The Parole Hearing Data Project
Project to Raise Awareness of Shortcomings in the Parole Review Process
Project Dates: Work in Progress
Partners: The Parole Hearing Data Project, The Museum of the American Prison
My Roles: Designer
Over 10,000 parole eligible prisoners are denied release every year in New York State.
The process of how these determinations are made is unclear. It often seems that parole boards focus exclusively on the “nature of the crime,” essentially re-sentence prisoners every two years, while ignoring other elements of the prisoners’ circumstances, behaviors during incarceration, level of threat to society, readiness for release, or other factors seemingly relevant to the intention of parole.
Even without any of these considerations, keeping people in prison is overwhelmingly expensive: it costs $60,000 annually to incarcerate one individual, and more to incarcerate older individuals with illnesses, many of whom are too weak and feeble to be a threat to anyone, anyway. Additionally, there is a tremendous cost to society as thousands of children whose parents are in prison — many of whom also face extreme poverty — grow up shuttled between homes, with limited access to loving parents, and seriously pre-disposed by trauma to following in their parents’ footsteps.
The Parole Hearing Data Project (PHDP) is an open repository of New York State parole hearing data currently based on records scraped from the New York State Parole Board’s website. I have just begun working with the PHDP team to help bring some of the data to life.
The project was created by a former New York City-based criminal defense attorney, inspired by her experience preparing a man for his tenth hearing in front of the NYS parole board. By gathering substantial data about parole determinations, the PHDP team hopes to enable data-driven research that will help identify existing problems and position decision makers well to solve them. While there are a host of academics and activists already interested and using the dataset for their work, this issue is a difficult one to “sell” to the general public. The stigma associated with incarceration is high, people feel safer with criminals off the streets, and many people, consciously or unconsciously, feel that sentenced prisoners “deserve” to remain behind bars.
The PHDP is part of a broader body of work that can be found on the Museum of the American Prison's website. This project is in a very early stage, but my aim is to use the Museum platform to beautifully expose the nuanced humanity of people behind bars, many of whom faced terrible circumstances leading to their crimes, and many of whom have done significant work to turn their lives around during their time behind bars.
Initial Concept for Freed "Prisoner Story"
My hope is that in using high quality photography and design, telling people’s stories from their own and their families’ perspectives, and mapping their stories against the documented legal considerations of parole boards, we can help highlight the injustice of the current system.
In order to highlight "success stories," I am thinking about ways to distinguish both the information and presentation of stories of people who have been freed from those who remain incarcerated.
Initial Concept for "Prisoner Story" for Person Still Incarcerated
Because of our limited ability to bring professional photographers into prisons (despite many volunteers), one idea was to use professional portraiture only once people had been freed, but otherwise to use more traditional "prison Polaroids" for the stories of those still behind bars.
Because of the high cost of curation, we are considering creating a templated form where prisoners, families and attorneys could create an effective “story” for someone behind bars, thereby generating more public awareness and essentially crowd-sourcing the creation of more successful parole applications.