The number of aging people in prisons is skyrocketing, confining thousands of seniors to cruel and degrading conditions. In New York prisons between 2000 and 2010, the number of people aged 50+ increased by more than 64%, even as the total number of people behind bars fell by 21%.

What needs to change?

States routinely deny parole and compassionate release to aging people in prison– even people who pose no risk to public safety and are prepared to successfully re-enter and contribute to society.

Elders pose the lowest risk to public safety if released.

While overall recidivism rates hover near 40%, people over 50 have a recidivism rate of 5.2%, and for those over 65 it falls to less than 1%. The recidivism rate of people who have served long sentences for serious felonies is 1.3%— lower than any other category of those released.

Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) was created by formerly incarcerated people in New York to meet these issues head on. RAPP is mobilizing advocates, legislators, formerly incarcerated people, men and women inside, family members, and concerned citizens to demand that New York release incarcerated elders who have already served considerable time and who pose no threat to public safety. We argue, “if the risk is low, let them go.”

The way to address the problem of increasing numbers of elders behind bars is not to make prison more elder-friendly, we maintain, but to release older people. If we can make a dent in the reliance on permanent punishment for that group, we hope, we can advance the push for decarceration on a broader scale as well.

RAPP arises from the commitment and belief that these reforms will weaken the stranglehold of our ideology of punishment— and therefore move us toward a more healthy system. By focusing on long-termers and by arguing for an end to the paradigm of perpetual punishment, we hope to contribute to a real advance in social justice.

About the author

Mujahid Farid

Mujahid Farid is a 2013 Soros Justice Fellow and the director of RAPP, Release Aging People in Prison. Mujahid was incarcerated for 33 years in New York before his release in 2011.