'In There To Die:' Astoria Mother Calls For Elder Parole Reform
An Astoria mother, whose husband has been in prison for 33 years, calls on lawmakers to pass parole bills before the session ends this week.
ASTORIA, QUEENS — Nawanna Tucker has lived in Astoria for more than 33 years, but her husband of nearly two decades, Curtis, has never stepped foot in her home.
Curtis has been incarcerated for double homicide for more than 30 years, during which Tucker has helped him navigate a wrongful-conviction claim and served as his main connection to the world outside of prison — a role that's become increasingly challenging during the past year, as jails and prisons have been at the center of COVID outbreaks, and the pandemic has ravaged Black and brown communities nationally.
"Last week I had to tell him that two aunts and an uncle died, I don't have the energy. I don't want to keep telling him bad news," she said, adding "I want him to come home."
Right now, Curtis' return home is in the hands of New York State legislators, who, with one day left in the legislative session, have the opportunity to pass a series of parole bills, which would give Curtis a path to go home to Astoria for the first time.
Tucker and her husband met in Brooklyn, where they're both from, when they were teenagers. "I used to work at a Burger King in the neighborhood and he came in there a couple of nights in a row trying to get my phone number. Eventually I broke down and gave it to him," she said.
The two split up when Curtis went to prison, in 1988, and both got married and had children with other partners.
But, throughout the years Tucker remained in touch with his family, and started to get more involved with his case again in the early 2000s.
"I started going back to visit and was like, 'oh wow I think I still have feelings for this guy.' We were both having problems with our marriages, and I started to feel like we're supposed to be together, and that's what happened," she said.
The two got back together in 2006, and shortly after Tucker adopted her daughter De'anna, for whom Curtis is a father. He also has two other children, and several grandchildren — most of whom he hasn't been able to meet yet.
Tucker and her daughter visited Curtis in prison last month for the first time in over a year — a long-awaited, and challenging, reunion.
"She doesn't like going to the prison and then having to leave him there," Tucker said of her daughter, adding that she'll often ask offers at the prison "could you please let my daddy go?"
With her daughter's elementary school graduation coming up, and Father's Day around the corner, Tucker wants her husband to have a chance to experience milestones with his family, and fears what could happen if he is not released from prison.
"Everyone deserves a second chance," she said, noting that her husband — like many incarcerated people — has a home to return to and an excellent prison record. "There's no point in keeping people in there to die."
The road home through parole legislation
There are two parole reform bills on the table for New York State legislators that aim to bring incarcerated elders, who have served time, home.
The Elder Parole Act would grant parole interviews for people over the age of 55 who have served at least 15 years of their sentence, and the Fair and Timely Parole Act would provide more fair parole reviews for parole-eligible incarcerated people — while the former is still in committee, the latter is on the floor calendar as of Wednesday.
Curtis, who just celebrated his 56th birthday and has served 33 years of a 35 year sentence, could find a path home to Queens under both bills.
"He went to prison when he was 23 years old," Tucker said of her husband. "If a person committed a crime as a teenager and now is over 50, they're not the same person," she said.
Tucker's point is substantiated by data. Nationally, recidivism rates plummet to five percent after age 50, according to a study published in Prison Legal News. In New York that rate drops to 2.7 percent for people over the age of 65, according to data from the Department of Corrections cited by the State Assembly.
But, because of mandatory minimums and stringent parole boards, the number of incarcerated elders jumped 282 percent between 1995 and 2010 — amounting to almost 200,000 incarcerated people who are over the age of 55, according to Bureau of Justice data from 2017 cited by Rolling Stone.
Advocates pushing for parole reform say that permanently locking up elderly prisoners, especially for crimes that they were convicted of as young people, is a form of punishment, not rehabilitation.
"A criminal conviction should not amount to a life sentence of imprisonment, nor should it amount to perpetual punishment after someone has paid their debt to society," said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, who is one of the many advocates calling on the state legislature to pass these parole reform bills.
State Senator Michael Gianaris, who is a co-sponsor on both bills and represents New York's 12th Senate District, which includes Astoria, told Patch that "now is the time to reform these laws to focus more on rehabilitation and justice — reforms that are long overdue, and that New Yorkers like Nawanna Tucker have long awaited."
For Tucker, the injustice is "double." In addition to the hardships Curtis has endured during decades of incarceration, including amid the pandemic, Tucker is parenting as a single mother.
"My daughter doesn't know anyone as a dad but him," she said, adding, "if the reason for sentencing is rehabilitation, and he got there and did that, what is the purpose of keeping him inside and keeping families away from each other?"