Interviews & Profiles

Formerly incarcerated and fighting for prison reform

Jose Hamza Saldana, director of Release Aging People in Prison, in a conversation with New York Nonprofit Media, discusses how to effect change in the face of an Albany scared of seeming soft on crime.

Jose Hamza Saldana, director of Release Aging People in Prison

Jose Hamza Saldana, director of Release Aging People in Prison (Image coutesy of Jose Hamza Saldana)

The percentage of people age 50 or older in New York State prisons has risen dramatically in the past several years, from 12% in 2008 to nearly 25% in 2021. Older people in prison are most likely to be the sickest and most in need of intensive medical care, and they’re also the least likely to commit new crimes upon release (Nationwide, only 4% of those released at age 65 or over commit new crimes, compared to more than 43% of released prisoners overall). For all these reasons, the group Release Aging People in Prison, formed by former prisoners in 2013, aims to change New York state laws to give a fairer shot at parole to state prisoners age 55 and over, to make the overall parole process fairer by more deeply considering a prisoner’s achievements while incarcerated, and to make the state Parole Board less white, rural and law-enforcement based and more reflective of communities, largely Black and brown, from which incarcerated people hail. The group’s director since 2018 has been Jose Hamza Saldana, who threw himself into prison and parole reform while serving his own 38 years in federal and New York state prisons. 

Saldana talked to New York Nonprofit Media about his life before and since joining RAPP, a typical day and how to move forward prison-reform bills amid a Democratic Albany fearful of being considered “soft on crime.” 

What is a typical day like for you?

I live in the Bronx with Rosa, my wife of nearly 25 years. I usually get up at 6 a.m. and look at my emails and texts to see what happened during the night. I get lots of emails from folks in prison who we're connected to. I have coffee and turkey sausage, eggs and toast – maybe French toast if I'm feeling up to it. I like a hearty breakfast because I may well miss lunch. Then I get on the train and I'm in our office in Chelsea by 8:30 or 9. Work is either Zoom calls or just calling people or answering calls. I try to be home by 7:30 p.m., then I'll have dinner, whatever my wife cooks. I'm Puerto Rican so I love rice and beans or chicken stew with rice. Then after dinner I'm back on the computer. I'm not a fast writer so some things take me a while. Then I go to bed. I try to get seven hours of sleep twice a week but on average I get six. Last night I only got four-and-a-half.

Do you ever exercise?

I love running, but recently I did some sprinting and pulled a muscle. So, I've been walking since then. I try to get to the gym when I can. I'm 66, so I'm part of the Silver Sneakers program where you can go to many different gyms for free.

What was your life like before connecting with RAPP?

I was born and spent most of my childhood in Spanish Harlem, el barrio. In 1980, I was arrested for bank robbery and attempted murder of a police officer. I got 25 years to life. l have endless regrets for acts of violence I committed that harmed people – innocent people, for the most part. Just pulling out a weapon in a bank or anywhere terrifies and traumatizes people. During the 38 years I was incarcerated, first in federal prison then several New York State prisons, I was in groups that helped me begin to understand the harms my actions caused. My crimes didn't happen the way the prosecutor said, but they did happen and I was responsible, no matter what reason I had at the time.

While in prison, I got an accounting degree, partly because I wanted to [build a good prison record] to do as little time as possible. Prison is full of government-sanctioned brutality. I accepted being in prison but I won't accept being brutalized, having my property taken away along with other actions designed to humiliate me and deprive me of my dignity, like pat-downs and solitary confinement. I spent 18 months in solitary because a story was fabricated that I was a member of a gang and involved in violence against a prison officer who was found in a pool of blood. When I was in Southport state prison, which is a SHU [special housing unit] solitary confinement prison, my four kids would come to visit me but they were so traumatized, because there was a gate between us, that they couldn't come anymore. 

I know someone who's been in solitary for 23 years. This is a system founded on perpetual harsh punishment, which I can't accept.

Eventually in prison, I started learning how to advocate for myself by filing grievances. Then around 2008-2009, I became part of an in-prison group called Second Look where we would draft bills to change New York state prison laws. One bill was drafted to modify a person's sentence if they could demonstrate that they had rehabilitated themselves. Another bill was to change the composition of the New York State Parole Board to get away from [the board being made up primarily of people from] law enforcement and have a more diverse group to give us fairer hearings. But we couldn't find anyone in Albany to introduce our bills. 

I went up in front of a parole board four times before finally being paroled on my fifth appearance in 2018.

Thirty-eight years in prison is a long time. What was the hardest part?

You don't get the best healthcare. I tried to stay healthy, to exercise, eat as well as I could and stay stress-free, which is almost impossible to do in prison. The average age of death in a New York state prison is 58. I was very conscious of that stat, as well as that many die from cardiac arrest, so I did a lot of running. But the worst thing about prison is the family separation – everything else I could handle. I got to see my four kids pretty regularly, but most people lose contact with their children. I can't imagine what it's like for a mother, not being there when your kids need you. I grew up with my father in and out of my life, so I know what that's like.

Did anything good come out of those 38 years?

I became a better human being – I addressed some of my character shortcomings, took an honest inventory of myself and didn't like what I saw. To be clear, I had an understanding of the social, economic and political conditions in this state, this country. I know racism is real. It's been a part of my life since I can remember. But to address those outer conditions, I had to address what was inside of me. I worked hard to do that, and I'm still doing it. I didn't want to be a person who leaves prison and continues to do harm. I wanted to come out and develop positive relationships so we can gain power in our communities to change what needs to be changed.

Can you tell us about your release and how you connected with RAPP?

Before I was released, one of RAPP's founders, Mujahid Farid [who died at 69 in 2018], met my wife when he went to get health insurance from the company she worked for. He told her about RAPP, then she told me and I started writing to Mujahid, telling him I was part of an in-prison group trying to change laws so that people could have a meaningful chance to get out of prison. We had the same mission, basically. 

So I went to work right away for RAPP when I was released in January 2018, starting as a volunteer doing whatever they wanted me to do – community organizing or speaking to legislators or at a press conference about my experience. Then I became a part-time worker. Then Mujahid passed away and the other RAPP founders decided I was going to be the next director, which I became in December 2018.

Wow, so you were released from prison and became the head of RAPP all in the same year. What has been your biggest achievement with RAPP so far?

We've built RAPP into a grassroots community organization. We have hundreds of members including a core group of families with incarcerated loved ones. They are our most powerful voice in advocating.

What about legislatively?

We haven't gotten any bills passed yet. Last session, we tried to get passed the Elder Parole bill, which would provide people in prison age 55 and older who've already served 15 or more years an opportunity for parole release consideration. This includes some of the state's oldest and sickest incarcerated people. Also, the bill doesn't exclude anyone based on their crime or length of sentence.

Why didn't the bill move forward?

It got stuck in committee because the chamber leaders wouldn't put the bill on the floor. We believe that New York's Democratic lawmakers won't move forward such bills because they fear losing their majority due to backlash from groups like the Police Benevolent Association.

Well, you are getting at the heart of the matter, which is that New York state Democrats have been in a defensive posture trying to prove that they are not soft on crime, or criminals, in the face of rising crime – even if the perception of rising crime is greater than the actual stats. The governor really had to double down on being "tough on crime" in the face of a genuine threat from her Republican challenger Lee Zeldin in the last election. So how do you get around that resistance to anything that appears to go easier on criminals? 

Our strategy is to continue to build powerful community support and force them to put our bills on the floor. But it's tough. The PBA and other groups have more powerful bullhorns and access to media than us. But the truth is that if life sentences kept our communities safe, then Black and brown communities would be the safest around, which is not the case. Long prison sentences do not result in community safety.

What does?

Putting resources in our communities. Better schools that are not overcrowded, better healthcare, adequate housing, better services for mental health – even things as simple as having access to parks that are not run-down. And take militarized policing out of our communities.

What does RAPP need to do going forward that it hasn't been able to do so far?

We need more media coverage and more studies from reputable institutions like universities or research groups.

Have you ever commissioned a poll on the public's feelings about these proposals?

We've done polls which have favorable results if the wording is correct. Over 65% of people polled supported the concept of giving older people the opportunity to come back to their communities. 

But again, if you can't make these laws move in relatively liberal New York state, with strong Democratic majorities in both chambers, what does that say? 

New York is not as liberal as people think. We have reports from The New York Times and the Times-Union actually exposing the racial disparities in the parole release process – what else do you need?

Reform advocates often call for a Parole Board that better reflects the communities represented in prison, and also that has more human services workers rather than law enforcement types. Has the Board in New York state changed at all?

It's a more diverse group now than it was years ago, but it's still dominated by law enforcement people, many of which simply don't have the DNA to give a fair hearing. The law is not on our side—it's so ambiguous that they can justify denying someone parole for eternity.

How is it ambiguous?

Say that they have to consider 16 criteria. The nature of the crime is one, but so are rehabilitation efforts made while in prison and connections to the community. Some of us get master's degrees while we're in prison, but they don't want to evaluate that. They say, "That doesn't offset the crime that was committed." But the nature of the crime will never change! The most important question is, "Are they going to commit another crime?" And the simplest way to answer that is to look at what the person has done while in prison. 

Going forward, what will RAPP do that it hasn't done before?

We don't want to give away our plans. But our elder bill is unlike any in the country, with 33 co-sponsors, and the reason is because of our organizing – with non-impacted groups as well as impacted ones. We're going into an election year, which makes things harder for us, but we're up for the challenge.

What is your capsule argument for more frequent parole of aging folks in prison?

If we truly believe a person can change, then justice should not be defined as revenge. If that's the case, we might as well bring back chattel slavery.

What would you say to the person who says that keeping people in prison is not about revenge, but safety?

Statistics prove that the older a person gets, their recidivist [committing another crime] rates get lower and lower, to as low as less than 1%. 

What's been foremost on RAPP's plate this summer?

On a daily basis, we've been going to housing projects in Brownsville [Brooklyn] and talking to every single person there. We start out with conversations about what we're trying to do, then ask, "Do you support this? Are you willing to talk to your family about it?" Then we ask families to talk to Assemblymembers in their district. This is the heart and soul of community organizing.

Any events coming up?

We're planning rallies in all the boroughs in October and some in-district meetings with legislators.

You're 72. Do you think about retiring?

Sometimes I have to feel like I have to do this for another ten years. 

Do you consider not retiring until at least one of the bills is passed?

I haven't actually said it like that, but that's how I really feel.

What do you do for joy, relaxation and self-care?

My wife and I are taking a Caribbean cruise for two weeks at the end of September – eight islands altogether. I love the beach and swimming. I'm going to try to have no phone contact.

What about on a more daily basis?

I walk a lot and do a quick gym workout. I like to see a good movie too. I recently enjoyed “Women Talking.” It starts with a conversation between women who realize they've all been sexually violated since they were little girls. Then they start talking about what to do about it. It was a very emotional and deep movie about how a human being can be oppressed their entire lives but their soul refuses to die.

TIm Murphy is an independent, New York-based journalist and regular contributor to New York Nonprofit Media.

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