N.Y. parole commissioners travel the state to conduct video hearings and rarely step inside prisons, Daily News analysis shows20 January 2019
By Stephen Rex Brown , Trevor Boyer, and Reuven Blau
It’s a traveling parole board road show — and it rarely takes place inside the walls of prison.
A Daily News investigation has uncovered a bizarre system in which parole board commissioners drive across New York State to conduct video hearings with prisoners locked up nearby.
The perplexing parole procedure is due to outdated technology. The Parole Board has equipment to conduct video hearings, but does not have digitized copies of records on each prisoner. That means the 12 commissioners drive to centrally located upstate “hubs” in towns like Utica, Syracuse and Rochester where they can hold video parole hearings for multiple prisons from an office. The prisoners’ files are delivered to the offices for commissioners’ review.
Incarcerated people loathe the video parole system.
“It depersonalizes the hearing and it gives the hearing a sense of insignificance,” said Jose Saldana, who did 30 years for the attempted murder of an NYPD sergeant.
Prisoners are usually only able to see one of three commissioners at a time, he added.
“In the video you’re only going to see one commissioner, so you don’t know whether the other commissioners are engaged in this process or whether they’re sleeping,” said Saldana, 67, who was paroled last year.
Many elderly inmates have little to no familiarity with the internet or video conferencing technology.
“There’s the unfamiliarity of the media. Then you can’t really see the person,” said Liz Gaynes, president of the Osborne Association, which works with current and formerly incarcerated people.
“Making eye contact is so important if you’re going to be expressing yourself and heard. That’s very difficult to do. It’s just very uncomfortable.”
In all, the Parole commissioners have spent at least $269,035 over the past five years to travel the state, according to expense reports obtained by The News via a Freedom of Information Law request. That’s a small portion of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s annual $3.3 billion budget.
But John Jay professor Martin Horn said the relatively low cost didn’t justify sending three parole commissioners to travel to an office, only to interview potential parolees via video.
“It certainly doesn’t make sense. I don’t see why they couldn’t stay in a home office,” said Horn, who served as city Correction Commissioner.
Prison reform advocates are also vehemently against the video conferences, which were first implemented in 1997.
“What you’re doing is further dehumanizing people who are already institutionalized,” said Barbara Treen, who served as a state parole commissioner from 1984 to 1996.
“It’s so important to get the personal flavor of meeting people — body language, eye contact,” she added. “If you want to get the best feel out of an interview with an individual, you do it up front and in person.”
Treen said that safety concerns are overblown. In her 12 years as a commissioner, the worst that happened to her was being spat on by a prisoner in a facility for the criminally insane.
Most of the commissioners’ spending is relatively frugal, with members typically staying at hotels charging around $100 a night. Three commissioners expensed flights from New York City to Buffalo. But most trips were done in a state-owned vehicle. Costs associated with the ride — like gas — were mostly not included in the expense reports.
DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey State noted that not all parole hearings are conducted via video.
Commissioners hold in-person meetings at five of the 50 facilities where prisoners are eligible for parole: Fishkill, Downstate, Mid-State, and Marcy Correctional Facilities, as well as the Central NY Psychiatric Center.
“Moreover, the board travels to other facilities around the state as needed,” Mailey said. “This flexibility — to conduct interviews in person or via video conference — affords the Board with the time to conduct a thorough review of files and take as long as necessary for each interview.”
He declined to disclose data on exactly how many parole hearings were done in person over the past five years.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is also exploring “a long-term plan to develop a single digital database containing the information that is required for each case,” Mailey said. END
Advocates for people in prison and police unions — who rarely agree — are pressing Gov. Cuomo to totally overhaul the board. Both groups want the state to add more staff to the board and depoliticize how members are chosen.
The board is currently staffed with only 12 out of 19 commissioners, who must handle an average of 12,000 cases each year. Each member is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate for a six-year term. They earn an annual salary of $106,000.
The travel requirements for the job are likely a reason why there are so many vacant seats on the board, Gaynes said.
“Why should a parole commissioner who lives in New York City drive to Buffalo to do a video hearing? You could have three people in three different places — we have that in our office!” she said.
“It’s exhausting. They’re in the car all the time. Then they’re staying in hotels away from their families. It’s insane.”