Herman Bell, a 70-year-old former Black Panther and political prisoner, was recently granted parole after being behind bars for 45 years and denied parole seven previous times. In response, interest groups like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), government officials eyeing election campaigns, and fear-mongering media outlets have condemned the Parole Board’s decision, arguing that because of the nature of the 1971 crime, Herman should never leave prison. Herman’s case reveals a Catch-22 that raises the question of what the purpose of parole truly is for long-term prisoners: if it can only be accessible to those who, despite evidence of transformation and low risk of recidivism, once were convicted of a crime considered serious enough to warrant a long prison sentence yet harmless enough to assuage a judgmental public, then it will apply to virtually no one.
International principles concur that the intention of incarceration should be reform and rehabilitation, not simply punishment. America’s prisons haven’t yet caught up to this thinking, as they are rife with abuses yet hardly provide the tools to facilitate transformation among people who are incarcerated, leaving prisoners to overcome great challenges in working to accomplish and provide evidence of growth and change on their own. But New York Governor Cuomo, who stated that he disagreed with the Parole Board’s decision in Herman’s case, once seemed to embrace this idea himself, as he devoted pages of policy documents and paragraphs of speeches to the importance of re-entry and the opportunity for a second chance for people in prison and their communities. Herman has achieved all of the benchmarks that should support his release – earning higher education degrees, engaging in mentorship of younger prisoners, leading charity projects, staying deeply connected to his family, sustaining strong community ties to facilitate his re-entry, and maintaining a clean disciplinary record – which is why he was given the lowest possible risk score on New York’s newly instituted risk assessment tool for parole candidates. Cuomo repeatedly stated his clear intention to introduce a scientific, fair methodology to the parole review process; the members of the Board that he recently brought on to carry out his initiatives were merely following through on their jobs in the spirit of the new reform-oriented approach when they decided to grant parole to Herman.
The tactics of those opposed to Herman’s release, on the other hand, appeal to fear and bias rather than justice. The PBA sent out a “safety alert” to all of its members following the parole announcement, suggesting that Herman will pose a danger to the city’s thousands of armed officers once released. In fact, Herman just a few months ago suffered a serious attack by prison guards that left him with two broken ribs. In that case as now, it is difficult to imagine how one senior citizen could realistically be a threat to law enforcement; the true threat is the potential danger to Herman, as well as the PBA’s attempts to sabotage the parole process.
CCR at times acted as defense counsel in Herman's and his co-defendants’ criminal cases in the 70s. At the time, members of the Black Panther Party and other Black liberation organizers were regularly attacked, arrested, surveilled, infiltrated, undermined, and even sometimes assassinated by local law enforcement and government agents operating under the vast authority and shadowy strategies of COINTELPRO, a federal government program aimed at disrupting domestic civil rights and anti-war activism using tactics that have since been investigated by Congress through the “Church Committee,” widely discredited, and even deemed illegal. Though the effects of COINTELPRO still resonate in the government’s surveillance practices and threat analyses today, and the issue of police murder of Black people has not abated, racial justice organizers have made great strides using non-violent tactics. Herman understands this shift, and his homecoming should be viewed as a moment of healing and resolution from this history, instead of another race-baiting, hatchet job news story.
If parole is to be meaningful, it has to be available to everyone. It cannot be a mere prop for politicians seeking to gain support from the left that is quickly rejected under public pressure. To treat parole this way taints the well-intentioned efforts of prison reformers and does a great disservice to communities, to activists, and to those most often targeted by mass incarceration. It also risks admitting that the real purpose of prison is only revenge and retribution, which shows how little we as a society have advanced since Herman was first arrested.