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Cornell students involved in the Parole Preparation Project protest this fall against poor health conditions in prisons related to the pandemic.

Students help man win freedom after 28 years in prison

A group of Cornell undergrads celebrated earlier this month after they learned that an incarcerated man, with whom they’d been collaborating on securing his release, was given parole after 28 years in prison.

The students are part of a new Cornell chapter of the Parole Preparation Project, which helps incarcerated people prepare for interviews with their parole boards, during which they make their case for freedom. The students help compile packets that contain court records and files from the corrections department, but they can also include letters of support and statements from the incarcerated person about their history, remorse and post-release plans; the incarcerated people use these documents to show the parole board why they should be released.

“The parole project shows us once again what Cornell students can do, even in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Joe Margulies ’82, professor of government and law, who was an adviser for the students. “They helped secure a man’s liberty, which is one of the greatest accomplishments anyone can achieve.”

Founded in 2013 in New York City, the Parole Preparation Project supports incarcerated people with life sentences, both before and after their release, and advocates for changes to the parole process. Most volunteers with the project are attorneys or law students.

When Richard Rivera of Ithaca, a formerly incarcerated person, heard that so many Cornell students were interested in criminal justice issues, he contacted the project’s director and encouraged her to allow Cornell undergrads to work on cases. Then he met Anna Lifsec ’21, who was already involved in prison education and advocacy projects at Cornell, and suggested the idea to her.

“It’s logistically difficult to put together this (parole) packet when you’re in prison,” said Lifsec, one of three students who worked on the case. Between printing and mailing costs and legal fees, an incarcerated person is usually unable to gather much for their parole hearing other than data from the criminal justice system, she said.

“The parole project shows us once again what Cornell students can do, even in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Joe Margulies

Lifsec has been interested in mass incarceration issues since high school, and became more so when she worked on a research survey with a Cornell professor that showed that half of the U.S. population has an immediate family member who has spent time in jail or prison.

It’s common for incarcerated people to be denied parole multiple times, said Rivera, who was convicted of killing an off-duty police officer during a botched robbery attempt and went to prison at age 16. He was denied parole six times and spent 39 years in prison before being released in 2019.

Lifsec and her fellow students took on two cases in the spring, speaking with the incarcerated men and their families by phone and helping to compile the packets. The students received a grant from the Office of Engagement Initiatives to help cover their costs.

Lifsec said more than 500 people have applied for help from the Parole Preparation Project, which prioritizes people who are older or have health problems, or who have already served many years in prison.

In addition to Lifsec’s group, four other students – Louise Wang ’23, Rose Crawford ’22, Sara Rogers ’22 and Julianna Gay ’22 – worked to help another incarcerated man who was denied parole. They will continue to work with him to prepare for his next hearing, in two years.

Lifsec just accepted 12 more students into the parole prep program and they’re beginning to work with six more incarcerated individuals. Said Lifsec: “This is all about being able to accept that someone can change and become a different person.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Abby Butler