Bobby Shmurda became a free man last week—or so it seemed. After serving six years in prison following the success of “Hot Nigga,” he received a conditional release, meaning he will be able to serve out the rest of his sentence, which ends in December, under community supervision. He also received five years of parole.
There’s been no shortage of reporting about the ins and outs of his case, but one question remains: What does five years of parole really mean for the Brooklyn rapper’s career?
“[Parole] looks great on paper, but when you start to see it operationally, when it comes down to the processing of it, it doesn’t work as efficiently as it should work,” Samuel Hamilton, a senior re-entry advocate for Brooklyn Defender Services, told VICE.
Employment is a requirement for parole, but when you’re a touring rapper, going back to work comes with a host of hazards that can put you at risk for reincarceration. According to a booklet provided by New York State, parolees need written permission to “be in the company of or fraternize with any person having a criminal record.” This can be a tall order in the hip-hop world, given that police departments have been known to unfairly target rappers to begin with. And when it comes to touring, particularly out of state, your parole officer needs to approve each location.
Musicians face a double-edge sword: You need to work to stay in the system’s good graces, but working gig to gig in an industry known for its unpredictability doesn’t lend itself to strict curfews and parole officer check-in times. With entertainment comes the allure of nightlife, and even something as small as accepting a drink—something Bobby was seen declining in a recent video—could get you sent back to prison.
Rappers like Remy Ma and Meek Mill have been in similar situations following periods of incarceration. After serving six years for assault, Remy Ma also received five years parole, and came up against a big roadblock as she tried to pick up where she left off in her rap career. In 2019, with just 42 days of her parole left, the Bronx rapper was denied permission to attend the BET Awards in Los Angeles, where she had been nominated for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist. In 2017, Meek Mill was arrested for riding dirt bikes in New York City, a violation of his 10 year probation period from a 2007 arrest. He served five months in prison.
Amazon’s 2019 Free Meek documentary exposed a predatory side of the parole system, including the dangers of unreasonable sentencing, which can result in incarcerated individuals facing needlessly long parole periods, and technical violations, which can result in people being sent back to prison on a small bureaucratic hiccup. It drove home the fact that if Meek Mill, a public figure, could experience the obstacles he did, then the parole system is probably even more of an uphill battle for the people we don't hear about.
“Right now, in New York City jails, there are a higher number of people incarcerated on technical violations since before the beginning of the pandemic,” said Daniel Ball, also of the Brooklyn Defenders. “Sadly, Michael Tyson, who was the first person to pass away from COVID-19 at Rikers, was incarcerated on an alleged technical violation.”
Hamilton spoke to VICE about life in the middle territory between incarceration and freedom, and what these next five years might look like for Bobby Shmurda.
Bobby received a conditional release, which means that a committee decided that his behavior while incarcerated was a reflection of "good time served." What is “good time?”
What good time does is it allows you to be released to parole supervision rather than stay incarcerated until the full extent of the sentence. As long as you abide [by the directives] and don’t have a loss of good time, they can’t stop that. However, that sentence still needs to be served. When you’re on parole, you’re still serving the rest of your time; you’re just serving it outside of prison.
When you’re released to parole, there’s a risk assessment that’s done and you’re given a level which ranges from one to four. Someone with a Level 4 means minimal supervision. Someone with a Level 1 means maximum supervision. A Level 4 should only be reporting to parole quarterly. A Level 1 could possibly be reporting to parole every week. The levels can be changed because of things like technical violations or other infractions, which can change how often you’re meeting your parole officer.
What would be considered a technical violation that could cause you to be reincarcerated?
When you’re given a ticket [for a violation], you have to sit in the county jail for anywhere from 15 to 30 days before they even bring you to a hearing. So you’re just sitting there for something as simple as being 15 minutes late for curfew. Curfew is designated by your parole officer. It could be 9 o'clock for some people, or it could be 7 o’clock for others. The time is predicated on the crime. Some people don’t have any curfew.
For rappers, touring is a huge part of the job. How does that work for someone like Bobby Shmurda?
When it comes to a Remy Ma or a Meek Mill, in terms of their profession, if you’re on parole in New York state, you don’t have to give your parole officer notice as long as you’re in the state. You can go all the way to Rochester or Buffalo, [from] New York City, as long as you don’t go outside the state.
If you’re looking to go outside of the state, there’s something called a pass. Your pass has to be approved by your parole officer, who has to get approval from the senior parole officer. The catch would be if you’re looking to get a pass within 24 hours, there would be a lot of considerations. Were there any aggravated infractions? How long have you been on parole? How have you been showing up on parole? It’s very difficult to get a pass in 24 hours. I don’t see much getting done in 24 hours, because sometimes you might not even be able to get in contact with your parole officer in that amount of time.
There might be some venues that you can’t make, because of the contracts. Those are things you have to consider when you’re looking to book shows to continue to make a living.
Why isn’t being released as simple as a conviction and time served?
You have indeterminate sentences, where a person could be sentenced to 5 to 15—meaning [that] after five years, you’re eligible to go in front of the parole board, and they will determine if they’re going to release you, or if you’d have to come before the parole board again. [If you’re denied,] you’d definitely have to come back to the parole board again, but when would be the question.
With good time served, the most you would be able to do would be seven-eighths of that sentence. Then you can sign yourself out. For a conditional release, you would appear before a parole board up until you’ve fulfilled good time.
For a person who has a determinant sentence, that person wouldn’t go to a parole board. After serving seven-eighths of your sentence, your paperwork would go before them, and it’s an automatic release—as long as you didn’t receive a loss of good time.
How can we make sure that the parole board doesn’t have inherent biases that lead to discriminatory rulings?
These parole commissioners and other people on the parole board are approved by the senate, through the Crime Victims, Crime, and Corrections committee.
If you go back 10 years or even 30 years, you’re going to see that about 95 percent of the committee had law enforcement backgrounds. Previously, their backgrounds have been police officers, detectives, county sheriffs. The slant when you have a parole board like that is punitively heavy. Now, if you look at the bios of the commissioners, that has changed some. In the last few years, the governor has appointed people with more of a social service or education background. So now you have more commissioners on the board who are not strictly from a criminal justice background. Advocacy needs to take place in order for that to happen.
Bobby has said he only wants to conduct business in New York. Can he live in a different state while being on parole in New York?
If his crime occurred in New York and he was paroled in New York, they have something called an out-of-state transfer. He could be transferred to another state and be on parole, but that’s a process that could take anywhere from 60 to 120 days.
Part of [the delay] is that both states would have to agree—moreso the state that he’s planning to live in. He would have to have a residence in that state, or someone in that state that he could be living with. Then, the paperwork would electronically be submitted to parole in that state. If they approve it, then he’d be allowed to transfer his parole.
In a press release, a member of the NYPD claimed that Bobby’s music was “almost like a real-life document of what they were doing in the street.” Since he has to work, how can he avoid attracting the sort of scrutiny that might get him sent back to prison?
You have to work within the system until the system changes. What I tell all of my clients before they’re released from prison is to make that [parole officer] your best friend, if at all possible. The way you’re showing up to your parole officer matters.
There’s always an exception to the rule: There’s some parole officers who are trying to help you. [Then] there are other parole officers with high caseloads [who] will find any little thing as a technical violation.
There’s a pending bill right now, Less is More Act, which is focused on being more incentive-based rather than punitive-based. What that bill is looking to do is remove barriers that send people back for technical violations.
Given that you’re still serving time and are under heavy supervision, would you say parole is a false pretense of freedom?
To some people, it’s a false sense of freedom; some people think because you’re on parole, you’re totally free. You’re not free until the sentence is completed.
When you’re on parole, that’s just a part of pre-release. They know that they’re not free, because they’re still reporting to parole. When you’re on the inside, just the opportunity to not be in the cage is appealing.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.