MIAMI---The research dates back more than a decade: Americans are aging in prison. But what has been done about reducing the elderly population in prison or what to do with the elderly once released is still being debated and studied.
Blame the swelled prison rolls on minimum mandatory sentences, the three strikes rule or the elimination of federal parole, researchers speculate. What is sure, is that the numbers are telling.
Black communities feel the effects of mass incarceration even more. One-in-three African American men will serve time in prison, while only one in 17 white males will interact with prisons during their lifetime.
In Prison 33 Years
“At the current rate of growth, it is projected that by 2030 there will be more than 400,000 older people behind bars, a 4,400 percent increase from 1981 when only 8,853 of the country’s
From Inmate ‘Litigator’
To Reentry Oranizer
Mujahid Farid, now 66, became the lead organizer of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) [http://tinyurl.com/jyhns8j] in 2013, two years after leaving prison.
Incarcerated in New York, where he now lives, Farid turned to self-study, eventually earning four college degrees, including a master’s in sociology and another in the ministry from the New York Theological Seminary.
Over the decades, Farid, who was convicted of attempted murder of a police officer, also established inmate education programs for HIV/AIDS prevention and courses to train prisoners wanting to counsel others on preventing alcohol and substance abuse. And he studied the law.
“Throughout the 33 years that I was confined I was an avid litigator, who sued prison officials whenever they violated my rights and had a batting record of successes better than most lawyers, “ he said in an interview.
“Thus, I won monetary damages on many occasions, all the way to my last few months confined. This enabled me to come home with a nest egg. I did not have to rush into any drastic action trying to get a foothold into housing or job--the two main hurdles that face people reentering,” Farid said.
He continued, “The only slight problem was housing, because I didn't have the credit history needed by most landlords, etc. As soon as I made contact with a formerly incarcerated friend who worked in the real estate field (within a month of my release), that problem was solved.”
Farid said he has found that “so-called reentry agencies that are supposedly designed to assist people transitioning were not good.” Not only did he experience an ineffective job-placement program, he said he saw inappropriate efforts to place former inmates in drug treatment.
He recalled, “They tried to send me to different drug therapy programs even though I had just come home from prison after 33 years without ever being penalized for drug use behind the walls. Their attempt didn't work because I knew the lingo. I would ask, ‘Has anyone done an assessment indicating that I need drug therapy?’”
Farid believes such reentry programs should be stopped from wrongly placing ex-inmates in drug-dependency programs, not to help those in transition, but to increase their funding through more such referrals.
Also read “Little Help for Prisoners Released After Decades.”
Farid started RAPP in 2013, after he served 33 years for attempted murder of a police officer. He was eligible for parole in 1993, but it would take 10 trips to the parole board before he was released in 2011. By then he was 61 years old.
“The vast majority of people in the criminal justice system are African American or people of color,” Farid said. “The punishment paradigm traces itself to slavery, but it has really gone amok in the last 30 years.”
Now policymakers are saddled with a graying prison population that can cost two to four times more than the average prisoner. A young prisoner costs an estimated $26,000 to $29,000 per year versus an older prisoner who costs about $69,000, bioethicist Ezekiel Emmanuel, MD, shared during a conference on aging last November.
Emmanuel, who was a leading advisor to the White House on the development of the Affordable Care Act, noted that the system was so unprepared for aging ex-prisoners because no one anticipated people would live so long. He pointed to the need for programs designed for transition to the outside world, but said in reality older prisoners are sometimes only “released with a month’s worth of medication.”
An Uphill Battle
Farid’s RAPP is focusing on getting criminal justice officials “to adopt reasoned and evidence-based policies and practices to release the elderly from prison after they have served long periods of incarceration.” He believes that many of the older offenders are no longer a threat to society, even if they committed violent crimes in their youth.
But it is an uphill battle, because of racism, Farid said.
People are still afraid of the idea of a black person convicted of a violent crime released among society, even if that person is a senior.
“It remains that the fear of a violent black living in society can be truly overwhelming and terrifying,” Farid wrote in a March 2014 paper on demonizing people of color and the poor In the United States.
While Farid advocates that all aging prisoners be released, the conversation in Washington about criminal justice reform centers on releasing nonviolent offenders.
“If the goal is to reduce the prison population, they have to focus on aging, violent offenders. The numbers show that releasing only nonviolent offenders will not reduce the population. There just isn’t enough of them,” Farid said.
‘Violent’ vs. ‘Nonviolent’ Crimes
In her book, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton University Press, 2015), political scientist Marie Gottschalk wrote it is a “mistaken idea that it is easy to distinguish the non, non, nons from the really bad guys,” referring to those who are non-violent non-serious or non-sexual offenders.
Gottschalk said that if punishment for violent offenses were rolled back in 2004 to 1984 levels, before many hardline laws took effect, the prison population would go down by 30 percent.
The Marshall Project, the criminal-justice news organization named for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, reported that of the 1.3 million people in state prisons, 54 percent are incarcerated for violent crimes, such as murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault and armed robbery.
The other 46 percent were charged mainly with drug possession; drug sales, manufacturing or trafficking; prostitution or drunk driving; or property crimes, such as fraud and car theft.
The Marshall Project contends that if 100 percent of those in the later group were released early or had been given a sentence diverting them from prison, the justice system would still need to release about 30 percent of robbery offenders to reduce the state prison population by 50 percent.
Advocates for more older prisoners to be released note, for instances, that those convicted of burglary and found to have a gun with them were charged with “violent” crimes, even if there was no physical harm. But the acknowledge that reclassifying violent crimes faces strong opposition.
Elders Low Risk for Release
“Prisons simply are not physically designed to accommodate the infirmities that come with age,” Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and an author of a report titled “Old Behind Bars,” told the Washington Post in 2015.
“There are countless ways that the aging inmates, some with dementia, bump up against the prison culture,” Fellner said. “It is difficult to climb to the upper bunk, walk up stairs, wait outside for pills, take showers in facilities without bars and even hear the commands to stand up for count or sit down when you’re told.”
Elderly prisoners are also regarded as less of a threat to society and should be released through clemency or compassion programs, advocates say.
But the reentry programs are geared toward the young and able-bodied. Few such programs are specifically designed for seniors or direct them to resources. That is unfortunate since the data show that people age faster in prison and are usually sicker compared to people of the same age living on the outside.
Elizabeth Gaynes, president and CEO of the Osborne Association’s Center for Justice Policy and Practice, stressed, “Few models for reentry for older people exist.” She noted in a 2015 report by the Center for Justice at Columbia University, “Effective models can be built by incorporating the knowledge and experience of correctional reentry experts with those of geriatric experts.”
The report recommends specialized reentry plans for older inmates by creating a “buddy” system, where former inmates help new ex-prisoners navigate the outside. In addition to connecting the newly released to health care and health insurance, the report called for specific services, such as geriatric health care in addition to reentry help.
A Path to Do Right
Communities need to be better prepared to accept elderly prisoners. Some ways to do this include “enhancing the capacity of senior centers and elder services to effectively serve formerly incarcerated elders; educate communities to facilitate their support for older incarcerated people returning to communities,” said the Columbia report.
In Florida, Joe Garcia, candidate for Florida’s 26th Congressional District, states in a recently released Justice Reform Plan that the Department of Justice should amend rules to allow the awarding of grants to community organizations in order for them to provide reentry programs. The organizations would provide the services in conjunction with U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Funding for Local Reentry Partnership Programs.
Currently, DOJ’s Smart Reentry Grant [http://tinyurl.com/jgbxhrp] provides funding to state and local governments for reentry programs. By amending the rules to allow grants to be awarded to nonprofit organizations, Garcia said, “we can better help people successfully reintegrate into society.”
“Giving people the opportunity to get back on their feet and move their lives forward makes our entire society safer and better off," said Garcia. "Once someone pays for their mistake, they should have a path to do right for themselves, their families and their community.”
Carolyn Guniss wrote this article for the Miami Times with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation.