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New York’s Increase in Elderly Prisoners Sparks Debate on Parole

HOST INTRO: The number of New Yorkers behind bars is on a steady decline, but there’s one group that’s increasing: inmates over the age of 50. The state comptroller just released a report warning that if more aging inmates don’t get released on parole, the state’s prison health care costs will skyrocket. But figuring out which of these prisoners should be released —isn’t easy. Sarah Gibson reports.

GIBSON: Robert Lindsay was convicted of second degree murder when he was 19 years old.

LINDSAY: In 1977, I was sentenced to 25 to life, and I winded up doing 39 years and 9 months. 

GIBSON: That 25 years to life? That meant after after 25 years, Lindsay became eligible for parole. Parole is conditional release, given to inmates considered low risk because of good behavior in prison and showing remorse for their crime. Lindsay’s first interview with the parole board didn’t go well.

LINDSAY: When you go to parole, they assess your behavior and mine was horrendous – I had 25 years of screwing up.

GIBSON: Screwing up, fighting and getting “tickets” from the guards – all part of a record that the parole board reviewed. Over time, Lindsay stopped screwing up as much. Every one or two years, he’d come up for a parole hearing – and meet with the board via videoconference.

LINDSAY: They’ll have all your whole life history in front of them and they’ll try to judge who you are and whether you deserve to go home in a matter of ten minutes.

GIBSON: Ten minutes is typical for a parole hearing. Critics say that’s too short to make a full assessment, making it easier for the board to repeatedly deny parole. But for Lindsay, the hardest part was waiting:

LINDSAY: You might go to parole board on Monday, you won’t get your decision until a Friday and it is torture – the if’s and the and’s and the maybe’s – then you open the paper and it’s 24 more months hit and it rocks your world, it rocks your world. 

GIBSON: Lindsay turned 46, 48, then 50. That birthday made him one of 10,000 inmates over the age of fifty in New York. Experts say 50 in prison is like 60 on the outside – the aging process behind bars is accelerated – the result of health problems from earlier in life and the stress of a long sentence.

LINDSAY: The older you get the more desperate you get to get out. You start getting medical problems, you’re not navigating the stairs, you might get sick in the middle of the night in your cell. 

GIBSON: And this brings New York to a crossroads: either it finds the money to build and retrofit prisons for the elderly, or it releases more inmates on parole. Patrick Gallivan is a state senator from western New York. Before that, he was on the parole board. He remembers weighing whether inmates who had committed serious crimes like murder should be released:

GALLIVAN: Well yes, they behave for 10 years in prison, but at a certain point in time you have the seriousness of the case, and then just because they’re good in prison, why is it ok that they’re then released when your family member is dead?

GIBSON: That dilemma is the main focus of a report this month from the Comptroller. It says over the last three years, the state’s bill for inmate health care rose by 20%, due largely to care for aging prisoners. But for Gallivan, there’s also a huge potential cost for letting the wrong person out. The recidivism rate for this age is 15%, mostly for parole violations – but there’s always a what if–

GALLIVAN: So if the individual was a murderer, should we consider releasing the other person just because they are 65 or older and not as healthy as they were before? 

WHITEHORN: The parole board, when they release someone — there not saying hey the murder you committed was great – we don’t mind – they’re saying you did that but now you’re this. (0:12)

GIBSON: That’s Laura Whitehorn. She was 54 when she was released from prison – when she says “now you’re this” she’s referring to the metric the parole board is required by law to use for judging whether an inmate should be released. The main priority is whether the inmate poses a current threat to public safety. Whitehorn and her group, RAPP – “Release Aging People in Prison” – say the parole board needs to do its job – otherwise, New York’s prison costs will keep growing.

WHITEHORN: When you have someone who could easily be released and instead you keep them locked up – training officers in geriatric care? I mean really, what a waste of time and money.

GIBSON: The one thing both sides of this debate agree is how life-changing this issue of parole is for New Yorkers. The parole process ultimately worked for Robert Lindsay – the man who spent 39 years in prison. 6 months ago, a guard came to his cell and gave him a letter from the board.

LINDSAY: And I opened it up and it was confirmed and it was like surreal – and everyone was happy for me. Everyone wants to see somebody with my amount of time go home because it gives them hope. 

GIBSON: Since getting out, Lindsay has been spending time with family. He’s applying for permission from his parole officer to move to Pennsylvania, and live with his son and grandkids. Sarah Gibson, Columbia Radio News.


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