Lawmakers must finally make elder parole reform


I recently met with two inspiring women from the Bronx — one with an incarcerated husband, and the other with an incarcerated brother.

One of them graduated from Fieldston, so we spoke about some of our shared experiences going up and down the hill, navigating what felt like two cultures despite sharing so much geographically.

Their loved ones — one’s husband and the other’s brother — were locked up at 17 and 16, respectively. Decades later, long after atoning for their crimes and rehabilitating themselves, they are still aging behind bars.

I was moved by what these women shared with me: The emotional labor and limited funds they cobbled together to support — and stay close with — their loved ones. And how they tirelessly organize with other families to make the laws of our state fairer for more families. They fear for their husband and brother, locked up and vulnerable as COVID-19 makes its way through prisons.

And while they worry about their family members, I also worry about these women. A recent study found that having a loved one in prison can literally take years off your life. Worse yet, women bear the brunt of the costs — both financial and emotional — of their loved one’s incarceration.

Of the family members primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction, 83 percent are women. Nationwide, impacted families spend billions of dollars a year on commissary accounts and prison phone calls.

Bronx women know the struggle of caring for our aging loved ones while raising young children. Imagine the additional stress of caring for an aging loved one in prison.

Incarceration is known to accelerate the effects of aging, and incarcerated people are considered elderly by 50 or 55. Nearly 1-in-5 incarcerated people from the Bronx is elderly, most of whom are serving extreme sentences. Many were locked up as teenagers, maturing and transforming behind bars.

But under current law, they are denied a chance to even be fairly considered for release — either because their extreme prison sentences are longer than their natural lifetimes, or because the parole board denies their release again and again with no regard to their rehabilitation.

Hundreds are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s — a miracle, in some sense, because the average age at death behind bars in New York is 58. The unhealthy and spoiled food, exposure to contaminants, lack of health care, and stress of the prison environment often becomes a death sentence.

This year, the state legislature has the chance to finally pass common sense parole reforms to reunite families here in the Bronx. We want our current Assemblyman, Jeffrey Dinowitz, to step up. It’s time to pass the Fair and Timely Parole and Elder Parole bills to ensure people in prison have real pathways to demonstrate their rehabilitation and return home.

We need the wisdom of formerly incarcerated elders to steer at-risk young people toward positive life choices.

To counsel people struggling with drug addiction through recovery. And help us build safer and more caring communities.

The Elder Parole bill simply allows those classified by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision as older adults — again, 55 or older — who have already served at least 15 years, to appear before the parole board to be considered — on a case-by-case basis — for release.

The Fair and Timely Parole bill makes the process more fair for those who are already eligible for consideration, requiring the board to take into account who a person is today, and not solely the worst thing they ever did decades ago.

Neither bill automatically releases anyone, but both give hope — and the possibility of redemption.

Bronx mothers, sisters, wives and caregivers are carrying the heavy burden of a system that is failing us. Real change requires a courageous commitment by, for and with all of us to heal and repair the harms done to Black and brown communities.

As New Yorkers, we have a responsibility to do the right thing, even if we think it’s not our problem. It’s time we reunite families across the Bronx and New York state, and finally pass these necessary reforms.

The author is a Democratic Assembly candidate for the seat currently held by Jeffrey Dinowitz

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Jessica Altagracia Woolford,