This story was published in partnership with The Appeal.
Reginald Randolph, a 58-year-old visually impaired man who spent years locked up at Rikers Island after his arrest for stealing cold medicine, was released from New York state prison Tuesday, following a hearing at a Manhattan courthouse.
In a brief proceeding at the New York State Supreme Court Building, Randolph appeared shackled before Judge Althea Drysdale, who warned him that this was not a “get out of jail free card,” and that he must abide by the terms of his release.
Randolph agreed, and Drysdale declared that he would be released on his own recognizance. But Randolph remained shackled – his hands cuffed in front of him and his ankles shackled together — for another 90 minutes.
“I feel great,” Randolph told New York Focus and The Appeal as he sat in the courthouse hallway, waiting for his restraints to be removed. “I feel like I have a normal life. I feel like I’m a normal human being.”
Newly elected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who ran for office promising criminal justice reform, agreed to Randolph’s release pending a decision on his appeal, which could take up to two years, according to his attorney with the Legal Aid Society, Jeffrey Berman. If Randolph loses his appeal and the governor does not grant him clemency, he will likely be sent back to prison.
For now, Randolph will move into The Redemption Center, a supportive housing program that serves formerly incarcerated people in New York City, and will begin mental health and substance dependence treatment, according to Legal Aid.
As first reported by The Appeal and New York Focus, New York Criminal Court Judge Cori Weston, a former public defender, sentenced Randolph in August to two to four years in prison for stealing cold medicine from Duane Reade convenience stores. Randolph had already spent more than 800 days locked up at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, even before his state prison sentence began in November.
Randolph’s attorneys have maintained that incarceration poses a potentially deadly risk to their client. Randolph suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, schizoaffective disorder, and polysubstance use disorder. He has lived in poverty for much of his childhood and adult life, and has struggled with chronic homelessness since his mother’s death in 2001.
At the time of his arrest for stealing cold medicine, “I didn’t have no stability in my life,” said Randolph. “I was sleeping in subway trains.”
In September, Legal Aid filed a clemency petition with Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) asking that she commute Randolph’s sentence. New York state Senators Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), and Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), along with more than 200 community and faith leaders, have all urged Hochul to grant Randolph clemency.
Hochul has not made a decision on his petition, according to Legal Aid. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Randolph’s path to state prison began in drug court, often hailed as a compassionate alternative to more punitive policies of earlier decades. After being locked up for more than a year while awaiting trial, Randolph was offered a deal that would get him off Rikers and into a diversion program. First he had to plead guilty. If he failed to complete drug court and was rearrested, he faced up to 14 years in prison, according to his Manhattan plea agreement.
Three days after being released from jail into a court-mandated treatment program, Randolph left. The court sent him to another program; he left after less than a month.
Randolph’s experience is common among participants of judicial diversion programs, which include mental health and drug courts. State lawmakers are considering legislation called the Treatment Not Jail Act, which would direct treatment courts to adopt a harm reduction model guided by healthcare professionals.
The bill would allow people to enter treatment courts without pleading guilty, extend eligibility to people with a variety of disabilities — including developmental and intellectual — and expand the types of offenses eligible for diversion. Judges would also be prohibited from failing participants for not obtaining full-time employment or housing.
Under current rules, drug court participants are subjected to arbitrary restrictions and onerous requirements. In the Manhattan drug court, repeated violations of the court’s rules, such as arriving late, can result in jail time. All Manhattan participants must obtain full-time employment or, if they’re disabled, social security benefits. They’re also required to abstain from drugs and alcohol and submit to weekly drug testing.
The legislation would move away from an abstinence-only model, expanding the definition of successful treatment to include reduced substance use or “improved well-being [and] social stability.” It would also give participants the right to a hearing if they’re accused of violations, so they can respond to allegations against them and cross-examine witnesses.
“We know for a fact that providing human beings with housing and with continued access to their community and any other essentials to life actually helps people recover,” Jessica Ramos, the bill’s primary sponsor in the state senate, told New York Focus and The Appeal.
Ramos’s bill would come too late to help Randolph, but supporters say it could spare people like him years of trauma and incarceration.
Meanwhile, Randolph’s team is pushing for the governor to grant him clemency, which would ensure he isn’t sent back to prison, regardless of how his appeal plays out. But for now, Randolph is cherishing his freedom. Shortly before his shackles came off, he said he’d had trouble sleeping for the past few days. “I was excited about being free,” Randolph said. “Being like a human again.”