Looking Back: A Man Wrongfully Incarcerated Becomes a Prison Reformer


By Jeffrey Deskovic

“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.

After spending 16 years wrongfully incarcerated, Jeffrey Deskovic could have re-entered society bitter and downtrodden. Instead, he began to exhaustively work to help others in his situation.

I spent 16 years, from ages 17 to 32, in prison in New York for being wrongfully convicted of murder and rape. This was prior to being proven innocent via DNA testing eight years ago, which identified the actual perpetrator, who was subsequently convicted. Thanks to a full scholarship from Mercy College, I completed a B.A., later obtaining a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I am also the director of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which I founded to fight wrongful convictions.

My views on prison reform are shaped by personal experience, formal education, and informal studying. There are three important reasons why we should care about prison reform, rather than thinking “who cares what happens to prisoners, they committed crimes.” If we subject incarcerated people to bad prison conditions, we are deterring rehabilitation. People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. As a society, we lose our humanity, and our moral standing in the world-at-large, if we treat incarcerated people badly.

Here are ten ideas on prison reform:

Separate youth from adults.

At 17 years of age and weighing approximately 150 pounds, I was sent to a men’s maximum security facility that was filled with fully developed adults, many of whom were guilty of having committed serious violent crimes. To say that I was vulnerable was an understatement, and over the years I was repeatedly physically—though thank God not sexually— assaulted. Youth convicted of crimes should be housed in Division For Youth Facilities until 21, even if they have been charged as an adult, then transferred to a facility set aside for incarcerated people 21-25, before co-mingling them with the general population. To facilitate visitation, recognized as an important factor in formerly incarcerated people transitioning to a crime free life, there should be one such designated facility near the city, and one in upstate New York. Currently, visitors often must travel 5-8 hours each way to facilities far away: so time consuming and costly a proposition that they often don’t bother.

Separate violent offenders from non-violent offenders.

Incarcerated people convicted of non-violent offenses should not be housed with those convicted of violent crimes. Additionally, regardless of the charges, those whose actions demonstrate that they choose to conduct themselves violently while incarcerated should be separated from those that don’t. I sometimes found myself, and others I knew who eschewed violence, forced to physically defend ourselves.

Segregate vulnerable populations.

Incarcerated people convicted of sex offenses, or with mental health issues, or otherwise deemed by security to be vulnerable to abuse, should be separated from the general population.

Eliminate visitation deterrents.

Staff often are verbally abusive during visitor processing. Once admitted to the visiting room, visitors often are made to wait for up to two and half hours before the incarcerated person shows up. Incarcerated people should be informed immediately that they have a visit. Aggressively stop staff verbal abuse.

Some of the correction officers verbally abused the incarcerated, while their co-workers and supervisors not only looked the other way, but often laughed and even sometime participated.

Upgrade medical care.

The medical staff’s answer to nearly everything was issuing Tylenol and telling incarcerated people to come back the next day. It often took a month or longer to see a doctor. Some of the nurses and doctors had bad attitudes. Staff sometimes were more interested in saving the state money than the care of their patients: once a doctor refused to sign off, for financial reasons, on a trip to an outside doctor to treat a badly injured pinky because I “still had partial movement.” I now have a permanent disability, unless I want to have it broken and reset. In some states, medical staff have been discovered not to have received an accredited education; a review of qualifications is in order.

Improve meal quality.

Meals sometimes were not fully cooked, or burned, while at other times were very greasy. Staff simply did not care. Portion control was an issue: Sunday “dinner” was often 2 pieces of baloney, an old hot dog bun, a bag of potato chips that was mostly air, ¼ of a slice of canned peaches, and a bowl of soup. Some soup consisted of leftover ingredients previously served out two or three times and had merely been mixed with plain water; hence most would not eat it.

Bring back college.

The recidivism rate was extremely low for incarcerated people who received a college education. Why? Education equips incarcerated people for gainful employment and expands their horizons. It is better to spend money for college education on the front end, estimated at costing $5000 more per incarcerated person per year, than to spend $60,000 for reincarceration, with the numbers provided from Gov. Cuomo. The formerly incarcerated would be paying taxes rather than draining them, and we could prevent future crime victims. Rhetoric aside, college education is a serious crime prevention initiative.

Update vocational curriculum and insist that instructors instruct.

Many instructors were simply there for a paycheck and did not actively teach. They had no oversight. Additionally, the curriculum was obsolete.

Provide religion-based meal options.

In Elmira and nearly all prisons in New York with the exception of Green Haven, Jewish incarcerated people were not given hot meals: everything was cold cuts, tuna fish, fresh vegetables and fruits. An exception was Hanukah, where warm meals were prepared and served after the general population. Why couldn’t similar arrangements be made all the time? Muslims too should be provided with food within their dietary restrictions—it would not involve additional cost, it just means that a decrease of one type of food supply and an increase in another.

It may be hard for one person to push for these reforms. But standing together gives activists a powerful and influential voice. Please stand together with the Deskovic Foundation for Justice this Holiday season and help us fight for criminal justice reform.

Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.  Jeff is now a practicing attorney.


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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