problem. And for us to have our voting rights restored, I think that it gives us even more of a feeling of being accepted among society.
Lymus Rivera: Even though as a citizen that is our right to vote, I feel as if it is a privilege. It gives me that sense of completion. Into the society of which I was of destruction at one point in time, and now I’m able to contribute in a positive, healthy way. Voting, it’s an opportunity for me to redeem myself.
Rahson Johnson: I feel like it’s a right. I was 16 years old when I went to prison. Didn’t even earn the right to vote yet, I wasn’t old enough. So I said, how do you take something from me that I didn’t even earn yet?
Wesley Caines: Like Rashon, I believe that voting is a right. I think there’s certain rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship. I recognize that there’s a perpetual punishment system that exists. And for me, voting is fundamental to attacking that and addressing that and dismantling that.
Disenfranchisement is a fundamental way that you further marginalize people. You’re punished while in the penal system – your punishment is your presence in the system. When you’re released, you’re further punished by not being able to vote, not being able to impact the system that had you installed.
LR: Voting is a form of redemption, of redeeming yourself. It’s a form of acknowledging the faults and the wrongs you’ve done in your community and in society.
My family hasn’t voted, my wife my kid – I’ve got a 23-year-old kid, and he hasn’t voted. He’s like, ‘I don’t believe in this, blah blah blah.’ But when I said I’m going to go vote, guess who was there voting with me? My family. And that’s the difference. It just takes one person to help better our surroundings and it starts with your home, it starts with your family, those that supported you, those that loved you.
Has being incarcerated affected your politics? How you think about government and the world?
WC: Oh definitely. My experience of being in the system and now with my work (at the Bronx Defenders), and the work that I do and the people I come in contact with, has definitely shaped my politics. I think that the two-party system is problematic. I think it creates a not so democratic democracy when people are left to think that their only options are Republicans or Democrats. And sometimes people get lost in that system.
We’re having this conversation because Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order restoring voting rights to most people on parole. Do you feel indebted to the governor? Are you more likely to vote for him, or do you think this was just the bare minimum?
NP: I think that Cuomo did it on his own feelings towards the president. I don’t think he did it just because. He took us into consideration because we’re such a large population. That’s why he restored our rights to vote. I don’t feel in debt to him. I don’t feel in debt to anyone. I feel in debt to a child who’s walking around the streets of Brooklyn that’s broken. I don’t feel in debt to the governor. I thank the governor (laughs). Thank you. But I don’t feel in debt to anyone.
RJ: I look at where it was announced at: (Al Sharpton’s) National Action Network. How he announced it, what he said in regards to his executive order. But I also look at some other policies that he actually changed. I was 16 years old when I was incarcerated. He voted to raise the age. Some would argue that he didn’t raise it enough, but it’s a start. You’re moving people off of Rikers Island, 16 years old, off of Rikers Island and into other places.
So in terms of being grateful, absolutely I’m grateful. It’s not something that I just look at for myself.
WC: I think it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t a great decision. Politics is a blood sport. There will always be motives why politicians do the things that they do. And I’m less concerned about motive and more concerned about the correctness of the thing that’s done. And in this case, it was the correct decision.
At the Senate hearings on parole, state Sen. Phil Boyle argued that it would be dangerous to have parolees vote. “Never in a million years,” he said, “did I think that we’d be facing the prospect of criminals going into our schools with students in classrooms nearby on Election Day.” Is that a legitimate concern?
LR: That’s a legitimate argument from somebody who’s ignorant, who doesn’t have any type of interaction with somebody from the criminal justice system. It’s really very ignorant and very unfair for you to judge a person, for you to be an animal who’s going to go to a school and kidnap and eat a child. You might as well say that, you know?
RJ: I really hate the mudslinging, I really do. But when I hear that type of logic, I have my own type of logic in response to it as well. I did 23 years in prison. I’ve been home three years. That means I haven’t committed a crime in 26 years. I was released by a parole board that was entrusted by a commissioner and a governor to be on the parole board, right? People who you said had decision making power could determine what remorse is and release the person.
State Sen. Elaine Phillips noted at the hearing that there were 23 sex offenders on parole in Nassau County alone, including nine level threes – the highest level. But union representatives at the hearing said only one single sex offender on parole voted in the Democratic primary this year – since the conditions put in place, like getting written permission from a school superintendent, were so arduous.
NP: I have a friend that’s a sex offender, and she didn’t want to vote. Because she had to go through all that. That’s humiliating for her to even do that. Sex offenders, arsonists, whatever you were – I learned that in prison, people will never allow you to forget what you once were. It’s a constant reminder when you are a felon.
GR: What Republican senators said about schools, it’s just ridiculous. As a formerly incarcerated man, I work with court-involved youth. I go into schools on a regular basis.
RJ: Me too!
GR: I’m in all kinds of conferences with teachers, with principals, and the furthest thing from those individuals’ minds is that I was once in prison. They don’t know that. They can’t tell. I work in a professional setting, and I have yet to find someone that could tell I was in prison, just based on interacting. So it’s ridiculous to think that a formerly incarcerated person would think Election Day as a time to commit a crime, when you have access to schools.
The hearings were also about concerns with the parole board –
NP: A lot of the time, papers go to the board. So that means the parole board is judging a person that has been in the system for a certain amount of time and judging them on their institutional record without seeing them, without having a conversation. You’re just judging them on those papers. You don’t even show up. Then they give their judgement and that’s it. See you in two more years. See you in a year and a half. See you in 13 months.
I know women who went to the parole board and they didn’t even have their paperwork in front of them. They can’t find it. Do you know the anticipation that a person goes through when they have to sit in front of somebody that dictates their freedom? That’s mind boggling. That’s a whole different psychological aspect that you have to endure.
Did you get a fair shake from the parole board?
NP: I got a fair assessment because I’m here (laughs). I’m here, you know? But who’s to say the girl behind me got a fair assessment, that’s been locked up longer than I have?
WC: I did. I actually appeared before the parole board six months before my sentence required it through a program that (the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision) has which incentivizes positive participation in certain programs. I went through that process and earned release.
My experience with the parole board is mixed. The lack of being able to speak to your offense is one of the core reasons why parole board commissioners deny release.
My personal experience was, I had three commissioners who, very fortunately for me, from the moment the first question was posed to me, I was afforded the opportunity to really answer that question fully. Which I think redirected the trajectory of how my parole hearing could have gone. I was actually in the parole board for 25 minutes. Which is so unusual in and of itself. It’s a rarity to have someone sit before the commissioners for more than 10 minutes. I don’t have any specific critiques about my personal experience before the parole board. I think that I was given ample opportunity to respond to questions. I was given ample opportunity to share with the commissioners my thoughts on things that they didn’t necessarily ask. That’s not the norm. It was fortunate for me that I was granted parole.
LR: Obviously you need to prepare because there’s rules of engagement. You’ve got to learn the language of course. But there are very few programs that give you an opportunity to be able to learn how to articulate. Insight into your defense.
And I think that’s definitely unfair, because not everybody has the capability of expressing those things in the politically correct way. Sometimes it’s just letting the (parole board) person know, “Listen, I’ve been staying out of trouble, I earned my GED. Give me a chance.” That’s as simple as they can say it. And I think they should be granted that.
RJ: I actually was fortunate enough to make my first parole board. Prior to going to the parole board, I had an opportunity to talk to many of my friends who went before me. Some didn’t make it. But after doing 23 years in prison, I understood that, seeing so many people denied, I really needed to prepare.
So I thought about the amount of time you’re given to represent yourself at the parole board, but also attached to that is the thought they don’t read your package. You put together a parole board package that is an accumulation of everything you’ve done from the time that you’re actually gotten into prison. I forgot how many pages mine was – probably about 15, 20 pages. So I said, “How do I actually demonstrate my transformation that would make them read it?” So one night I said, “you know what, I’m going to put my mugshot on the front page of my package.” I put my mugshot on there. So to the (parole board member), they’re like, “why would this person put his mugshot?” Inside of it, a few pages later, I put the image of a caterpillar. And when you go further in, you see the image of a butterfly. I was trying to demonstrate that I acknowledge the person that I actually was at this time. And that I illustrate who I was. I was this hairy, ugly little caterpillar that wreaked havoc in my community. But through everything I’ve done since I was incarcerated from the age of 16 until I was 39, I have used every resource available inside of the institution to evolve into this butterfly.
WC: You have to be creative.
RJ: You’ve got to tell a story, because in the amount of time you’ve been allotted, you may not get that opportunity. “OK, that’s it, next person.”
GR: I had two parole board experiences. The first one was incredibly discouraging. It was five minutes. Leading up to my parole board hearing, I had 11 years without any incidents of misbehavior. So I’m all excited, I’m revved up. I’ve got a parole packet that consists of almost 11 pages of letters of support, certificates – you name it, it was in there. And I go in there, and it just happened to be a day when there were several incidents at the (prison), so that kind of limits movement and doesn’t allow you to get from point A to point B and everything was delayed. I finally made it to the waiting area, at the hospital at Fishkill (Correctional Facility). When I get there, I noticed that they’re running these five minute hearings. I’m like, oh my god, they’re just slapping everybody denied. They can’t possibly be letting people go with five minute hearings. I got in there and it was one of those hearings. They didn’t ask anything substantive. Everything was just, “oh, you committed a murder, you committed this?” It was all questions that they had the answers to right in front of them. So nothing of substance. There were a couple of questions I was able to kind of add additional information to, and I managed to pull off a dissenting opinion. But I was initially denied – and I went early. I went with the six months that I had earned.
It was just so discouraging. I felt like I left there without being able to say anything about how I felt, how I’ve changed. Because they didn't leave room for that. It was just basic questions.
My second time around, however, I had one of those 30 minute hearings where we spoke about the crime, but we also got into, “OK, what has happened since then.” They referenced the parole packet, which gave me the indication that, OK, they looked at it, they’ve read some of it. And that’s when I made it.
Research Director, Empire Center for Public Policy
THIS YEAR'S RANK: 97CHANGE: -4
LAST YEAR'S RANK: 97
As founder and research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, E.J. McMahon is a go-to expert on budget plans and policy proposals. His organization promotes greater transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility in state government, which often puts him at odds with lawmakers and the governor. McMahon previously worked as a journalist in Albany, as an Assembly Republican staffer and a budget adviser for almost 30 years, giving him great insight into the goings-on in the Capitol.