[Pnews] America’s prisons are filled with older inmates, most of whom are Black
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jul 14 12:10:38 EDT 2016
Black, old and locked up | The Miami Times
America’s prisons are filled with older inmates, most of whom
7/13/2016, 2 p.m.
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, 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.
“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 incarcerated people were
elderly,” reports Mujahid Farid, lead organizer for Release Aging People
in Prison (RAPP) during a fact-finding session in January held by the
United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
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 who can
cost two to four times more than the average prisoner. A young prisoner
costs about $26,000 to $29,000 per year versus an older prisoner who
costs about $69,000, Ezekiel Emmanuel shared during a conference on
aging last November. He pointed out 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
“released with a month’s worth of medication.”
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
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 aging.
“…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
entitled “Demonizing People of Color and the Poor In the United States
By Way of The Thirteenth Amendment Hoax.”
While Farid advocates that all aging prisoners be released, the
conversation in Washington about Criminal Justice Reform centers about
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.
Then there is the problem of mobility of those of advanced age. Prisons
aren’t configured to deal with frail or the infirmed.
“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,” she 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.
There are few reentry programs that are specific to the elderly or that
direct the elderly 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.
President and CEO of the Osborne Association Elizabeth Gaynes points out
that “few models for reentry for older people exist,” but counters that
“effective models can be built by incorporating the knowledge and
experience of correctional reentry experts with those of geriatric
experts,” she said in a report by the Center for Justice at Columbia
University in 2015.
The same report recommends specialized reentry plans for the elderly, 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 geriatrics in addition to reentry help.
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 report.
In Florida, Joe Garcia, candidate for Florida’s 26th Congressional
District, in a recently released Justice Reform Plan points out 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 DOJ Funding for Local Reentry Partnership Programs.
Currently, the Department of Justice’s Smart Reentry Grant provides
funding to state and local governments for reentry programs. By amending
the rules to allow grants to be awarded to non-profit organizations,
Garcia said, “we can better help people successfully reintegrate into
“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.”
/This article was written 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./
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