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PART 2: Calls Grow to Release Aging People from Prison Who Pose No Public Safety Threat

Web ExclusiveDecember 23, 2013
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We continue our interview about the issues leading to a skyrocketing population of aging people behind bars, and feature comments about their conditions from political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier. We also speak with Mujahid Farid, who was released from a New York state prison in 2011 after serving 33 years. He is now lead organizer with RAPP, which stands for “Release Aging People in Prison.” Their slogan is “If the risk is low, let them go.” His campaign work is part of Soros Justice Fellowship and is housed at the Correctional Association of New York. We are also joined by Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors conditions in state prisons. Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Renée Feltz, as we look at how, amidst a modest reduction in the U.S. prison population, the number of aging men and women expected to die behind bars has skyrocketed. In 2012, Human Rights Watch researchers working on a report called “Old Behind Bars” visited 20 prisons in nine states and interviewed prison officials, corrections, gerontology experts, as well as prisoners. What they found were officials scrambling to respond to the needs of older prisoners due to strained budgets, prisons that are not designed to meet the needs of the elderly. They also saw limited medical facilities and staff, lack of planning, lack of support from elected officials.

RENÉE FELTZ: For more, we’re joined by two guests. Soffiyah Elijah is with the Correctional Association of New York. And we’re also joined by Mujahid Farid, and he is with the RAPP, which stands for Release Aging People in Prison. Your slogan, Mujahid Farid, is “If the risk is low, let them go.”

Welcome, both of you, back to Democracy Now!


SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Good morning. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Mujahid Farid, we started in part one hearing about your own experience. You were behind bars for more than three decades. When you came out, you started to learn about others in similar circumstances. Talk about the issue of people who are getting older, 70, 80 years old, in prison.

MUJAHID FARID: Mm-hmm, yes. One of the reasons we focus on that particular population is because of the manifest injustice involved. These people are actually the least likely to re-offend upon being released.

RENÉE FELTZ: And that’s an important point.


RENÉE FELTZ: I just want to pause there, because a lot of people say, “It’s great to be compassionate, but what about public safety if you release people back into the public?”

MUJAHID FARID: That’s correct.

RENÉE FELTZ: And so, reiterate your point there and elaborate a little bit on this issue.

MUJAHID FARID: Yes, the RAPP campaign is focusing on the elderly mainly because we can illustrate the serious problems with parole practice, because these people are being, across the board, denied release, and they’re the least likely to re-offend upon being released, the least likely to recidivate. And what other basis should be used in order to determine who should be released?

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the figure? Is it something like 1 percent recidivism, when you’re talking about a larger population of, what, 40 percent?

MUJAHID FARID: Well, yeah, the larger population is 40 percent. One percent would probably be at the age of 60. It depends on what you consider to be elderly. But even if when we start at the age of 50, then we only see a recidivism rate somewhere around 3 percent, 3 to 4 percent, compared to the 40 percent. And so it’s totally irrational for the parole board to be trying to perpetually exact vengeance on this particular population when they are the safest people to be released.

RENÉE FELTZ: Now, Soffiyah Elijah, I believe you told me in the past about some of the clients that you’ve represented who are in their sixties and seventies. You had this point about how you’ve never feared for someone attacking you with a walker, for example.

SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Correct. You don’t find most older people engaged in any kind of violent crimes. Of course there’s exceptions, but generally that’s just not what we find. And all of the studies show that actually at age 40 the inclination towards being involved in criminal activity decreases greatly. And the same holds true for people who are incarcerated. And I should pause to say, you’ll notice that Farid and I say “people who are incarcerated.” We don’t use the word “prisoner,” because just the term tends to objectify and take away the humanity of people who are behind bars. And that’s part of the reason that we’re in this situation, because people who are behind bars are ignored. They’re pushed away. And we’re not, as a society, supposed to think about them in any kind of compassionate way. That’s how the parole board is able to continue to deny people release, years and years and years.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip from last year, 2012. Democracy Now! had a rare interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal behind bars, perhaps America’s most famous political prisoner. He was a reporter in Philadelphia covering radical movements, when he was arrested and convicted in 1982 for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. He has always maintained that he is innocent of that crime. And in 2011, after years of appeals, a court upheld his conviction, but vacated his death sentence because jurors were given confusing instructions. When Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke to us on Democracy Now! after this ruling, he had been moved into the general population at SCI Mahanoy prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania, after nearly 30 years on death row. I asked him about having his death sentence commuted to life without parole.

OPERATOR: This call is from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy and is subject to monitoring and recording.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: You’ve probably heard me refer to life as “slow death row.” It sounds a little dramatic, but it is really more truth to it than hyperbole. And that’s because, you know, in Pennsylvania, it has the highest population, or one of the highest populations, in the state, of lifers—in fact, juveniles with life sentences. And in Pennsylvania, there’s no gradation: you know, all lifers are lifers, and that’s for their whole life. So, and I guess, in that sense, too, it’s bigger. I mean, it’s bigger in terms of the time differential, but it’s slow death row, to be sure.

And when you see, as I’ve seen, going to chow or going to a meal and seeing what I call the “million man wheelchair march,” it makes an impact on you. You know, you look up in the morning, and there are 30 or 40 guys going through the handicap line, and they’re in wheelchairs. And although some are young, most are quite old. And so, you know, life means life in Pennsylvania.

AMY GOODMAN: Soffiyah Elijah, talk about what Mumia Abu-Jamal just described.

SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Well, you know, I actually had the opportunity to visit with Mumia shortly after he was released in general population. And the dehumanizing and being separated from family, not knowing what human touch is, I got to see that firsthand, because he had just had for the first opportunity to touch his son, after some 30 years, the day after—the day before I had visited him. And it was very emotional for him and difficult for him to focus on what was going on in our conversation, because all the stimulation of being around people in the visiting room, watching people be able to hold babies and just have regular human interaction, what we take for granted, and how that robs us all of our humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what exactly, Farid, is being done now? Talk about the activism around the country for the elderly in prison.

MUJAHID FARID: Well, the RAPP campaign, we are pretty much mobilizing different people in different groups and taking action to try to expose the system in New York, exactly what’s going on in the parole process, because the parole process of New York state is severely broken.

AMY GOODMAN: What can be done to change it?

MUJAHID FARID: A lot can be done to change it. For instance, in 2011, after years of concern over what’s been going on, the legislative put a provision in the executive law that the parole board should consider risk and needs in their decision-making process. And for the last two years, they have not interpreted that into language in the regulations, in the parole regulations. And they only did it recently the day before we appeared up in Albany for the hearing there. When we was there on the 4th, December 4th, we learned that just the day before, they had promoted some regulations that supposedly would incorporate risk and needs assessment.

RENÉE FELTZ: And part of that is public education.


RENÉE FELTZ: Even myself learned in the course of the research for this segment interviewing you, that risk, when the parole board is assessing risk, is not based on the person’s crime.

MUJAHID FARID: The crime. It should not be, because the person was already sentenced by the court for their crime. And the parole board’s function should be to determine how well that person progressed while they was confined, and to make a determination whether or not they should be released based on their progress and whether or not they continue to be a risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Soffiyah Elijah, let’s talk about President Obama and his record on commutations, clemency, etc. Let’s make a comparison. Former Democratic Party—Democratic President Harry Truman pardoned, commuted or rescinded the convictions of 2,044 people during his term. President Woodrow Wilson pardoned, commuted or rescinded the convictions of 2,480 people during his term. At Thanksgiving time, a number of prison rights activists were raising the issue that at that point President Obama had pardoned more turkeys than people in prison, though in the last week there was a surprising action by the Obama administration. They announced the commutations or the changing of sentences for eight people around the issue of crack cocaine sentencing.

SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: It is significant that the president finally recognized the crack cocaine problem. But the issue of a mass incarceration problem in the United States is not new to us. And the fact that the president only pardoned or commuted the sentences of eight people is abysmally disappointing, quite frankly. We have a problem that is recognized throughout the world, with the United States being the number one incarcerator in the world. And there’s certainly much, much more that President Obama can do and, as the leader of this country, needs to take affirmative steps that send a signal throughout the country and to the heads of our various 50 states that more proactive measures have to be taken to reduce mass incarceration, and to look at the real risk that we—that people present, and that there are alternatives to incarceration that have proven to be far more effective and much less costly than the measures that we use, which is kind of this knee-jerk addiction to punishment that we have in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end this segment with Leonard Peltier, a man who is aging in prison, very well known to people around the country. Last December, I had a chance to speak directly with Leonard Peltier when he called into a news conference that was organized by Native elders, his lawyers, as well as Pete Seeger. I conducted the interview in the front row of the news conference by telephone as he spoke to me from the U.S. Penitentiary at Coleman, Florida. Peltier was sentenced to prison in 1977. He is now 69 years old, will celebrate his 80th birthday next year.

AMY GOODMAN: How is your health? And can you describe the conditions at Coleman?

LEONARD PELTIER: Well, it’s a United States penitentiary, you know, and they’re getting worse and worse every year. They’re not—they’re not like they were 20, 30 years ago.

And I have a—well, I have a bad prostate. I mean, you know, the doctor said that one side is—one side looks healthy, and the other side is not healthy, of my prostate, when they gave me that scope test over a year ago. But so far it hasn’t shown any cancer. I mean, you know, that’s pretty—this is one of the biggest killers of men. So, all they give me is a pill for it.

AMY GOODMAN: And diabetes?

LEONARD PELTIER: Well, I got—well, yeah, I got all the other stuff, too—diabetes, high blood pressure, had a mild heart attack, had a mild stroke at one time. I mean, I’m falling apart.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any hope that you will be freed?

LEONARD PELTIER: Well, you know, according to the laws, they have the 30-year mandatory release law. After 30 years, I was supposed to be released. Of course, that went by. Come February, I’ll have 37. But also, when I was sentenced to prison, a life sentence was seven years. I did not get life without parole; I got a life sentence. So I’ve done actually about five, six life sentences now. And, you know, that’s really—you know, they’re in violation of their own laws again, just on that. So, and I don’t know. I’m fighting. I’m fighting for it. I’m going to try to get out.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you do if you were free?

LEONARD PELTIER: Well, I’d probably go home on house arrest. I mean, that’s the only thing I can expect, because I don’t think Obama is going to give—he’s going to do what Bill Clinton did, and he ain’t going to give no clemencies until his last year. He’s just not going to—it’s not going to happen. I really don’t believe it. So, I’m trying to—we’re trying to—George Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which is house arrest, and so we’re trying to push that, so I can get over there, at least to maybe get some—if I do get the house arrest, I can at least get some medical treatment, you know, because they’re not giving—they’re not giving it to me.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Leonard Peltier speaking from prison. He’s been in prison for more than 37—close to 37 years. He was speaking to us from prison in Florida last year. In fact, people can go to our website, Renée.

RENÉE FELTZ: That’s right. Well, Amy, I’m usually behind the camera as a producer, where I’m also someone who works on our website. And I have to put a plug in for our years and years of coverage of Leonard Peltier’s case, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and many, many others. People can go to our website, find out information about that, as well as many of the reports that have looked at the issue of the skyrocketing population behind bars that will probably die there of old age.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that does it for our segments. I want to thank Mujahid Farid, a lead organizer with RAPP, Release Aging People in Prison, and Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Renée Feltz.

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