John MacKenzie, 70, a prisoner at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, committed suicide on Aug. 4. After 41 years behind bars, he had been denied parole for the tenth time. Given the life expectancy of prisoners, it appeared he would never see the free world again.
When I talk to people about the need to treat prisoners humanely, the response I often get is, “They’re no angels, you know.” Certainly, MacKenzie was “no angel.” He was convicted in 1975 of killing Officer Matthew Giglio on Long Island during a botched burglary and sentenced to 25 years to life. But is that the end of the analysis?
During his decades in prison, MacKenzie not only had a flawless disciplinary record but earned three college degrees. He helped counsel prisoners about to be released to prepare them for life on the outside and to resist returning to crime. Perhaps most remarkable was MacKenzie’s commitment to paying his debt to society and to his victim’s family. To that end, he founded a program in which victims spoke directly to prisoners about the impact of their crimes. From behind prison walls, MacKenzie even secured the funding that made the program possible.
The regulations governing the New York State Parole Board require it to take into consideration evidence of a person’s rehabilitation and the danger he or she poses to society. MacKenzie took responsibility for his crime and was far past the age of the vast majority of perpetrators.
Nonetheless, the Parole Board was not willing to look past the gravity of his 1975 crime. Even after a state judge held the parole board in contempt for its rote denial of MacKenzie’s application, the board continued to disregard the law and again summarily denied MacKenzie parole.
I believe we owe it to prisoners and ourselves to show more humanity in our criminal justice system. MacKenzie’s case is representative of the impunity with which the Parole Board regularly denies parole to even our most deserving and elderly prisoners. I urge Gov. Cuomo to require detailed, written explanations of parole decisions, to require the videotaping of parole hearings and to allow the presence of legal representation at those hearings.
Laurie Dick, Beacon