With Eddie Conway

COVID-19 could be a death sentence for elderly prisoners

Members of the group Releasing Aging People in Prison talk about officials’ refusal to release aging prisoners with violent offenses, although studies show the chances of someone reoffending as they age are minimal.

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: Start with the fact that we have just passed the 1000 mark for prisoners across the United States who have died from COVID-19 while being incarcerated. New York is one of those places that we want to look at today, doing the start of the tough on crime era in the ’80s and the ’90s, which continues today, incidentally. A lot of people were locked up, and then they’re aging prisoners almost 40, 30, 40 years later. New York has a policy of not letting out people with felony convictions. So far, New York has the only led out 1404 prisoners, which is a tragedy because they claimed they was going to let out thousands, and it didn’t happen.

Joining me today is Jose [Sedonia 00:01:06] and Donna Robinson to talk about the conditions of aging people in the prison and the conditions in the New York prison system. Thank you for joining me.

Donna Robinson: So much, Eddie Conway, for letting me use this as a platform today. Power to the people.

Jose: Thank you for inviting us. And on behalf of the incarcerated people in New York State, I thank you for what you’re doing. Because we think that it will make a difference.

Eddie Conway: You did 38 years in the prison system in New York. And I take my hat off to you because I know that was rough time. Can you talk about the conditions in the prison system while you were there, and what you aware of, in terms of the treatment of older prisoners, as well as prisoners in general?

Jose: Well, Eddie, I take my hat off to you too, because you did a long stretch also. Let me say that during the decades of my incarceration, we, as elder incarcerated men and women, we face a health crisis for years and decades of incarceration, which was compounded by the brutality of the system and the substandard healthcare that we were subjected to. So this is prior to the pandemic here in the prison system. We was already in a critical stage. And I’m fortunate that I was released at 66 years old, relatively healthy, in spite of the conditions that I lived on the for nearly four decades. Most people didn’t have the close family ties that I maintained, and that’s vital to maintaining your health in prison.

Eddie Conway: Donna, your daughter is in prison now. And what’s the conditions like there, in terms… Since COVID-19, since the pandemic, in terms of contact visits, her personal hygiene items, et cetera, what’s it like in there right now, as you’re trying to deal with your daughter?

Donna Robinson: Their families can no longer sustain some of them because a lot of them have been in there 20 years, 30 years. I saw women there as old as I, when I would visit my daughter. As a matter of fact, visiting my daughter’s when I encountered Valerie Gator, the longest serving woman in the state of New York, died from neglect before COVID struck. So once the pandemic broke out, I knew they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.

When I say it goes deeper than my daughter, she put me in contact with about 10 other women on her unit or women that she encountered since she’d been there, whose families could no longer maintain them for whatever reason. I took it upon myself to try and put money on their books, send them food packages, words of hope, and to let them know that they hadn’t forgotten about them. And so once I did this, others heard my humble cry, and they began to help me with what I call my mutual aid for my bonus daughters at Bedford Hills.

Society’s forgotten about the elderly. And I can see at my age, I just turned 65, how time seems to forget about us, and they want to push us out into the pasture, as I’ve heard the old timers say. So I try and do whatever I can to encourage these women and some of the men that I know in the facilities to remain hopeful that all is not lost, that there are people out here to do care.

Eddie Conway: What are the conditions right now inside the New York prison system, as related to COVID-19 and the pandemic?

Jose: Let’s look at the backdrop. Before COVID, since Cuomo took office, just as he took office, over 1000 people have died in his prisons. Over 700 of those are people that were 50 and older. Now we can assume, we could just realistically assume that the vast majority of those were people of color. What is striking is that the average age of death of those 700 men and women were 57 and 58 years old. So these conditions, the brutality of these conditions has reduced the longevity of men and women to 57, 58 years old. And I spoke about the healthcare, the substandard health, so this is the crisis that… Another deadly crisis that is fatal to the very population we’re talking about, this is the conditions that these men and women are suffering under.

And we’re in contact with over 1000 men and women across the state. And we’re hearing their voices, and we echo their voices, and they are terrified. As you know, Eddie, that during the HIV AIDS crisis, men and women, that was a nightmare for us in prison, especially in New York, where people were just dying. Over 900 people died in New York state prisons during this health crisis. So those of us who’ve languished in prison for these decades, we remember that.

And some of my mentors are still in prison, and they remember that. So they pass me on as much as information as they can possibly can to help the younger generation survive this crisis. And I think that’s probably why more people have not succumbed to this fatal disease because of the work of the elder people who were able to [inaudible 00:07:27] what to do and what not to do during this crisis. Because if we leave it up to the state, the state, as you know, the state does not give a damn about back humanity or the dignity of black people. They would just let them die, and that’s exactly what the governor is doing. Just letting people die, taking a risk of not letting the elders go, especially in those with underlying health conditions, and hoping that it doesn’t blow up in his face like a nursing home does in society.

Eddie Conway: It’s an economic incentive to keep aging people in the prison system. So many people, parole officers, the lawyers, the police, the judges, social workers, people doing the maintenance in prison, it’s so much money involved in this. What is the cost of keeping elderly people in prison? And let me just make one point, too, because I understand that you get over 45, you get over 50, the likelihood of you breaking another law or getting in trouble is almost slim or none, or once you get 45 and so on. That’s the research around the country. So these elderly people could be out, or people that are 45 or over could be out and would not pose any threat to the community. So there must be some money incentive involved in keeping them there. Can you talk a little bit about that, Jose? And then Donna, if you want to contribute?

Jose: We’re talking about a racist system that initially, they formulated this policy of mass incarceration. It didn’t start with the drug wars, like people think. It started with incarcerated leadership in our community. That was the whole idea, to incarcerate leadership. And the communities that supported this leadership that was involved with organized resistance to social and racial injustice. So we still have men and women languishing in prison since the ’70s, and they don’t care how much it costs to continue to imprison us. They feel that they can actually handle the costs, rather than let us go. And I think, and I’m firm believer, that the elders in prison, like myself, let Val Gator and like dozens and hundreds of others, we will benefit our communities. We are released, we’re not a threat. Not because sociologists and criminologists say so, but because we say so, because we have transformed our lives, we have helped countless others transform their life.

And once we are released, we continue with servicing our people, servicing our communities, and helping our communities build community power. And that’s what they don’t want. They don’t want leaders coming out of prison, and they see all of us as potential leaders coming out of prison. So we’re talking about racist system that’s really trying to keep our communities marginalized. And that’s the only reason. And it’s not a question about money because they don’t care. They’ll spend that extra hundreds and hundreds of… it costs almost $240,000 to keep a person like me in prison. 240 a year. 240 a year. So we got 10,000 elderly people in prison, you times that by 240,000, and you’ll see that tag, that price tag. And they [inaudible 00:11:27] to swallow that price tag, rather than to let us go, because they know that once we get out, reunited to our communities, in fact, we enhance community safety by the work services that we provide.

Donna Robinson: Since my involvement with the criminal injustice system, I have come in contact with kings, such as Jose, Anthony Dickson from parole prep, my dearest friend, former Black Panther member, Robert Seth Hayes. These are icons that can come back into the community, and they can mentor our young men, our young women, who may be thinking of doing something, because we know all it takes as a split second to make a bad decision and ruin the rest of their lives. They can sit down and tell them, “This is not what you want to do.” But as he said, it’s about oppression, further of people of color, taking them out of our communities. When we need them to be free. We need them to come home. We’ve submitted so many documents to the governor, to the State of New York, of elders who are redeemable, worthy of redemption, and should be home with their families and back into their communities. But they ignore us, as if we are invisible.

I always say, let’s tear down the prisons and plant marijuana. Okay. We’ve got to do something. We know that prison is a warehouse for slaves. They’re getting rich off of the backs of our brothers and sisters. And they’re not giving anything back to our future leaders.

Eddie Conway: Well, Jose, you already kind of answered why Governor Cuomo is not releasing anybody. And I’m very aware that it’s political, and it’s economic. What can people, loved ones, supporters, et cetera, both of you all can answer this, what can people do to put some fire up under the system, to get some of these elderly people out and to get people that no longer pose a threat, those people that’s 45 and beyond? What can the public do to push that?

Jose: [inaudible 00:13:56] advocates for two legislative initiatives, and one that’s administrative. And elder parole bill, which is in complement with the [inaudible 00:14:08] parole act. These two bills are a moderate approach to decarceration. Not decarceration toward an acceptable number, because there really isn’t an acceptable number, but decarceration towards something greater. And that’s to revisit the entire discussion of whether we need prisons, and to be in that discussion. But we’re talking about the elder parole bill will essentially… Everybody in New York State that’s serving a life sentence, a virtual life sentence, or life without parole sentence, or a number like 100 years, they will give them hope of returning back to their families and their home communities after serving 15 years. And once they reach 55 years old.

Now, again, 55 to some people, some legislators actually told me that, “Well, I’m 55 and I could commit a crime.” Well, it doesn’t apply to you. The thing about people… aging out of crime does not apply to a politician. Obviously, if you think you can still commit a crime and you over 55. But it’s a universal truth that people… I hate to use that term phase out of crime or age out of crime. It’s not that. It’s a process. A political, educational, conscious building process, that we come to terms with the harm, and we are willing to sacrifice to give back now.

And this transformation goes on every single day, just damn near 24/7 in New York State prisons, and I’m sure across prisons, across the entire nation. But we become, those who are impacted by the brutality of the system, becomes the most advocates, the better advocates for the system.

So, in essence, our bills, like I said, it’s a moderate approach toward ending mass incarceration. And just as important, to correct the injustice that was done 20, 30, 40 years ago, because some of these men are still languishing in prison.

And to assure that these injustices do not reoccur because the elder parole bill would give men and women 55 years, that have served 15 years… it didn’t take me 38 years to transform my life, doesn’t take anybody that long. In 15 years, a human being can transform his life, completely they become the best asset to their home communities, as well as to their families. And 55 is not that young, especially when you’ve done years of prison because of the health conditions and the brutality of the system.

But at least, men and woman will have this opportunity to return back to their families and whole communities. And we could revisit the whole concept, what is punishment? When is there enough punishment? And then we have to define what is justice. And we believe that if justice does not include valuing transformation over you elected, it’s not justice, it’s something else. And we think it’s more like revenge than justice. So our two bills would actually be a good first step toward getting these men and women out of prison who have already languished in there far too long, and make sure that others do not suffer the same fate that they did.

Eddie Conway: Donna, could you do a little followup on what the public, what people, loved ones, friends, supporters, or people that just want to make some changes, this prison industrial complex, what can they do?

Donna Robinson: I’m going to tell them to do what I did. Get off the side of the bed. It’s easy. Go login, rapcampaign.com. We have so many events and so many ways that you can become active. Use your voice. That’s the most… I guess the only thing that we have at this moment, that we can use. So use your voice. Tell your story. There are a lot of success stories of people who have been incarcerated. For example, I had a son also returned to me, February 5th, before the pandemic and the shutdown of the prisons. He had been in and out of the carceral system since the age of 16. He is now going to be almost 40 years old. Don’t be a… I tell people to be proactive. Don’t be reactive. Don’t wait until this situation lands on your doorstep, waiting to kick in your door and do a home invasion.

Come sit on the side of the bed because it’s too late. Know your rights, know who you can go to in time of assistance. If you’ve never been confronted with the criminal injustice system, which living while black seems to be a crime now. You really don’t even have to do anything. Walk outside of your door. Oh, you have on the same outfit as someone else, or you look like someone else, and then the red and blue lights come on. Take out your cell phone, whatever you have.

Start filming. We have things now that we didn’t have when I was a teenager, back in the ’70s. And when I think about how many people are still incarcerated, since I was in junior high school, that was the impetus for me to really do something about this. It’s something terribly wrong with the system, even though it’s working the way that it was designed to work, it needs to be torn completely down.

There’s nothing humane or redemptive about it or anything that’s going to make someone want to rehabilitate. There’s no rehabilitation in prison, unless you want that for yourself. You’ve got to want that. They don’t encourage that because you are a dollar sign to them. They use you to bottle the hand sanitizer, to do the slave labor. It blew my mind when I found out that right here in our backyard, they have people making coffins, working for the DMV. They perform duties that, once they’re released, they don’t even qualify for, to get hired. That is a travesty in itself.

So do something. Just don’t do nothing because the future generations, this is a generational curse. And our future generations depend on us becoming active, speaking out, using our voices to let them know enough is enough. This has got to stop. If not now, when?

Eddie Conway: All right. Thank you. And thank you, Donna, for joining me, and thank you, Jose, for joining me.

Donna Robinson: Thank you for having me.

Jose: Thank you for having us.

Donna Robinson: It’s a pleasure.

Eddie Conway: Great. Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of [inaudible 00:21:30].

Donna Robinson: Power to the people.