News Spotlight

2023-20-24 Spotlight: Elderly and Imprisoned

Elderly and Imprisoned: ‘I Don’t Count It as Living, Only Existing.’

New York Times (free access), October 21, 2023, Text by Carmilla Floyd, Photographs by Joseph Rodriguez

On a clear day in March 2023, the snowy peaks surrounding the California Institution for Men in Chino were visible. Cleveland Lindley stood on a green patch in the prison yard, taking in the view.

He was wearing dark wraparound glasses and using crutches for support because he had overexerted himself during a recent visit from family. At age 53, he is considered elderly in the prison system. That’s because incarceration accelerates aging.

“My body don’t work the way it used to, my mind don’t work like it used to be, and it’s intimidating,” Mr. Lindley told us. “People are always looking for that edge, that leg up.”

Mr. Lindley has spent much of the past 28 years in and out of solitary confinement. Four years ago, he requested a transfer to this yard, which houses former gang members and other vulnerable residents. Joseph Rodríguez, a photojournalist, and I had gone to Chino to meet residents like him, living out their twilight years behind bars.

On the loop circling the yard, Frankie Morales, 71, was walking laps at a steady pace. He has been incarcerated for most of his life, first in juvenile halls, then in state and federal prisons. He gets special meals on a tray because of a stomach condition, and when his back acts up, he uses a cane to walk. He told us that back in the day, he was sometimes cuffed to a four-metal-post bed in a freezing-cold cell. “That was how we were supposed to get better and instead we got crazy,” he said.

Older adults struggle to move around in a space designed for younger people. Adrienne Davidson, 61, is a resident at the California Institution for Women in Chino. She ceded the lower bunk to her roommate, Eliana Sotomayor, who is 78 years old and has suffered three strokes in the past year.

To get into her bunk, Ms. Davidson puts one foot on a metal stool and the other on a metal desk. She then holds onto the edge of the bunk bed and heaves herself up. She could request a younger cellmate, but that comes with its own risk. “There is not a lot of respect from the younger people,” she said. “There’s also a strong anti-snitch culture here, so you can’t complain.”

The challenges they face are becoming increasingly common. Between 1993 and 2013, the number of people 55 or older in state prisons increased by 400 percent. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that by 2030, people over 55 will constitute a third of the country’s prison population.

Research shows that most people age out of criminal conduct. Moreover, the Department of Justice asserts that the risk of elderly people reoffending after release is minimal. Yet decades of tough-on-crime sentencing and increasingly rigid release policies have left many to grow old in a system that was not designed to accommodate them. The cost is high, for both the residents and the public at large.

Older residents who are released should be provided with support. And they should be given the opportunity to use their experiences to drive change in their communities. Advocacy groups have already demonstrated the power of restorative justice programs led by the formerly incarcerated, both inside and outside prisons, allowing for healing and growth for all parties affected by violence — victims, offenders, and families.

Reforms have ignited hope among residents who expected to die in prison. In California, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 provides a process for nonviolent offenders to be considered for parole if their release poses no unreasonable risk to the community. Also in California, the Elderly Parole Program lays out a path for some residents who are over 50 and who have served at least 20 years. The state has also established compassionate release programs for terminally ill or medically incapacitated residents.

Efforts to reduce the aging prison population are driven not solely by compassion but also by the tremendous cost of incarcerating older people. Residents do not qualify for Medicaid, leaving the state responsible for all care expenses. Older residents are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, dementia, and cancer and to struggle with depression and anxiety.

Yet the rules and policies around parole decisions are often obstacles to releasing elderly residents, especially if they committed violent offenses in their youth. These secretive and subjective policies should be changed to focus on risk assessment and rehabilitation rather than the initial crime. Punitive sentences like life without parole should be abolished altogether.

For elderly people transitioning out of prison, finding a place to live is often the most immediate challenge. Doris Roldan was released in 2020 at age 80, after spending 40 years behind bars. She lives in a senior housing facility in Los Angeles and is a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which supports and advocates systemic prison reform, and speaks on forums for restorative justice. “I think you can judge a country by their prisons, and we are in big trouble,” she said. “I don’t count it as living, only existing.”

Rehabilitative programs were rare when Mr. Morales and Mr. Lindley entered the system. Javier Stauring, the executive director of Healing Dialogue and Action, a California group that advocates restorative justice, explained that in the past few years, California, among other states, has made strides toward a more financially responsible and compassionate criminal justice system. “Men like Frankie and Cleveland have an opportunity to grow, face the consequences of their actions and ultimately forgive themselves,” he said. Yet much work remains.

Mr. Lindley will be eligible for a parole hearing in 2030. Until then, he is taking college classes and has joined self-help groups. He learned about compassion and the consequences of his actions later in the game. He now teaches residents how to be self-aware and to have more compassion. It’s time for policymakers, politicians, and other stakeholders to follow his lead.

Mr. Morales was denied parole in July and will have to wait 18 months to reapply. He spends most of his time painting in a small makeshift studio that corrections officers have helped set up adjacent to his cell. He still rolls up his mattress and places it at the foot of his bed for protection, a habit from the old days. Back then, people would make spears and use them to try to stab others through the bars. “You never came out of your cell without boots, to protect yourself,” he said. “Nowadays, I can go out in shower sandals. Beautiful!”