“Among men, blacks (28.5%) are about twice as likely as Hispanics (16.0%) and 6 times more likely than whites (4.4%) to be admitted to prison during their life,” said the authors of a 1991 study for the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The hardest part of imprisonment, Mingo recalled, was “the emotional and mental roller coaster that you go through, the hope that the truth will come out, that somehow you’ll wake up and realize that this was all a bad dream.”
In prison, he did his best to stay in shape and became an inmate peer counselor. He also spent years advising others on their legal cases, and developed friendships with the many visiting college and law students, some of whom would later voucher for his character.
Then in 2020, protests erupted nationwide after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The resulting social justice movement took aim at the use of deadly force by police as well as the disproportionate rate at which Black and brown men were incarcerated. Mingo’s case was championed by his niece Ava Nemes.
Noting the lack of physical evidence tying Mingo to the murders and the failure to present any alibi witnesses at trial, Nemes wrote in a Change.org petition urging Cuomo to grant clemency, “Only a Black man in New York in the 1980s could have been convicted on such thin allegations and sent away for so long.” More than 100,000 signed on.
Nemes also noted that the judge who’d sentenced Mingo was later censored after using the N-word openly in court.
Mingo got additional support from a team headed by CUNY Law professor Steve Zeidman, director of the school’s Criminal Defense Clinic, who said Mingo was the “poster child” for someone deserving of clemency.
The pandemic lent additional urgency to Mingo’s request, as aging inmates in overcrowded conditions were especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
During one 2020 interview that WNYC conducted with Mingo over the phone from a prison wing, a corrections officer could be heard saying he had to end the call. A prison counselor had apparently contracted COVID-19, so the entire wing was being cleared.
“Have to go,” said Mingo, abruptly hanging up.
Weeks later, Mingo discovered his clemency appeal had not been approved.
Mingo’s clemency “miracle” took place the following year, in August 2021. It was a prison official, a lieutenant, who delivered the news.
Mingo was sitting in the prison library when the official found him and told him to step out into the hall – an ominous sign, he thought – and to take his mask off.
“So now my mind is racing and I’m wondering, what is this about? And then he pulls out the paper and he reads off that I was granted clemency.”
Mingo had already received intimation of his clemency from his sister, but hearing it in all its officialness, his body suddenly grew hot. His knees buckled, he said, and he felt faint. The official said he didn’t look well and told him to lean against a wall, so Mingo did, then asked him to read the letter once more.
“I asked him if it was for real. He said it was. Then he took me and put water on my face.”
Mingo returned to his cell and told no one his news. That whole night, he stayed up, wondering if it was all a “cruel joke of some sorts.”
In the morning, however, someone woke him up and told him to turn on the TV: Mingo was on the news. The grant of clemency was one of the last acts of Cuomo’s service as governor before resigning amid allegations of serial sexual harassment.
Within the prison, Mingo said, word of his clemency made him an “instant celebrity.” The commutation trimmed his sentence; it did not wipe away his convictions.
“I remember the day I left, one of the guys upstairs hollered down to me and he said, I want you to listen to this song.”
It was “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams.
As he left the walls of the prison, Mingo noticed that the air smelled different. He hesitated to take that first step, he said, “just to make sure I’m actually free.”
A new life
Since September, Mingo’s lived in Ossining, in a home that commands a dramatic view of the Hudson. The property is owned by his sister and her husband, who decided to move to Ossining in 1985 to be closer to Mingo while he was incarcerated at Sing Sing prison, but Mingo was relocated to Attica soon thereafter.
Sometimes, he said, he goes out on the porch at night and just listens.
“It almost sounds as if the trees are talking to each other, the leaves are talking to each other, the birds are talking to each other,” he said. “I wonder what they’re saying.”
He’s hoping to get a paying job, but for the time being, is working as a volunteer on a construction team that builds prefabricated homes for formerly incarcerated people coming home.
“Greg is a really good guy, really personable,” said one of his fellow volunteers, John Porco.
Reform advocates said Mingo’s easygoing personality, combined with his personal story and a reputation as a model prisoner, have helped him land speaking opportunities at conferences and in front of lawmakers.
“That really moves our work forward,” said Jose Saldana, the executive director of Release Aging People in Prison, “because it helps the public to understand that people behind bars are people, and in many cases they are mentors and leaders who inspire real and positive change in others.”
RAPP is part of a coalition backing a parole reform campaign, specifically an “Elder Parole” bill that would make parole easier for anyone over 55 who’s served at least 15 years of time, as well as a “Fair & Timely” bill aimed at those who have demonstrated a record of improvement. The legislation attempts to address the fact that while the state’s overall prison population has come down, the number of aging inmates has risen.
There are currently 4,704 people in New York state prisons over the age of 55 who are incarcerated, of whom 47% are serving life sentences, according to RAPP. Half of this aging population is Black.
The campaign has backing from unusual quarters: advocates for survivors of crime and violence, including a number of organizations that wrote to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, asking them to support parole reform.
“More than 60% of survivors indicated that they favor shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation programs, including education, mental health treatment, and drug treatment,” the authors wrote, drawing upon the 2016 National Survey of Victims’ Views.