Opinion writer

No one who knows Jerome Wright thinks he actually took cocaine, even though he allegedly failed a drug test and signed a confession.

“I would call it quite implausible,” says Steve Hart, an activist who has worked with Wright for several years. “I believe the last drug test he failed was 40 years ago, and it was for marijuana.”

In a letter of support for Wright, signed by more than 60 members of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, Chairperson Tremaine Wright wrote that the group has “serious questions" about whether Jerome Wright “would have drugs in his system.”

Wright, 58, is a deacon at his church, an activist for criminal-justice reform and the primary caregiver for his wife, who is bedridden with a debilitating neuropathic condition, and for one of his sons, who has Down syndrome. He has mentored formerly incarcerated people as they reenter society. He speaks to high schools and has mentored at a charter school for kids who have been deemed at-risk for committing crimes. He’s a volunteer at Buffalo Peacemakers, an intervention group aimed at staving off gang and youth violence.

All of that community leadership has earned Wright several awards, and as well as supporters in high places throughout the state of New York. And yet for almost six months now, he has been incarcerated at a county jail in Buffalo. Reform advocates say his case illustrates how New York’s parole system grants far too much power to individual parole officers who are often overworked and unsupervised, and who operate in a system with perverse incentives.

Forty years ago, at age 18, Wright was convicted of second-degree murder, manslaughter, robbery and burglary. He was sentenced to 20 years to life. He served 30 years, during which he was denied parole several times. Finally, in 2009, the parole board let him out. In the nearly 10 years since, Wright had accumulated a perfect parole record. He went about his teaching, his activism and his community leadership without a single violation. Before he moved to Buffalo, his local parole office was so impressed with his example that it asked him to speak to new parolees.

Hart worked with Wright on a campaign to end solitary confinement, which has become the main target of Wright’s activism. “I remember the first time we spoke together. It was to a group of 18 high school kids at a conference for students interested in Amnesty International,” Hart says. “He spoke so movingly about the years he spent in solitary. Eventually, 11 of the 18 kids went to Albany to lobby the legislature. They slept on the floor of the home of one kid’s mother. That’s how powerfully he speaks.”

In November 2017, Wright moved from the town of Tonawanda to Buffalo and was assigned a new parole officer. On his very first meeting with the new officer, Wright asked for a travel pass to go to New York City for a conference on solitary confinement sponsored by his employer, the Urban Justice Center.

“She said, ‘Why should I let you go? I don’t know you,’” Wright says, in a phone call with me from an Erie County Jail. “I said check my file. I’ve been doing this for years. But it didn’t matter.”

When Wright told his supervisor at the Urban Justice Center what had happened, she asked for his parole officer’s number — not to complain, but to see what arrangements they could make to allow him to speak at future events. That only made things worse.

“She called me up and just started cussing me out,” he says, referring to the parole officer. “She said I was trying to go over her head, that I think I’m too good to follow her orders. But that isn’t what happened at all. I didn’t ask my supervisor to call.”

The next day, the parole officer and her supervisor called Wright into the parole office. “They just sat me down and berated me,” he says. “They told me the days of people going easy on me were through. That I thought I was some big shot. I just didn’t understand any of it.”

The new officer told Wright his drug tests would increase from twice per year to every other month. He says he was fine with that, since he hadn’t used in decades. But she also gave Wright a 9 p.m. curfew, which officers can impose at will. “That made it nearly impossible for him to continue his activism,” Hart says. “Those meetings are usually in the evening, when people are off from work. You can’t get much done if you have to be home by 9.”

At the parole officer’s discretion, a single curfew violation could result in a year behind bars. “I know guys who had a job and a family,” Wright says. “Guys who have been on parole for years with no problems. But then they come home 15 minutes late. That’s a year in prison, and now everything is gone. The job. The house. Sometimes the family.”

Wright wasn’t happy, but he complied with the new requirements of his parole. His last official parole check came in November of last year. He passed, as he always had, including his drug test.

Three weeks later, Wright voluntarily went to the parole office to ask permission to attend an out-of-state conference. His parole officer again gave him a drug test, which he passed. But the officer then said he had urinated in a way that made her question his sample, so she asked him to take it again. The second test was inconclusive. At this point, Wright’s parole officer asked him to provide a cheek swab sample. Wright says he obliged.

“I heard her said something like, ‘I haven’t done any of these before.’ Or maybe it was many," Wright says. “But it seemed clear to me that she wasn’t familiar with the test.”

Minutes later, the officer told Wright he had tested positive.

“I said, that can’t be right. I said they should do it again.”

The officer notified her supervisor, who told Wright that if he’d just admit that he had taken some cocaine, he’d get to go home that night. “I knew hadn’t taken any, so I figured they’d send it to the lab, the lab tests would clear my name, and I’d get to go home.”

Instead, Wright was arrested on the spot. If a parolee formally contests a test result, parole officers are required to send the sample to a lab for more conclusive testing. But if the parolee admits to using drugs, the sample is destroyed. Wright’s confession sealed his fate.

Wright’s attorney Matt Albert says the facts speak for themselves. “This was never confirmed with a blood test. And as far as we know, they didn’t even preserve his sample. They claimed to have video of him coming in wearing multiple layers of clothing, as if to hide a clean urine sample. But they also say they no longer have the video. So it’s just his word against the parole officer’s. That’s an awfully thin reason to send someone back to prison."

Parolees don’t enjoy the same full set of rights as everyone else. Parole is considered part of their sentence. So they’re subject to searches, check-ins and drug testing. New York’s system is particularly punitive, vesting an extraordinary amount of power with parole officers. At an officer’s discretion, a parole violation can mean instant arrest and incarceration. Violators have no right to bail and no right to an attorney. In a case such as Wright’s, there’s no Sixth Amendment right to confront your accuser or to see the evidence against you. When I spoke with Albert on Tuesday, he had just received information on the brand and model of the drug test used in Wright’s case a couple of hours before our phone call, after Wright had spent more than 20 weeks in jail.

Parolees typically have dozens of stipulations they must follow, very few of which are actual laws — stipulations such as curfews, prohibitions on frequenting bars and no contact with anyone else with a criminal record. Parole officers can even dictate whom parolees can date, or where they can live. A few years ago, a parolee claimed he was violated for wearing a hat.

Research has shown that such rules don’t actually help people successfully complete parole. In fact, it seems they’re more likely to hurt. Each year, New York finds 7,000 parolees in violation, more than any state but Illinois. And about 65 percent of the parolees are sent back to prison for technical violations, not for committing new crimes.

Legally, the state has 90 days to hold a hearing after an alleged violation, but Albert says that each time the state offered Wright a plea bargain, which he refused, they restarted the clock. That, too, isn’t uncommon. “It’s a Wild, Wild West type of system,” says Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and a former commissioner of New York City’s probation system. “You have parole officers with dozens of cases who get nothing if a client successfully completes their sentence, but who could lose their job if a client commits a new crime. It’s just a deeply profound trivialization of people’s liberty.”

One parole officer told Gothamist that the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) “is interested in only one thing: making sure they don’t get blamed when a case goes bad. So their solution is simply to lock everybody up that you can.”

Allegations of parole violations are supposed to be heard by impartial administrative law judges. But those judges work for DOCCS as well. In Wright’s case, they worked out of the same office. They’re represented by the same union, and media inquiries are handled by the same communications office.

The anonymous official also told Gothamist that because of new leadership, the administrative law judges were being “stripped ... of their independence and discretion,” and that the system was "biased ... in favor of re-incarceration.”

Judges who opt to re-incarcerate, for example, can do so independently. But to free someone found to have violated his or her parole required consultation with a supervisor, off the record, and outside the presence of the parolee and any attorney who might be present with the parolee. (Remember, there’s no right to an attorney here.) The result is a system that is opaque, hostile to media inquiries and generally closed to the public.

This isn’t how parole is supposed to work. Allegedly, the entire goal of parole is to successfully transition formerly incarcerated people back into society. But on an individual level, parole officers are incentivized to find violations, not to help their clients succeed. And on an institutional level, the more successful the parole system is at its idealized vision, the fewer parolees there will be, which could well mean fewer parole officers, fewer administrative judges and perhaps a smaller budget. New York certainly isn’t alone when it comes to these problems, but it does seem to be lagging behind much of the rest of the country. According to research by the Columbia University Justice Lab, about half the state’s parolees are eventually re-incarcerated, vs. less than 30 percent nationwide.

But it’s the lack of oversight and supervision of wayward parole officers that brings about the most glaring injustices. Wright’s supporters speculate that his new parole officers in Buffalo might have been motivated more by resentment than a desire to see Wright succeed. “They say they want you to have a job,” Albert says. “But they only want you to have a certain kind of job. They want you washing pots and pans, that sort of thing. Jerome was speaking all over the state — all over the country. He was mentoring, speaking to legislators and policymakers. And he was pointing out the problems in this system. That isn’t the kind of job they want him to have. I think there was some resentment that he was doing so well. So they imposed restrictions that made his job more difficult. They disparaged him to his bosses. Tried to get him fired."

All of this comes at a particularly bad time for Wright. He’s the primary caretaker for his wife, who has a form of neuropathy that leaves her bedridden, and for his adult son, who has Down syndrome. He says they’re the primary reason he confessed. He wanted to get home for them. Wright also has a bad leg, and before he was arrested he was scheduled for hip replacement surgery. That’s now on hold, and he says that in the time he has been incarcerated, he has been in constant pain.

Wright’s incarceration also happens to coincide with the incarceration of other parolees who are also outspoken advocates for criminal-justice reform, and whose violations also seem unduly harsh. “I was on a panel with a guy who was violated because he got married,” Schiraldi says. “The problem was that he wasn’t supposed to associate with anyone with a criminal record, and his new wife had a record too. So he spent a year in prison.”

Emily Bazelon’s podcast “Charged” tells the story of Cadeem Gibbs, another outspoken reform activist who was actually a regular commenter on previous episodes of the podcast. Gibbs was on the last days of his parole — he wasn’t even scheduled for another check — when he spoke at a Children’s Defense Fund conference in Tennessee. When his parole officer dropped by for one last house check, Gibbs wasn’t home. He was arrested and sent to Rikers Island.

Wright’s supporters say they don’t see evidence of any overarching campaign to shut reformers up. Rather, it shows just how much power a punitive-minded New York parole officer has to ruin someone’s life. And as more and more formerly incarcerated people get a platform to speak out, it’s likely to rub the occasional parole officer the wrong way.

Schiraldi and others are trying to fix this broken parole system. They even have the support of several district attorneys — including Cy Vance in Manhattan, Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn, Darcel Clark in the Bronx, and the head of the state district attorneys association, David Soares. The proposed bill, called Less Is More, would cut down on the number of noncriminal activities that can trigger a violation, reduce the penalty for violations and let parolees earn time off the back end of their sentences for meeting their obligations. Schiraldi is optimistic that the bill will eventually pass, but worries that after passing two criminal-justice reform bills in the past year, the legislature might be suffering from “reform fatigue.”

As for Wright, he remains remarkably even-keeled, given what has happened to him, and what he’s facing. “You see, I’m lucky,” he says, over his phone line from the Erie County jail. “I’ve had the time to accumulate a good record. I’ve had the opportunity to earn the trust of some important people. I have an incredible support network of people speaking up for me." Indeed, his attorney presented a stack of more than 100 letters from people vouching for his character.

He then adds, “But this kind of thing happens all the time. And most of the people this happens to, they never got the chance to earn that trust, to contribute, to be their best selves. This system just destroys them before they get the chance to show what they’re capable of."