That the population of older people behind bars is a national crisis is not news. For almost a decade, reports have shown that as overall prison population numbers increase, the number of incarcerated people over the age of 50 increases at a much greater rate. And even when overall numbers hold steady or fall, the over-50 incarcerated population continues to rise.
News media across the country have written about frail or disabled people behind bars and the difficulties they face in a system designed to punish, not support, human beings even when they are young or in the best of health. In the midst of this crisis, RAPP has consistently argued that the best solution is to release vastly larger numbers of elders, because they have been proven to pose a minimal or non-existent risk to public safety.
Now that solution has found a place front and center in a publication of articles by former correctional and parole officials, academics, policy experts and analysts, human rights attorneys, and formerly incarcerated people. The Center for Justice at Columbia University has released the important policy paper, “Aging in Prison: Reducing Elder Incarceration and Promoting Public Safety.” On November 17, the report was highlighted by The Marshall Project’s daily news roundup, The Opening Statement, as their “Report of the Day.”
“Aging in Prison” contains essays from presentations at a symposium held in March, 2014, at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. That day-long event featured speeches by Brian Fischer, New York State’s former commissioner of corrections; Edward Hammock, former chair of the New York State Parole Board; Jamie Fellner, of Human Rights Watch; and a long list of prominent advocates for a more humane and less costly system of corrections, including formerly incarcerated people (see the report’s table of contents for the full list).
All agreed that New York, as well as other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, can and should release many more older incarcerated people than they currently do. High on the list of recommendations for reform suggested by speaker after speaker (and featured beginning on page XVIII of the book) are: expanding and reforming the parole process to stop using the “nature of the crime” to bar release of older people serving long sentences, and passage of the Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act (S01728/A02930), as well as expanding the use of compassionate or medical release and clemency.
“Aging in Prison” deals with subjects fundamental to the human rights disaster of mass incarceration: the reliance on revenge instead of public safety to determine whether elders should be released; the tendency of prison reformers to focus only on non-violent cases, ignoring the human rights of people convicted many years ago for violent crimes; and the need for more creative re-entry approaches to allow elders and their communities to be reunified. As a result of the symposium, more than 30 organizations and individuals formed the Aging Reentry Task Force to design just such a program. The pilot project they created forms an appendix to the book.
Throughout, the articles depict the specific ways in which criminal justice is determined at every step by racism.
Many speakers at the symposium wore buttons created by RAPP and reflecting the theme of the day: If the risk is low, let them go. “Aging in Prison: Reducing Elder Incarceration and Promoting Public Safety” provides extensive backup for that slogan. Read the report and then sign RAPP’s petition to release aging people in prison.