Legal Aid Society

A Day In The Life

Keeping Vulnerable Clients Off Rikers in the Parole Revocation Defense Unit

Laura Eraso, Staff Attorney with our Parole Revocation Defense Unit (PRDU) will never forget her early days of fighting for her clients’ freedom in trailers on Rikers Island.

With three years’ experience representing parents against the Administration for Children Services, she thought she was prepared to face any injustice the criminal legal system had to offer. 

“I thought if I represented parents through the violent and traumatic family separation process–like a mother having her newborn ripped away from her–that was the worst of the worst,” Laura says.   But nothing could prepare her for representing clients detained without bail on alleged parole violations at the notorious jail.  She met her clients in a complex of cramped trailers at Rikers Island Judicial Center,  “the hidden back door to mass re-incarceration that most people never see or even think about.” Hearings were so rushed by the court officers, she often had to take the time to console distraught, shackled clients, rather than interview them. 

It’s hard to believe that we continue to have to fight as hard as we do to get people off that island right now.

When Laura started at PRDU in 2019, there were well over 500 people detained on Rikers just on technical parole violations, which included minor infractions like a missed curfew or testing positive for marijuana. During the pandemic, this became a potential death sentence. Without masks for staff or clients, proper air circulation, or social distancing, the already deplorable conditions throughout the complex became much worse.  

“We were in court by day and filing writs by night” to secure our clients’ releases, Laura says. Thankfully, many of them were granted. Judges saw our clients’ vulnerability in the understaffed and deteriorating jail, and their needless suffering due to minor violations. Laura and her colleagues at PRDU continue to seek release for detained clients. “It’s hard to believe that we continue to have to fight as hard as we do to get people off that island right now.” 

The emergency circumstances elevated technical parole violations as a policy priority for The Legal Aid Society.  Laura and PRDU collaborated with a coalition of civil rights organizations and successfully pressed the State Legislature to pass the Less Is More Act in September. Now, a technical parole violation will no longer guarantee a trip back to Rikers, as hearings for these violations will move to courts in the community instead of a trailer complex.  And while 119 clients were immediately freed upon the Governor’s signing of Less Is More, more work lies ahead before the bill goes into full effect in March. Says Laura, “119 is a small number compared to the 5,000 still on Rikers. Our message is always, ok great, but what’s next? How can we get this bill implemented faster?” 

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