Tribute For Benjamin Smalls, Jailhouse Lawyer and Prison Reformer, Dies at 72

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Word spread quickly through the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Beekman, N.Y., that the Elder Statesman was gone.

Before Benjamin Smalls was imprisoned two decades ago, he had been known around Westchester County, Manhattan and the Bronx as a hard-driving businessmen, juggling real estate holdings, a deli, a seafood restaurant, several bars and a nightclub. He was “Ben” back then.

Mr. Smalls changed in prison, and so did the name people called him. He grew more stoic, and dusted off an old paralegal degree to become steward of the prison’s law library, helping hundreds of men file appeals, request transfers or fight restrictions on visitation.

“We called him Mr. Smalls, or the Elder Statesman — we never called him anything else,” said Jose H. Saldaña, a former Green Haven inmate and prison reform activist. “I don’t have a very high opinion of jailhouse lawyers, but Mr. Smalls was different. I mean, he really helped people.”

Mr. Smalls died on May 4 of the new coronavirus at the Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., after a three-week hospitalization, his daughter Jhana DuPont said. He was 72.

His application to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for executive clemency, based on heart issues and glaucoma, had been pending since 2018. Three emergency requests were filed on his behalf after the virus started sweeping through state prisons, said Dave D. George, associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign.

Mr. Smalls anguished to the very end about the status of his paperwork. Shortly after he died, Ms. DuPont discovered an unopened voice mail from her father, gasping into the hospital phone, asking, “How long will I have to be here?”

Survivors include four children and seven grandchildren.

Benjamin Franklin Smalls Jr. was born in Harlem on Dec. 4, 1947. When he was 3, his father, Benjamin Sr., was killed in a car accident. His mother, Ernestine, moved to Westchester County with Mr. Smalls and two sisters and started a real estate venture.

Mr. Smalls graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1965, bounced in and out of college and worked briefly as a back-office manager on Wall Street. But he soon struck out on his own, managing his family’s buildings, then running restaurants, bars and clubs — where he felt most at home. He would chat up customers and befriend musicians who performed in his places, including the soul singer Cuba Gooding Sr., who became a close friend.

That bustling life came to an ugly, abrupt end on Oct. 3, 1998, when Mr. Smalls was 51.

Aided by an accomplice, he abducted, threatened and assaulted at gunpoint a female tenant involved in a rent dispute with his sister, according to court records and newspaper accounts. He was sentenced to 39 years for kidnapping and assault.

The narrowing of life in confinement lent Mr. Smalls the focus that had eluded him in freedom, his family said.

Mr. Smalls joined the “lifers” committee that met to improve prison conditions at Shawangunk, the maximum security prison in Ulster County, where he was first held; Later, after he was transferred to Green Haven, he anchored a discussion group on issues confronting inmates, part of a project connecting Yale Law School students with prisoners.

Mr. Smalls was running a legal practice out of a one-man cell so overstuffed with documents that prison authorities periodically ordered him to declutter.

“Every time I saw Benny, he would give me legal papers to store,” said Glen R. Skinner, a friend who visited him every few months. “I still have them.”

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