Prison Reform: The Aging Population Problem

One of the many problems faced by the federal and state prison system is a fast growing elderly population that is ill requiring special medical attention and facilities. Some of these people, men and women, are serving sentences for violent crimes, others for low level drug possessions and have been sentenced due to mandatory minimums, “three strikes” laws or life without parole. Those who have served their minimum sentences are denied parole even after improving themselves with education and working to improve and help other prisoners. To many elderly and model prisoners, who are unlikely to slip into recidivism are left to behind bars for years instead of being released and resuming their lives with their families as productive members of the communities.

An example of a parole system, badly in need of reform, is Mujahid Farid, who in 1978 was sentences to 15 years to life in New York state for the attempted murder of a NYC police officer.

Held in Rikers Island while his trial was pending, Farid studied for — and passed — a high school equivalency exam. Over the next decade and a half “behind the walls” he earned four college degrees, including a master’s in sociology from SUNY New Paltz and another in ministry from New York Theological Seminary.

In the late 1980s he helped establish an HIV/AIDS peer education project that grew into the acclaimed program known as PACE, Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education, and began teaching sociology courses to people seeking their alcohol and substance Abuse counseling certification.

By 1993, Farid had served his minimum sentence and was eligible for a hearing before the New York Parole Board. Given how hard he had worked to redeem himself, no one could blame him for being optimistic that they would agree to his release.

Instead, they spent five minutes asking him curt questions focused entirely on his original offense. Then the hearing ended.

“Not one bit of my progress and rehabilitative efforts mattered,” Farid recalls. “I was denied parole because of something that was immutable, that could never change.”

He was denied parole “again and again,” until his 10th attempt in 2011, when he was 61 years old.

During his 33 years in prison, Mr. Farid became a avid litigator suing prison officials who violated his rights with a winning record better than most lawyers. Since his release, he has continued his advocacy for prisoners and prison reform and is currently the lead organizer of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP). He recently spoke out when an 70 year old prisoner, John MacKenzie, in the Fishkill Prison in NY committed suicide after being denied parole for the tenth time. Joined by Kathy Manley, a longtime lawyer and advocate for prisoner rights who represented Mr. MacKenzie in his court case against the New York state Parole Board, he spoke with Amy Goodman and Juan González on Democracy Now! about the problem of the elderly in prison and the need for reform of parole boards.