Christen Conyers had been on parole for about sixteen months on the evening of June 22nd, when he rode his bike out of the Amsterdam Houses in Harlem to break his Ramadan fast at a fried chicken restaurant around the corner.
A husband and a father to a 7-year-old with sickle cell anemia, Conyers had served five years at Southport Correctional Facility in Pine City after pleading guilty to a weapon possession charge in 2008, when he was 20 years old. His first post-release job, a carpentry gig, was scheduled to start in a few weeks.
It was 7:30 p.m., his state-mandated curfew was at 8. Ten minutes later he'd be on the ground in handcuffs.
Conyers, 27, recalls that he encountered about three dozen Black Lives Matter protesters on 104th Street. The group was marching in the street, following a rally at nearby Frederick Douglass Circle to honor the nine members of Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church murdered the previous week.
Minutes after the NYPD arrested one of the protest's lead organizers, police turned to Conyers.
"They told me to get on the sidewalk, but I was on my bike so that would have been illegal," Conyers said last month, during visiting hours at the Manhattan Detention Complex. "I wasn't part of the protest, although if I was that would have been my legal right."
Deputy Inspector Donald Powers, wearing a white shirt, grabbed Conyers by the shoulder at 7:42. He quickly summoned around ten other officers to help make the arrest. As protesters gathered to take video with their cellphones, Conyers was wrestled to the pavement and handcuffed.
Police told him he was being charged with felony assault of a police officer, resisting arrest, two counts of disorderly conduct, obstructing vehicular traffic, and harassment in the second degree, but the charges were reduced at his arraignment the following day to disorderly conduct, a violation of penal law rather than a crime, and resisting arrest, a misdemeanor.
Conyers faced a difficult choice: plead guilty to lessen the sting of the misdemeanor and face a likely parole violation, or fight his charges at trial. Both options involved serving jail time, but how much?
Instead of starting his new job, Conyers has been behind bars for nearly six months, waiting to prove his innocence.
Breaking one of the thirteen conditions of parole—failing a drug test, missing curfew, being arrested in conjunction with "any law to which I am subject," according to the New York State Parole Handbook—is grounds for a "technical" violation and can result in the parolee's immediate incarceration without bail.
In Conyers's case, a criminal judge released him on his own recognizance the day after his arrest, but his parole officer immediately issued a violation warrant and re-arrested him.
The NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) describes those on parole and supervised release as "largely minority, poorly educated, underemployed, and concentrated in urban New York.”
"The Parole Board believes that there's some way you have to navigate living in a poor community with the biggest police force and somehow not interact with them," said prison-reform advocate Five Mualimm-ak.
NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services data shows that 87% of NYPD misdemeanor arrests in the first nine months of this year involved people of color.
Judges have the option of diverting parolees who violate their conditions to rehab clinics run by DOCCS, or Alternative To Incarceration programs like the Osborne Association and the Fortune Society; new parole guidelines instituted in 2012 are aimed at securing milder sentences for parolees deemed to be at "low risk" of committing a new crime based on their mental health, access to stable housing, and criminal history. A parole judge can "revoke and restore" a parolee to the community as he or she sees fit. But as NYS Parole Revocation Specialist Elaine Kallinikos put it in a recent interview, "The bottom line is community safety."
"Even though our focus is on re-entry, which is important, we should always keep the protection of the community in mind," Kallinikos said.
Michael Jacobson, a law professor at John Jay College who served as the city's Correction Commissioner and Probation Commissioner in the mid 1990s, believes that the way the parole system is set up motivates officers to issue warrants and send parolees back to jail.
"It's a way to control caseloads, and it covers their reputations," he said. "As an officer you could make nine hundred and ninety nine correct decisions but then the thousandth guy throws a little lady off a roof, and you're done. As long as officers are personally blamed for how the system is structured, this is what you're going to get."
This anxiety was only compounded in September, when it came out that Tyrone Howard, who allegedly fatally shot Police Officer Randolph Holder in Harlem, had been enrolled in a diversion program in lieu of a Rikers sentence. Mayor de Blasio personally reprimanded the judges who offered Howard an alternative to incarceration: declaring, "I believe in constitutional rights but I also believe in common sense."
Conyers' headshot (via DOCCS).
Department of Correction data shows that 78% of all crimes counted as recidivism in New York City between 1985 and 2010 were parole violations. According to a 2011 Center for Court Innovation study, 60% of 16,150 parolees who had their parole revoked between 2001 and 2008 were black.
But even as Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo invest considerable political capital in reducing recidivism rates—the mayor with his bail reform initiatives, and the governor with his Re-Entry and Reintegration Council—parole has gone largely overlooked.
"Parole flies way under the radar," said Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated prison reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA. "It's not like parole officers are patrolling the streets of West Harlem in uniform, like the NYPD. They really just swoop in, snatch people up, put them back in the system."
For Conyers, a criminal conviction would stand as proof of a parole violation. His weapons possession conviction is classified as a violent crime, so his prison sentence would be a minimum of 15 months, negotiable down to 12 with a guilty plea before a parole judge (days spent incarcerated awaiting the hearing go towards the final sentence).
The maximum sentence for a misdemeanor charge is one year. Criminal and parole time run concurrently, but could still exceed 12 months, depending on the parole sentence.
If a parolee has a good chance of winning at trial in criminal court—in Conyers's case, with strong video evidence—there is significant incentive for the defense to request adjournments in parole court, buying time until the criminal charges are hopefully dismissed and the parole judge chooses, in the best case scenario, to release him.
Still, Conyers's sentence is in the hands of an Administrative Law Judge, an administrator without a law degree requirement. The burden of proof is significantly lower than in criminal court.
Martin, the prison reform advocate who sits on the Governor's Re-Entry board, is troubled by the government's lack of interest in reforming this aspect of the parole system. "I find it ridiculous that the council hasn't focused on parole supervision," he said. "Even though parole feeds the system so clearly more heavily than new cases."
Conyers and his son. (Gothamist)
"They pulled me into the squad car by the handcuffs, instead of my hands," Conyers recalled last month, during visiting hours at the Manhattan Detention Complex. He laid out his wrists, and showed us still visible pink scars. There are faint marks on his forehead and right shoulder, and the deep cut on his right elbow didn't scab over until October.
Conyers is just under six feet tall, soft spoken, with powerful arms and a short beard in keeping with his Muslim faith. "I'm ashamed to be here," he said. "I served my time upstate, and now I'm in here for no reason."
Conyers's criminal complaint states that he was "standing in the street" on the evening of June 22nd, and ignored orders to "keep moving." When officers attempted to arrest him, he supposedly "flailed his arms, twisted his body, refused to put his hands behind his back, and kicked his legs."
Kim Ortiz, an organizer for NYC Shut It Down, was standing next to Conyers when the arrest took place.
"He hit his head when they dropped him off the bike, and we saw that he was bleeding," she said. "Christen was just telling them, 'I'm not part of the protest, get your hands off of me.'" Video footage of the arrest captured Conyers yelling in pain as he was pulled into a squad car, blood on his forehead.
Once he had been transported to the 24th Precinct, Conyers said, "An officer tripped me over his knee on purpose and I lay on the ground for fifteen minutes." When his wife Jazmin got to the precinct, she recalled recently, "I seen Chris on the floor and they had a foot on his neck and there were ten cops around him."
Conyers was transported to Harlem Hospital shortly after 10:00 p.m., and treated for cuts and bruising. He recalls that he didn't break his Ramadan fast until 2:00 the next morning, with two graham crackers and a box of apple juice.
As a teenager growing up in Harlem, Conyers was arrested several times for dealing crack. In 2006, then 18, he was sentenced to a year in prison on narcotics charges and possession of a loaded revolver.
Three years later he was arrested on gun possession charges again. According to the arrest report from February 2009, Conyers menaced a woman and a child in the entrance to Jazmin's apartment in the Amsterdam Houses by "displaying a silver firearm." Officers searched the apartment and found a loaded silver Bryco .38 caliber semi-automatic pistol in the closet, with the serial number scratched off. The NY Post picked up the incident, describing Conyers as a "gun-toting thug."
"I'm the first one to admit that I had a weapon," Conyers told us last month. "It came with the territory." But both he and Jazmin deny that he displayed it that night. Jazmin told us that the complainant was waving a box cutter (Conyers recalls it as a knife) and threatening them. Jazmin was one month pregnant. "That was the night violence came to my door," Conyers recalled.
Conyers and Jazmin, friends since middle school, got married on Rikers Island that October, the same month that their son Jaquavius was born and diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia. Conyers chose a plea deal to minimize his time away from his young family: seven years in state prison with five years of post-release supervision, early release negotiable.
Conyers had no parole violations on his record in the first fifteen months of his post-release supervision. He studied for construction safety certificates at a technical training institute in Long Island City, and took Jaquavius to doctor's appointments for his asthma and eyesight, as well as his blood condition.
The couple also took their son on outings to Central Park and Funtopia, making up for family time they lost while Conyers was in prison. Conyers cooked curry seafood, and experimented with flaxseed oil in the hopes of boosting Jaquavius's compromised immune system.
"His dad is the best healer," Jazmin said in October. "When Jaquavius is in the hospital he is the only one to calm him down."
In May, more than a year after his release, Conyers was arrested on West 114th Street, allegedly for smoking a joint and carrying a gram of pot. He tested negative for drugs soon after the arrest, and his parole officer chose not to issue a violation.
Since Conyers went back to city jail in June, Jazmin has been nannying part time. She relies on food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, monthly payments for low-income families of disabled children.
"If you're going to be held in prison with all of the collateral consequences, there should be a very strong public safety reason in doing that," said Jacobson, the former corrections commissioner. "That should be the defining thing."
Jazmin and Jaquavius by their Christmas tree in December, holding a family photo (Christian Hansen)
Now 172 days into his re-incarceration, Conyers has been in jail for much longer than most parolees awaiting the resolution of an open warrant (68 days is the average, according to DOCCS). But the circumstances of his case do not raise red flags within the system.
While the DA's office would not comment on the record about a pending case, a spokeswoman confirmed that Conyers's trial has been delayed because Deputy Inspector Powers, the officer listed in the criminal complaint, sustained injuries during the arrest and is currently recovering from back surgery.
Attorney Kenneth Perry, who is representing Conyers pro-bono with his partner Will Aronin, is skeptical of the reasoning behind the delays, as there is no mention of injuries sustained by an officer in the criminal complaint.
"Normally an injured officer is what's called 'exceptional grounds,' to delay trial," he said. "Because there were so many officers at the scene of the 'crime' and interacting with him, this officer's totally unnecessary."
Aronin believes that resisting arrest, though only a misdemeanor offense, is a particularly controversial charge. Dismissal is unlikely. He's eager to go to trial, where he could present the arrest video as evidence, and bring forward a handful of enthusiastic witnesses.
"With the resisting arrest charge you're basically saying that the defendant fought back against the police, which is serious," he said. "It's disturbing how often we see this charge applied in protest situations."
Ortiz, one of the protesters who witnessed Conyers's arrest, is eager to testify if and when Conyers goes to trial. "They just saw a black kid and said, 'Grab him.' And that to me is so typical, but also so very telling," she said. "He was literally just sitting on his bike trying to find out what the hell was going on on his block, which he has every right to do."
Even if Conyers eventually goes to trial and wins, Martin, the prison reform advocate, says "The punishment is in the process. The parolee has already done a crapload of time, and arguably already been punished way more severely than he should be."
Today, December 17th, Conyers is scheduled to appear in parole court. It's possible that another adjournment will be requested, in anticipation of the next criminal court appearance on January 5th. A few weeks later Conyers will turn 28.
"All of the certificates I earned on the outside are going to expire soon," Conyers told us last month. "You know how time passes slowly when you're a little kid? Now, for me, it feels like it's speeding up."
Sitting in her neighbor's apartment in the Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side, Jazmin said that thinking about her husband's arrest makes her "sick and disgusted."
Her neighbors, an elderly couple, are Jazmin's go-to babysitters these days. They were in the adjacent bedroom watching TV with Jaquavius.
"My son wanted to be a cop when he gets older, and now when he sees all this going on he's like, 'Mom, what did Daddy do for him to deserve this?'" she said. "And I'm like, how can I answer this to my son?"