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Aging, harmless and locked away: New York needs to parole far more elderly prisoners

2019-08-22

"Valerie Gaiter was an enthusiastic participant in the Puppies Behind Bars program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility." (Photos courtesy of attorney Amanda Bashi)

Valerie Gaiter, the woman serving the longest sentence in New York State, recently died behind bars after spending nearly 40 of her 61 years at the Bedford Hills prison in Westchester County. The disease that killed her was throat cancer, which the prison system failed to diagnose or treat until a month before her death.

For more than a year, Gaiter had complained, in vain, about severe pain that prevented her from swallowing or keeping her food down, ailments that her jailers dismissed as acid reflux. By the time she finally saw an outside doctor, Gaiter was suffering from severe malnutrition and was too weak to receive chemotherapy.

It never should have come to this. Gaiter — who committed a horrific double-murder as a 21-year-old in search of money to buy drugs — became, by all accounts, a model prisoner. Twenty prison staffers wrote letters attesting to her rehabilitation, which included training service dogs for military veterans suffering PTSD.

Her needless death is an example of the cruel, wasteful and counterproductive parole policies that are turning a growing number of prisons in New York into old-age homes that contribute little or nothing to public safety.

The Center for Justice at Columbia University crunched a quarter century’s worth of state data and concluded in a 2015 report that, between 1985 and 2010, only 6.4% of prisoners released at age 50 or older returned for new convictions within three years. That’s less than half the overall rate.

“Aging people in prison, especially those who are convicted of committing the most serious violent crimes (and are thus serving long sentences), are often perceived as presenting a high risk of reoffending. Yet, the statistics bear out the opposite,” the report says.

Data stretching back to the 1920s confirms that people generally “age out” of serious criminal behavior as they get older. Violent criminal activity peaks when offenders are in their late teens and early 20s, then trails off steadily and falls off almost completely after age 50.

The reasons for the aging out phenomenon are partly developmental. As the Supreme Court has acknowledged, science shows that parts of the brain that govern reasoning, decisionmaking and impulse control aren’t fully formed until the early 20s. And male testosterone, which is associated with aggressive and violent behavior, drops off over time.

Even more important: Countless accounts show that rehabilitation takes place behind bars. Many people who enter prison as angry, violent youngsters eventually repent, atone, kick their substance addictions and mature into productive citizens — which was, presumably, the goal in sending them away in the first place.

But America harbors a savage, vengeful streak. Harsh laws and long sentences imposed in recent decades have put the nation on track to have more than 400,000 aged prisoners (over 50 years old) behind bars by 2030.

In New York between 2000 and 2013, according to the Columbia study, “the overall prison population decreased by 23% — from 71,466 in 2000 to 54,865 in 2013. At the same time, the population of incarcerated people aged 50 and over increased by 81% — from 5,111 in 2000 to 9,269 in 2013.”

The expense associated with this graying is immense. In New York, medical care for a single elderly prisoner can easily top $130,000 a year, and could go higher.

Now, and not later, is the time to ask what good it will do to squander public money to imprison — and provide health care for — people as they lapse into dementia and other illnesses.

Earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo and the state Legislature failed to pass a bill that would allow prisoners over 55 who have served at least 15 years to go before a parole board and make a case for release. Albany leaders need to reconvene — if not later this year, then in the next session — and approve this simple, sensible reform.

Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.