- Bob Boylelawyer for Herman Bell.
- Jose Saldañoformerly incarcerated in New York state prison. He was released by the parole board earlier this year in January, after 38 years inside. He knew Herman Bell and is now an organizer with the group RAPP, Release Aging People from Prison, who has helped push for parole reform.
We continue to look at how a judge in New York has suspended the release of Herman Bell, a 70-year-old prisoner who has been granted parole after 45 years in prison. Bell was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the killing of two New York City police officers in 1971. At the time, he was a member of the Black Liberation Army and a former Black Panther. Since then, he has mentored thousands of young men while behind bars and kept a clean disciplinary record. State-mandated tests show he would pose the lowest possible risk if he is allowed to re-enter society. In March, the New York Parole Board granted parole for Bell, noting he had expressed remorse and was likely to lead a “law-abiding life.” State law requires commissioners to consider such factors, but they’ve only recently started to comply. On Wednesday, a state judge agreed to hear a challenge from the widow of one of the officers, who says the board violated procedure. A hearing on the petition is set for April 13, just days before Bell’s earliest originally scheduled release date. We speak with Robert Boyle, lawyer for Herman Bell, who says the board followed the rules. We are also joined by Jose Saldaña, who was incarcerated in New York until he was released by the parole board earlier this year in January, after 38 years inside. He knew Herman Bell and is now an organizer with the group RAPP, Release Aging People from Prison, who has helped push for parole reform.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our look at the suspended release of a 70-year-old prisoner who has been granted parole in New York after 45 years in prison. Herman Bell was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for killing of two New York City police officers in 1971, Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. At the time, Bell was a member of the Black Liberation Army, a former Black Panther. Since then, he’s mentored thousands of young men while behind bars and kept a clean disciplinary record—even after guards brutally attacked him in September. State-mandated tests show he would pose the lowest possible risk if he was allowed to re-enter society.
In March, the New York Parole Board granted Bell parole, noting he had expressed remorse and was likely to lead a law-abiding life. State law requires commissioners to consider such factors, but they’ve only recently started to comply, after a campaign for reform. In its decision, the parole board cited a letter from the namesake son of one of the victims, Waverly Jones Jr., who wrote that he and some members of his family supported Bell’s release, saying, “The simple answer is it would bring joy and peace as we have already forgiven Herman Bell publicly. … On the other hand, to deny him parole again would cause us pain as we are reminded of the painful episode each time he appears before the board.” That was the letter.
Other family members of the slain officers, as well as the police union, known as the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the PBA, have called for the board to reverse its vote, along with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Then, on Wednesday, a state judge agreed to hear a challenge from the widow of Officer Piagentini, who says the board violated procedure in its decision. A hearing on the petition is set for April 13th, a week from today, just days before Bell’s earliest originally scheduled release date.
For more, we’re joined by Herman Bell’s lawyer, Bob Boyle. We’re continuing the discussion with him, as well as Jose Saldaña, who was formerly incarcerated in New York state prison and was released by the parole board earlier this year, in January, after 38 years inside, knew Herman Bell, is now an organizer with the group RAPP, Release Aging People from Prison, which has been pushing for parole reform.
So, Bob Boyle, in Part 1 of this discussion, we asked you about this challenge to the parole board after, well, what, Herman Bell served 45 years in jail, saying he can get out. Talk about the information that they had, that they based this on, and the issue of risk, how low-level the risk was, they said, for him to get out.
ROBERT BOYLE: Well, in order to evaluate someone for parole, there are various statutory criteria. And that includes the disciplinary record of the prisoner, his adjustment, whether he’s been—shown remorse for his crime, whether there’s a viable release plan. And what was put into the law a few years ago was something called the COMPAS factors, which is a scientifically based evaluation of whether they posed a risk to the community. And Herman Bell, after being administered those tests, came out to have the lowest risk for recidivism, which, I would add, is typical for elderly prisoners, even those convicted of murder. I believe the statistic is, if you’re over 50, there is only a 1 percent chance of recidivism if someone is released. So this applies not only to Herman Bell, but to many, many people in prison, because our prison population is getting older and older.
AMY GOODMAN: And his record in prison, prison for 45 years, I think there was something like four violations, possibly, in that 45 years, extremely low.
ROBERT BOYLE: Oh, his disciplinary record was exemplary. And everyone, I would say, within the Department of Corrections and at the parole board have used that term, “exemplary.” And, in fact, he has defused incidents while inside which could have led to harm to other prisoners or to guards.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to him—he, himself—last year? He, himself, was beaten?
ROBERT BOYLE: He, in September of 2017, while he was at Great Meadow, which is commonly known as Comstock, and one of the most racist and arbitrary institutions in the state prison system, or, if not, the world, he was assaulted by a group of about four corrections officers, who escorted him to an area of the prison not covered by video cameras and out of view of everyone. They beat him about the head. He lost consciousness. He suffered a concussion, and—but, of course, then was charged with assaulting the officers. After an investigation, those charges against him were dismissed, and he was taken out of solitary confinement and ultimately moved to Shewangunk.
AMY GOODMAN: And were any of the officers disciplined?
ROBERT BOYLE: There’s one or two of the officers were actually under suspension, right now. And there is, from what I understand, an ongoing investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: Jose Saldaña, you’ve just recently gotten out of prison, after 38 years. And you say Herman Bell deeply influenced your life, and you were not alone in that.
JOSE SALDAÑA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you meet him?
JOSE SALDAÑA: Well, I was in the facility with Herman, and I was having a difficult time taking responsibility for my crimes. And Herman said, “That’s not hard. All you have to do is look at the person as a human being.” I was convicted of attempted murder of a New York City police sergeant. And that statement, coming from Herman Bell, caused me to really think and reflect: Look at him as a human being? And then that started—that there started the process of me looking at him not just as a human being, a family man, a father, husband. And having discussions with Herman, you know, I kind of started developing insight into the harm that my crime did. And if anybody else would have told me that, I probably would have not listened. I would have not taken that to heart. But coming from a man like Herman Bell—and I’m not the only one that feels that way—when he says something, we tend to think about it and have further discussions on it. And this is why I say he’s influenced so many people, because his words are so profound to us that they just don’t go in one ear and come out the next.
AMY GOODMAN: Did Herman talk to you about the role he would play when he got out of prison, if he got out of prison? Well, like you’re working with the Release Aging People from Prison?
JOSE SALDAÑA: Well, you know, it’s—you know, decades, he’s been a role model, a mentor. He facilitated these therapeutic self-development programs for us, for decades. And I joined him. You know, a man who has dedicated four decades of his life to this, I mean, he was such a great—he was such an asset to the imprisoned community, it’s hard to believe that he won’t be even a greater asset to the community and a benefit to society, you know, at large.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Boyle, the significance of this suit? Has a suit like this happened before? Explain what it is and who it’s against, why Herman Bell’s release was put on hold for the moment.
ROBERT BOYLE: Yeah, Mrs. Piagentini, Diane Piagentini, but actually through lawyers retained by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, brought a lawsuit against the state of New York, against the parole board, seeking to block—have a judge block their order releasing Herman Bell. This has been tried before, and particularly in two cases where someone who had been convicted of killing a police officer has come up and been granted parole. And in both of those cases—and, in fact, there may be three of them—that I’m familiar with, it was thrown out of court, for a number of reasons. When someone who is convicted of killing a police officer appears before the parole board, and there’s a chance they’re going to grant it, you have to know that they dot the Is and cross the Ts, because the parole board knows that there’s going to be a reaction if they grant it.
And so, in those other cases and in the case of Herman Bell, they did just that. They listened to Mrs. Piagentini, who has a right and should have a right to make a statement to the parole board; the brother of Waverly Jones, who opposed release; his sentencing minutes; his entire litigation file, what the parole board described as boxes of material, both supporting and opposing his release. So this—they did everything that they were supposed to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain how unusual two hours is.
ROBERT BOYLE: I believe there was a hearing last month of—in Albany—and Jose might know about this—where they said that they—the parole board spends an average of 12 minutes per inmate when they are interviewing him or her to get parole. So, to spend two hours with a single person, it’s a very thorough consideration.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the mayor, Bill de Blasio, who is known as a person who supports reform, has called for the closure of Rikers, for example, him coming out against the release of Herman Bell?
ROBERT BOYLE: Well, it’s very—it’s very disheartening and, actually, shocking, because he is a man who has espoused the principles of restorative justice, that you don’t achieve justice by just locking someone up and throwing away the key, that people change. Yet, in the case of Herman Bell, without ever having met Herman Bell or reading any of the material submitted to the parole board, said he should never be paroled and can’t be rehabilitated, which also flies in the face of neuroscience, which says people do change. But it was, you know, in my opinion, political pandering.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, right now, what will take place?
ROBERT BOYLE: Well, we go to court on April 13th up in Albany, and on a hearing on this injunction that the judge issued, which, by the way, was issued ex parte, which means that the other side just submitted papers. We haven’t even gotten a chance to respond yet. And we’ll see what the judge will do. I’m confident that the judge—if the judge applies the law correctly, it’ll be thrown out.
AMY GOODMAN: And the date that is set for Herman Bell to be released, if he is?
ROBERT BOYLE: Well, there’s no set date. He can’t be released before April 17th. That’s the rule. But it could be that day or any number of subsequent days.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I thank you, Bob Boyle, for joining us, lawyer for Herman Bell; Jose Saldaña, formerly incarcerated in New York state prison, released by the parole board in January, after 38 years inside, knew Herman Bell and is now an organizer with the group RAPP, Release Aging People from Prison.
To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.