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Who is Judy?

Raised in Brooklyn to a politically radical family, Judy Clark began her activist work in the civil rights movement at age fourteen. She went on to be part of the anti-war, anti-racist and women’s movements, focusing on Black liberation and other liberation movements of the time. Judy writes, “I leapt into the New Left with a vengeance, pushing toward the extremes of militancy and ideology…I spent my entire young adult life wrapped in increasingly isolated, self-contained radical organizations and activities.” She was arrested in October 1981 and ultimately convicted of felony murder for her involvement in the armed robbery of a Brinks truck during which a guard and two police officers were killed. Judy was unarmed and played a secondary role as a getaway driver.

Now 67 years old, and in the 36th year of her imprisonment, Judy is a profoundly remorseful woman. She says, “While my life is fueled by a hope-filled commitment to repair, I never forget that the lives lost on October 20 cannot be redeemed. I will always live with sorrow, shame, and regret for my role in their deaths.”

Judy’s accomplishments at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility are extraordinary: she earned a BA in Behavioral Sciences in 1990 and a Masters Degree in Psychology in 1993. Since that time, she’s been on the staff of the Nursery Program, where she has taught pre-natal and parenting classes for pregnant women and has been a mentor and role model to the nursery mothers who live with their babies on a special unit in the prison. During the 1980s, to address the impact of the AIDS epidemic at Bedford Hills, Judy co-founded the groundbreaking ACE, an organization so effective it has been replicated at prisons across the country. She was co-editor of Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison (Overlook Hardcover 1998). Judy also helped to build a prison college program when public funding for it was eliminated in the 1990s, and, as a result, more than 150 women have been awarded Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees in the past ten years. Judy continues to be an ongoing informal adviser to many of those students.

Judy participates in the Puppies Behind Bars program and has raised and trained puppies to become guide dogs for the blind, explosive detection dogs for law enforcement agencies, and service dogs for wounded veterans. She is currently raising her eleventh puppy.

Judy’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and The New Yorker, she won the 1995 PEN Prison Poetry Writing Award, and her scholarly essays have appeared in such journals as The Prison Journal, Zero to Three, and The Women’s Passover Companion: Women’s Reflections on the Festival of Freedom. In recent years, Judy, who was raised in the tradition of radical secular Judaism, has immersed herself in religious studies and Clinical Pastoral Education and she has completed certification as a Chaplain. The training lends a framework to her ongoing role as an informal mentor and confidante to women like herself, who are serving lengthy sentences and are trying to come to terms with their pasts and lead compassionate, fulfilling and useful lives.

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment is that, despite incarceration, Judy has been a loving and influential mother to her now 36-year-old daughter, Harriet, a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Stanford University, and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Yet neither mother nor daughter has taken their relationship for granted. Currently a writing teacher at Stanford University, Harriet writes:

While the separation from my mother has been the major loss of my life, our relationship has always developed alongside the losses of other people, most significantly the nine children who have grown up without their fathers as a result of the crime in which my mother participated. That I have been able to share my life with my mother, even through separation, has never been something I could take for granted. And so my mom and I have always been committed to each other, grateful for each other. For over thirty years Judy Clark has worked to become the mother she wants me to have, a mother I feel so blessed to have. A woman who wants to mother her child as fully as my mother has committed to mothering me cannot give up on herself. My mother didn’t give up on herself and I want very much to believe that this legal system hasn’t given up on her either.

On December 31, 2016, Governor Cuomo granted Judy clemency, making her eligible for immediate parole. Despite Judy meeting all of the criteria for parole—including expressions of remorse, an exceptional record over thirty years inside, a lowest-possible risk assessment and support from thousands of individuals and public officials—in April 2017 she was denied parole. She is in the process of appealing that decision.

One woman previously imprisoned with Judy wrote, “Judy opened my mind to seeing what others go through and she helped me develop a conscience, to look at others, to recognize their suffering, and to do something.”

Why is Judy in prison?

Judy was arrested on Oct. 20, 1981, after she participated in an attempted robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York. Peter Paige, a Brinks guard, and two policemen, Waverly Brown and Edward O’Grady, were killed during the robbery, and others were injured. Judy was neither a shooter nor a robber. Accused of being one of the getaway drivers, Judy was indicted on three counts of second-degree murder. She was not represented by counsel during voir-dire or at the trial itself. Instead, she represented herself and refused to participate in the proceedings, absenting herself from the courtroom for virtually the entire trial. She was found guilty and sentenced to three consecutive terms of 25 years to life.

Has Judy apologized?

Yes. Judy takes full responsibility for her role in the deaths of Peter Paige, Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown and she lives every day regretting her participation in this senseless action. Judy writes:

While my life is fueled by a hope-filled commitment to repair, I never forget that the lives lost on October 20, 1981, cannot be brought back. I live each day with sorrow, shame, and regret for my role in the deaths of Peter Paige, Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown.

What has become central to my life is being mindful of my connection with others and understanding others through empathy and respect. At the heart of these efforts is my awareness of the harm I caused.

I have wrestled privately and publicly with my responsibility for the three men who lost their lives on October 20, 1981, and I never forget that their families continue to suffer. In 1993, I wrote my first public letter disavowing my “political prisoner” position and expressed regret, guilt, and remorse for what I had done. In a 2002 letter of apology that was printed in the Rockland County Journal News, I acknowledged that the mindset that allowed me to participate in the crime came from having cut myself off from everyone outside our insular group and from having abandoned my own inner moral compass.

I look at the world differently now. Instead of abstract slogans, I see and am moved by flesh-and-blood people. I hope that my contrition, which was so publicly absent during the trial, and my long record of taking responsibility through sincere change and work on behalf of others, will bring some solace. I welcome any opportunity to participate in formal or informal victim-offender negotiation.

Why did Judy get such a long sentence?

Most of those who faced charges were either tried in Federal court and received shorter sentences, pled guilty, or became government informants. Judy used her trial to demonstrate what she called “solidarity with anti-imperialist freedom fighters.” She did nothing to mount a legal defense. In New York State, each participant in a felony during which a death occurs, regardless of the extent of their participation or intent, is charged with second-degree murder. She was convicted of three counts of felony murder, for which the judge chose to sentence her to three consecutive 25-year-to-life terms rather than three concurrent terms. Despite having been convicted of a secondary role, she was given the maximum possible sentence, longer than most of those accused of being the shooters.

Where does Judy’s case stand now?

On April 21, 2017, the NY Parole Board unanimously voted to deny Judy parole. Despite Judy’s exceptional record, expressions of remorse, disproportionately long sentence, low-risk assessment, and the support of thousands, the Parole Board argued that Judy’s release would not be “compatible with the welfare of society” because she is “still a symbol of violent terroristic crime.”

Judy’s lawyer, Steve Zeidman (Director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law) is appealing this decision and Judy’s supporters are joining a larger movement to demand parole reform. A system that doesn’t recognize rehabilitation is a broken system, not just for Judy but for all those working to earn their freedom. Suzanne Ouellette, former Professor of Psychology at CUNY, writes:

Judith Clark understands why being a person is better than being a symbol. A symbol is isolated, detached from the push and pull of everyday life; and absolute, complete in and of itself. A person, on the other hand, lives in connection with others, affects and is affected by them. In 1981, when she was 31 (she is now 67), Judith Clark thought a lot about symbols and defined herself as one; specifically, she thought herself a symbol of the Revolution. Reflecting on what happened in 1981, Judith Clark now says she tragically limited how she could think about both herself and other people. As she puts it, thinking about herself as symbol, she lost her humanity. She failed to think about the victims of the Brink’s robbery, their families, and her own family. Now, Judith Clark thinks about herself as a person, and she has recovered her humanity. Her thoughts about herself have moved from Judith Clark as symbol to Judith Clark as a distinctive individual living with and responsible to distinctive other individuals, in a distinctive place and time. Sadly, members of her parole board chose to regress, to bring us back to symbols and ignore the promise of persons. They ignore Judith Clark the person and all that she has become and done while in prison; and fail to imagine all that she might contribute to the wider society if released. They limit how Judith Clark can think about herself, they limit how they think about themselves, …and minimize the thinking the rest of us can do.

Why support Judy?

Judy meets all of the legal requirements for parole. The Parole Board’s decision to deny her release highlights deeper problems in the criminal justice system. A system that doesn’t recognize rehabilitation is a broken system, not just for Judy but for all those working to earn their freedom. The campaign for her release is part of a larger campaign to move away from permanent punishment, retribution, and revenge, towards a system focused on rehabilitation and healing. Below are some reasons to support Judy’s release:

  • Every parole decision sends a message: As New York State Senator, Brad Hoylman, wrote about Judy, “Where there has been ample punishment, proof of rehabilitation, acceptance of responsibility and genuine remorse, the door of mercy must remain open. If Ms. Clark is denied parole, what does that say to all the other women and men in prison who strive to become better and transformed human beings?”Despite Judy’s exceptional record, expressions of remorse, disproportionately long sentence, low-risk assessment, and the support of thousands, the Parole Board argued that Judy’s release would not be “compatible with the welfare of society” because she is “still a symbol of violent and terroristic crime.” But parole decisions that fail to take rehabilitation into account are their own kind of violence and undermine the goals of the correctional system. We need a Parole Board that understands that the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, they keep locked up are part of our society too. In granting Judy clemency, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “We call it the ‘correction’ system. I think the situation is corrected as it is ever going to be. … I believe showing mercy and justice and compassion and forgiveness is the right signal.” Refusing to release people who have done all they can to rehabilitate themselves sends a message of hopelessness to an already disheartened community.“I am someone,” Judy says, “who once believed in violence and now believes in respecting human life.” That respect for human life should be at the core of our criminal justice system and at the core of the Parole Board’s mission. The NY Parole Board has the opportunity—in Judy’s case and in the case of thousands of others—to do what’s right and release people they acknowledge are rehabilitated and low risk.
  • She deserves to be free: Thirteen former Presidents of the New York City Bar Association write: “The question before you is whether this 67-year-old woman, after serving 36 years in prison, and who has, by every conceivable test, been rehabilitated and poses no threat to the community, should now be released.  The answer, we submit, is an emphatic yes.” Colleen Kelly, co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, says, “Judy’s life is the embodiment of the very outcome we strive for in our criminal justice system.”  NYC Council Member Ronnie Eldridge says Judy “exemplifies the benefits of our concept of rehabilitation. She recognizes the destruction her misguided beliefs brought to the families involved and tries every day to show her remorse by her caring and actions. She is never idle. Her writing and manner reveal her spiritual transformation. Her determination to help so many is demonstrated by her incredible projects and activities. She inspires the Bedford women to strive, continue their education and find the sense of worth so many of them need.”Rabbi Felicia Sol writes, “In [my] years of visiting Judy, she embodied the story of creation — that out of chaos, she was able to separate darkness from light, good from bad, and do the necessary hard work to create and transform and repent. Each time I have visited her I see her light, her power to be a force for good, her commitment to take responsibility for her past but not to let only her past to determine her future…I have faith in Judy Clark to bring that light to the world outside of the walls of prison. Her record in prison attests to that truth and Governor Cuomo saw that light in her, too. It is an act of courage to be willing to change. It is an act of leadership to honor that change.”
  • Her original sentence was never commensurate with her role in the crime: Judy’s original sentence of 75-years-to-life was not commensurate with her secondary role in the crime. Rather, it was a result of her conduct during the trial. In contrast to many of the defendants charged in the case who were represented by attorneys and put on a defense case, Judy used the trial to defend her politics. She waived her right to an attorney, remained absent from the courtroom for most of her trial, and waived her right to appeal. At the sentencing, the Judge noted Judy’s utter lack of remorse and, commenting that she would never be rehabilitated, gave her the maximum sentence permitted by statute. In contrast, many of the other defendants connected to the crime—including those alleged to be among the shooters—received lesser sentences or have been released.Her daughter Harriet writes,

    When the judge sentenced my mother to live and die in prison he did it in the belief that she would never be able to change, that she could never understand the irreparable hurt she’d caused, could never bring anything to bear in this world except harm. I do not know the woman who stood before him then, who appeared so beyond redemption. But I know the woman she has become, the woman she has spent three decades becoming. For over thirty years Judy Clark has worked to become the mother she wants me to have, a mother I feel so blessed to have… A woman who wants to mother her child as fully as my mother has committed to mothering me cannot give up on herself. My mother didn’t give up on herself and I want very much to believe that this legal system hasn’t given up on her either.

Who supports Judy’s release?

From NY Governor Andrew Cuomo to women who’ve served time with Judy, former Presidents of the NYC Bar Association to the retired Superintendent of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a remarkably diverse and vast group of people believe that Judy deserves to be free. Below are excerpts from some of their letters:

“Judy’s life is the embodiment of the very outcome we strive for in our criminal justice system.”

—Colleen Kelly, co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

“When you meet her you get a sense of her soul. Her honesty makes her almost transparent as a personality. She takes full responsibility. There are no excuses. There are no justifications…We call it the ‘correction’ system. I think the situation is corrected as it is ever going to be.”

—NY Governor Andrew Cuomo

“I commend Governor Cuomo for the courageous decision he has made in commuting Judy Clarks sentence…Judy Clark is a perfect example that the prison system can work.”

—Norma Hill, a survivor of Brinks robbery

“Over many years, I watched [Ms. Clark] change into one of the most perceptive, thoughtful, helpful and profound human beings that I have ever known either inside or outside of a prison… No one needs to fear Judy Clark. Instead, she has much to offer society, and I believe she will do this with humility and wisdom, never forgetting the nature of her crime and the damage she caused, always acting in a way that will compensate, help, build, and sustain, whenever and wherever she can.”

—Elaine Lord, former Superintendent, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility

“Judith Clark is the most worthy candidate for clemency that I’ve seen in all my years.”

 —Robert Dennison, former chairman NYS Parole Board

“The question before you is whether this 67-year-old woman, after serving 35 years in prison, and who has, by every conceivable test, been rehabilitated and poses no threat to the community, should now be released.  The answer, we submit, is an emphatic yes.”

 —Michael Cardozo and twelve other former Presidents of the New York City Bar Association

“She exemplifies the benefits of our concept of rehabilitation. She recognizes the destruction her misguided beliefs brought to the families involved and tries every day to show her remorse by her caring and actions. She is never idle. Her writing and manner reveal her spiritual transformation. Her determination to help so many is demonstrated by her incredible projects and activities. She inspires the Bedford women to strive, continue their education and find the sense of worth so many of them need.”

–Ronnie Eldridge, Director of the Division for Women under Governor Mario Cuomo; NYC Council Member, 1989-2001

“I met Judith at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women when I was first elected to the Senate four years ago and have been moved by the extent of her personal redemption and the widespread support for her clemency from within and outside the criminal justice system. Through her multitude of good works, compassion for fellow prisoners and self-improvement, Judith has more than proven that rehabilitation is indeed possible.”

—Brad Hoylman, NY State Senator

“I and all of the people I know who have met her believe she has been totally transformed and will become a productive member of society, if released.”

—Michael Higginson, former NYPD Inspector and Criminal Justice Program Coordinator Suffolk County Community College

“The Governor’s commutation of Judy Clark’s sentence for consideration by the parole board is both principled and inspiring. It evidences the best of American values—of giving second chances, of recognizing that the measure of a person is more than the worst they have done, but what they have done to learn from their mistakes and to give back. For decades now, Judy has been a pivotal member of the community of incarcerated women who have seen needs and found creative ways of addressing them even within the confines of a prison. Judy has been an asset to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility community and I am confident will continue to find ways to contribute to society if she is released.”

—Ann Jacobs, Director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prison Reentry Institute

“…For years Judy has unselfishly offered support and direction to the women of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, promoting healthier decision-making, reducing the chances of recidivism and breaking the cycle of despair for hundreds of New York families whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system….Judy’s spirit lives out here with us. But we need her being here, too.”

—Mary Johnson, M.S.W., who was incarcerated with Judy for 15 years and went on to be named “Student of the Year” by the National Association of Social Workers

“It’s unexplainable the impact Judy has had on my life. It’s something that you couldn’t understand unless you meet her. She rubs off on you. Pretty much all the ladies on the nursery feel the same way. She understands where we are coming from, our frustration, our pain, and our insanity at times…. Because of Judy, I’m more grateful for my life. I’m home, I’m raising my daughter, I’m being a good mom, and I’ve learned to take anything negative and turn it into a positive. I wish I could have put Judy in my bag and taken her through the gate with me.”

—Denisha Rapier, formerly incarcerated with Judy

“Judy was always there for comfort and encouragement in a place that’s so bleak and without hope. She gave me hope.”

—Monique Carter, formerly incarcerated with Judy

“Judy opened my mind to seeing what others go through and she helped me develop a conscience, to look at others, to recognize their suffering, and to do something.”

—Awilda Gonzalez, formerly incarcerated with Judy

“I am forever grateful to Judy for being one of the catalysts who allowed me to work on ‘me’ and who instigated my changing into the person I am today. I love her for her humanity. She truly cares.”

—Donna Hylton, formerly incarcerated with Judy

“Judy’s so insightful. I walked around saying, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care,’ and she would say, ‘you do care.’ She taught me to be mindful of my relationships. I wish she were out here to help me with that.”

—Anael Revil, formerly incarcerated with Judy

“We can’t undo what we’ve done. We can only go forward. Judy goes forward in the best way possible.”

—Carol Taylor, formerly incarcerated with Judy

“Judy guided me, she mothered me, she befriended me. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. I don’t think I would have made it home. She gave me the strength. She does it by her words, by her encouragement, by being so strong herself. If they said to me, ‘Judy can come out if you’ll do a certain amount of time for her,’ I’d do it. She deserves it. She deserves to touch people out here the way she’s touched people inside.”

—Stacy Royster, formerly incarcerated with Judy

“I’ve waited 31 years to write this letter. . . . Watching Judy share her incredibly rich talents with mothers in the nursery and parenting programs, done so selflessly and devotedly, has been incredibly inspiring. . . . Judy has owned her past actions with all their negative ramifications, but has made a deep commitment to use her giftedness to advance good in the world.” 

—Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, Executive Director of Hour Children, an organization dedicated to helping incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children successfully rejoin the community

“I have been profoundly moved by Judy’s ability to take responsibility for the crime while acknowledging she obviously has no way of repairing the lives of the men who died or their families. I have been overwhelmed by Judy’s commitment to living a life within the prison walls that has allowed mothers to learn how to raise children, a life that has helped prisoners affected with AIDS, a life that has been committed to higher education, a life that allows her to serve as a spiritual guide and wise elder to so many through her chaplaincy work, and finally a life that has taught her she is worthy of the privilege of living a life outside the walls of Bedford Hills.”

—Rabbi Felicia L. Sol, B’Nai Jeshurun

“Judith is a woman who deserves and needs to come home. Her continued incarceration would certainly be a fraudulent use of taxpayers’ dollars intended to protect the public from the dangerous, or to punish those who have been violent in the past. It would also deprive the community of the work of a productive citizen. I and countless others who have dedicated our lives to improving the conditions faced by women await her arrival. We know that she has at least as much to teach outside prison as she has taught within.”

—Gloria Steinem, writer and activist

“It is not only a waste of Judy’s life to remain in prison, it is a loss to the outside world.”

—Joan Gelman, television producer and writer, author, and former columnist

“…Whatever [Judy] was, whatever she did—and what she did was terrible—she is now a person of such radiance, such worth, such depth that I simply cannot believe she belongs in prison any more. Judy has earned release.”

—Madeline Lee, former Executive Director of the New York Foundation