"If the Risk Is Low, Let Them Go": Efforts to Resolve the Growing Numbers of Aging Behind Bars

Reblogged from: Truth-Out
Article by Victoria Law
Jan. 10, 2014

Imagine your grandparents and great-grandparents in shackles or dying behind bars. By 2030, the prison population age 55 and over is predicted to be 4,400 percent more than what it was in 1981. Some state and federal prison systems look at alternatives.

The recent release of 74-year-old Lynne Stewart has made headlines. Stewart, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, was granted compassionate release December 31, 2013, after a protracted struggle by Stewart and supporters across the country. Stewart, whose cancer has spread to her lungs, lymph system and bones, will spend her remaining months with her family in Brooklyn.

But what about the aging and infirm people incarcerated nationwide who lack Stewart’s fame and support? The United States has some 125,000 prisoners age 55 and older, quadruple the number in 1995. Various human rights groups, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and the Vera Institute of Justice have issued warnings about the increased numbers of aging, elderly and incapacitated behind bars. In response to these increases, several states, such as Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, are in the process of building hospice and geriatric units within their prison systems.

But what other solutions are there?

“If the Risk is Low, Let Them Go”

In New York, advocates – including formerly incarcerated people – have launched the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign. More than 9,200 people (nearly 17 percent) imprisoned in New York are 50 or older. While the state’s prison population dropped this past decade – from 71,466 in 2000 to 56,315 in 2011 – the number of people 50 and older has increased by 64 percent.

Lead organizer Mujahid Farid knows the obstacles facing people seeking parole. Farid was arrested in 1978 and sentenced to 15 years to life for an attempted murder. By the time he was eligible for parole in 1993, he had earned four college degrees as well as certificates for numerous other programs. None of these accomplishments mattered. He was denied parole based on his 1978 conviction. Farid appeared before the parole board ten times over the next 18 years before he was granted parole in 2011.

“I realized it wasn’t personal,” he told Truthout. “They’re not looking at your personal development. They’re simply looking at your conviction.” After his release, Farid met with advocates, including other formerly incarcerated people, to discuss how to overcome the hurdle within the parole system. Out of these discussions came RAPP.  Under the slogan “If the risk is low, let them go,” RAPP mobilizes to change the routine in which parole and compassionate release are denied to those who have spent decades in New York’s state prisons.

Read the rest here.

A Pelican Bay hunger striker’s journal

In: SF BayView

Posted By NatashaR On July 13, 2011

Richard Johnson, a prisoner who recently suffered a heart attack due to a blocked artery in his heart, is among the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay. Since the beginning of the strike, he has been taken off three of his daily meds; medical staff say they may be adverse to his health when taken on an empty stomach. He is submitting a series of articles throughout his time on strike to educate potential supporters about the prison experience. The first, “The Psychology of Prisoners,” is dated July 5, 2011; the second, “Aging in prison,” is dated July 6.

The psychology of prisoners
by Richard Johnson

The multitude of prisoners who find themselves locked away in a perceptible world of perpetual and perplexing discriminatory wretchedness can look only inward for redress. Their only resolve is to attempt to figure out, with some form of insight that would give them some direction, how best to accurately function in an entrenched environment that isn’t transient but is beseiged in physical and mental violence of a destructive nature.

For anyone to come to grips with this situation, the mind must be able to assimilate all the disconnected parts, placing each in its allotted positional purpose.

Without the ability to organize these incompatible moving parts, the mind will undoubtedly be left in an incidental momentum of powerlessness that will further shake the already unstable foundation needed to prevail in the world of confinement. Unlike in society where people can find available aversions to escape the realities that confront them with some success, prisoners are limited in this regard. They can either grow from the experience or descend further in a highly documented atmosphere of self doubt, terror and hostilities.

Quite naturally, some prisoners can fool themselves in make believe, giving them false relief from truth, but in the final analysis the mental carnage will soon engulf them, bringing down those fictitious intrinsic facades used by some prisoners as a form of escapism, be it sports, gambling, drugs, sex or violence – a host of appeasing empty diversions.

The emotional, psychological rollercoaster is very unsettling in terms of a prisoner having a solid, undisruptive, strong balance between oppression and freedom of the mind. There is no dispute that life in general is complicated, demanding and painful, especially for certain segments of society. In the prison microcosm that enervates prisoners’ ability to engender certain powers, this oppression is enhanced tenfold, dispensing unmitigating pressure and trauma within the prison vortex that exists in numerous individuals entrapped in their psychotic turmoil – mostly as a direct result of being imprisoned and sometimes due to arriving in prison in an already lunatic state that only worsened with time.

When ordinary people think of inmates in prison, their focus is primarily on the physical restraint of those locked up. This reasoning, unfortunately, is misplaced because the mind allows the body to persevere, but if the mind goes, in time, so will the body. How else can people walk on fire, perform dangerous feats or educate themselves well beyond their particular circumstance? It’s all about the ability and tenacity of the human mind.

In prison, the main objective is to control the prisoners’ minds, for they’ve already enslaved the body. It’s the last line of defense that the prisoners have to defend themselves against appalling and frightening events that challenge the mind at every turn. By utilizing hard work and inexhaustible resolve, prisoners can step outside the pitfalls associated with doing time and not allow themselves to be victimized by the intensity of prison life.

The mental state of prisoners is also used by prison administrators as a political pawn to garner politicians’ support and funds, earmarked for prison commerce. Each prison generally has a building in which those suffering from obvious and acute mental imbalances are held and given psychiatric medication to help them adapt and exist in the extremes of prison culture. The fact is that most of them shouldn’t be in prison, but rather, in a mental institution in order to receive some quality psychological help – not simply being pumped with mind-altering drugs since it’s less costly or more convenient.

Whenever anyone resorts to eating feces or hurting themselves in any form, they need serious help. Whenever grown folk sit up in their cell and hold one-on-one conversations with themselves, something is innately wrong. Just like in society, mental health is of the upmost importance in prison, because you can’t have people running around noticeably unhinged, or a heartbeat away from doing the unthinkable.

This rationale should equally apply for prisoners who can’t cure themselves properly because of the overwhelming effects of damage done to their thinking process brought on intentionally, in some cases, by the controlling forces at hand.

You may think that it’s not a problem, at least in your world, but the truth is that prisoners’ mental well-being should concern everyone everywhere for the simple fact that exposure to someone released from a prison facility who hasn’t received the necessary treatment for his problems jeopardizes all, putting at risk the safety of many. Let’s be real clear: Not everyone in prison is suffering from mental depravity, but even if one goes without the psychiatric treatment needed to substantially mitigate the possibility of a complete psychological breakdown, then all are at risk.

Situations in some exceptional and defiant norms have caused such irreparable damage that long-term treatment must be used to lessen the injury. There can be no fostering of nonchalant attitudes toward this problem. Simply put, if people in society don’t care, why then should the afflicted not feel the same? With the U.S. locking up so many of its people, it should be criminal not to think and assume that mass imprisonment will have a grave and lasting effect on at least some.

When you tamper with the natural order of life, you put at risk the inherent and pure procession in life that constitutes normality. Prisons are essential to some, who typically think they are there to house the bad while protecting the good. It’s a nice concept.

The fact is penitentiaries are like zoos; their objectives – however admirable – are a complete failure. How do you justify caging human beings without some inkling of moral, humanitarian compassion regardless of their crimes, despicable as they may be? When is torture, physical or mental, acceptable for anyone?

If it’s all right to demonstrate unrelenting pain, then who can complain when it is reciprocal in the same manner? This pain is not right or deserved, but it certainly happens repeatedly and the help needed isn’t forthcoming when it really counts.

We’re all creatures of habit connected to what we discern as right and wrong, often accepting the holy scripture as the words of proper conduct. Too often it’s taken literally, causing some to go to areas of extraordinary disconnect in the name of “God.”

The bottom line is we are our brother’s keeper. However, we are biased, prejudiced and vengeful and then don’t expect the consequences of failure not to revisit, which is wishful thinking.

Prisoners are people too. They deserve to be treated as such in spite of any transgression, for only God can judge and pass judgment on morality, not people who also suffer from lapses of proper choice and virtue themselves.

Aging in prison
By Richard Johnson

For some I suspect that prison life can be a truly horrific and demanding experience under any condition that undermines the ability to stay above the fray. There’s one inevitable fact that will haunt your every move regardless of any attempt at deferring the truth: With each passing day, your age becomes a real factor. This is illustrated even more profoundly if you’re doing a life sentence with less than a promising chance of any release – other than in a body bag.

Being hopeful and optimistic can only suffice for so long, and with time it diminishes as the years pass you by. As life creeps along, your mind constantly toils in retrospect. The future is too gloomy to ponder, so glimpses of the past serve to entertain and bring a margin of relief to cloud the wait for death.

Prison certainly isn’t the place to be on any occasion, under any circumstance, but what is even worse is being old and surrounded by elements that are inherently in opposition to age. This is an entirely different crisis within itself. Health concerns worsen increasingly while waiting to die. One shouldn’t be concerned with debilitating health problems involving complications related to growing old. Our mind tells us that we’re OK and everything is the same, yet our bodies remind us that we’re in a serious battle being physically fought daily. You awaken every day just like the day before, greeting it with a forced smile on an aging face and a failing body.

Life is measured on a day by day basis. You count your blessings and accomplishments based on what you did that day, because to focus too far ahead could prove to be an erroneous delusion. However, to say that every aging prisoner will die in prison is incorrect. Some most certainly will find themselves eventually being released at some point, be it in their 70s or 80s. But to keep a person locked up for 40-50 years then turn them out with nothing to go out to can be equally fatal for them.

Normally, aging prisoners are segregated with other prisoners of similar age, but with overcrowding, violence and lack of medical care, the chances of the process of aging getting any respect dwindles with each failure associated with prisons. Moreover, as the prisons become more and more a business interest, prisoners are viewed as a plain commodity, serving as a new source of profit. It doesn’t matter if that commodity is ailing, mentally unbalanced, young or old; as long as it’s breathing, it is a viable investment.

There used to be a time when clear distinctions were made in terms of designating prisoners; it was by age, temperament, health – both mental and physical – and work propensity, among other things. Now all that is irrelevant. The death rate for the aging in prison has spiraled drastically over the years. A lot of them just gave in and resigned themselves to a fate looked upon by some as befitting in comparison to the rigors of daily prison experience and survival.

Often prisoners outlive their immediate relatives and find themselves trying to get by without any outside help. Friends forget them. Their children ignore them. Wives divorce them. Society completely abandons them. This happens more often than not. To live life on the installment plan, you can’t help but reflect on who is better off, those sentenced to a certain time with the prospect of eventual death in prison or those of us sentenced to life?

Both scenarios have a reservation with destiny, but which one is more human or barbaric? We come to prison in spite of our sentences. We try to better ourselves through education by absorbing all useful educational material that we can get our hands on, or at least some of us do. We try as best as we possibly can to stay in shape by exercising and paying attention to our health issues. We try to avoid the emotional backlash of living in a toilet for decades.

We go out of our way in an attempt to stay connected to some features of the outside world. Yet after doing all of this, the ultimate question arises: To what end? We lose our teeth, our hair, our bodies, our objectivity and for some of us we lose our minds all in the process of growing old in prison. Is it sensible for us to want to cling to empty dreams, forgotten passions and the remote possibility of freedom?

Personally, I am of the opinion that life, regardless of its woes, should be lived in spite of the difficulties. I think that the only certainty in life is to help you to command some rule over your existence and not be dominated by it, take charge with impressive persistency. Durability comes with age, and if we allow time to demoralize our struggle, then we lose!

Send our brutha some love and light: Richard Johnson, K-53293, SHU D2-218, PO Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532

Dying inside: The elderly in prison

Plan to spend about 20 minutes weeping, if you tune into this documentary on aging in US prisons. Thank you, Jeremy Young and Al Jazeera.

———————-from Al Jazeera—————————-

Our program has aired and is finally up online—it is titled “Dying Inside: Elderly in Prison”. Here is the link to the show, please let me know your thoughts and feedback:


If you toggle the settings on you tube from 360 to 720 and you have a strong internet connection the quality of the video is very vivid. Please feel free to share the video with whomever.

Many thanks to all of those people that helped us out along the way….your contributions are greatly appreciated!

Jeremy Young

Al Jazeera English- The Americas

1627 K Street, 11th Floor

Washington, D.C. 20006

Work- 202.496.4543

Cell- 202.651.1632

Releasing our Elders; Health Care Reform and Prisoners

From the list-serve/newsletter of www.curenational.org (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants)
——-New Vera Report Shows Difference between Geriatric Release Policy and Practice——-

Harsh sentencing policies have made correctional facilities throughout the United States home to a growing number of older adults. Yet most states with provisions for releasing older prisoners rarely use them, despite the relatively low risk eligible inmates would pose to public safety and the opportunity for potential cost savings.

It’s About Time: Aging Prisoners, Increasing Costs, and Geriatric Release” examines statutes related to geriatric release in 15 states and the District of Columbia, identifies factors that help explain the discrepancy, and offers recommendations for those who would address it.

“The upshot is that there’s a difference between what states would like to do—save money by releasing older prisoners—and what actually happens,” says the report’s author, Tina Chiu. “If states want the result of geriatric release policies to be consistent with that objective, they should review the release process to address potential and existing obstacles.”

The Vera Institute of Justice is an independent nonprofit organization that combines expertise in research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance to help leaders in government and civil society improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety.

—————————— Health Care Reform and Prisoners————————

Thirteen million people are incarcerated in jails annually.
Three and a half million of this 13 million are incarcerated more than once during the year.

 The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act (together referred to as “the health reform law” expands health insurance coverage by expanding Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low income people, to cover everyone under 133 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). For uninsured individuals above 133 FPL the bill sets up state-based “health insurance exchanges” or regulated insurance marketplaces where individuals and small businesses can compare and purchase private health insurance policies. (They will function something like websites like Travelocity or Orbitz, but for health insurance.) Lower income individuals will be eligible for tax subsidies to buy insurance on the exchanges.

The health reform law does not change the current inmate exclusion for Medicaid and other federal health programs. Convicted inmates are also ineligible for insurance from the exchanges. However, pre-conviction inmates remain eligible and they also remain subject to the individual mandate to carry health insurance.

Regardless of the insurance arrangements covering prisoners, jails will still have a legal obligation based on the /Gamble /decision by the Supreme Court to provide medical care for all prisoners regardless of conviction status. How this obligation will be satisfied or impacted by the health reform legislation has not been addressed.

 There are two additional references to the criminal justice system in the health care bill. First, “conviction for a relevant crime of patient or resident abuse” disqualifies a person from being hired
as a health care worker, and second, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is specifically included in the Interagency Working Group on Health Care quality.

The Legal Action Center reports that the final health care bill incorporates many key elements on addiction and mental health services, as follows:

Includes substance use disorder and mental health (SUD/MH) services as required benefits in the basic benefit package for individual and small business health plans;
Requires that all plans in the health insurance exchange comply with the Wellstone/Domenici Parity Act in providing SUD/MH benefits in the same way as all other covered medical and surgical benefits;
Expands Medicaid eligibility for all Americans up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level and require newly eligible parents and childless adults receive coverage that includes SUD/MH services provided at parity;
Includes SUD and MH prevention strategies and efforts in the bill’s chronic disease initiatives;
Includes the capacity of the mental and behavioral health workforce as high-priority topics in the bill’s National Workforce Strategy section; and
Includes insurance reforms and consumer protections critical for individuals seeking or in recovery, including prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, charging higher premiums based on health status, and placing annual or lifetime caps on insurance coverage.