Photo by Milad B. Fakurian on Unsplash

I’m on the phone in the prison yard talking to the associate director for RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison). I’ve had conference calls with them before, and today I listen in as they meet with members of the Albany assembly. As I wait to chime in, the yard officer tells me, “Time is up.” I plead for ten more minutes, and get the OK, but I feel pressured.

The raw emotion in the voice of a woman pleading that her husband not be allowed to die in prison, snaps me back into focus. As negotiations continue, the jostling for political position begins to annoy me. I’ve decided to “speak my mind” after all; it’s my future they’re arguing about. My hope for freedom. My shot at redemption.

Several criminal justice reform proposals are up for consideration this year. Assemblyman Robert C. Carroll and State Senator Luis Sepulveda are considering a bill that would cap sentences at 25 years, after which they would send people to a parole board. RAPP is introducing the Elder Parole Act, which requires a review for people 55 years and older after serving 15 years of their sentence. Another RAPP proposal, the Fair and Timely Parole Act, calls for an element that mandates a clear reason for denying parole. All proposals are based on statistically-proven lower recidivism rates.

Back in December of 1992, I was on parole, broke, jobless, and homeless. I grew desperate. I shot and killed the owner of a jewelry store in a robbery-gone-wrong. I’ve served 28 years of a 50-years-to-life sentence, with 22 years to go. In 2042, at the age of 83, I’ll see my first parole board.

The 25-year cap bill is vital, because young men who are idle and aimless in prison with no hope of ever seeing parole are a danger to the prison population, staff, and themselves. Older men are surrendering to illness, violent acts, and COVID-19. I know, because I pray for their souls at Sunday Mass after they’ve died. I’m 62 years old myself. I wait in limbo wondering if I’ll ever have an opportunity to use my skills in a real-world setting. This is where the Elder Parole Act would afford people like me that opportunity.

Timothy Rameriz would also benefit from the 25-year cap. He sits with me in the yard on concrete benches in a dugout cove of slush and snow. Small in stature, “Tiny” finds himself trying to hold down 75-years to life. At 21, he was convicted of multiple counts of conspiracy to commit murder and assault. Young and confused, he’s struggled with religious identity and gang affiliation. He tells me, “It was so easy to get lost…to lose direction.” But now at 30, he has his sights set on higher education and earning college degrees.

That was me, too. I had no goals. I was a fabric cutter for years in another correctional facility, Clinton Dannemora, just trying to survive. I’d sell drugs and do drugs. I’d lift weights and play board games to pass time. In 2012, after I transferred from Clinton to Sullivan and landed a spot in the college program, things started to change. I earned a bachelor’s degree with a 4.0 GPA and through education, my thoughts became clearer. I began to express myself more effectively and started aligning myself with criminal justice reform advocacy groups. I got pushed into the spotlight and found myself having conference calls with legislators and telling my story at campaign rallies.

The system is broken, and our voices beg for action. The climate for change is ripe and a collective approach is the most effective route. My life and the lives of so many others literally hang in the balance as we wonder if or when our legislators will take the next active step.

On the conference call with RAPP, it was finally my turn to speak, I chimed in:

“Begin by consolidating all proposals. Eliminate disparity. Agree to no carve outs. Consider all convictions and sentences for review. After 25 years, there should be a review for those who committed their crimes between the ages of 16 to 39. Prisoners are now being afforded more accessibility to higher education through Pell Grant expansion. A four year college degree or higher earns them special consideration after just 15 years. With the Elder Parole Act review comes after 15 years, when they’re 55 years or older. Add the Fair and Timely Parole Act to break the cycle of retributive justice.”

I’m no legislator, but I do have agency. All around I see people without aims or goals. Others are aging. Most of them transformed and are waiting for a shot at redemption. They are all lives that still have worth. When will they have an opportunity to prove themselves? Don’t they deserve a second chance to return to the families and communities that love and need them?

The officer yells, “Ehrenberg! Your time’s up!”

I’m OK with that. I’ve said my piece.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Robert E. Ehrenberg

Robert E. Ehrenberg is a writer who was released from Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York, where he served a sentence of 50 years to life. He is a college graduate and holds an associate degree in humanities and a bachelor’s degree in social science.