Incarceration bills give older prisoners second chance in New York

Elder parole as well as fair, timely parole bills are now with the Assembly


Two incarceration-focused bills have advanced to the New York State Assembly Correction Committee. The elder parole legislation has been co-sponsored by 31 people, including state Sens. Gustavo Rivera and Robert Jackson.

The bill would require a board to review people who have been incarcerated for 15 years and have reached the age of 55 to see if they can be released to community supervision.

The fair and timely bill similarly assesses whether an incarcerated person possesses a threat if released.

Lawmakers recently spoke about the bills, which were reported to the Assembly Correction Committee, at the New York capitol.

“Perpetual punishment is not justice. Sentencing people to die in prison is not justice,” said Jose Saldaña, director of the Releasing Aging People in Prison campaign.  “We are the ones that have to define what justice is. We have galvanized the power of the people. The power is in us. Let’s get it done.”

Rivera was happy to see progress on both pieces of legislation.

“Too many of New York’s laws continue to criminalize and incarcerate Black, brown, immigrant, and low-income communities,” he said. “I’m moved to see the Fair and Timely Parole bill passing through committee. Along with the Elder Parole bill, these proposals will redesign our parole system to focus on redemption and restorative justice rather than endless punishment.”

Jackson has said delaying the bills any longer would result in more incarcerated elderly being deprived of health care and suffering without being released.

“As a progressive leader, New York must consider the voices of those who have experienced trauma and advocate for rehabilitation and healing, not an endless cycle of punishment,” Jackson said. “It is our duty to pass these bills making New York a state that encourages and supports redemption.”

At the Unity Democratic Club’s May 18 meeting, Saldaña, who has served 38 years himself, spoke about the organization’s efforts to release incarcerated older adults in New York. Every time he presented himself on parole, the first thing he was asked would be, “What happened in 97’?” and they could never get past that.

Saldaña wants people to see people as people, saying anyone could be arms away from someone who was previously incarcerated without realizing it, and that people should be able to hold themselves accountable.

“Is it worth it, from a public-safety standpoint, to keep our elders in prison?” Saldaña presented the question on the New York Community Site in 2021. “The research says no. As a person gets older, they age out of crime. The recidivism rate for someone released at age 66, like me, is less than 1 percent. In my opinion, the controlling factor is that many of us dig inside ourselves to confront and gain insight about what we have done. We embrace the moral obligation to repair the harm we have caused.”

According to a card handed out at the Unity Democrats meeting, New York residents are dying in state prison every three days as a result of harsh sentencing and a racially biased parole system that values vengeance and endless punishment over redemption, personal transformation, and safety.

It was announced recently that the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision acting commissioner Anthony Annucci’s last day would be June 19 with his retirement being effective August 11. His reason for retiring was due to a medical incident in April.

Both Jerome Wright, co-director of the hashtag HALTsolitary campaign, and Saldaña were glad to hear Annucci was medically cleared and recovering from his medical emergency. But they did not have much praise for the commissioner who worked in the department for 38 years.

“The sad reality is that he oversaw a decade of racist brutality, torture, and abuse in New York’s prisons in what even the New York Times called a ‘scourge of racial bias,’” Wright said in a statement released May 17. “The number of people aging in New York prisons has skyrocketed. Racist officers brutalized and killed people like Samuel Harrell, Karl Taylor, Dante Taylor and countless others under the acting commissioner’s watch,”

Wright described the prison’s environment to be on par with the conditions that led to the 1971 Attica prison riot that resulted in 39 deaths. The conditions described included continuing solitary confinement, denying family care packages and visits, officers brutalizing people, and writing false tickets to cover-up abuse.

“The criminal legal system in New York is a painful manifestation of the legacy of slavery. In fact, slave labor is legal in prison. We even built the furniture used by lawmakers for just pennies per hour. “

Many of the elected leaders, especially those who represent predominantly Black and brown communities mostly accept that the scourge of mass incarceration is real and they have a moral obligation to dismantle it because it cannot be reformed, according to a statement from Saldaña.

He has urged state lawmakers to pass both parole bills.

According to a statement from Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who is not a co-sponsor of either of the bills, he will carefully examine the elderly parole bill if it is sent to his committee. He chairs the codes committee.

“There is opposition to the bill, partially based on 55 being deemed ‘elder,’” he said.

“We generally don’t move bills unless there is broad support for it. However, there is significant support. I believe we have to look at the issue of parole reform seriously.”

Attorney General Letitia James lends her support to the elder parole bill.

“The elder parole bill will help create a pathway for people to re-enter our society and be reunited with their families. When people transform their lives, they deserve an opportunity for redemption,” New York Attorney General Letitia James stated in a tweet June 2.

The bills also have the support of Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark.

elder parole, Assembly, incarceration, prisoners, timely parole, Releasing Aging People in Prison, Jose Saldana, Unity Democratic Club