Under normal circumstances, being behind bars is a life-threatening challenge. Studies show that for each year in incarceration, a person can lose two of life expectancy. The coronavirus pandemic has turned that grim everyday reality into a wave of desperation.

More than 2,600 of the 35,000 people locked in New York state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. Twenty have died. Authorities have been forced to suspend visitation at six facilities.

The looming threat of infection within close quarters has spurred additional calls for early release. In response, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has acted to free about 2,200 people convicted of nonviolent crimes who were within a few months of their scheduled release. Another 800 recent parole violators were also released.

The other way out from behind bars is executive clemency, the power of the governor to deliver mercy to those who have expressed remorse and transformed themselves in confinement. To be eligible, an incarcerated person must have served at least one-half of their sentence and demonstrated “exceptional strides in self-development and improvement.”

New York has one of the highest rates of people serving life or its equivalent in prison, says Steven Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law. Altogether, he estimates, about 9,000 people are serving sentences that will keep them in prison for the rest of their lives. The overwhelmingly majority are people of color. Thousands have made the kind of changes that merit consideration, says Zeidman, who has helped to shepherd clemency applications for the past decade.

In response to a 2015 Cuomo initiative to make clemency more accessible, an estimated 6,500 people have filed applications to the governor’s clemency board. Few applications have been granted.

Since taking office in 2011, Cuomo has commuted the sentences of just 31 people, 10 of them during this year’s pandemic. On Christmas Eve, the governor commuted the sentences of seven people and pardoned another 14 who had completed sentences.

The numbers in New York are a marked contrast to other states. Last month, California’s governor granted 22 pardons. Governors in Washington and Kentucky have granted hundreds of commutations.

Rare as they may be in New York, clemency grants generate hope for people who might otherwise die in prison.

In the videos and stories that follow, co-published with Gothamist, the NYCity News Service profiles five men who are seeking clemency. Reporters reviewed court and prison records. They interviewed friends and family members, along with teachers who encountered the applicants inside prison. They traveled to Sing Sing, Sullivan,and Green Haven prisons to conduct video interviews with applicants. Two of the men, imprisoned in Elmira Correctional Facility, were unable to be interviewed because the prison has been on lockdown due to an outbreak of the virus.

The men, whose applications have been assisted by students in a CUNY School of Law legal clinic, range in age from 28 to 64. Each is serving a lengthy sentence that will keep most of them in prison well into old age, should they survive that long.

Their sentences are for terrible crimes, including murder, for which each of the men has long taken responsibility and expressed remorse. Most victims and their family members refused to speak with the reporters or could not be reached. Others said they believe the person who caused them such harm should remain in prison.

Under prison rules, incarcerated people are barred from directly contacting victims. They are allowed to write letters of apology that are kept on file at the prison, should victims inquire.

Yet the victims are greatly on the minds of those seeking clemency.

“Sorry is not enough,” said one man. “I could never fully forgive myself. The loss is too great.”

But the consequences of his actions, he added, “have moved me in a different direction.”

Here are their stories.

Yohannes Johnson, 64

In prison, Yohannes Johnson is known as “Knowledge” to many of those locked up alongside him.

“When he speaks, you humble yourself to listen,” said Delgreco McQueen, 55, who spent time with Johnson at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County. Johnson’s steady presence is “a draw to anybody who’s trying to get insight—to get wisdom,” Delgreco said.

The nickname also reflects the hours Johnson spends in the Green Haven prison library. At the end of every day, he carries a stack of books and newspapers back to his cell. When he’s done reading, he passes the literature on to others in hopes they’ll get the same insights he’s gained into the circumstances that led him to prison.

Johnson is serving 75 years to life, a sentence stemming from his conviction in 1982 for murder, attempted murder and robbery. The convictions were from a brutal series of drug- and alcohol-fueled crimes, which include robbing and killing a man named Erroll Blackwood who was making a call from a phone booth. He also robbed Andrew White, a taxicab driver in upper Manhattan, stealing his cab as well. Johnson was arrested the following day.

A picture of prisoner Yohannes Johnson, 64, wearing a white mask.

Johnson at Green Haven Correctional Facility: “Hopefully, with prayer, I could stop somebody else.” He credits a prison worship group for “keeping his head above water” by helping him cope with guilt, anger and sadness. (Noa Ryan)

Johnson was 11 when he began helping his older sister deal drugs. He made his first sale while sitting on an upside-down garbage can, a Marvel comic book in his lap and a can of orange soda in his hand, he recalls. He had already served two prior prison terms by the time he was charged in the murder. Sentenced as a repeat violent offender, he won’t be eligible for parole until he is 99.

Today, he looks back at the man who committed those acts with shame and regret. During the 40 years he has spent in prison, he has become a mentor to younger men inside. His own purpose, he says, is to atone for the life he took through his own self-improvement and helping others to avoid his mistakes.

Efforts to locate family members of the victim were unsuccessful.

Johnson credits part of his transformation to the Quaker worship services inside the prison that he began attending in the mid-1980s. In turn, the Quakers, known as the Religious Society of Friends, have embraced him. Through the services he met Mary Cadbury, 96, with whom he has been corresponding for the past thirty years. Johnson credits Cadbury and the prison worship group for “keeping his head above water,” for helping him untangle the knots of guilt, anger and sadness still tied up inside him. “Without hearing from her, it’s possible I would have heard from no one,” says Johnson.

Johnson also became involved with the Lifers and Long-Termer’s Organization, a group of incarcerated men who meet regularly to help each other and to advocate for reforms inside prison. Should he receive clemency, the Quakers have a job and housing ready for him.

“This is an opportunity to allow a community to support a man that they really love,” says Solange Muller, a member of the Quaker’s prison ministry at Green Haven.

—Shehzil Zahid

Bobby Ehrenberg, 61

When Bobby Ehrenberg sat in the front of an algebra class—on a new path at Sullivan Correctional Facility—his hand immediately shot up in the air. Then, he kept raising it again and again.

It was 2014, and Ehrenberg, who had been in prison more than 20 years, knew all the equations. Soon, he started tutoring other students. The next year, Ehrenberg developed a 95-page pre-college algebra syllabus.

“It might sound a little selfish, but I felt good doing it,” Ehrenberg said in his gruff Long Island accent. “I felt like I could make a change and help someone.”

A photo of prisoner Bobby Ehrenberg, wearing a mask, sitting in front of a shelf of books.

Ehrenberg at Sullivan Correctional Facility: “I was the monster that came into their lives that day and took their father, their husband and a relative of many,” he said, referring to the family of Silvio Goldberg, the man he killed. (Diane Bezucha)

He went on to teach basic algebra to 23 men who, like him, were attempting to turn their lives around. With his help, they’d move on and obtain degrees.

Ehrenberg himself earned his associate’s degree in 2017, graduating as class valedictorian. “It’s bittersweet,” he said, reflecting on his accomplishments. “This should have happened 30 years ago.”

Ehrenberg has served 28 years of a 50-year-to life sentence, but will not be eligible for parole until 2042.

On the morning of December 5, 1992, education was the last thing on Ehrenberg’s mind as he drank heavily at a Kings Park, Long Island bar.

He knew he was heading back to prison after violating parole for a burglary and was spending his remaining days on a bender—addictions to cocaine and alcohol that led to stints in prison. After leaving the bar, he hatched a plan. With a gun in his pocket, Ehrenberg walked into the jewelry store across the street. His plan was to rob it, he said.

The plan quickly went wrong. Inside the shop, Ehrenberg struggled with the owner, a 44-year old father of two children named Silvio Goldberg. Ehrenberg shot and killed him.

The episode haunts him daily: “I was the monster that came into their lives that day and took their father, their husband and a relative of many,” Ehrenberg said, referring to the victim’s family. “And I hated myself for this.”

Goldberg’s daughter declined to talk about Ehrenberg with us.

After sentencing, Ehrenberg bounced around upstate prisons and largely stayed out of trouble, but his addiction continued. While at Clinton Correctional Facility in 2012, he received a drinking infraction. He was kicked out of the housing block reserved for those with good behavior. He also lost his job, another privilege. Sitting in his cell reflecting at age 53, something finally clicked.

“Some people get life from the beginning. I didn’t get it. I thought it was all about Bobby, whatever he wanted to do in life, didn’t matter what it was, who it affected,” he said. “I was tired of that person.”

In 2014, Ehrenberg won a transfer to Sullivan Correctional Facility, where the non-profit Hudson Link for Higher Education provides college classes and a pipeline for rehabilitation.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s in social sciences in 2019.

This year, Ehrenberg applied to the governor for clemency. Four of his college professors, the director of Hudson Link, and the prison’s chaplain have written letters of support.

If he’s released, he hopes to get a master’s degree in social work so that he can prevent others dealing with addiction from repeating his own mistakes.

Commutations are typically granted at the end of the year, around the holiday season. Should he receive clemency, Ehrenberg will have no celebration.

“I’m not going home to a party and congratulations,” he said.

“I’m an outcast.”

“And I have to tread very carefully—and just do all positive things in my life.”

—Steven Vago and Diane Bezucha

Jacob Rouse, 33

Jacob Rouse was 18 when he drove a getaway car from a murder. The act would define the rest of his life. He was parked a block away, waiting to drive three friends from the scene of a robbery, when one of them shot and killed 22-year-old Herschel Scriven, a youth pastor and church organist in Rochester.

Regret for his action was almost instant: “I still see my role, my participation in it, and I see the blood that was shed because of my actions,” said Rouse.

On Nov. 28, 2006, Rouse was sentenced to 22 years to life for felony murder. While the murder occurred by someone else’s hand, Rouse was equally guilty under the law. At his sentencing hearing, Rouse made a vow to Scriven’s mother, that he would continue her son’s work as a Christian community leader.

“She said, ‘I’m going to hold you to that,’ and I’ll never forget those words,” Rouse said.

A photograph of a photograph of Jacob Rouse, his wife Samantha, and children.

Jacob Rouse with his wife, Samantha, and their children: His application has been supported by former correctional officers, religious leaders and teachers. (Courtesy of Rouse family)

Behind bars, he has labored to restart his life. He obtained his associate’s degree from Genesee Community College with a 4.0 GPA. He also participates in church services and a youth mentorship program called “A Look for Alternatives.”

“I look at the community here, too. If I can help affect one person’s life for the better. That’s what I try to do.” Remarkably, while held in maximum security prisons where it is easy to run afoul of the rules, he has avoided earning a single disciplinary ticket during his fifteen years of incarceration.

His good work behind bars, however, hasn’t eased the pain for the Scriven family, who said he is not deserving of clemency. “It doesn’t matter that [Rouse] didn’t pull the trigger, he was a part of a plan that led to Herschel’s demise,” said Herschel’s sister, Denise Scriven-McFadden.

Rouse is in Elmira Correctional Facility, a prison that has been hit hard by the pandemic. Over one-third of the prison’s population have tested positive for the virus. In late October, Rouse, who was working in the prison infirmary, became one of them. He went into quarantine for two weeks, which, in prison, is basically solitary confinement.

The pandemic is a grim reminder that he risks never emerging from his sentence.

Likewise, his wife, Samantha, whom he met at a Christian religious gathering at Attica Correctional Facility, is also at risk. Last year, Samantha was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Rouse is stepfather to Samantha’s two boys, Caleb and Deegan, ages 11 and 12. After their marriage, they were allowed conjugal visits at the prison.

In 2018, his wife gave birth to their daughter Sophia, who is now almost 3 years old. The family lives in a small Pennsylvania town, about a 20-minute drive from Elmira prison. Samantha keeps track of their lives in a blog called, “The House That Rouse Built,” where she publishes poems and personal essays by Rouse and her.

Rouse’s clemency application is packed with letters of support from former correctional officers who have come to know and admire him, religious leaders, and teachers. Two prison superintendents have praised his ability to help others behind bars.

If released, Rouse’s most pressing task will be taking care of his family.

He hopes to become a youth counselor. “I would love to teach nonviolent communication to at-risk youth,” he said.

—Jocelyn Azucena Contreras and Sarah Gabrielli

Anthony Ruffin, 28

On a recent afternoon, Anthony Ruffin sat in the Elmira Correctional Facility visiting room, waiting for his two younger cousins.

“I can see the things they’re doing at the age I was, and I can see myself in them,” Ruffin said. “I like to sit down in front of them and just try to tell them something that I wish somebody had told me.”

Ruffin grew up in Utica. In February 2009, Ruffin, then 16, an older cousin, Harold Jones, 18, and a friend, Timothy Cubbage, 19, devised a plan to rob a neighborhood boy. Worried his friends would think he was soft, Ruffin said he reluctantly accepted a gun.

The boys began to argue and in a panic, Ruffin shot and killed 17-year-old Joshua Thompson. He turned himself in and in January 2010, was sentenced to 18 years to life.

“You will never realize how many people you have hurt by shooting Joshua,” Thompson’s mother told Ruffin at the sentencing. The family did not respond to calls.

A photograph of Anthony Ruffin with his mother, and sister Chawntavia.

Ruffin with his mother and his sister Chawntavia: “I learned to recognize the pattern of destructive behavior among young men in my community, which I regretfully adopted.” (Courtesy of Ruffin family)

Ruffin has spent his 11 years in prison trying to ensure that other young men from upstate New York don’t end up committing the same mistakes he did.

“I learned to recognize the pattern of destructive behavior among young men in my community, which I regretfully adopted,” Ruffin said. “I needed to define myself—and no longer allow outside forces like my environment stop me from becoming a better person.”

He began with bettering himself. As a junior at Proctor High School in Utica, Ruffin had been relegated to night school after missing too many classes. Inside prison, he rededicated himself to education. He finished his GED in 2009, earned an associate’s degree in Business Management from Ashworth College in 2016, and now is working on a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University’s Prisons Education Program.

Humbled by the perspective he gained from his studies, Ruffin said he began to realize his potential and the potential of those around him. During the summer, when violence is at a high, Ruffin organizes basketball tournaments around the prison. He gives the winners prizes he can afford: one week’s worth of a case of sodas, the next almost $30 of commissary.

Ruffin is asking Cuomo for executive clemency—a chance to commute his sentence so that he can take accountability for his actions by mentoring youth on the outside, just as he has been doing throughout his incarceration. While Ruffin said nothing can make up for the life he took, he hopes that helping others is a way to make amends and hopefully, prevent another senseless loss of life.

—Gus Fisher and Brooke Henderson

Sheldon Johnson, 46

In a prison theater performance, Sheldon Johnson played Macbeth. Becoming that Shakespearean character, he said, was enlightening.

“At one point [Macbeth] committed a crime, and he killed his friend. And he froze, his conscience was like literally bothering him,” Johnson said. “Just trying to understand why Macbeth did some of the things he did allowed me to understand why I did some of the things I did.”

The performance took place in Great Meadow Correctional facility in Comstock, where Johnson was incarcerated at the time. Theater wasn’t exactly what Johnson had in mind when he began his sentence.

Sheldon Johnson wearing a cap and gown at a graduation ceremony.

Johnson at Sing Sing Correctional Facility: “It takes courage to change,” he wrote in a letter to himself. “Show me how tough you really are.”(Dave Burbank)

Johnson was 23 when he was sentenced to a minimum of 50 years in prison after his conviction for three armed robberies in Harlem. One of his victims was shot in the back, but survived. (Efforts to locate the victims were unsuccessful.)

Now at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, Johnson has been in prison for 23 years, exactly half of his life. This year, he’s applying to the governor for clemency.

Sitting in a conference room in Sing Sing, Johnson described the person he was then.

“I was getting high. I was selling drugs. I was using drugs. I was very manipulative,” said Johnson. “But I also realized that I had lost so much.”

As those losses grew, something in Johnson shifted. For the first time, he started to process the impact of a difficult childhood—both his parents were deaf, and his father had left the family when he was young. He’d spent much of his youth in juvenile group homes. “I never really understood the trauma and how I was dealing with it,” Johnson said. “It was just like an open wound for so long.”

He took classes, eventually earning an associate’s degree. And he got involved in theater programs.

“Theater for me became a kind of sacred playful space,” said Johnson. “And school was a sacred intellectual space.” Art became an outlet, he said, a way of expressing himself. He wrote and performed an autobiographical piece about his complex relationship with his mother. “That piece helped me be able to put the scabs to be able to grow over that wound, to actually heal,” said Johnson.

In his time behind bars, Johnson has built up a lengthy resume of accomplishments. At Auburn prison, he joined a debate team that defeated a team of Ivy League students in a special event held at the facility. He’s a published writer, and served as senior editor of a literary magazine called Writer’s Bloc.

If he gets clemency, he hopes to take that creative energy and put it to good use in his community. He wants to start a nonprofit to intervene in the lives of at-risk youth. He’s calling it TRIP—The Reculturalization Project. He also wants to bring theater and debate to young men like the one he used to be. He thinks about that young man often. He even wrote himself a letter.

He said he’d tell that man to walk away from the life he’s leading, that it’s ok to cry, that it’s not too late. “It takes courage to change,” he wrote. “Show me how tough you really are.”

—Parker Quinlan and Holly DeMuth