New York’s elderly prisoners are asking for a second chance
Pete Monsanto received a card from his father in the mail. His wife had just had a baby girl, and he had recently celebrated his 39th birthday, so lots of well wishes were pouring in.
But Monsanto, a photographer and MTA telecommunications worker who lives in the Bronx, didn’t want to read the card. The annual birthday sentiment had become an emotional rollercoaster because his father is now 70, a grandfather living day after day within the walls of a federal prison. Pete Sr. was convicted on drug charges and racketeering 33 years ago, when Monsanto was just three days shy of his sixth birthday.
After encouragement from his wife, Monsanto opened the card. His dad had written, “You’re going to be a father soon.” Monsanto, who had been a father for a week, later laughed as he recounted his dad’s message, which had been delayed due to slow mail.
“He’s my man,” Monsanto said. “Being in prison doesn’t change that.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Monsanto rushed to finish errands during his newborn’s naps. He said he hadn’t yet thought about how he’ll explain his father’s situation to his daughter when she’s old enough to ask about her grandpa, but he’s already worried about bringing her to prison for visitation. He once looked forward to his father’s release. Now he says his hope has dwindled after three decades.
Pete Sr. is one of more than ten thousand inmates in New York state reaching old age in prison. Reform advocates are calling for the release of many such elderly prisoners, including some behind bars for violent crimes. These advocates see incarcerating the elderly as a human rights abuse by definition — and one with high costs for taxpayers.
New York’s graying prison population
Advocates with Release Aging People in Prison and the Parole Preparation Project rallied in Albany on Jan. 14th for the Fair and Timely Parole bill (S.497A) and the Elder Parole bill (S.2144). The first state bill would change the standard for parole eligibility to consider a person’s rehabilitation while in prison instead of basing eligibility on the original crime. The second allows any 55-year-old who has served 15 years of their original sentence to go before a parole board, regardless of the original crime or sentence.
Twenty percent of all people serving life sentences in New York prisons were Brooklyn residents prior to incarceration, according to 2018 data compiled by RAPP. While both parole bills went before the State Senate and Assembly during the 2019 session, neither made it to the floor of either chamber for a vote.
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez expressed his support for the Elder Parole bill last April and said he wanted to put those “who no longer pose a safety threat” before a parole board to “evaluate whether they have been fully rehabilitated.”
“In effect, our system is death by incarceration,” State Senator Brad Hoylman, one of the Elder Parole bill’s sponsors, told the Brooklyn Eagle in November. “So many of these men and women will never see the light of day based on our parole system.”
Meanwhile, the prison population in New York is aging considerably. While the state’s overall prison population declined by 17.3 percent between 2007 and 2016, the number of prisoners aged 50 and older increased by 46 percent, according to a report published by the Office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
The nonprofit Osborne Association released a May 2018 report that estimated the U.S. spends more than $16 billion a year incarcerating people aged 50 and older, and that elderly inmates cost taxpayers approximately twice as much as younger prisoners, mostly due to medical expenses and need for increased staff. The report also found that geriatric inmates have the lowest risk of recidivism upon release — even when their sentence was for a violent offense.
Dave George, the associate director of RAPP, told the Eagle that, despite low recidivism rates and potential savings for taxpayers, his group often faces opposition to releasing people convicted of violent crimes.
“Giving them really long, punitive sentences to keep us safe doesn’t actually keep us safe, and it doesn’t deter crime,” George said.
A voice for victims
Parents of Murdered Children, a national organization that supports the families of crime victims, works on behalf of victims’ families to prevent the release of violent offenders. Surviving family members contact POMC’s Parole Block Program when they hear of a parole hearing, and the organization creates a petition to fight against the inmate’s release.
The program “strives to give survivors a sense of control, as well as a positive outlet for the anger, frustration and disillusionment with the criminal justice system,” and “allows them to participate in the parole process by attempting to keep murderers behind bars for their minimum sentence, thus protecting society from potential repeat offenders,” the group’s website states.
“I don’t feel compassion for [prisoners],” said Beverly Warnock, the executive director of POMC. “People call us [to tell] us their murderer might get out because they’re sick [with] cancer, so instead of letting them die in prison, they’re going to let them die with their family. Well, where did their loved ones die?”
Warnock has worked at the organization for 26 years. While she hasn’t lost a loved one herself to a violent crime, she said hearing stories from victims’ families throughout the years has caused her to feel this way.
Rip Van Homeboy
Mark Shervington, a 53-year-old community organizer at RAPP, served more than 30 years for a murder he committed when he was 20. Shervington sat on a couch at the center of RAPP’s sunny Chinatown office on a recent Tuesday.
He emphasized that people have the capacity to change.
Shervington’s already slight frame shrunk when he slouched, and his voice was quiet as he described the crime he committed: A man assaulted his fiancé, and he shot the man and killed him. He said that the years in prison changed him, and that the indignation he had as a young man had faded into remorse and sadness for the victim’s family.
Shervington spent his time in prison getting an education and bettering himself. He said he felt regret that the victim of his crime could not do these things.
More than 30 years after his sentencing, Shervington is surprised by the drastic change of the world around him. He didn’t know how to swipe a MetroCard on the day of his release. New buildings confused him in the city where he grew up. When he saw men in skinny jeans, he worried about finding loose fitting pants for job interviews.
There were so many markers of time lost, and of time spent applying for parole, being denied despite decades of good behavior, and applying again.
“I called myself Rip Van Homeboy,” Shervington said. “You know? Like Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep and woke up years later. Except in New York City.”
For so long, Shervington was a man stuck in time as the world whirled around him. It is his hope that many more elderly people will be able to live their last years outside of prison and see the ways the world has changed.