Gloria Rubero served 26 years in New York prisons. Between being incarcerated at the age of 30 and her release at age 56, she was denied parole five times, suffered two major strokes, and earned her GED and a college degree.
“When I got out nine years ago, it was like being thrown from the top of the stairs to the bottom—I had nothing,” she wrote in a recent policy paper, part of a new report on reducing elder incarceration in New York state.
Rubero’s account of life after prison following her release in 2006 chronicles her struggles to find work, receive Medicaid, get an apartment, and adjust to a new and fast-paced world—struggles that countless returning citizens, and particularly older people, confront on a daily basis.
Published by Columbia University’s Center for Justice, the report is a collection of policy papers produced in the aftermath of a Spring 2014 symposium organized by RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison), the Correctional Association of New York, Be the Evidence Project, and others, aimed at addressing the fast-growing population of aging people in prison.
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Experts in the field, including numerous formerly incarcerated people, argue that the rapid growth in the number of elderly prisoners demonstrates the punitive nature of the U.S. justice system, and further contend that the huge costs associated with locking up aging citizens—defined in the report as anyone over the age of 50—is incommensurate with the risk they pose to society.
According to the report, just 6.4 percent of people incarcerated in New York state prisons who were released after the age of 50 returned for new convictions, a number that fell to 4 percent for those who were 65 or older.
The authors say that expediting their release is a “critical part of reducing mass incarceration, and of creating a more fair, just and humane justice system.”
Prisoners older than 50 now comprise 17 percent of the state’s total prison population, the vast majority of whom are Black men and women.
The United States spends an estimated $16 billion a year to imprison the elderly. Since older prisoners typically have greater health needs, and because the very fact of incarceration often leads to premature aging, the price tag for incarcerating a person over the age of 50 is at least twice and sometimes five times as much as the cost of imprisoning a younger person, the report found.
Quite aside from the exorbitant expense associated with housing the elderly in state and federal correctional facilities (one report by the ACLU put the annual cost of housing a single elderly prisoner at $68,270), the report offers a close analysis of the personal and social consequences of “greying” behind bars.
These include inadequate medical and geriatric care on the inside, housing and employment discrimination on the outside, a parole process that has been defined as “dehumanizing,” and a lack of reentry services tailored to the specific needs of older people.
While the report offers numerous recommendations for New York state—including Rubero’s suggestion that formerly incarcerated people be empowered to guide the reentry of returning citizens—it contributes a larger analysis of the entire penal system in the United States.
In the words of RAPP Director Mujahid Farid, one of the lead authors of the paper who began a 15-year sentence in 1978 at the age of 28, but ended up serving 33 years in prison, the report “allows us to challenge a fundamental pillar of mass incarceration: the reliance on a system of permanent punishment, a culture of retribution and revenge rather than rehabilitation and healing.”
The ACLU estimates that state and federal prisoners over the age of 55 quadrupled between 1995 and 2010 from 32,600 to 124,900. If growth rates continue, that number could hit 400,000 by 2030.