Just a few minutes were left in Andrew Cuomo’s term as New York governor when he issued rare—but entirely appropriate clemencies—to 10 elder men who have served, collectively, hundreds of years in the state’s maximum-security prisons. Criminal justice reform activists have long urged state leaders to repair a system rooted in mass incarceration and inhumanly long sentences.
During his three terms, Cuomo did not make this kind of reform a policy priority. But with his last-minute clemencies, he did leave on a positive note. This was particularly significant given the failure of the state legislature to act on several prison and elder parole reform bills in this year’s session that had drawn considerable support from lawmakers and the public.
The 10 men who received a gubernatorial clemency each had strong records of constructive, peaceful, and meaningful rehabilitation in prison. Eight are Black or LatinX. All but one—David Gilbert—will now walk free. Gilbert must appear before the New York State Board of Parole. He turns 77 in less than a month and is entering his 41st year in prison for a felony murder conviction.
Gilbert was an unarmed getaway driver in the notorious 1981 Brinks robbery in which two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed. He has served his time with dignity, becoming a respected anti-violence mentor to younger men in prison. Inside and out, he is known for a lifetime of opposition to racism in all its forms. Most notably, at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, he and several fellow inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility created a prisoner-led peer counseling program to educate people in prison about the disease. At the time, misconceptions about the nature of AIDS were rampant in prisons across the country. The model created at Auburn was most effectively implemented at the Bedford Hills women’s prison, but, with the help of the state, the AIDS Institute spread to other men’s prisons in the state and across the country. Chroniclers of the history of community-based efforts to address the AIDS crisis credit Gilbert with ultimately saving hundreds of lives.
Unfortunately, New York state has not been particularly forward-looking in its response to the Covid pandemic in prisons. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the agency that runs New York’s prisons, was slow to encourage and enforce both masking and vaccinations. Prisons, like nursing homes, are congregate settings. Many people in prison, especially elders, have been lost who could have survived with better care.
As David wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Times published in March last year:
Maintaining a safe distance from others in prison is impossible. As a result, we will potentially suffer widespread infection, and the impact could quickly spread to communities beyond the bars. Correction officers and employees interact with people in prison and return to their homes daily. Peer education is vital for explaining the importance of and best means for social distancing and hygiene while still facilitating communication with family and friends.
Gilbert’s sentence commutation requires him to go before the state Parole Board. His hearing is scheduled for September 20. Gilbert’s perfect 40-year prison record alone warrants immediate release. Already, hundreds of supportive letters are pouring in, including one from his son, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Conversely, denial by the Parole Board would signal that prison is just about punishment and revenge. Gilbert has taken all available steps to formally express his remorse to the victims of his crime. He has participated in—and taught—anti-violence workshops. People in prison are asking for the opportunity to rectify their mistakes, to atone and rebuild. Take that away, and prisons are nothing more than medieval dungeons. Historically, clemencies have almost always been reserved for people convicted of nonviolent crimes—which makes it all the more striking that most of those receiving the former governor’s final clemencies were convicted of homicide. This aspect alone is praiseworthy. The unwillingness to advocate clemency or a path out of incarceration for people who made terrible mistakes with terrible consequences decades ago has long been a major stumbling block for criminal justice reform.
Traditionally—and unfortunately—New York governors have issued few clemencies and pardons, usually around the end-of-year holidays. Incoming Governor Kathy Hochul has the opportunity to write a new chapter in criminal justice in New York. Cuomo, on his way out the door, went beyond the usual caution that limits politicians seeking reelection. For that, there are grateful families and communities—and a glimmer of hope for people in prison.
Letters of support for David Gilbert’s parole should be signed and dated, and addressed to:
Chairwoman Tina Stanford
c/o Jefrysson Aldana
Supervising Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator
200 Quick Road
Wallkill, NY 12589.