Free the Elders, Improve Public Health

by Laura Whitehorn

From PHN Issue 19, Winter 2014

Mohaman Koti is either 85 or 87 years old, depending on whether you go by his birth certificate or what his mother told him when he was a child. He has been incarcerated in New York State since 1978—long enough that his sentencing transcript has been lost in the system.

Mr. Koti has been hospitalized multiple times for health problems, including myasthenia gravis (a neurological disorder) and cancer. He must often use a wheelchair, and his hearing is pretty much shot.

In May, Mr. Koti appeared before the parole board for the sixth time, and was again denied release. The board said they thought he might commit another crime if released—despite testimony from prison staff calling him a reliable peacemaker.

Makes no sense, does it?

Which is why we launched Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP). Some background:

From 1995 to 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners aged 55 and over nearly quadrupled, while the total prison population grew by 42%. By 2030, there will be more than 400,000 people over 55 in U.S. prisons; in 1981, there were 8,853.

In New York, the incarcerated population has fallen by 21% over the past decade. In that same period, the population of people aged 50 and older has increased by 64%. Today, the state’s total prison population is about 56,000. Some 9,218—more than 17%—are over 55.

Recidivism (when people return to prison after release) decreases sharply with age. For people over the age of 65, and for those convicted of murder, the risk of recidivism is less than 1%, compared with about 40% for the entire population, according to the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Yet over the past two years, the parole board in New York has denied nearly 75% of all requests for release, no matter the petitioner’s age.

Compassionate release is dramatically under-used. In 2010, New York granted only 8 releases, allowing people to spend their last days in their communities, with comfort and dignity. That same year, 123 people died within the walls. The average age of those who died was 56. As a final cruelty, people convicted of certain crimes, including first-degree murder, are barred from receiving compassionate release.

The proportion of elders will continue to balloon as younger incarcerated people with long sentences (including life without parole) age. So the goal of releasing aging people affects incarcerated people of all ages—and their families.

If you are reading this in prison—whether in New York or elsewhere—we need your story of aging behind bars and being denied release. (Family members’ stories are needed too.) Please write us at: RAPP, c/o Mujahid Farid; Correctional Association of NY, 2090 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd, #200; New York NY 10027. Your voice can help unravel the system of perpetual punishment that defines U.S. prisons.

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