John MacKenzie and the Importance of the Release of Aging People in Prison

13mon3web-master675On Thursday, August 4th, our community learned of the death of John MacKenzie at Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York. John committed suicide after being denied parole on Wednesday. He appeared before the parole board ten times over the last sixteen years. He had spent the last 41 years incarcerated in New York State prisons following his fatal shooting of a police officer in the midst of a burglary. While behind bars, John proved himself to be a model prisoner, earning three degrees, as well as securing $10,000 in funding to create a program to enable victims of violent crimes to speak directly to currently incarcerated people about the impact of their crimes. John was given a 15-life sentence by the judge and went to his first parole board at the end of the minimum sentence of 15 years. However, the parole board ignored John’s rehabilitation and the assessment of the legally required Compass Instrument that found he is not a risk to public safety and turned him down for parole 15 years beyond the minimum sentence given by the judge because of their assessment of the seriousness of the crime he committed.

The policy of the parole board has been to repeatedly turn down people who have been convicted of murder, and especially those convicted of the death of a police officer. They are in violation of the parole executive law in continuing to deny people simply because of the crime they committed, and ignoring public safety assessment, and the who the person is today. Dutchess County judge Maria Rosa found the Parole Board in contempt for their repeated, improper denial of John’s petition and fined them $500 per day, and the parole board appealed her decision. The Board scheduled a new hearing once again for the tenth time, however, the Board still rejected John’s release. In despair, he tragically took his own life. The past week has seen demonstrations both here in New York City as well as upstate.

While we mourn the loss of John MacKenzie at the hands of an unjust system, this moment only underscores the necessity and the urgency of our work to release aging people from prison. Individuals like MacKenzie and thousands of others, languish behind bars convicted of violent crimes but have continually demonstrated time and time again that they pose no threat to society. Parole was specifically created for people like John, who have demonstrated remorse and responsibility for their crimes and who deserve a second chance at freedom. The Center has published a white paper on aging incarcerated populations as well as released a short film on this topic to educate both policymakers and the general public. Links to other organizations doing similar advocacy are included at the end of this post. The Center continues to conduct research and to advocate for the release of aging populations from prison, collaborating with RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison), the Osborne Association, and others, in the hopes of preventing more deaths like John Mackenzie’s. We call on the public to seize this moment as a chance to push for reform and to further expand education around this issue. We honor John’s memory and keep him, his family and all those who still remain behind bars in our thoughts.

For more on this story: Suicide of 70-Year-Old John Mackenzie After Tenth Parole Denial Illustrates Broken System , After Being Denied Parole 10 Times, Elderly Prisoner Allegedly Commits Suicide at Fishkill Prison, Calls Grow for NY Gov Cuomo to Reform Parole Board That Denies Release of Eligible Prisoners

Resources: Parole Justice NY Coalition, Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, the New York State Prisoners Justice Network, Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, Osborne Association, Urban Justice Center, Candles for Clemency