Cornell Parole Initiative is a student organization that has successfully released six people from prison, and their work is far from finished. The organization prepares parole applicants, who are serving sentences between twenty years to life imprisonment, for their hearings, which typically fall between six to nine months from when the organization begins working with the applicant.
“Our goal is to get more people out of prison,” said Louise Wang ’23, co-president of the Cornell Parole Initiative. “With this type of work, we all take it very seriously. For a lot of people, it’s their biggest commitment or their only commitment, just because of the workload.”
For some members of the initiative, incarceration is a deeply personal issue.
“A lot of friends in my community [Harlem] and youth members have been incarcerated,” said Dakota Stennett-Neris ’23, co-president of Cornell Parole Initiative. “I’ve seen first-hand the effects that incarceration has not only on the person that is incarcerated but also the community, so I wanted to get involved mostly because of my upbringing and the community that I was in.”
Before being assigned to an applicant, students in the initiative are trained to navigate the parole system, learn about the criminal justice system and learn about the person with whom they will work.
Once every one to two months, members make the two to four hour drive to the correctional facilities in which their applicants are being held.
Members then work directly with the applicants, preparing them for interviews and making calls to the applicant’s family and support system, who are often involved in the applicant’s parole hearing preparation.
“We’re building relationships with the applicant, with their support system, with their family,” Wang said.
All of this work culminates into a parole packet, which contains letters of support, letters of reasonable assurance, legal documents such as pre-sentencing reports and a five page advocacy letter written by the Cornell Parole Initiative team.
The parole packet is then sent to the Board of Commissioners for review.
“This packet is so essential because when an applicant is in prison, they don’t really have a way to show to the commissioners when they go in front of their hearing what they do in prison, if they’ve navigated it [or] accomplishments that they’ve had, so the packet just contains all of that information,” Wang said.
The Cornell Parole Initiative also works with Richard Rivera, a formerly incarcerated individual who serves on the advisory board of the Cornell Prison Education Program.
Rivera went to prison at 16 after being convicted of killing an off-duty police officer. In 2019, Rivera was released after spending 39 years in prison and being denied parole six times.
Together, Rivera and the members of Cornell Parole Initiative discuss how to help applicants prepare for their interviews and what to expect during the parole hearing.
“[Applicants] only have 15 minutes to justify why they should be free and explain their humanity, so we try to explain how to do that in a succinct way that is also convincing and persuasive and advocates for their own story,” Stennett-Neris said.
Stennett-Neris mentioned that usually commissioners ask the applicant for a very detailed account of the crime.
“I think often, [the commissioners] don’t realize that the crime itself is also very traumatic for the perpetrator,” Stennett-Neris said. “We also work on if you’re feeling traumatized, just take a moment, calm down, breathe, tell [the commissioners], ‘Can I have a minute or two?’ but just going through that and repeating it and preparing is a huge part of the parole process.”
Despite the organization’s success, the members have had to encounter several obstacles, such as the small size of their organization and lack of structural support on campus.
“We just don’t have the manpower to expand and our goal is to just become more of an established organization, and the way that we do that is to just really get more support from Cornell,” Wang said.
While the Cornell Parole Initiative receives some grants and funding through Cornell, such as the Serve in Place Fund, as well as funding from Student Activities Funding Commission, finances are still a concern for the organization. The Initiative has to cover mailing and printing fees to produce and send parole packets, and pay gas money for its eight teams to travel to prisons across the state.
To alleviate some of these issues, Cornell Parole Initiative is currently in the process of merging with the Cornell Prison Reform and Education Project, also known as PREP.
The Cornell Parole Initiative has also encountered unfamiliar legal situations.
“For example, if an applicant is thrown in solitary confinement for something or gets a disciplinary ticket, we don’t really know how to navigate that as well,” Wang said. “So there are certain legal situations in which we’ve really needed an advisor to step in.”
Currently, Prof. Joe Margulies ’82, law and government, is the organization’s main advisor.
Although Cornell Parole Initiative has played a significant role in preparing its applicants for their parole hearings and has even helped some incarcerated individuals get parole, Wang also acknowledged the difficulties of performing complex legal work as undergraduates.
“We’re undergrads, we’re twenty-something years old and a lot of the work, it’s done by lawyers, and we’re not lawyers. So, it’s hard for us if a new situation, a legal situation, comes up,” Wang said.