Thursday, 4 August 2016

John MacKenzie's request to you


John Shido MacKenzie 7/22/1946 – 8/4/2016

In 1975 John MacKenzie unintentionally shot Nassau County police officer Matthew Giglio at the scene of a late-night break-in in Hempstead, Long Island. Officer Giglio died from his injuries ten weeks later.

John served almost forty-one years of a twenty-five years to life sentence. He took full responsibility for his crime, yet in spite of his genuine and heartfelt remorse, his complete rehabilitation, his spotless disciplinary record and his impressive accomplishments and achievements, he was denied parole ten times for the one thing he could never change — the nature of his crime.

In a recent New York Supreme Court decision in John's case, Judge Maria G. Rosa stated:

It is undisputed that it is unlawful for the parole board to deny parole solely on the basis of the underlying conviction. Yet the court can reach no other conclusion but that this is exactly what the board did in this case... It is undisputed that this petitioner has a perfect institutional record for the past 35 years. This case begs the question, if parole isn't granted to this petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted? (Matter of MacKenzie v. Stanford, 2789/15)

John was found dead in his prison cell on the morning of Thursday, 4 August 2016, a few days after receiving his tenth parole denial. Repeated parole denials and the harsh conditions in Fishkill Correctional Facility extinguished his hope and he took his own life. There was an immediate outcry with tributes and messages of support from parole reform advocates, outraged by the unlawful actions of the New York State Parole Board.

John MacKenzie's request to you is to never let him be forgotten. This web page is a tribute and a record of some of his many achievements during his long years of incarceration, including the unique Victims Awareness Program he researched, initiated and led in honor of Matthew Giglio and his family. John's lifetime's work as an advocate for victims' rights, parole justice and reform will be continued by all those who knew and loved him. His courage is an inspiration for us all.


Please see these New York Times editorials in support of John MacKenzie:
A Challenge to New York’s Broken Parole Board, by the Editorial Board (New York Times, June 13 2016)
False Hope and a Needless Death Behind Bars, editorial by Jesse Wegman (New York Times, September 6 2016)

"We are here to give you a fair hearing..."

"I can assure you, Mr. MacKenzie, this was a random process to ensure fairness... we are here to give you a fair hearing."
~ Artwork by Gary Heeralal ~

Testimonial to John MacKenzie's character

Dear Parole Board Panel,

I am writing to you with whole-hearted support for the parole of John MacKenzie. I am very familiar with the nature of his crime, and of the radically-positive changes he has made of himself during his forty years of incarceration. I must be honest that I am very nervous as I write this letter because never before have I had to write a letter that means so much to a person’s life, and never before have I had to write a letter that has to convey something that I believe so much in. Please bear with me in the length of this letter, as each paragraph should serve to explain the copious reasons why I believe John MacKenzie should be released on parole.

I met John MacKenzie through the Pre-Release Center at Green Haven Correctional Facility. I was a student intern under the auspices of Vassar College from 1997 until my graduation in May of 1999. I chose to participate in this field work experience as an extreme challenge to myself, and I joined the Victims Awareness Program (VAP) which was led by Mr. MacKenzie for the very same reason. My brother David was murdered during the course of a robbery in 1991. I came to Green Haven because of a nagging curiosity to see what “those people” were like, something that had bothered me since my brother’s murderer was sent to prison. This program which John had the unfailing persistence, commitment and passion to conceive of, create and maintain is certainly the most special gift I as a survivor could have been blessed with. It is without a doubt because of John’s honesty, genuine remorse and advocacy on behalf of survivors that I have been able to develop an inner peace about what happened to my family nine years ago.

My most memorable experience with John which I’d like to share, is also one of my first and most intense. This man that you will see before you had not shed a tear in too many years to count, seeing it perhaps as a sign of vulnerability. I saw this man unsuccessfully fight back tears in front of an entire group of inmates, interns and professionals, after listening to my mother (a guest speaker) describe what it was like for her to lose her son to murder. What an experience this was for me, to watch my mother and John have a very similar emotional reaction to her story, passing the box of tissues to each other. A skeptic may scoff at this display of raw emotion from an institutionalized criminal, but I can tell you that those tears, the pain and blurry redness in his eyes, the embarrassed apologies he gave to the other inmates for letting his emotions get the best of him, for letting his vulnerability be exposed, that could only have been a message straight from his heart that John MacKenzie was a changed man from the youngster who had entered the correctional system twenty-three years earlier. It was a profound connection that we made that day, between survivor and perpetrator, sharing the pain of a single crime, and it is one that will always remain with everyone who was in the session that night.

The VAP encountered its share of obstacles as time progressed and never once did John let it flounder. I know that the program was a success and a credit to New York State Corrections because of him. It’s telling that the program has been nonexistent since John was transferred from Green Haven. Don’t you think the community can benefit from a man who works so diligently for the things he believes in?

I am writing to you in support of John from so many different angles. I write to you as a former student who learned global compassion, the ability to rectify wrongs, diligence, hard work and understanding, my most important and valued lessons, from the man you are considering for parole.

I write to you as someone who worked with the Community Justice Center in East Harlem, helping released inmates make a successful transition to the community. It is with that experience that I know without a doubt that John will be a contributive member of our society.

I write to you as someone who is currently employed by law enforcement. I have a very strong respect for justice, and I believe people ought to be punished for their crimes. John has served his time, and he has done so admirably; using that time to improve himself and set an example for other inmates and younger children. John has proved with his many activities during his incarceration to be an outstanding example of how the criminal justice system can work for the best. Now is the time to commend John for his unfaltering positive behavior over all these years. At the very least, rewarding John with parole will be a clear incentive to the other inmates he has served as an example to, that positive change during one’s incarceration will be reflected through positive consideration by the parole board.

Most importantly, I write to you as a survivor of violent crime, who has been deeply affected by the actions, and friendship, of John MacKenzie. He has never once tried to argue that his crime was forgivable. In fact, I believe John will never be able to forgive himself for what he did so many years ago. John has taken full responsibility for the death of Matthew Giglio, and I can swear to you that I have never met anyone with such remorse for their actions. His heart reaches out to the family of Officer Giglio, to his wife, his children — I know of them only because John talks of them, wishing that he could give them back their loved one. He talks of them because he will never forget the pain that he caused them. I believe that he has connected to my mother and I because as survivors of a similar crime, we are the closest he can come to apologizing to the Giglio family, and we serve as constant reminders of that terrible pain that all survivors endure every day. I believe that John, whether incarcerated or not, truly understands, and will always experience, that unrelenting emotional pain.

John MacKenzie will always live with the truth of what he has done in the past. It is what drives him to make amends by advocating for victims’ rights. As a survivor, I extend my most sincere compassion and sympathy to the friends and family of Matthew Giglio. I know that it is in his honor that John, upon release to parole, will become a model member of society.


Respectfully yours,



(Name withheld for privacy)

Commendable Behavior Report for John MacKenzie

State of New York, Department of Correctional Services, Woodbourne Correctional Facility. Commendable Behavior Report for John MacKenzie.

"In my thirty-two years of service for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, I have never felt more compelled to recognize an inmate for commendable behavior. In fact, this is the first time I have ever believed a man deserving enough to be recognized for his demeanor while at work and his comportment while interacting with administrative staff and inmates alike. I also believe it is incumbent upon me to recognize and commend him for his sense of morality, integrity and for his character. I would be remiss in my duties and obligations as an objective representative of society if I did not share my observations.

Furthermore, as a member of the Department of Correctional Services, I am mandated to convey my observations and document the positive effects of anyone so deserving of recognition. It is for these reasons that I submit the following commendable behavior report for inmate John MacKenzie.

In the past three years I have had the opportunity to observe John MacKenzie's interactions with Correction Officers, civilians and administrative staff, as well as the inmate population. At all times, he has conducted himself in a courteous, kind, reliable and honest manner. John has consistently endeavored to perform his duties as Special Subjects Clerk for the Recreation Department and does so with a level of professionalism that is rare among inmates. Aside from his regular duties as office clerk, he has also gone above and beyond his job responsibilities by developing a computerized automated system for the Recreation Department's inventory and purchase records. Furthermore, he is not only dependable, but on many occasions, without expectation of reward, has consistently volunteered to help with additional special projects.

In conclusion, I have found John MacKenzie to be kind, considerate, responsible and genuinely interested in the welfare of others, while maintaining a positive and optimistic outlook on life. Despite his circumstances, he endeavors to improve his life through constructive growth and development."

Further testimonials to John's character

A selection from many other testimonials to John MacKenzie's character, offered by professional people who have worked with him and known him during his years in prison:


*** "I want to focus on Mr. MacKenzie's development of a very unique program called Victims Awareness. He was instrumental in providing the leadership of this program which brought together both the victims of crime and victimizers. The idea and development of the program was his alone. He was able to bring together an important mix of people, outside professionals with counseling skills, prison inmates, and victims of crime... I was very impressed by the deep and powerful discussions that were held. Although it was highly emotional at times, all the participants gained a lot from the discussions. It was an experience of transformative education where the deep insights had the power to change people's lives and behavior. Through all of it, Mr. MacKenzie provided the leadership that held everything together. In fact, the program was viewed as a model for other Victims Awareness programs by New York State legislators and NYS DOCCS staff members in their visit to the program. I give my highest commendation to the work that Mr. John MacKenzie has done both in the areas of Victims Awareness and the Pre-Release Center. He should be seriously considered for parole when he is eligible. He has reformed and rehabilitated himself and poses no threat to the outside community. In fact, his leadership skills and his development of the Victims Awareness program make him an asset to all communities."


*** "I came to know Mr. MacKenzie due to his involvement in the Victims Awareness Program at Green Haven. I had been impressed by the skill and dedication of the staff who led this program. Indeed, I now find myself trying to find words to say, "much more than impressed". Mr. MacKenzie led the inmates with courage, honesty, and great expertise. I have seen Mr. MacKenzie help the inmates deal with the pain and suffering that their crimes have caused. Of all the groups that I have visited in Green Haven, this group, under Mr. MacKenzie's guidance, focused the most on the individual's personal responsibility. Owning up to one's crime, recognizing the pain the crime inflicted – and continues to inflict – and then reforming oneself during one's time of incarceration: these were central themes that Mr. MacKenzie emphasized.

Mr. MacKenzie led a remarkable program. Imagine: a group of inmates at a maximum security prison, who are honestly trying to come to terms with the suffering their crimes have caused. Often, inmates describe themselves as the victims, and spend much time in prison trying to find a legal loophole that will enable them to get out. In the Victims Awareness Program, the goal is that the men own up to their crimes, take responsibility, and try to find ways to express their remorse. They received no "credit", no diploma for the program. There was no record kept of their involvement. They were there because they realized the importance of this first step for their personal and moral development. And Mr. MacKenzie, I have said, expertly guided them in this complex and difficult process.

With much moral authority and compassion, Mr. MacKenzie helped the men in the group to understand that we all have choices; that crime is not inevitable; and that there are concrete steps that one can take in order to depart – permanently – from the life of crime."


*** "As a Vassar College student intern at Green Haven, I had the opportunity to participate in the first VAP group. I was extremely impressed by John's sincerity, dedication, leadership, and sensitivity to victims' issues. John was able to recognize his accountability and to hold others accountable; he often did so by acknowledging the lives that had been lost and the real people he and his fellow inmates had harmed. I remember how touched one guest was, the mother of a young man who was murdered, how respected and heard she felt after attending a VAP meeting.

John has made significant changes in his life since his incarceration. He has acted as a mentor to other inmates and has taught himself and others about victims' rights. He has also engaged in a sincere religious practice as a Zen Buddhist, and has been involved in positive ways with the Zen Mountain Monastery's monthly Buddhist Services Program for many years.

Given the opportunity, I know that John would make positive contributions to society and be a productive and upstanding citizen. I believe this because I am aware of John's efforts over the years. As a social worker at a crime victims' assistance program, I am intimately aware of the impact of crimes on the lives of real people. I believe John would continue to be a wonderful advocate for the rights of victims, and an effective one, if he were returned to society. I wholeheartedly support John MacKenzie's request to be released from prison. It is my sincere hope that the Division of Parole will give his parole release every consideration."


*** "Mr. MacKenzie is now seventy years old and is incontrovertibly not the same man he was when he entered prison in 1976. He has worked arduously to become a responsible educated and accomplished individual within the confines of the correctional system. His achievements are impressive, particularly in the area of his unflagging determination to establish a victims awareness program. This one undertaking alone demonstrates his acceptance of his culpability in the action that sent him to prison, his remorse and his desire to make amends in the only way he knows how.

Despite spending the last forty years in prison, Mr. MacKenzie has amassed an assortment of degrees, certificates and recommendations that would be notable in someone who had spent that same amount of time in free society. It is time to give him the opportunity to show that he can be a good and responsible citizen in society, as he has proven himself to be in confinement."


*** "I first met John MacKenzie four years ago during one of the visits organized by the [Zen Mountain] Monastery in the effort to connect our community with the inmates practicing Buddhism as part of our affiliate group at Green Haven Correctional Facility... It was hard for me to imagine that this gentle man could have committed a crime serious enough to cause him to be incarcerated in a maximum security prison. Not only did I not feel uncomfortable around John, I actually felt that this was a man that I could trust, and that feeling was not diminished with subsequent visits to Green Haven. Over the years I have only heard good things about John spoken by long-time members of the Monastery who have had the privilege to know him and experience first-hand how hard he has worked to turn his life around... I believe the proof he has given of his incredible courage and determination in the face of adversity would be an invaluable example for all of us striving to live a life honestly, openly, and in a way that nourishes not only ourselves, but others as well."


*** "I know the program instituted by John Daido Loori and his colleagues at several correctional institutions in north-eastern states. It is comprehensive and has changed many lives. It serves as an important role model for other religious organizations to follow. John MacKenzie is an active leader in that program at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility. He has taken vows of repentance for past crimes and determination to serve others. It is clear to me that Mr. MacKenzie has, with his own effort and with the support of his Buddhist friends and colleagues, undergone the change requisite for his release on parole. My long career of Buddhist teaching has been grounded on the faith that people change. Indeed, our society is grounded on change in people. Educators, ministers and all people involved in social welfare know that people change. The very use of the term "corrections" in our facilities shows this fact. In his more than forty years of penitentiary repentance, John MacKenzie has changed very much for the better. He is your success story. I urge you to give Mr. MacKenzie a chance to prove himself in the broader community, and give him the parole he has earned."


*** "I am writing on behalf of John MacKenzie, currently incarcerated at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, and petitioning for parole once again this year. I met John after writing an article about the death and funeral of his mother at Zen Mountain Monastery, and we have been corresponding back and forth for some years now.

I'm sure his crime and subsequent rehabilitation are well-documented in other letters to the parole board this year, and in years past. So I will simply say that I know John to be a loyal, nurturing, and compassionate friend, an ardent and eloquent advocate for victims in all walks of life. He has used his time in prison wisely, reflecting deeply on his past and discovering ways to transform himself and fellow prisoners who are in pain and who have hurt others in turn.

I urge you to grant John MacKenzie his parole at long last, with the heartfelt conviction that he can be of more benefit on the outside now, and that his presence among us will be a constant and strong reminder that prison, coupled with the right resources and opportunities, can provide chances that can change the lives of our citizens. I believe that once free, John MacKenzie will use the rest of his life to heal us, and thereby honor the memory of the man he has slain."


*** "I myself have been deeply moved by Mr. MacKenzie's journey from offender to defender of victims' rights and feelings. His taking responsibility for his violent past has led to the creation of compassionate prison programs like the Greenhaven Correctional Facility Victims Awareness Program and the Facility's "Storybook Project" for the kids and families of incarcerated fathers. In healing himself, he has worked tirelessly to heal others. At a time when there is so much hopelessness about violent crime in our culture, I feel that it's crucial to provide reminders of the human hungering after goodness, of our apparently indestructible capacity to transform poison into medicine. And it seems to me that John MacKenzie's life is a shimmering example of that. Please do not deny him the opportunity to give his experience, insight and energy to the world at large. And please, do not deny the world the opportunity to receive him."


*** "I am the mother of murder victims - a son and daughter-in-law killed by an 18-year old in Montana. I do not come to conclusions about prisoner release without deep and serious consideration, based on solid evidence of a reformed and trustworthy character. I tell you this so you know my support of Mr. MacKenzie is solidly based on what I have seen of his efforts to become a truly good person, and on how well I see that he has succeeded. I met Mr. MacKenzie at the Greenhaven Correctional Center several years ago when I gave a talk on Forgiveness at the conclusion of a REC (Residents Encounter Christ) retreat. He told me of his work to bring victims and perpetrators of crime together, and his reasons for doing this over a long period of time. I had felt at that time that this was a program all the prisons should support, and was extremely happy to learn that a prisoner had worked to get such a program underway and thriving. In the years since, I became more impressed with Mr. MacKenzie's efforts to become a good and productive citizen, even though behind bars. I became convinced that he is truly a rehabilitated person, and that now, after having served 40 years, he should be given parole so that he can continue doing good work in the world."


*** "After 40 years of incarceration, ten parole board hearings, and at age 70, I strongly believe that it is time to grant John MacKenzie parole. He has taken every program that the corrections system has to offer. His college education, experience as a counselor, and technical skills with computers will make it easier for him to find employment on the outside. He cannot change the nature of his crime but he has changed who he is. He has made positive changes to his life and he will not be a threat to the outside community. I give my highest recommendation to Mr. John MacKenzie's application for release on parole."


*** "In every respect John was by far the most articulate and honest of the members of the panel. Unlike some of the inmates he did not spend his time arguing his innocence, bemoaning his fate, or claiming he was the victim of an evil system. Rather he concentrated on what it was like to be in Attica and his preparation for the future - the day he is finally released - and what he intends to do at that point. This was not surprising as it was the impression I received from him in conversations. I am impressed by this posture, for I suspect it is one good indicator that John is not likely to end up back in prison... John is not just articulate, he is intelligent and I am confident that what he has learned in the college program and in his facing the kinds of questions college and high school students have regularly asked him (some were quite clearly uncomfortable for him and the other inmates) have given John a perspective on himself and society that he did not have when he entered prison."


*** "John MacKenzie is an impressive individual. He is articulate and outgoing and seems to exhibit a genuine and sincere concern for the youth coming to the ALFA Program. Through the years that I've come to know him, he has demonstrated a style of leadership and cooperation which is exemplary. He willingly offers ideas and suggestions, is quick to analyze and assess what is going on inside of the youth and seems to have a unique sense of his own self-worth and uses it well to get the youth to look at their own selves. I know his input in the various groups I've been a part of have caused me to be more aware of my own experiences and my own self. John looks to me, to be on a fairly straight path toward rehabilitation. He doesn't exhibit nor speak of any anxiety about the authorities or against society for putting him behind bars. He acknowledges the reason he is in prison, and openly shares his personal history with the youth. John MacKenzie is one of the rare breed of prison inmate. He, and others of the ALFA Program need to be recognized as being different in a very special way. He and the others of the ALFA Program deserve to receive every consideration and opportunity for future growth and personal stability."

John MacKenzie's Correctional History (Woodbourne 1999 to the present day)

In December of 1999, after serving nearly twenty-five years in maximum-security prisons, John was finally transferred to Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison. John immediately went to work for the Community Preparation Program, (now known as Transitional Services) and continued as a Peer Counselor. He also decided to devote some of his time and energy working in the recreation department as an IPA (Inmate Program Assistant) for the music program. Because of his computer skills and his educational background, he was soon asked to work as the Recreation Office Clerk. He immediately set out to automate the office inventory system and other important aspects of the recreation department. Soon thereafter, John received two Commendable Reports from recreation supervisors commending John not only for his devotion to the work ethic, but also for his dedication and contributions to the operation of the Recreation Department. He would eventually be given one of the few Special Assignment titles in the prison. Aside from his work assignments, John was elected ILC Chairman (Inmate Liason Committee) and President of the Brothers of Ireland Organization. John also took time out to learn welding and received a certificate for Brazing, Welder’s Helper and Acetylene Welder/Cutter.

Unfortunately, and in stark contrast to his many years of interaction and networking with outside agencies and participation in various programs while in maximum-security prison, John found it difficult, if not impossible to get support for his victims program. Although many people in the community supported his efforts, including Assemblywoman A. Gunther and Congressman Maurice Hinchey, DOCCS never approved the program for Woodbourne. It is interesting to note that as of now there is still no formal functioning Victims Awareness Program in New York State prisons. Nonetheless, John still continued to write to various agencies and politicians in an attempt to get support for his program.

Having successfully demonstrated his genuine desire to effect positive change in himself and to help others do the same, John continued growing and in doing so acquired a number of impressive credentials including three college degrees; a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Associate of Arts and an Associate of Science. Among the many certificates are: Small Business Management, Youth Counseling, IGRC Chairman, Respiratory Rescue, Pre Release Counseling Aide, Apprentice Baker, Typist, Career Planning, Substance Abuse Program, AIDS Teaching Assistant, Adult Peer Counseling, Labor Market Counseling, Tutoring Computers and Algebra, Legal Research, Peer Counseling, National Trust, Welding and Certificates of Appreciation from the Veteran’s Project, Black History Month Committee, WCF Recreation Department, as well as myriad letters of commendation and support.

In December 2014, John was transferred to Fishkill Correctional Facility 
where he worked as an inmate grievance resolutions clerk.

At seventy years old, John was plagued with a variety of medical problems. He had served almost 41 years of a 25-year-to-life sentence. Even though he had demonstrated that he was in fact a changed man and could once again become a productive, caring member of society, he was denied parole ten times for the one thing that could never change, the nature of his crime.

John MacKenzie's Correctional History (Green Haven 1985-1999)

In 1985 John was transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility. He immediately accepted a position as Peer Counselor at the Pre Release Center and eventually went on to become Resident Director. During his 15-year tenure as Peer Counselor he conducted a variety of classes for inmates who were preparing to appear before the parole board or were about to be released back into society. He was also instrumental in developing classes on Health, Family Planning, Job Interview Skills, Aggression Replacement Training (ART), Domestic Violence and a number of other classes designed to assist men in preparing for their return to the community. John developed both the Drivers’ License and Rap Sheet classes [still in use today] which helped men clear up their records and helped further prepare them for the transition back into the job market. John performed numerous computer related functions designed to enhance the services offered to the inmate population. He also continued his educational pursuits and enrolled in the Marist College program. John finally fulfilled his degree requirements and received his Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration. After graduation, John continued to work with the Marist College program and tutored Introduction to Computers and Intermediate Algebra. When AIDS became a major concern for prison officials, the Department of Correctional Services canvassed the prisons for inmate volunteers to teach about AIDS awareness. John was one of the first five inmate educators certified by Albany’s Health Services Department.

In 1992 John became the Director of the Youth Assistance Program (YAP) and coordinated a number of sessions with various local area youth groups and law enforcement agencies. These groups and agencies included the New York State Division For Youth, Dutchess County Probation Department, Allen Residential Center, Pius XII Residential Services, the Key Shelter and Elmcor Youth Services. In addition, John coordinated his efforts with various school officials to establish an interactive program for students in an attempt to make the youth program an integral part of the school curriculum. In June of 1993, John was appointed Chairman of the Family Reunion Committee where his duties and responsibilities included being the liaison for the facility administration and inmate population. When the National Trust was looking to establish a computer program for inmates, they asked John to teach the first class.

John continued to pursue the establishment of a Victims Awareness Program and his efforts included an extensive mailing campaign wherein he wrote to virtually everyone connected or involved in Victims Awareness Services and/or any agency that he thought would support his endeavors. Finally in December of 1996 John was successful in getting the Green Haven administration to officially recognize victims’ issues and to allow him to establish a Victims Awareness Program. In 1997, in what would appear to be a first, John submitted a grant proposal to the Open Society and received an eight thousand dollar grant. In 1997 the grant was approved, but as of March 1998 the Department of Correctional Services had not accepted it. Undeterred, and despite the lack of funding, John managed to continue operating the program. Members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, (MADD) and Parents of Murdered Children, (POMC) became regular participants. The Hon. James Cowhey, (Westchester County Supreme Court Judge), Hon. Jeffrey Berry, (Orange County Criminal Court), Hon. Debra J. Kiedaisch, (Orange County Family Court Judge) also attended the program. Additionally, Assemblyman Howard Mills, then ranking minority member of the Corrections Committee expressed an interest and attended the program.

As a component of the Victims Awareness Program, John created the Children’s Story Book Project, which gave men the opportunity to record a variety of stories for their children. For this venture, John had to get copyright permission from both Scholastic Publishing and the William Morris Agency, who represent Bill Cosby. The project helped fathers keep family ties strong with their children, and inspired and encouraged them to seek help in learning how to either read or improve on the reading skills they already had. Unfortunately, both the Victims Awareness Program and the Story Book Project were cancelled after John was transferred to Woodbourne.

John MacKenzie's Correctional History (Clinton 1976-Attica 1980)

John MacKenzie entered Clinton Correctional Facility in 1976 and immediately enrolled in the Clinton Community College Program. He earned two Associate Degrees, the first in Business Administration and the second in Liberal Arts. John graduated with high honors, making the President’s List and Dean’s List on two separate occasions.

While at Clinton John worked in the Industrial Office as a Purchasing Clerk and after completing the department's Legal Research Course, he transferred to the Law Library.* He was also active in various group functions and organizations. John volunteered his time and efforts as the IGRC (Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee) Chairman and devoted time as a Literacy Volunteer. Because of his good behavior, John was placed in the Honor Block. John was elected Treasurer of the facility’s Jaycee Organization where he utilized his business skills to organize and coordinate various functions for both the inmate population and facility staff. John also ran the inmate photo program in the visiting area and for general population.

In 1980 John was transferred to Attica Correctional Facility and was assigned as a Grounds Keeper. Because of John’s compassion and desire to help others, he became an Inmate Nurse. In October of 1984 Attica hosted the State’s first conference on 'Alternatives To Incarceration' held in a maximum-security prison. Representatives from the Division of Parole, the Crime Victims Board, legislators and religious leaders were also in attendance. John was one of only four inmates invited to participate in this unique conference. It was at this chance meeting with George Grobe, then Chairman of the Crime Victims Board that John was inspired to become active in the Victims Awareness Movement. Since 1984 John has actively pursued assistance and support for the establishment of Victims Awareness Programs in New York State Prisons.

While in Attica John continued his educational pursuits, enrolling in the Consortium College Program working toward his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration through Niagara University. John also enrolled in the New York State Regents External Degree Program. While in the Consortium Program, John was on the Student Body and was instrumental in convincing the College and Attica Administration to initiate the first Computer Science Program in the State Prison System. In addition to his regular studies, John enrolled in a Writers Workshop conducted by members of the Niagara Erie Writers Association and staff from SUNY Buffalo. It was through this workshop that one of John’s short stories (A Christmas Story) was chosen for reading over Radio FM 88 during the Christmas holidays.

John’s other activities while in Attica included participation in the Community Awareness Program and the ALFA (A Look For Alternatives) program. Both programs were designed to educate students to the realities of prison, address issues concerning the criminal justice system and to deter youth from a lifestyle and choices that might eventually lead them to prison. John became an active member of Cephas, a program designed to help in the growth and positive development of men in prison in preparation for their eventual return to society. This program has the distinction of receiving the prestigious Roosevelt Award for its contributions to the rehabilitation process.

*John was the first inmate in New York State to receive college credit for completion of the Legal Research Course offered by the Department of Correctional Services.

Learning Compassion in Shackles

Learning Compassion in Shackles

This article was originally published in 2001


Table Number 13
The corrections officer points to a small wooden table with a large number 13 etched in blue paint. It’s 9:20. The metal detectors and guards have put me on edge this morning. Fifteen men are seated at various tables around the room. They are all wearing dark green, state-issued pants. One man leans in close, as his mother holds his hands in hers. A couple in the corner speak softly and kiss—they will continue kissing for the entire duration of my five-hour visit. A number of young children, mostly black and Latino, are visiting their fathers today. Near the bathroom is a small area designated for playing. There are a few books and toys lying about.

I have driven an hour and a half to visit John MacKenzie at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County, a medium security prison, encompassing a series of interconnected brick and concrete buildings designed and built in the Spanish monastery style of the 1930s. It’s been three years since John and I last saw each other. I wonder if he’ll look different, if he’s aged since being denied parole.

25 Years to Life
John greets me with a big grin, and welcomes me as if we were standing in his living room. He seems even taller than I remember, and I have to reach up on tiptoe to hug him. This simple gesture offers John the rare opportunity to make physical contact with another person, and he later tells me how deeply warm and human it made him feel. His eyes are shining, and he looks in good spirits, not exhausted like I had feared. I go over to the vending machines and buy John a coffee. He has to stand behind a painted yellow line while I deposit the money.

John is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for murder. In 1975, John shot and killed Nassau County police officer Matthew Giglio. The crime took place late at night in Hempstead, Long Island. Officer Giglio died 10 weeks after John shot him, leaving behind a wife, Phyllis, a son, and two daughters.

By the time he was 29 years old, John was leading the life of a criminal, stealing things large and small. He was addicted to Valium, and was taking a combination of other drugs, including an anti-psychotic—all prescribed and supplied to him by a doctor. During the year leading up to his crime, John started have periods of amnesia that became progressively more regular. He would have violent episodes and then not remember them. He said that his girlfriend once told him he had hit her, but he had no recollection of it. “The more I was medicated, the bolder I became with crimes.” He stole a riding mower, a boat, diamond rings—some of which he remembered stealing and some of which he would discover in his possession the morning after.

John claims it was in this state, during a week of sporadic memory lapses, that he broke into Thelma Jay’s Boutique and shot Matthew Giglio, the police officer that arrived on the scene. John does not make excuses for himself, although he does maintain that the medications he was taking “changed my personality and caused me to act irrationally.” He says he doesn’t remember shooting Matthew Giglio, but has come to acknowledge the fact that he did so. In 1975, John was sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment; he went to Attica prison, leaving behind three daughters. Only recently have some memories of the night and the events surrounding the shooting come back to John through sporadic flashbacks.

Vacant Apartments
When he was four years old, John’s mother taught him how to pick his first lock with a bobby pin. His father was absent and he grew up with his mother in New York City, breaking into one-room apartments, living there in secret for a few days or weeks at a time before moving on to the next flat.

When he was six, John was removed from her custody by the court. He recalls that the Department of Social Services was involved; someone had filed a negligence suit against his mother, but John didn’t understand that at the time. In the visiting room of the prison, John vividly re-enacts the traumatic scene. He spreads his arms wide to show how a guard dragged him away from her. John recalls screaming, “ How can you love me and let them take me?”

John was sent to live at a children’s center, but he immediately set about escaping. He managed to dig his way to freedom with the help of a neighbor’s German Shepard. Together they clawed at the ground by the center’s high fence, and soon John was on the road with the dog, heading back to his mother.

John’s childhood was colored by many incidents like this one. He was in and out of foster families and Catholic Charities for years. Twice, on New Year’s Eve, his mother dropped him off at the main office of Catholic Charities in New York City. Each time, he would escape and find his way back to her. “I was a homing pigeon,” John says, smiling. When I ask John why he thinks his mother kept giving him up, he doesn’t answer. When I ask if she was mentally ill, he says, “No, she was beautiful.”

Auspicious Meetings
John spent his first 10 years behind bars at Attica Prison. He describes himself during those years as being frustrated and angry. “Up until ’84 I [thought I] got railroaded by the system and [they] abused the shit out of me. All I could think about was beating the system.” Then, in 1984 and 1985, John had two pivotal encounters that would profoundly influence the course of his life and work. First, in 1984, John was asked to be an inmate participant for a conference hosted by Attica. It was at the Alternatives to Incarceration conference that he met George Grobe, former chairman of the Crime Victims Board, who spoke with a passion about victim’s rights. The second significant experience occurred one evening in 1985, when John Mackenzie met John Daido Loori, abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper. This meeting marked John’s first encounter with zazen (Zen meditation), and the beginning of a life-long spiritual journey.

When John first met Mr. Grobe at the Attica conference, he vehemently argued that it was he himself who was the real victim, sentenced to 25 years-to-life for a murder he couldn’t even remember committing. John recalls Grobe’s words, “He told me that if I put as much energy into victims as I did into myself that I’d be a worthy proponent [of victim’s rights]. It danced through my head, and I thought: maybe I don’t think that much about victims… So began my journey into [the world of] victims and how they are treated, how they feel, how they are in fact, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters—how they are family.”

Shortly thereafter, John was transferred to Green Haven Prison, where Zen master John Daido Loori had come to lead the newly formed Buddhist group. John dramatically and comically re-enacts his first night sitting in meditation at Green Haven. He recalls a silent Daido, seated unflinching on a small wooden bench. All the other prisoners were doing the same. An endless 30 minutes passed. During that time, John’s knees were burning. He shifted around, he looked at his watch. This was more difficult than he ever could have imagined. He remembers Daido saying, “The hardest thing you’ll ever do is sit.”

At the same time as John began to reconsider his position on victimization and victim’s rights, Daido introduced him to a spiritual path that emphasizes selflessness, the interconnectedness of all things and taking personal responsibility for one’s life. These teachings complemented and gave life to the realizations that John was beginning to have on his own. He was simultaneously experiencing the pain he caused the Giglio family, as well as the compassion that arose out of understanding that pain.

Despite the strangeness and discomfort of his first meditation, John was drawn to Zen practice by the existential questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? For over 15 years, John’s practice has been one of not separating himself from his physical and emotional pain. In Zen Buddhist terms, as John puts it, “I have learned to be the barrier. To be the pain.” Mostly, he is pained by the destructiveness of his own past, and the life he ended with a gun.

John now keeps a cutout paper image of Buddha and a pinecone on the altar in his cell. He normally rises for 6 a.m. meditation, chanting, and bows. On the weekends he sometimes does mini-intensive retreats with long hours of meditation. Listening to John describe his spiritual life, I find myself forgetting that he is incarcerated. He keeps me in check by saying, “The reality is, I’m still in prison no matter how much Zen I practice.”

Full Prostrations in the Mud
John’s commitment to Zen and to victim’s rights developed hand-in-hand. The more he got in touch with his own humanity and suffering through zazen and his work with a spiritual teacher, the more responsible he felt for the welfare of victims. He finally had a window into the pain that crimes cause, and into the hearts of those who he’d wronged. There no longer seemed to be such a great distinction between his own human nature and emotions, and those of the Giglios and other crime victims.

In the midst of this personal transformation, John’s estranged mother, Julie Steinmetz, decided to contact him. In 1990, she began writing to him, after 10 years of silence. They started mending old wounds through correspondence, and Ms. Steinmetz expressed her wish to come visit John. John said that he sensed something was wrong—there was urgency about her communications. In May, only four months after John received his mother’s first letter, he was informed that she had died of cancer. “For three days, all I could think about was what she had done for me, not to me. I loved her.” He said instead of blaming her for his rough childhood, he now reflects on how his actions must have impacted her, caused her suffering.

In 1990, Shugen Sensei, a teacher at the monastery, made a trip down to New York City and brought Ms. Steinmetz’s body back for the funeral, which John requested to be held on monastery grounds. After a long, bureaucratic process of trying to work out John’s attendance at the funeral, he was cuffed, shackled, and transported to Mount Tremper. It was to be his first and only visit to the monastery that supports his practice.

John describes his first impression of the monastery as “awe-inspiring. I felt a connection—like this is me… this is my home. This is appropriate. I felt like I belonged there.” The event was a first for everyone involved. The monks had certainly never held a funeral with armed corrections officers in attendance, and the guards had never before accompanied a prisoner to a Buddhist funeral. At one point, they were asked not to enter the main meditation hall, the zendo, with their guns. They waited outside.

John’s leg shackles were removed, but not his handcuffs. At the monastery’s cemetery, a silent procession led the way during the ceremony. John describes the robed students and monks as resembling a “gray centipede” as they snaked their way up to the burial site. He did full prostrations in the mud, his hands cuffed together as he offered incense. In a poem about the experience, John writes,“ My mother rides a carpet of incense to the heavens… a never-ending, perpetual ribbon to the heavens.” He said he felt closer to his mother than ever. After the funeral, he felt as if a burden had been lifted. He hugged his Zen teacher. “I felt, full. Complete, not empty. I just can’t think of words. We were all one family, including my mother.”

The Birth of Awareness
John used his mother’s death as an opportunity to see life from her perspective. His vision extended beyond his own personal feelings and desires, and allowed him to take her life experiences into consideration, when reflecting on why she raised him the way she did. This helped to wash away anger and harsh judgment. It was the same consideration that drove John to explore what a crime victim’s experience might be.

Since he met George Grobe at Attica, and all the while that he was practicing Zen, John had been writing to crime victim’s groups. He was gathering as much information as he could about victim’s issues. John learned that the very same system of which he had considered himself a victim for so long, was also a system which victimized survivors of violent crimes and their family members. These people were often denied access to information about the proceedings of their case. Their ability to participate in the justice system set up to protect them was severely curtailed. John also began talking to other inmates and realized that many prisoners were so caught up in feeling victimized that they could not take responsibility for their crimes. As a result, they could not feel sympathy for the victims they had created.

John’s increasing knowledge about victim’s issues galvanized him into action. In 1997, after years of hard work and research, he got authorization from Green Haven Prison to start a prison discussion group called the Victim’s Awareness Program (VAP). In 1998, during the VAP’s second year, three student interns from Vassar joined the group and took part in the meetings. I was one of the interns, along with Justine, and Carolyn—a young woman whose brother had been murdered in 1991. Each week for four months, we passed through Green Haven’s metal detectors, left our keys and jewelry at the door, and entered another world. Students and prisoners had a chance to interact, share ideas, challenge stereotypes. Many of the prisoners in the group were young, and struggling to acknowledge the full impact of the crimes they had committed. They struggled with their horror, sadness, and the desire to trust one another.For 15 years leading up to this point, John had taken classes, designed curricula, and tried to get fellow inmates interested in a Victim’s Awareness Program. John outlined the idea behind this program as such:

The VAP gives offenders the opportunity to understand the impact their actions have on society. It sensitizes offenders to the long-term effects of crime on both victims and victims’ families. [One of the goals of VAP is] to analyze and change offenders’ tendency to depersonalize the people they injure. In addition, this program motivates them to recognize the importance of behavioral accountability and empathy for other human beings. The program holds offenders responsible and accountable for their actions and encourages offenders to make responsible choices.

As John argues, “The key to change is taking responsibility. Once your defenses come down and you take responsibility, there is no choice but to be honest.”

John put a lot of effort into getting funding for this project, and was even awarded an $8,000 grant by the Open Society, but the Department of Corrections never accepted the money. John said he was, “determined to make this work. I wanted other guys to feel what I felt—the hurt, the pain, the compassion [for the victims].” To cover program costs, John asked the other prisoners participating in the program to contribute funds. On a shoestring budget, the program was initiated at Green Haven Prison in 1997.

The Green Haven VAP program was a result of a decade and a half of planning, bureaucratic struggles, research, and soul-searching. The program consisted of 16 three-hour sessions in which men convicted of violent offenses were challenged and supported in their efforts to take total responsibility for their crimes. Using techniques such as discussions, role-plays, and written assignments, sessions were designed to give the men an opportunity to express deep regret for their actions. In order for the program to be successful, John was clear about one thing: men needed to stop placing the blame on society, the legal system, or on anyone but themselves.

After many weeks of preparation within the group, John arranged to have victims come in to the prison for a face-to-face meeting with the inmates. For many inmates, this was the most poignant part of the journey. John invited judges, family members of murder victims, and an assemblyman to participate in this aspect of the program.

A Mother's Love
Carolyn’s presence in the VAP was treasured, partially because of her experience as the family member of a murder victim—her older brother, David. For one of the last group sessions, her mother, Carolee came in to talk. She describes visiting the VAP as, “the most extraordinary interaction with humankind.” Her son, David, was murdered 10 years ago during a hold-up at the New York City bar where he worked. Since then, Mrs. Brooks has been an active member in the support organization, Parents of Murdered Children. Even though John had been working on setting up the VAP for years, it wasn’t until he met Carolee that he fully understood what a member of a murder victim’s family goes through. She reached a part of John that had previously remained untouched. He said, “[David’s murder] happened years ago, and she was talking like it happened yesterday. I looked at Carolee and I could actually feel…” he paused, reliving the moment, “her pain. And for a split second, I saw Matthew Giglio’s mother. I leaned over, and for years I had been trying to say I was sorry. I started to choke up. I couldn’t say I was sorry to [Mrs. Giglio], so I apologized to Carolee. Everyone in the group started crying. We were all running for paper towels.”

John recalls that Carolee brought in a lot of pictures of David. She talked about him and cried. It really affected John to hear her mention that the lawyer in court referred to David, not by name, but as “the bartender.” Carolee corrected him, saying, “My son’s name is David.” Carolee has been very sensitive, from the beginning, about giving names to human beings, and I believe this is part of the reason she has been able to heal her wounds. She always refers to the men involved in David’s murder as “the two young men,” or “Donnie and Sean.” She has not permitted rage and grief to blind her to their humanity. She says, “Anger interferes with healing. It’s like an irritant. It constantly gnaws at the wound.”

Even in the wake of her son’s death, in the midst of grief that must have been overwhelming, Carolee noticed that there was never anybody in court for Donnie White, the man who shot David. She has vowed to try to help make a difference in people’s lives, and she believes in forgiveness. She says, “In my life, I’ve been forgiven. People have had to give me a second chance. I think people deserve it. I know the mistakes I’ve made are on a different scale, but still.”

"People Don't Change"
In 1994, John and a childhood friend (who happens to be a former NYC police detective) began trying to locate the Giglio family, so that John could express his remorse. In a letter he composed to Matthew Giglio, more than 20 years after he killed him, John wrote:

Sorry will not allow me to travel back in time and undo the damage I’ve done, or correct my mistake. When compared to your life, which was so precious and short, an apology seems totally meaningless. Nonetheless, my heart burns with the pain, and the reality of what I did torments and torments me. It never lets me rest, or forget that it is because of my thoughtless act that you’re no longer alive.

The letter remains unseen by the Giglios. John’s efforts to get in contact with them were unsuccessful, and he was unable to say how sorry he was, until he took the opportunity to do so during a television interview last October. Right before his parole hearing, Long Island’s 12 News reporter, Connie Conway, did a story on John and the Giglios. About five minutes of the nightly news was dedicated to interviewing John and covering the family’s grief over the loss of Matthew Giglio. The family had a hard time believing John’s claims that he did not actually remember shooting the police officer. They firmly maintained that John should not be allowed to come out of prison. Matthew Jr., the officer’s son, said, “He killed my father. He destroyed my family. He doesn’t deserve a chance.”

At a press conference, one of Mr. Giglio’s daughters said, “People don’t change. They don’t change. They stay the same.” Later, John would see this on television, surrounded by fellow prisoners. He tells me that they were all really angry, but he had to hold back tears. He wanted to cry when he heard that statement, because it was a nullification of all the work he had done on himself over the past 15 years. Although John’s Zen practice constantly reinforces the importance of selfless, compassionate action with no expectation of reward or acknowledgement, those words stung him to the core.

John was never able to apologize directly to the Giglios, but he took the opportunity during his interview to say he was sorry for the suffering he had created. John said, “All the forgiveness in the world is not gonna relieve me of responsibility. I just wish it was me that night instead of him. Then I wouldn’t be sitting here, and they wouldn’t be in pain.”

Vanishing Parole
Zen master John Daido Loori often says that being human covers the whole spectrum: from Buddha or Mother Teresa to Genghis Khan and Hitler. We can choose what we want to be, and then manifest that in our daily lives. John’s story is important because it demonstrates the capacity for great change. The existence of stifling sentencing laws or mandates like the death penalty are frightening in their blindness to this part of human nature and human potential. The VAP had a successful, yet short, life span at Green Haven. The program was cut after only a few years, when John was transferred to Woodbourne. John has been attempting to start another VAP, but is encountering bureaucratic roadblocks. John wrote in a statement about his years of work:

Why care at all about this? Because most of the people in prison will eventually return to their communities, more specifically, the very same neighborhoods they left. How they return is not only your concern, but also your responsibility, your responsibility to ensure they reintegrate with a different attitude, one that encourages them to sublimate their energy into more productive lifestyles. The only way to accomplish this is to offer them a chance to effect positive change, and to do that, you must provide a vehicle—a vehicle guided by a sincere desire to make amends for one’s immorality.

As a long-term prisoner, John has had the opportunity to see many inmates go through the devastating and nerve-racking parole process. New York State is known for its draconian sentencing laws. In 1991, before Governor Pataki took office, 24 percent of violent offenders were granted parole after serving their minimum required sentence. By 1998, only eight percent of the same population was released upon their first meeting with the parole board. Granted, not every person convicted of a serious crime has transformed their lives in the same way that John has, but funding and politics are the main considerations for the governor-appointed Parole Board. The Board’s decision to grant early release seems to depend less on a prisoner’s rehabilitation than on the fact that starting in 1994, the US Congress began granting states additional funds for the construction of prisons, and then allotted even more money to states that toughened their sentencing laws. In New York State, parole for violent offenders has been eliminated, and Pataki has expressed a desire to get rid of parole for all felons. The idea of “presumptive parole,” the notion that a prisoner will be released if she or he fulfills the educational and rehabilitative requirements imposed by a judge, jury, and/or a corrections counselor, has been rendered farcical.

It was in this conservative, “tough on crime” climate that John came up for his first hearing with the Parole Board in the winter of 2000. He was not released. The fact that he murdered a police officer overshadowed the reality of John’s rehabilitation. John was denied parole for the one thing he will never be able to change: the nature of his crime.

A sample letter for the Parole Board

You might like to use the sample letter below as the basis for your own letter in support of John's parole appeal. Alternatively, send your message of support for John directly to the NYS Board of Parole online, using this form.

Your name
Address
City
State, Zip
Country


Date

Tina Stanford, Chairwoman,
New York State Board of Parole,
97 Central Avenue,
Albany, New York 12206,
U.S.A.


Dear Ms. Stanford,

I am writing to you in support of the parole release of John MacKenzie, #76A3447, NYSID 0953346H. I am familiar with the facts and circumstances of the crime for which John has now served more than forty years. Although the tragic loss of life is a serious crime, after careful consideration and review of John’s case and his positive adjustment during his incarceration, I feel that John deserves to be given the opportunity to return to the community.

I have followed John’s progress through the many years of his incarceration. Most specifically, I have reviewed his educational programs and the community-sensitive projects to which he has devoted much of his time and effort. John has used his time in prison constructively and effectively. He has become a strong advocate of victims’ rights and he believes in helping victims of crime through the painful healing process. His many years of research and endeavors in this field came to fruition when he established the first and very successful inmate-run Victims’ Awareness Program in a maximum-security prison.

John has reformed and rehabilitated himself and poses no threat to the outside world. He has accepted full responsibility for his actions, has reflected on his past mistakes and expressed deep and sincere remorse for his crime.

I believe that John would be a good and productive citizen if he were returned to society. It is my sincere hope that the Division of Parole will give his parole release every consideration.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my letter.

Yours sincerely,


(Signature)
Name