Herman Bell is on the Verge of Freedom, But Politics Might Stand in his Way

Issue 234

Renee Feltz Mar 30, 2018

vote by the New York Parole Board to release Herman Bell, a former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member imprisoned for the killing of two NYPD officers in 1971, marked a victory for reform measures advocated for by the formerly incarcerated.

Bell, now 70 years old, is due to be released mid-April. During his nearly 45 years behind bars on a 25-to-life sentence, he mentored thousands and maintained a clean disciplinary record (despite a brutal attack by prison guards last September). State mandated tests show he poses the lowest possible safety risk if allowed to re-enter society.

But for each of his last seven times before the board, commissioners denied Bell’s release because of his original crime. This reflects the “broken” parole system Mujahid Farid, founder of Release Aging People From Prison (RAPP), described to The Indypendent in 2015 when he argued the board was “co-opted by the punishment paradigm.”

Things went differently when Bell faced the board for an eighth time in March, and it recognized he has expressed remorse and was likely to lead a “law-abiding life.” Commissioners are required by state law to consider such factors, but have only recently complied after pressure from groups like RAPP.    

The board often cites input from victim’s family members, who can influence but not determine their decision. This time it referred to a letter from the namesake son of slain Officer Waverly Jones, who expressed forgiveness for Bell, and wrote that to “deny him parole again would cause us pain as we are reminded of the painful episode each time he appears before the board.”

Despite this request, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and Mayor Bill de Blasio have called for the board to reverse its vote, which it could do if it determines there is new evidence it has not yet considered.

Meanwhile, the son of Jones issued a new statement expressing concern. “Particularly upsetting is the attack on the Parole Commissioners who made the decision to release [Bell],” Jones, Jr. wrote. “In these times of increased hate, we need more compassion and forgiveness.

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Photo: Herman Bell, center, with his daughters. Source: Instagram. 

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