RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison)
Stories of Impact
In 2019, for the first time in the history of New York State, the State Senate did not confirm a government-appointed Parole Commissioner and in 2023, the Governor was forced to pulled a Parole Commissioner and a State Correction Commissioner from the Senate confirmation process.
Typically, these appointees aren’t closely examined for their biases (including racist beliefs) that have been shown to influence the parole release process, adding years to decades of incarceration to community-ready men and women. Disrupting what is usually an unquestioned process – one that contributes to mass incarceration and permanent family separation. Stopping the confirmation of such appointees was a huge win for Brooklyn’s Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP), incarcerated people and their families.
“Because of our organizing, legislators [knew] that they have the power. We gave them the ammunition and the evidence that a [government appointee] would be a bad parole commissioner judging from the history of law enforcement [and what] this person had done to violate people’s rights,” RAPP Director Jose Hamza Saldana explained. “RAPP actually showed them that they have the power to veto these appointees.”
RAPP was founded in 2013 by three formerly incarcerated individuals who collectively served nearly 70 years in state and federal prison. During that time, they witnessed and lived through the negative impacts that life in prison caused, especially for their older peers who were forced to age in prison because of maximum sentences and no guarantee for parole. One founder in particular was denied parole nine consecutive times, which added 18 years to his sentence. “Because of this, he was so passionate about changing the approval process and changing who the commissioners are that unjustly denied him,” Saldana explained.
But RAPP knows that changing regulations around parole and ending mass incarceration entirely requires a systematic overhaul of how we think about justice more broadly: “We’re trying to create a parole board system that is not banked on revenge and punishment,” Saldana said. This means getting as many community members as possible on board with prison abolition, especially those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
Funding that we’ve received [from Brooklyn Org] has allowed us to create a relatively new concept in community organizing for criminal justice.Jose Saldana, Director
Saldana explained that families of incarcerated individuals usually come to RAPP as a last resort, at a point where they often have little hope left. Rather than leave them in despair, RAPP offers them the tools to build a different, more just future through advocacy training, campaign involvement, and opportunities to speak with local and state legislators.
With support from Brooklyn Org, RAPP has been able to compensate these individuals for their advocacy work, providing them with $500 monthly stipends. “Funding that we’ve received has allowed us to create a relatively new concept in community organizing for criminal justice,” Saldana said. “People in our community, because of our community organizing, value human transformation over perpetual punishment. They believe in second chances. They believe in redemption, and they know that long-term prison sentences does not translate to community safety.”
Today, RAPP is pushing for two bills – the Elder Parole and Fair and Timely Parole Bills – that will improve the parole process and lessen the likelihood of older adults spending more time than necessary in prison. This past session, the Elder Parole Bill – which entitles all incarcerated individuals who’ve reached the age of 55 and have served 15 years to a parole hearing regardless of conviction – reached 33 co-sponsors, pushing it into a majority vote. Even though the bill ultimately didn’t pass this time around, Saldana is confident that RAPP can achieve change. “We’ve still got a long way to go to the house. But we’re making gains,” he said.
Whether RAPP is educating State Legislators or organizing in impacted communities, the Campaign’s main goal is to empower those determined to further the shift from punitive measures to those that center community care. “We’re building a grassroots power base in our community, so that we can hold elected officials accountable [and] responsible for when they do not serve the interests of the community,” Saldana said.
Saldana also knows that the work that RAPP goes beyond any one neighborhood or any one city: “We’re creating that movement to empower our communities, but we’re [also] creating the model [for what] criminal justice organizing and advocacy could look like.”