Incarcerated Women Wonder When Governor Hochul Will Actually Start Using Her ‘Overhauled’ Pardon System
The governor hasn't issued a commutation or a pardon since boasting of major changes this summer.
11:37 AM EST on November 28, 2022
The first thing Assia Serrano wanted to do after 16 years behind bars was pick her daughter up from school. It was a simple act of parenting that she had never been able to do, and she was looking forward to it upon her release from Taconic Correctional Facility on May 4, 2021.
"We still haven’t had that moment yet," she told Hell Gate last Monday. Instead of walking out of prison and into the waiting hugs of her extended family, Serrano was immediately handcuffed and shackled by immigration agents, who then drove her two hours to the Rensselaer County Jail, which contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Serrano’s visa had expired during her incarceration, and ICE had issued a detainer, intending to deport her to Panama, where she had not lived since she was 15 years old.
There was only one thing Serrano could do: try to persuade the governor to pardon her. With a pardon, ICE would not have cause to deport her.
After being transferred to the Rensselaer County Jail, Serrano filed a clemency application to then-Governor Andrew Cuomo. She received no response. In mid-June, she was deported to Panama.
Now, Serrano, her children and her extended family are hoping that the state’s first elected female governor will do what her predecessor did not: grant her a pardon and possibly allow her to reunite with her children and extended family.
New York’s constitution grants the governor the power to issue clemency as a commutation, or a lessening of a person’s prison sentence, or as a pardon, typically given after one is released from prison, which removes threats of deportation and allows them to reenter the country.
When Kathy Hochul took office last August, women hoped that the state’s first female governor would grant them greater consideration than her predecessor. (Of the 41 commutations issued by Cuomo, only seven went to women.)
According to Hochul’s office, there are currently 1,287 clemency petitions awaiting a decision. Of those, 780 are from people in prison hoping for commutation, while 507 are pardon requests.
Among those applications is Serrano’s. In 2003, Serrano, then age 19, had recently stopped working as a home health aide. Her partner, who was nearly 20 years her senior and increasingly abusive, coerced her into robbing her former client, 85-year-old Petra Cuchola. During the robbery, Serrano tied the woman’s hands to her stomach. Cuchola developed a blood clot and died.
Serrano was arrested the following year. By then, she had a seven-month-old daughter and was three months pregnant with her son. She spent the rest of her pregnancy in jail, giving birth while incarcerated and spending only two days with her newborn. The next year, she was convicted of felony murder—a charge that means she was responsible for a death that occurred during the course of a felony—and sentenced to 18 years to life.
In April 2021, a judge resentenced her under the state’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. Passed in 2019, the Act allows incarcerated abuse survivors to petition for resentencing if they had been coerced into criminal activity by an abusive partner. The judge ordered her immediate release.
Serrano, who had missed every birthday, holiday and parenting milestone for both her children, began planning to make up for lost time. She looked forward to seeing her daughter graduate from high school and, for the first time, spending time with her son outside of prison.
After learning about the ICE detainer, Serrano called her children with the devastating news. "I don’t understand," she remembered her daughter saying through tears. "You were supposed to come home."
A pardon could enable her to reenter the country on a tourist visa, apply for a green card, and be able to hug, kiss and spend time with her children, mother and extended family.
On Christmas Eve 2021, Governor Hochul announced that she would grant clemency on "a rolling basis" rather than only once each year. That day she granted one commutation and nine pardons. Among the nine pardons was a 56-year-old whose crimes had been committed while attempting to escape an abusive relationship. Without that pardon, she would have been subject to deportation as well.
In July, Hochul told reporters that she was overhauling the state’s clemency system.
Instead of having the governor’s staff review applications, request follow-up information and make recommendations, she announced the creation of an advisory panel of criminal justice professionals, including lawyers, law enforcement, judges and the formerly incarcerated, to review applications and make recommendations. The panel has not yet been created, but in the meantime, unlike her predecessor, Hochul has dedicated staff members reviewing applications.
Hochul also stated that her office would be working closely with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to standardize the clemency application, which is now a 10-page questionnaire. Finally, she pledged to inform applicants about the status of their applications. Over the summer, more than a dozen currently incarcerated people told Hell Gate that they had received letters acknowledging their applications. For many, it was the first communication they had received about their applications.
According to Steve Zeidman, co-director of the CUNY Law School’s Defenders Clinic Second Look Project, these changes are sparking a lot of cautious optimism. "It is significant that there are now people who are specifically tasked with reviewing, vetting and passing along clemency applications," he said. "That is a positive sign."
However, since announcing the overhaul, Hochul has granted no commutations or pardons. Applicants who spoke with Hell Gate this summer said that they understood the governor’s reluctance to appear "soft" while campaigning against Republican Lee Zeldin.
Governors fear political blowback if a person they released through clemency is later arrested, said Zeidman. But, he added, "the data belies that fact. I'm pretty familiar with all 41 of the people who've gotten their sentences commuted in the last dozen years. I don't think anybody's gotten as much as a parking ticket."
Now that Hochul has won the election, applicants and advocates are hoping she will make good on the pledge she made last Christmas. Women especially are hoping that the state’s first elected female governor will give them more consideration than previous executives.
Taliyah Taylor is among those hopefuls. In 2006, Taylor, drunk, high, and naked, was speeding down a Staten Island street when her car hit and killed a man. Two years later, she went to trial. She was convicted and sentenced to 22 years to life.
In 2019, she wrote to the Executive Clemency Bureau and requested to be paired with a volunteer attorney to help with a clemency application. She also wrote an apology letter to the victim’s family.
Three years later, in May 2022, she received a letter from the board stating that her request for a volunteer attorney was still pending. "Very few volunteer attorneys are currently taking cases through this program," the letter warned. "If an attorney does accept your case, the attorney will contact you directly."
Unwilling to wait longer, Taylor filed a clemency application on her own this past summer. Her hopes were briefly buoyed when her prison counselor called her into the office to relay a few questions from the clemency board. But since then, she has heard nothing.
"I have been clean and sober for over 16 years," she told Hell Gate in an e-message from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Upon release, she plans to go into social work, hoping to utilize her own experiences to help others.
"Sometimes it takes someone who has gone through the same struggles as them to open their eyes," she wrote. "I hope to work with people with addictions in hopes they too can overcome their addictions. Working with people that have been abused, helping to give them tools on how to overcome."
Until this year, there was no template for applications, leaving people confused about what to write and what documents to include. "Clemency is like a shot in the dark," Zeidman said. His clinic assists with clemency applications, a time-consuming process that includes gathering relevant court transcripts, sentencing minutes, letters of support, certificates of program participation and then framing these in the most compelling manner. Some clemency applications run hundreds of pages.
For people in prison, who lack access to the internet or the ability to directly contact potential employers and service providers, tackling the process on their own can be daunting.
Even with the streamlined application, Zeidman noted, there can be different ways to answer the questions. For instance, he notes that the application asks a person about educational programs. A person can simply list that they obtained their GED and associates’ degree.
"You just answered the question but is that really as compelling a case you can make?" Zeidman asked. "As opposed to saying, 'These are the reasons I didn't get my high school diploma. Let me explain my family situation. And this is why it was a point of pride for me to get my GED.'"
Other women told Hell Gate that the lack of assistance stopped them from applying. Brittney Austin, incarcerated at Albion Correctional Facility near the Canadian border, said that after waiting years for a volunteer attorney to be assigned, she has given up. With less than three years left on her prison sentence, she said that she doesn’t see the point of putting together an application, complete with letters of support and certificates for every program completed, only to likely be released before a decision is made.
Confusion about the process prevented Tammara McCoy at Bedford Hills from applying as well. She told Hell Gate that she had written to a non-profit advocacy organization that works with incarcerated women, but had mistakenly assumed that the organization would assist and instruct her.
"What I hope for from Hochul, the state’s first female governor, is that she recognizes the imbalance of clemencies that are granted between men and women, and hopefully institute a balance," McCoy said. "Since I can remember, men have always outnumbered women when it comes to granting clemency applications."
Taylor says she would tell Hochul, "There are too many people incarcerated that have done everything the prison offers, have worked on their emotional and mental issues that brought them to prison and are fully rehabilitated. We can better serve society and our communities if released. Please allow us the chance to do good in the world and give us a chance to give back to society."
Avi Small, Hochul’s first deputy press secretary, wrote in an email to Hell Gate, "While we cannot comment on pending clemency applications as the process is confidential, Governor Hochul is committed to improving justice, fairness, and safety in the criminal justice system, and we are reviewing applications in that context."
As they wait on the governor’s decision, Serrano and her children talk via FaceTime every day. They share locations so that she knows where they are—and that they are safe—at all times. Her daughter calls while cooking so that her mother can share family recipes.
Still, neither child has been able to visit since her deportation and, without a pardon, Serrano does not know when she might be able to be with them in person.
"I always think about what it will look like the day that I get to see my kids once again," Serrano said. She recalls her daughter’s college admissions essay, in which the girl wrote about being happy that her mother was finally free—and disappointed that she has never been able to see her mother outside of prison.
"Just to have that moment," Serrano said, beginning to cry. "I think it will be super special."
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