"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.

Women in Solitary Confinement: “The Isolation Degenerates Us Into Madness”

From Victoria Law on Solitarywatch:

A mass prisoner hunger strike rocked California’s prison system this past summer, drawing international attention to the extensive use of solitary confinement in the United States. Increasingly, solitary is finding its way into the mainstream media and onto activist agendas. Nearly all of the attention, however, has focused on solitary confinement in men’s prisons; much less is known about the conditions and experiences inside women’s prisons.
During October’s legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California, lawmakers asked prison officials about women in solitary confinement.  Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) stated that 74 women were held in the Security Housing Unit at the California Institution for Women (CIW) and a handful of women were awaiting transfer from the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). CDCR does not separate people in the SHU with mental illness from those without mental illness. CDCR officials did not address the number of people in the Administrative Segregation (or Ad Seg) Unit.
According to CDCR  statistics, as of September 2013, 107 women were held in Ad Seg at CCWF, which has a budgeted capacity of 38. The average stay was 131 days. Twenty women had been there longer than 200 days, two had exceeded 400 days, and another two women had exceeded 800 days. At CIW, 34 women were in Ad Seg with an average stay of 73 days.  Two women have exceeded 200 days.
Lawmakers’ inquiry prompted advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners to send anopen letter to Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner requesting that she investigate conditions of solitary confinement in women’s prisons. The group noted that, with the conversion of Valley State Prison for Women to a men’s prison and the transfer of several hundred women to California’s other two women’s prisons, the use of solitary confinement has dramatically increased.
To justify the increase, CDCR has cited “enemy concerns” or a documented disagreement between people that may have led to threats or violence. Those designated as having “enemy concerns” are locked in their cells 22 to 24 hours a day and lose all privileges. CDCR reports do not separate the number of people in Ad Seg or the SHU for rules violations versus those confined because of “enemy concerns.” The California Coalition for Women Prisoners has noted that many of these “enemy concerns” are based on incidents that happened years ago and may not be valid today.
Dolores Canales has a son who has spent thirteen years in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Canales has also hadfirsthand experience with solitary confinement. While imprisoned at CIW, she spent nine months in Ad Seg, where she was confined to her cell twenty-two hours a day. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard every day. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she recalled. But the isolation still took its toll: “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in,” she described. Even after being released from segregation, Canales was unable to shake that anxiety. She broke into a sweat and panicked each time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules. “I just can’t forget,” she stated years after her release from prison.
Although the spotlight on solitary has focused largely on California, every women’s prison has a solitary confinement unit. Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution for Women has a Closed Management Special Housing Unit (CM SHU) where women are confined to their cells 23 to 24 hours a day. “There is no free movement or social interaction,” reported one woman. “We just sit locked in a concrete and steel room the size of a small residential bathroom.”
In Indiana, Sarah Jo Pender has spent nearly five years in solitary.  “My cell is approximately 68 square feet of concrete with a heavy steel door at the front and a heavily barred window at the back that does not open,” she described. “Walls are covered in white; the paint chipped off by bored prisoners reveals another layer of primer white. No family photos or art or reminder notes are allowed to be taped to the walls; they must remain bare. Our windowsills would be a great place to display greeting cards and pictures, but those are off-limits, too… There is a concrete platform and thin plastic mat, a fourteen-by-twenty inch shelf and round stool mounted to the floor, and a steel toilet/sink combo unit. We get no boxes to contain our few personal items. Everything must fit on the shelf, bed or end up on the floor.”
Her cell is searched daily by guards although, like everyone else in the prison, she is strip searched any time she leaves the unit for a doctor’s appointment or a no-contact visit. When she is taken to the showers, she is handcuffed, then locked into a 3 foot by 3 foot shower stall with a steel cage door for a 15-minute shower. As is the case across the country, visits are conducted behind glass.
Read the rest here.