A Moral Imperative: Release Aging and Long-Term Prisoners
by Jean Trounstine, Truth Out Magazine, (web address at end. )
Who Are Our Long-Term Prisoners?
A 2014 study by the National Academy of Sciences reported that during the 1990s, the federal government and more than half the states enacted truth-in-sentencing and three strikes laws - all aimed at harsh punishment - both increasing the prison population and the length of sentences these prisoners are serving.
Age 55 is considered borderline geriatric in prison, because life expectancy is reduced for jailed men and women. The ACLU estimates that by 2030, "over one-third of all prisoners in the United States will be over 55.
Of 860 people convicted of homicide and sentenced to life, the study found only five individuals (fewer than 1 percent) returned to prison or jail because of new felonies - and none for a crime that involved taking a life.
"We are never going to get to the root of the problem unless we get to the heart of the 'punishment paradigm,' and the way we can do that is ask when is punishment enough."
One such person is Mohaman Koti, who at 86 is in a wheelchair, and far from the healthy 40ish-year-old convicted for attempted murder of a police officer. The New York Times stated that the case was so old that the parole board could not find a copy of the transcript from his sentencing. At his sixth parole hearing in 2013, suffering from a slew of medical problems, he heard a loud "No" to parole. As the Village Voice reported, "The board said he had a history of violence, was at risk to commit another crime, and letting him go would create disrespect for the law."
Laura Whitehorn, another RAPP founder who served more than 14 years behind bars and now advocates for aging prisoners, told Truthout that Koti finally earned parole in 2014 after he appealed the state decision. He was released by the state. However, the US government decided to intervene because of a federal parole violation based on old charges: "He was picked up by the Feds and pointlessly re-incarcerated in a federal facility," Whitehorn said. In no way does he present a threat to public safety, so activists like Whitehorn wonder why we are spending resources on keeping the elderly behind bars.
Risk assessment is yet another part of a punishment system which many have described as biased - from arrest to filing of charges, conviction, incarceration and to who gets parole. Activists and scholars like Professor Angela Y. Davis have written that we must acknowledge that "criminality and deviance are racialized."
RAPP's Mujahid Farid put it this way: "If we see people as 'the other,' we are less likely to have empathy towards them and respond to their needs, which touches on what we have experienced with the police." Speaking of what happened when Eric Garner recently was killed by a police officer in New York, he said, "How can we choke a man to death 11 times unless we feel that he is 'the other?' "
As Simon wrote on October 21, 2014, about his home state of California's prison crisis, "We will need an initiative to roll back sentences on violent crime. . . . The vast majority of people convicted of an offense against the person . . . are no more likely to commit such an act in the future than those who have not been convicted, but come from the same social circumstances and situation. There are far better ways to spend money on reducing violence than incarcerating aging prisoners who once did something violent. But for now, few even in the anti-mass incarceration community are ready to take on that fight."