HIV Advocates Turn to Parole Reform, Seeking Release of Aging Prisoners

Laura Whitehorn and Donna Hylton
Laura Whitehorn and Donna Hylton
Victoria Law

After spending decades behind bars, Donna Hylton, Kathy Boudin, Laura Whitehorn and Mujahid Farid, four of those who advocated for early HIV/AIDS prison education programs and policy reform, are no longer incarcerated. None have forgotten those they left behind, many of whom are aging behind bars. They also connect the stigma against people with HIV and AIDS with the ongoing fear of people who have been convicted and incarcerated for violent crimes. All are involved with Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP, advocating for the release of aging and elderly people from prison, including people with whom they worked to combat HIV stigma in the 1980s.

People ages 50 and older make up more than 17% of New York State's prison population, an increase of 81% since the early 2000s. Nationwide, the number of aging people behind bars has quadrupled since the mid '90s.

But it's not due to an influx of older people entering the prison system; rather, people with lengthy sentences are aging behind bars. For many, these sentences are the result of tough-on-crime sentencing and parole boards that continually issue denials based on the nature of the crime, an act that can never be changed. As of July 1, 2016, over half (33,386 of 52,200) of the people imprisoned in New York State had been convicted of a violent felony. But they are the ones most often ignored during discussions on criminal justice reform and reducing prison populations.

Under the slogan, "If the risk is low, let them go," RAPP members are seeking to eradicate fears about people with violent convictions, particularly those who are aging in prison. For many, especially those involved in the earlier fights against HIV stigma, the two are part of the same culture of fear and ignorance.

"People with AIDS are vilified for something they did once in their lives -- for unsafe sex or injecting drugs," reflected Whitehorn. "It's similar with the aging population and being held [indefinitely]. ... In both cases, you're being vilified for something you did once in your life. And you can never get out from under that."

"I spent a long time in prison," said Boudin, who was sentenced to 20 years to life for her role in a 1981 robbery in which two police officers and two security guards were killed. "Most of us who spent a long time in prison were convicted of murder." But these women, including Boudin's co-defendant Judith Clark as well as Donna Hylton, were the ones responsible for creating and implementing programs like the AIDS Counseling and Education (ACE) program, as well as the prison's parenting and college programs. Boudin recalled many occasions when administrators or volunteers led tours of media or administrators from other prisons who wanted to examine Bedford's programming. Each time, the guide began the tour by saying, "Most women are in for non-violent crimes."

Both then and now, Boudin sees the focus on non-violent convictions as erasing certain people's humanity, similar to to the ways in which people with HIV were treated during the 1980s. "What happens is that people get frozen in that one act," she said. "You're struggling to be a full human being against the shrinking of yourself into one act that you wish you hadn't done. You're not seen as somebody who can change, who can make a major contribution to society."

Hylton, who spent 25.5 years in prison for her participation in a kidnapping and murder at the age of 19, agrees. "We are not the sum of our crimes," she said. "I am not the sum total of my crime." She recounts those early days of ACE when she overcame her own fears to help women whom no one else would touch. She remembered Helen, who was sick in her cell. "She was frail; she wasn't eating; she really needed medical care," she remembered. But because she had HIV, neither medical staff nor prison guards were willing to enter her room. "I went into her room because no one else would go into her room. With the help of other ACE members, Hylton got Helen into the prison's hospice unit, where she later died.

Some of ACE's founding members are still in prison -- and growing older. Judith Clark, for instance, is now 67. Sentenced to 75 years to life, she is ineligible for parole until 2056 when she will be 107 years old. "How do you survive a sentence that is not quite life without parole, but a 75-to-life sentence?" asked Boudin, who recalled that Clark often turned to laughter to help her and others get through difficult times. "She has a daughter in her third decade of visiting her in prison. She should be able to see her mom outside prison."

Roslyn Smith, now age 54, was arrested at 17 and has spent more than two-thirds of her life in prison. "Roz loves to cook for other people," Boudin recalled. Though she only has an electric coil, she improvised and figured out ways to bake cakes. "She could come out and open a bakery," Boudin ruminated. But, unless the law changes, Smith will be 67 by the time she is eligible to appear before the parole board in 2029.

The man whom Farid credits with not only taking the initiative to create Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education (PACE) but also prodding Farid to get involved is David Gilbert. Gilbert, who was Clark and Boudin's co-defendant as well as Boudin's husband, is now 71 years old. He too is ineligible for parole until 2056. By then, he will be 112 years old.

Appearing before the parole board does not guarantee walking out of prison. Farid can attest to that. Sentenced to 15 years to life for the attempted murder of a police officer, Farid appeared before the parole board ten times. Each time, the board seemed to care less about the college degrees and program certifications he had earned during his imprisonment and more about his 1978 conviction. He recalls that, at his fifth hearing, he asked the board what steps he could take to improve his chances. "They actually got angry that I asked that question," he recalled. It was not until his tenth hearing, in 2011, that Farid was granted parole.

That same year, New York State passed a law directing the parole board to begin using risk-assessment tools in its decision-making. It took the Division of Parole two years to post regulations complying with the law; even now, however, the parole board continues to deny parole based on a person's past crime. In 2013, for instance, only one-in-six parole applicants were granted parole. Nevertheless, the state's own studies show that the risk of recidivism decreases as a person's age increases; people over age 50 convicted of murder or manslaughter are the least likely to return to prison.

In Albany, lawmakers are seeking to change some of these practices. The SAFE (Safe and Fair Evaluation) Parole Act, currently in committee, would require that, if the parole board issues a denial, it detail the actions a person must take, including programs and changes in performance, to qualify for parole during their next hearing. The person must be given access to these programs within 90 days of their parole denial.

"When we first launched RAPP [in 2013], we didn't think [the SAFE Parole Act] had a chance of passing," Farid recalled. RAPP members focus on organizing and public education, including speaking at churches, community boards and even geriatric homes to drum up support for releasing elders from prison and creating resources to reintegrate them into the community. When RAPP member Al Tony Simon, who spent over 30 years in prison, spoke before the community board in Jamaica, Queens, a neighborhood hit hard by incarceration, community board members proposed a joint educational event.

RAPP is also calling for greater use of clemency -- the governor's power to lessen a person's sentence -- and compassionate release.

"Locking up elders and throwing away the key -- it's a myth that this enhances public safety," stated Whitehorn. "It's the same way that people think that, by knowing who is HIV-positive, they can avoid seroconverting. It's like locking up someone who spit on someone. Neither promotes public safety."

There's also a moral imperative. "To keep them in prison is to reinforce the value of endless punishment," reflected Boudin. "It creates a society that punishes people endlessly when there's no risk that they pose. We need them home because of what it means for our society as well as what it means for them."