In June 1996, a jury found 16-year-old Jose DiLenola guilty of second-degree murder in the death of a Livonia High School classmate. He had confessed to strangling her with a lamp cord.
At DiLenola’s sentencing the following month, the prosecutor called DiLenola “a major threat to our society.” Describing DiLenola as “remorseless,” Livingston County Court Judge Ronald Cicoria handed down the maximum allowable sentence and recommended that DiLenola “never be paroled.”
More than a quarter-century has now passed. Late next year, members of New York’s Board of Parole will need to decide whether to heed the judge’s recommendation.
The Groveland Correctional Facility sits off a two-lane country road in Livingston County near I-390 on land that once housed a Shaker community. That was in the 1830s. When the Shakers’ numbers declined, they sold the land and buildings to New York State with the proviso that they be used for a good purpose.
In the late 19th century, the site was home to the Craig Colony, a state-run hospital for epileptics. In the last century, the state repurposed the hospital as a facility to house the mentally ill. In 1982, it was again repurposed, beginning its most recent incarnation, as a medium-security prison. With an eye to historic preservation, the state has restored the exteriors of Groveland’s buildings, whose interiors have been renovated and redesigned to house the facility’s present population.
As I drive up to the prison, its collection of Victorian-era buildings grimly clustered behind tall, barbed-wire fencing makes me think of a slightly depressing Addams Family cartoon.
I am there to visit a prisoner, a first-time experience for me. The guards are friendlier than I thought they would be. “Are you the writer?” one asks. I answer in the affirmative, surprised. I was cautioned to not reveal myself as a reporter lest the guards turn me away. It turns out not to be a problem.
I get buzzed through a series of steel doors and barred gates after removing shoes and belt, having my picture taken and passing through a metal detector before emerging in a large room that calls to mind nothing so much as a dingy high school cafeteria, if the school’s student body consisted largely of sad-looking men of varying ages sitting with parents, siblings, wives and girlfriends. Children munch on snacks like Cheetos.
Guards point me to a table where Jose DiLenola, the man I came to meet, is sitting with his wife, Dawn Zuppelli, who had been visiting with him earlier. She visits DiLenola nearly every weekend and talks with him on the phone almost daily. A frequent traveler, Zuppelli continues to call DiLenola every day when she is abroad, seeing the exercise as turning her jailed husband into a virtual travelling companion.
“We have traveled to the pyramids of Mexico, the forests in Costa Rica, and most recently to the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Despite our jokes of Jose being the boy in the bubble, he is a well read, intellectual artist who truly possesses an adventurer’s soul. He teaches me about art and history as I explain what I see, taste and smell,” Zuppelli wrote in a post last year on a blog aimed at inmates’ relatives she and DiLenola co-write.
On the day we meet, DiLenola is neatly dressed. His hair—cut short—and his beard are neatly trimmed. He is soft spoken and seems mild mannered. At 41, he no longer has the frame of the wiry youth who went into the system at 16. Still, he cuts a trim-enough figure.
“Exercise especially if you have a long sentence. Run, lift weights, do yoga, anything. You’re not trying to be a bodybuilder,” DiLenola advises fellow prisoners in a blog post. “You want good health and stress relief. A prison is a sedentary place; move your body.”
Zuppelli is 50, with straight blond hair that brushes her shoulders. She and DiLenola seem delighted with each other. A longtime prison-reform advocate, Zuppelli met DiLenola when she was a volunteer in a program working with prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility. DiLenola did his longest stretch of time, 18 years, at the notorious maximum-security prison in Wyoming County.
At first, Zuppelli and DiLenola considered themselves nothing more than friends. But, says Zuppelli, her previous marriage to a fellow activist with whom she has a daughter was winding down and at some point, her relationship with DiLenola became a romance. Initially, they tried to keep their involvement hidden. When that became impossible, Zuppelli says, she gave up volunteer work. In 2017, five years after they first met, she and DiLenola married. DiLenola by then had been transferred to the Cayuga Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Cayuga County.
The couple hopes to see DiLenola paroled in 2021. That is when he first becomes eligible for consideration with the expiration of the minimum term of his sentence of 26 years and four months to life.
A model prisoner
DiLenola has been a model prisoner for much of his roughly 26-year incarceration, but it’s not clear how much of a shot that will give him at earning a parole board’s blessing on his first try—or even his second or third.
Incarcerated as a high school junior after his conviction, DiLenola has since earned a two-year liberal arts degree. He hopes to go on to earn a four-year degree. As a prisoner, he has mentored at-risk youth, and has founded and heads a prisoner organization that raises and donates money to help support the University of Rochester-based M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence and to help fund a free breakfast program run by the Bethel Express, a faith-based Rochester group that mounts programs for inner-city children aged 7 to 12.
On the outside, DiLenola says, he might like to build on the work he’s done in prison as a counselor and mentor, working with at-risk youth or parolees. He hopes to complete a four-year degree in an area like sociology or psychology. Another possibility might be finding work as sign language interpreter. DiLenola’s mother, whom he has not lived with since the age of six, is deaf and DiLenola knows some American Sign Language. Zuppelli, who works as a sign language interpreter, could help him brush up and might be able to help him find work in the field. That DiLenola would have a stable home to go to would be a point in his favor.
According to the prison reform group, the Vera Institute for Justice, a Brooklyn-based non-profit, New York’s two- or three-person parole panels over the past three years granted only 36 percent of parole requests by so-called lifers, prisoners like DiLenola who after being convicted of violent crimes carry decades-long sentences with a maximum term of life.
Dearth of paroles
After several decades of tough-on-crime sentencing, the dearth of paroles has led to a spike of aging and aged inmates in New York’s prison population. In testimony delivered to the state Legislature last year, representatives of Release Aging People from Prison, a Manhattan-based nonprofit partly founded and staffed by former inmates, cited figures compiled by the state to point to a fourfold increase over the past 25 years of inmates aged 50 and up.
RAPP mostly argues for parole reform on humanitarian grounds, but it also makes a financial argument. Older inmates who now make up 21 percent of New York’s prison population cost more to house, some $100,000 a year versus roughly $60,000 a year for younger inmates, RAPP director Jose Saldana says. The state might do better to work on reducing its prison population through parole reforms than spending large sums to retrofit prisons as nursing homes, he told state lawmakers in a budget hearing last year.
While 50 or 55 might not sound that old, “prison ages you fast,” Saldana says. A onetime bank robber who was paroled in 2018 after serving eight years in a federal prison for bank robbery and 30 years in state correctional facilities on a charge of attempted murder of police officer, Saldana, 69, speaks from experience. A middle-aged prisoner like DiLenola is closer to senior citizenhood than he would be on the outside.
Saldana cites RAPP founder Mujahid Farid as a case in point.
Convicted in 1978 of manslaughter and attempted murder of a New York City police officer, Farid drew concurrent terms of 11 to 22 years on the manslaughter charge and 15 years to life on the attempted-murder charge. He served 33 years in New York prisons, where he earned four college degrees.
In 2013, two years after his release on parole, Farid started RAPP with help from philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, which made him a fellow. State parole board panels had turned down Farid’s bids for parole nine times before granting his 10th request in 2011. He died last year at 68.
“Court documents show that each time his case came up, the board dwelled almost exclusively on his crimes and his conviction as a violent offender, ignoring his model behavior in prison and his advancing age,” Farid’s New York Times obituary states.
“If it weren’t for the Parole Board’s culture and practice of perpetual punishment, Farid would have been released far sooner and communities throughout New York would have benefited even more from his commitment to public service,” Saldana told lawmakers last year.
Carol Shapiro is a longtime prison reform activist with the unusual resume credit of also having served on New York’s Board of Parole. She was on the panel that voted to release Saldana. After accepting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointment to the board in 2017 with the idea of working from within to change the system, she quit last year, convinced that any such effort was doomed. She believes the low rate at which New York prisoners are granted parole traces more to the state’s parole system shambolic state and parole board members’ bias than to inmates’ lack of readiness to reenter society.
Formerly an independent agency known as the Division of Parole, the state’s parole apparatus was folded into the Department of Corrections in 1978, which has since been called the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Panels consisting of two or three parole board members interview prospective parolees in several-hour sessions, most of which are conducted by video conference. An algorithm randomly assigns parole board members to interviews. A commissioner assigned to lead the review decides what to ask and in what order to pose queries. Two commissioners on three-person panels must agree to grant parole. Both must agree on two-person panels. Parole board members are paid just over $100,000 annually. The chairperson makes $122,000.
In testimony delivered to the state Senate’s Standing Committee on Crime Victims in 2018, Board of Parole chairwoman Tina Stanford said commissioners are required to conduct a review known as a risk-and-needs assessment that is designed to weigh a prisoner’s needs but to also look at potential harm to society that prisoner’s release might pose.
Stanford has headed the parole board for the past seven years. Previously, she led the State Office of Victims Services, chaired that office’s precursor, the Crime Victims Board, and served a 14-year stint as an Erie County assistant district attorney.
The board had instituted the risk-and-needs evaluation within the past few years, Stanford told the Senate committee, “to confirm and come into compliance with decisions from the United States Supreme Court and specifically in accordance with state law.”
Stanford described the parole division as “an independent agency currently comprised of 12 commissioners (whose members) perform their responsibilities guided by their knowledge of the law and case information provided by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.”
“The board has the information, training, and legal guidance to make lawful and responsible decisions, particularly release decisions following personal interviews with those incarcerated individuals who are eligible to return to society,” Stanford told the Senate committee.
Saldana sees it differently.
Rather than “shift(ing) to more forward looking factors of how someone has changed over time and who they are today as opposed to the nature of their crime” (parole boards have) continued to deny parole to the large majority of parole applicants … based exclusively on the nature of the crime,” he countered in his testimony to lawmakers last year.
Weight on crime
New York’s executive parole law dictates that before freeing an inmate, board members must determine that “release (would not be) incompatible with the welfare of society and will not so deprecate the seriousness of the crime as to undermine respect for the law.”
That language, Saldana and Shapiro contend, virtually demands that boards give more weight to the crime than to the perpetrator’s rehabilitation. In her experience, Shapiro says, former prosecutors and law enforcement officers who account for a hefty share of parole board members are by temperament more inclined to dwell on a parole seeker’s crimes than to credit their rehabilitation.
Aside from what she sees as the current law’s flaws and parole board members’ bias, Shapiro says, the system’s antiquated infrastructure makes it much harder for board members to consider inmates’ prison records than it should be, especially considering the stakes.
Inmates’ records are available only in paper form at the facilities where they are currently incarcerated, Shapiro says. That means board members get to see them only on the day of an interview, which allows limited time to acquaint themselves with histories of inmates that often stretch to decades past. Most interviews take place in a video conference at one of five DOCCS offices scattered around the state, which for Shapiro, who lives in New York City, meant long, lonely drives to remote locations often on short notice.
“I hated the job,” says Shapiro of her stint on the parole board,
RAPP is backing two bills that it believes could tip the balance to fairly favor treat parole applicants, The Fair and Timely Parole Act (S.497A) and the Elder Parole Act (S.2144). The former would require parole boards to first consider inmates’ current status, efforts toward rehabilitation and state of mind rather than starting with a rehash of their crimes. The latter would call for all prisoners 55 and older who have served 15 years or more to be considered for parole.
Neither District Attorneys Association of New York president David Hoovler, who serves as Orange County’s district attorney, nor Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley responded to requests for comment on the parole reform bills.
Victims of would-be parolees’ crimes might understandably see the possibility of the perpetrator’s release in less clear-cut terms than reform advocates. Last September, my colleague Peter Lovenheim exhaustively examined Doorley’s intervention in the James Robert Moore case.
Incarcerated after pleading guilty to the brutal murder of Penfield teenager Pamela Moss in 1963, Moore, now 86, is the state’s longest-serving prisoner. He is married, practices Zen meditation and is reportedly in poor health and at least partially physically incapacitated. Yet, Lovenheim reported, Doorley at the Moss family’s request circulated a petition calling for the state to turn down Moore’s latest bid for parole. Despite his reported physical ills and advanced age, she believed Moore might still pose a danger to society, Doorley told Lovenheim.
When I ask DiLenola about the crime that put him in prison, he tells me that he had smoked marijuana and taken several tabs of LSD before deciding to burglarize the home of neighbors he knew who lived in the same Livonia complex where he was then living with an aunt and uncle.
DiLenola had originally lived on Rochester’s West Side with his grandmother in a house next door to where his mother lived. He had ended up in Livonia with his mother’s sister and her husband because the family did not consider his mother, an addict who is deaf, to be capable of caring for him. As child and as a teenager, he had trouble accepting that situation, and in Livonia, “I fell in with a bad crowd.”
When he went into the Banach home to burglarize it, he thought no one was there. When he encountered Danielle Banach, the family’s 17-year-old daughter and a classmate, a struggle ensued during which he strangled her with a lamp cord, DiLenola said.
DiLenola at first told investigators that a stranger had killed his classmate and that he had awakened next to her body and fled the scene. After DNA and other physical evidence pointed to him as the perpetrator, DiLenola confessed. Prosecutors showed a videotape of his eight-hour interrogation in court. The tape showed that after he confessed, DiLenola wept, the Democrat and Chronicle reported.
DiLenola had been considered a friend of the family who had played hockey with one of his two sons, Danielle Banach’s father, Donald Banach, told a reporter at the time. Prior to the murder, DiLenola had been romantically interested in Danielle, but she had spurned him, Donald Banach said.
Since his sentencing in 1996, DiLenola has been incarcerated in a string of state prisons. The Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison where he was first held, was a tough place “where I thought I had to be tough too,” DiLenola tells me. Like most of the inmates there, he carried a shiv. He never used it, but after being caught with a weapon, was moved to another maximum-security prison. After two years, he was sent to Attica, which is where he began to come to terms with his situation.
At first, DiLenola says, “I couldn’t comprehend my situation.” In Attica, he began to come under the influence of older lifers, who counseled him to think about “what kind of time did I want to do.” Eventually, he began to counsel younger prisoners himself. Meeting Zuppelli, “the first person I could really think about outside of myself,” was a major turning point.
“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about what happened,” he tells me. “I can’t imagine what her brother must’ve gone through, finding his sister like that on the floor.”
Inmates who have committed violent crimes are not allowed to contact their victims directly. They can write a letter of apology that goes into a bank maintained by the Office of Victim Assistance, which notifies victims who have registered with the apology letter bank that the letter is on file. The victim chooses whether to see it, to have someone read it to them or to ignore it. Unless the victim wants to contact the inmate or let him or her know they have received the letter, the inmate is not told that a victim has seen it.
DiLenola began an apology letter to the Banach family months ago and continues to struggle with it.
When a parole board interviews DiLenola, will it see the remorseless monster Cicoria hoped would never be released from prison? Or will it see the prison philosopher and artist Zuppelli sees, a well-read, intellectual artist who truly possesses an adventurer’s soul? Might it see an offender who has made progress but whose release would so deprecate the seriousness of the crime as to undermine respect for the law?
It’s hard to say.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.