When a prison counselor recently asked Frank Pruitt to sign a medical release form in response to his clemency application he was overjoyed.
Pruitt, who has been in prison for 31 years for the murder of two teens in Queens, thought it meant his application was moving along and that he’d soon be freed from Attica.
“Unfortunately, it certainly seems to me that it’s just an administrative step that doesn’t carry much weight,” said his lawyer, Steve Zeidman. “So it just raises false hope.”
It is unclear how many other state prisoners have been asked to sign off on similar releases so that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his staff can review their entire files.
But very few prisoners get to the final cut, despite Cuomo promising in 2015 to make the process “a more accessible and tangible reality.”
Cuomo this year has granted clemency to three male prisoners during the pandemic and two others, including one woman, in January, pre-COVID-19.
Pruitt was 18 when he fatally shot Tyrone Lee, 17, and Jahar Bellamy, 18, inside an apartment building lobby in Far Rockaway on April 21, 1989.
He was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison and won’t be eligible for parole until February 2039, when he’ll be 68.
Pruitt’s supporters worry that he will not make it that long, especially with COVID-19 cases spiking in Attica. There were 102 confirmed cases in the facility as of Dec. 18, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Prison rights advocates point out that it is impossible to social distance behind bars.
A prisoner died from COVID-19 complications in Clinton Correctional Facility on Monday and another at Woodbourne Correctional Facility on Dec. 18, DOCCS records show. Since the start of December, 668 people have tested positive and two have died — bringing the total since the pandemic to 20 fatalities, prison data reveals.
“This may be the only opportunity for people who have languished in prison to go back to their homes. We hope the governor understands this,” said Jose Saldana, director of Release Aging People in Prison.
Traumatic Childhood to Profound Regrets
Pruitt’s backers say that he has made extraordinary strides behind bars, is no longer a scared teen and has deep remorse from the crime he committed as he tried to break up a dispute.
He has led a Bible study course for 10 years and participated in “every single vocational and educational program recommended for him, and more,” according to his clemency application. He got married 15 years ago and was recently accepted as a peer counselor in Attica’s suicide prevention program.
Pruitt was raised by a single mother who struggled with a heroin and crack addiction, according to his clemency application. He lived with her and two sisters in a Rockaways NYCHA development.
His father was an alcoholic who once severely beat him, a trauma that left him scarred as a teen, according to the clemency request.
“Mr. Pruitt grew up without a stable parental figure with the tools to take care of him and be a positive role model,” the filing says. “Instead, Mr. Pruitt explicitly learned to resolve conflicts through violence.”
When he was 8, “Pruitt was beaten up badly and his mother ended up slashing the other child’s mother in the face with a knife,” according to the clemency application.
His mom was arrested and sentenced to jail. Pruitt and his sisters went to live with their grandparents.
He shared a room with another relative, whom, he alleges, sexually abused him from when he was 9 until he turned 11, according to his lawyers. Kids at his new school bullied him and “he overreacted to these perceived threats and instigated fights,” the clemency application says.
“One time I punched a kid and took his bike and didn’t even know why,” Pruitt is quoted saying in the report.
As a teen, he dropped out of school and began selling drugs. A few months before his crime Pruitt was robbed at gunpoint in the stairwell of the same building, according to his lawyers. So he bought a gun for protection, a choice “he profoundly regrets,” the filing says.
Potential ‘Credible Messengers’
Pruitt is just one of thousands of people in prison seeking mercy from Cuomo.
State prisoners have submitted at least 6,489 applications for reduced sentences since 2016, after the governor announced a more merciful approach to dealing with requests, THE CITY reported last year.
The overwhelming majority of inmates, many of them serving life terms, made just a single application. Prisoners can go years without a response from DOCCS or Cuomo’s team, which reviews the pleas.
Zeidman, who has multiple pending clemency applications, contends that the release of some older prisoners who have served long sentences would actually increase public safety by reuniting families.
“Here’s someone who can lend emotional, physical, financial support, because communities have been devastated,” he said, noting that many could also serve as “credible messengers” to caution others against committing crimes.
“We waste that level of talent and commitment, by warehousing people till they die in prison,” said Zeidman.
He argues applicants should also be kept informed on where their cases stand or if there’s a need for additional information.
Thomas Mailey, a DOCCS spokesperson, defended the clemency process, saying the Executive Clemency Bureau receives and thoroughly reviews applications on a consistent basis.
The review includes an evaluation of the “facts and circumstances” of the crime and an assessment of what the person has done while locked up, he said. The bureau then sends eligible applicants to the governor’s office for review.
‘Gotten People’s Hopes Up’
In 2015, Cuomo vowed to revamp the process. But he hasn’t kept a promise to make decisions on a quarterly basis, according to lawyers with pending applications.
“We were hopeful because we really got the impression that it was going to be done on a large scale and take on over-incarceration,” said Ted Hausman, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society who handles clemency cases.
“There are a lot of people who are strong candidates for clemency that the governor has overlooked,” he added. “He has gotten people’s hopes up.
Prisoner advocates say Cuomo’s five commutations this year and 24 in total since 2011 pales compared to President Donald Trump and some other governors — including his own father, Mario Cuomo, who issued 37 commutations during his three terms in office from 1983 to 1994.
Mailey, the state prisons spokesperson, noted that Cuomo has released more than 3,500 inmates early this year, mostly due to the pandemic. Critics point out that none of those people were convicted of serious crimes where only clemency would give them a chance at freedom.
Advocates in New York are urging state lawmakers to back several measures to reform the system, including one bill that would automatically grant parole hearings to all prisoners when they turn 55, if they have served 15 years or more.
On Tuesday night, about 75 people protested outside of Cuomo’s New York City’s Office in East Midtown. They urged the governor to take sweeping action on the clemency front while holding signs reading: “Cuomo Let Them Go!” “Clemency Now!” and “COVID + Prison = Death.”
“On behalf of the men at Green Haven prison, I want to offer an apology for the pain that we have caused,” said Stanley Bellamy who called into the rally from the lockup.
Bellamy, who is serving 62 ½ years to life for a murder conviction and has a pending clemency application, added, ”We ask that you give us a chance to be assets to our communities.”