Even amidst a modest reduction in the U.S. prison population, the number of aging men and women expected to die behind bars has skyrocketed in a system ill prepared to handle them and still oriented toward mass incarceration. We speak about the problems facing aging prisoners with Mujahid Farid, who was released from a New York state prison in 2011 after serving 33 years. He is now lead organizer with RAPP, which stands for “Release Aging People in Prison.” Their slogan is “If the risk is low, let them go.” His campaign work is part of Soros Justice Fellowship and is housed at the Correctional Association of New York. We are also joined by Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors conditions in state prisons. “The parole board routinely denies people based on the nature of the offense, the one thing that no one can change, just like we can’t change our height or our eye color,” Elijah notes. “We need to look at that and say, if someone presents a low risk to recidivate, then we should be releasing them from prison. We’re wasting precious taxpayer dollars incarcerating people, and it’s much more expensive to incarcerate people who are older.”
RENÉE FELTZ: We turn now to look at how, even amidst a modest reduction in the U.S. prison population, the number of aging men and women expected to die behind bars has skyrocketed. In 2012, Human Rights Watch researchers working on a report called “Old Behind Bars” visited 20 prisons in nine states and interviewed prison officials, corrections and gerontology experts, and prisoners. What they found were officials scrambling to respond to the needs of older prisoners due to strained budgets and prisons that are not designed to meet the needs of the elderly. They also saw limited medical facilities and staff, and lack of planning, and lack of support from elected officials. In this clip from Nation Inside, we hear about the problem from someone who may surprise you.
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BURL CAIN: My name is Burl Cain. I’m the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. I have 5,145 inmates. There’s about 4,000 lifers, and every day just creeping up. We bring in more inmates than we release out the front gate. And that’s a shame. We usually have about one or two a month that pass on, and we have the funerals here. We use resources taking care of old men, instead of using resources to have school and education and training and preparing young men to go back into society, that are going to be released, with shorter sentences, and so forth, so they won’t recidivate and have another victim. So you actually create victims by not letting the old guys go and use your resources on rehabilitation for the ones that are going to get out.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, Mujahid Farid joins us. He was released from a New York state prison in 2011 after serving 33 years. He is now lead organizer with RAPP, which stands for Release Aging People in Prison. Their slogan is “If the risk is low, let them go.” His campaign work is part of Soros Justice Fellowship and is housed at the Correctional Association of New York, where Soffiyah Elijah also is, and is staying with us. That organization monitors conditions in state prisons.
Farid, you found, from your own case—you started to look at aging prisoners. Talk about what you found.
MUJAHID FARID: Well, based on my own circumstances that I went through, and as I was going through it, I recognized that it was general policy. It wasn’t simply directed at me. As you mentioned, I served 33 years. In 1978, I was arrested for a series of offenses, and I went to trial, and I was convicted of the controlling offense, which was an attempt murder on a police officer. So, all of the other charges subsumed under that. I was given 15 years to life.
And by the 15-year mark, I had actually made major achievements. I had earned four college degrees, an associate in business. I had earned a bachelor’s from Syracuse University. I had earned a master’s degree in sociology from SUNY New Paltz. And I had earned another master’s degree from New York Theological Seminary. In addition, I had made achievements in earning a number of certificates, such as paralegal, counseling certificates.
RENÉE FELTZ: And, Farid, not to cut you off on your achievements—
MUJAHID FARID: Yeah.
RENÉE FELTZ: —but in this last minute that we have—
MUJAHID FARID: Yes.
RENÉE FELTZ: —you presented all of this to the parole board.
MUJAHID FARID: Yes.
RENÉE FELTZ: You were supposed to be out maybe after 15 years.
MUJAHID FARID: Right.
RENÉE FELTZ: What happened?
MUJAHID FARID: What happened was, I was denied a total of nine times at two-year increments. And at that last, 10th board, which was 18 years in addition to the 15 years, I was finally granted release.
RENÉE FELTZ: What was the reason?
MUJAHID FARID: Simply a change of heart. You know, the system was broken, and finally, you know, someone was on the board that was more compassionate and pretty much released me.
AMY GOODMAN: Soffiyah, the number—the number of people in prison modestly going down, but older people skyrocketing.
SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: What can be done?
SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Well, we need to look at the parole practices. The parole board routinely denies people based on the nature of the offense, the one thing that no one can change, just like we can’t change our height or our eye color. So, we need to look at that and say, if someone presents a low risk to recidivate, then we should be releasing them from prison. We’re wasting precious taxpayer dollars incarcerating people, and it’s much more expensive to incarcerate people who are older.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’ll continue in a post show and post it online. I want to thank Soffiyah Elijah, who is with the Correctional Association of New York, as well as our guest Mujahid Farid, who was released from New York state prison in 2011. Also, Juan Méndez, as well as Matt Meyer. Matt Meyer is with the War Resisters League, and Juan Méndez is U.N. rapporteur on torture.