“Anyone seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption?” Rosalie Cutting asked a packed room of criminal justice reform advocates at Columbia University on Thursday evening. “Remember the character Brooksie? That was me; I was Brooksie.”
From the laughter it was clear that many in room recalled Stephen King’s iconic character Brooks “Brooksie” Hatlen, who ran the library at Shawshank State Prison from 1905 to 1954. When he was finally released at the age of 72 he killed himself, unable to cope with life on the “outside.”
As the significance of Brooksie’s fate seemed to sink in, the laughter died away, leaving all eyes on Cutting as she narrated her own story: She was released at the age of 70 after serving a 27-year sentence, and has since struggled to navigate the many bureaucracies that returning citizens face, from securing an ID, housing, and social services, to shaking off the stigma of a criminal background. In prison she had been a respected mentor and program developer; outside she became one of scores of older people looking to catch a break in New York City.
Thursday’s event marked the launch of a video series by the Center for Justice at Columbia University featuring formerly incarcerated people over the age of 60 who are reentering society after serving long sentences. It came at the tail end of National Reentry Week, a seven-day Department of Justice (DOJ) initiative that aimed to highlight and dismantle barriers standing before formerly incarcerated individuals, such as the challenge of employment discrimination, as they make the transition from the criminal justice system back into society.
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According to the organizers of Thursday’s event, including the New York-based group Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), these barriers are particularly difficult for older people to overcome.
According to the DOJ, an estimated 600,000 people are released from prison annually. Given that people ages 55 and older now comprise one of the fastest-growing prison populations—quadrupling in number from 32,600 in 1995 to 124,900 in 2010—advocates say that aging people make up a large chunk of those returning to their communities each year.
This same population has one of the country’s lowest recidivism rates, meaning a low tendency to slip back into criminal behavior. Data from a recent RAPP report suggests that while the national recidivism rate among the general population is estimated at 40 to 60 percent, the return rate of people serving long sentences for murder—typically those over the age of 55—is just 6.6 percent.
In New York state, where the population of aging prisoners went up 81 percent in 13 years—from 5,111 older prisoners in 2000 to 9,269 in 2013, now accounting for 17 percent of the state’s total prison population—the recidivism rate is even lower. RAPP’s report found that only 6.4 percent of people who were released after the age of 50 returned to New York state prisons; for those who were 65 years or older, the number fell to just 4 percent.
There are few resources, at either the state or federal level, earmarked specifically for returning elders. Cutting said she had to clear endless hurdles before settling into a routine: Landlords didn’t want to rent her apartments, and she recalls one potential neighbor saying, “I don’t want to live next door to a killer.”
She tried to get work at a branch of the fast-food chain Shake Shack, but was unsuccessful. “Everyone in that restaurant was in their 20s and 30s,” she said at Thursday’s event. “I knew I could work circles around them, but I wasn’t hired.”
Advocates are pushing to turn that tide. In New York, organizations like the Coney Island-based Providence House, which temporarily houses women coming out of prison, and Fortune Society, a Long Island-based nonprofit, were instrumental in helping Cutting put her life back on track.
And the New York-based Osborne Association has partnered with the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to carry out a pilot project that emerged from the work of the Aging Reentry Task Force that aims to ease transitions for older returning citizens.
“We work with people who are at least 59 years old inside the Sing Sing and Fishkill Correctional Facilities who have served 10 or more years in prison, have a set release date, or are eligible for parole consideration within 18 months,” Laura Roan, project coordinator for Osborne’s Elder Reentry Initiative, told Rewire in an email. “To date, we have evaluated 34 individuals; 15 of whom were released. This release rate is more than double what is typical for this population.”
The program works around an individual’s specific needs, and connects participants with critical services including housing placements, employment, treatment for chronic medical conditions, and assistance enrolling in benefits programs, she said. It is a one-on-one case management model, “to ensure that everyone who comes home has someone they can call to make sure they have access to the … support they need to be successful,” she said.
“The pilot is the first of its kind in the New York State prison system,” Roan said, adding that all 15 pilot participants who have been released have stayed home—with zero technical violations or new charges. “This supports what we know: People who have served very long sentences are a very low risk to return to prison.”
She said demonstrating the program’s efficacy will help push it past the pilot stage—and perhaps serve as a model for other state or even federal facilities.
For Jonathan Stenger, communications director for the Osborne Association, building robust reentry networks is only one side of the coin. Equally important, he said in a phone interview with Rewire, is tackling the issue of long sentences, which often involves working directly with aging prisons who have committed serious offenses.
“It’s an illusion to think we can solve the crisis of mass incarceration simply by letting people out who are serving time for non-violent drug offenses,” Stenger said, adding that there aren’t that many people in prison who fit that criteria.
“If we really want to address the crisis of mass incarceration, we have to take on people who have committed violent crimes, and we have to accept that people are able to be rehabilitated and transform their lives,” he said.
Advocates who have themselves served time agree.
Mujahid Farid, a founding member of RAPP who served a 33-year prison term, said on Thursday that discussions around reentry, such as the one currently happening at the federal level, must involve a serious discussion of parole boards and the role they play in keeping the elderly behind bars, particularly in New York.
According to the New York Times, the state’s parole board in 2012 granted only a third of the nearly 16,000 applications it considered. Farid said the board rarely employs an evidence-based process—such as consideration of those with exemplary prison records or low risk of recidivism—instead focusing on the nature of the offense.
Farid himself earned multiple degrees while he was incarcerated, including two master’s degrees, and had a perfect disciplinary record, yet over a period of 18 years he was denied parole ten times.
Unless this system of permanent punishment changes, he said, increasing numbers of older people will die behind bars: The ACLU estimates that there could be as many as 400,000 aging people in prison by 2030. For many of them, occasions like National Reentry Week will have little meaning if they are never allowed outside the prison walls.
“Long-termers on the inside want a different life,” Laura Whitehorn, another founding member of RAPP who spent 15 years in federal prison, told Rewire in a phone interview. “They’ve done all the internal work—they have a sense of civil responsibility that’s so far above what most people walking the streets have, because people have taken responsibility for one another inside. We are talking about folks who have mentored young people—now they’re just looking for a chance.”