Tyrone Graham pleaded guilty to murder at age 18. Now 62, Graham suffers serious health problems, in part because of his decades of confinement. He battles renal failure and lung problems and has three weekly dialysis treatments. He takes more than a dozen medications. Yet the Maryland Parole Commission has failed to help. Graham was denied three medical parole requests.
Perhaps the reason for these egregious denials is a fear that parolees will commit new crimes. However, relatively few older people on parole (about one in 10) return to prison , according to a 2009 Justice Policy Institute report. Allowing these individuals to work, pay taxes and participate in family life is a victory for all.
Offenders who could immediately and safely be paroled include elderly individuals and those with severe chronic illness. Maryland houses about 465 such people in its prisons.
The Justice Policy Institute report estimates that Maryland could save more than $13 million (in 2009 dollars) in one year by paroling half of this population. The state’s cost for a prisoner age 60 or older is a conservative $60,000 yearly, compared with $1,422 for a person on parole or $35,000 for a younger inmate.
Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R) said while campaigning that the next governor should more aggressively parole lifers. He told the Associated Press in October that he would rejuvenate former governor Robert L. Ehrlich’s (R) program of paroling lifers and consider using the state’s pardon and clemency powers. His intent is to save taxpayer money.
Older prisoners tend to have health conditions that require expensive surgeries, specialized cells, costly medications, consultations with outside specialists and daily visits to the prison infirmary for sick call.
The majority of the 465 older or chronically ill prisoners are lifers who need the approval of the governor for parole once MPC makes a recommendation. MPC bases that recommendation on static, actuarial assessments of risks to the public. Some experts prefer a dynamic method that takes into account a prisoner’s age, maturity and development.
A recent court decision mandated the release of some 70 lifers whose trials were declared constitutionally flawed. Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who negotiated more than 50 of the releases, said, “None of the 55 who have been released in our jurisdiction so far has committed a known crime.”
None of these people needed a risk assessment.
What is to become of lifers such as Graham and 91-year-old World War II veteran Lee Gerhold? Gerhold has served 26 years for killing his wife. Recently, he fell off his stainless steel toilet and broke his leg. Prisoners who helped lift him off the floor saw tears flow from his eyes. Recovering from surgery in a prison ward, after a costly and lengthy stay in a hospital, Gerhold said, “I can’t even get up off the [toilet] by myself anymore. What can I do to anyone?”
Vietnam veteran Michael Howington, 63, has served 35 years in prison for homicide. He has been confined to a wheelchair for four years, and he lives on a medical tier. Howington had four operations in three years: vascular surgery (a result of two strokes), gall bladder removal, hernia repair and cataract removal.
Many of the other older or chronically ill prisoners have similar medical problems. Because incarcerated people are not eligible for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs benefits, taxpayers cover these medical costs.
According to experts, these people have “aged out” of crime and historically have the lowest recidivism rate. Most of us have been incarcerated for decades and pose little to no threat to public safety.
I hope Hogan keeps his campaign promises and leads Maryland out of the age of “life means life.” Doing so would downsize the prison population of elderly, sick, dying men and women who seek a chance to reconnect with the social contract. Taxpayers would benefit, and so would elderly incarcerated American citizens.
The writer, 63, has been incarcerated since 1982 and is serving two consecutive life sentences for homicide. He is a co-founder and director of the prisoner think-tank Extra Legalese Group.
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