Black, Old and Locked up

By Carolyn Guniss on July 13, 2016

America’s prisons are filled with older inmates, most of whom are Black

US aging in prisonThe 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 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 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 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.”

Source: The Miami Times