Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
I entered prison as a wide-eyed child at the age of 16. I still remember the sound of the gavel when I was sentenced to life without parole. The judge in question even admitted that he regretted how sentencing laws in Pennsylvania tied his hands to make such a ruling in my conviction for being a lookout to a drug-related murder. For the next 27 years, I remembered the strange feeling of holiday dinners, often in a different prison every other year, and I resigned myself to the fact that I would never celebrate the holidays with my family. But that didn’t stop me from striving to be a better person and hoping that one day I would have the opportunity to demonstrate it and earn my release.
Today, there are 150,000 elderly incarcerated people in prisons around the country who will be separated from their families during the holidays. That number is likely to be higher, as the latest statistics available are from 2016. This is a travesty that must be addressed as we deal with a mass incarceration crisis.
I was eventually released from prison when I was in my 40s, made possible only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to condemn child offenders to mandatory sentences of life without parole. The ruling resulted not only in my release but also in the release of more than 2,000 people across the country who were otherwise doomed to die in prison. The oldest of those released was 81-year-old Joseph Ligon, who was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 15 in 1953 and who served a total of 68 years in prison.
These are people, not statistics.
I would like to say that Ligon’s case is an anomaly within the prison system, but unfortunately it is not. While a lot of attention through the years has been on the mass incarceration of child and youth offenders, the number of elderly and geriatric people incarcerated has exploded to unprecedented levels. Nationally, prisoners older than 55 account for 10% of the incarcerated population, and in Pennsylvania, prisoners older than 50 account for 22% of the state’s inmate population.
These are people, not statistics. In 2020, I lost a close friend named James “Bumpy” Bennent, who was 70 years old and died from COVID-19 in State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon in Pennsylvania. Bumpy was incarcerated for more than 48 years with a sentence of life without parole.
Bumpy was not the same person as the reckless young man who entered prison in his early 20s. He had matured; he was a model of rehabilitation and a mentor to countless prisoners. He played jazz and taught music and taught me to appreciate Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He would have thrived if given an opportunity to demonstrate his rehabilitation to a parole board. Instead, Bumpy spent decades in prison, eventually succumbing to COVID-19. He invested so much in helping to rehabilitate countless men like me, and it pains me that I could never thank him for his help by hosting him for a holiday dinner in my home.
It was not always the case that incarcerated people were locked away indefinitely. Prior to the 1970s, sentences of life without parole were not on the books in many states, and offenders sentenced to life would often be released after about 15–20 years served. However, during the “Tough on Crime” era of the 1970s through the 2000s, politicians introduced more punitive sentencing laws that ushered in the mass incarceration crisis that continues today. When people are incarcerated for 40 or more years, we have to ask ourselves, at what point has accountability been satisfied, and when does their incarceration turn into pure vengeance?
If we hope to overcome this problem of the enormous number of older people slated to die in prison, we need politicians and legislators to think outside of the box that mass incarceration has confined our public analysis and policy to. Existing laws and policies offer no hope of alleviating the problem. In Pennsylvania, aging people who are sentenced to life without parole have two main avenues of getting out of prison: medical release and commutation. Medical release usually fails because it is only used for the most dire situations, and commutations as an avenue for compassionate release have been blocked by tough-on-crime retributive politics.
In order to make any meaningful change, legislatures must enact a geriatric release statute that permits people to be released from prison after they reach a certain age or number of years in prison. At least 17 states have enacted some form of a geriatric release law, and a commission in Pennsylvania has drafted legislation that would allow prisoners who are over the age of 55 to apply for parole eligibility after serving half their sentence or at least 25 years if serving life sentences.
In addition, we need “presumptive parole,” a national policy that would require the parole board to release anyone who meets a specified set of conditions. This would remove much of the subjectivity or potential bias that has hindered the current parole systems. Unfortunately, despite all of the struggles for criminal justice reform, the residual elements of the “Tough on Crime” era that have impeded parole programs have largely been untouched, allowing for the potential biases to continue.
I am incredibly fortunate to have been released at a relatively young age. It was an opportunity that I had to earn through more than a decade of good behavior that was reviewed by a parole board of correctional experts. It was not automatic.
Today, I am a successful executive of a law firm that employs over 20 people across Pennsylvania. I contribute to my community every day that I wake up and head to work, knowing that I am an example for so many young men caught in the cycle of trauma and incarceration.
I am also fortunate to be spending the holidays with my loved ones. I cringe every time I think about the thousands of other lifers who remain in prison without an opportunity for release after decades of incarceration. They are people who are just as worthy as I am to be free and to contribute to society after decades of being locked away and who, like me, deserved this opportunity a long time ago.
This story was produced in partnership with The Opportunity Agenda.
Robert Saleem Holbrook is the Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a law project dedicated to ending race and class based discrimination in the criminal justice system and all forms of state violence. He can be reached at www.abolitionistlawcenter.org