By David Brand
The death of New York state’s longest serving woman prisoner has further galvanized a movement to mandate parole hearings for older inmates who are sentenced to die behind bars.
Valerie Gaiter was 21 when she was convicted of murder in 1979. She died of cancer Aug. 13 at 61 after serving nearly 40 years behind bars. Gov. Andrew Cuomo denied Gaiter’s clemency application in 2012, though she had by then turned her life around , serving as a mentor and training service dogs.
Her death has spurred support for a piece of legislation that would allow incarcerated people aged 55 years and older who have served at least 15 years in prison to become eligible for parole. The bill does not grant parole or clemency, but would enable people serving virtual life sentences to at least have an opportunity for their cases to be reviewed.
On Wednesday, advocates and several local lawmakers rallied outside the governor’s office in Manhattan to demand the legislature pass the bill allowing older inmates to have an opportunity for parole.
“Elder parole is not only fiscally smart, it is morally right.” said Manhattan Assemblymember Dan Quart, who will likely run for Manhattan district attorney. “Hundreds — if not thousands –— of aging people who pose no risk to public safety are languishing and dying in New York prisons.”
Quart and other advocates say elder parole will address mass incarceration in New York, where roughly one in five prisoners — about 10,000 people — are serving virtual life sentences.
The state Parole Board has space for 19 commissioners, but only 12 people currently serve on the board. Cuomo has only granted clemency 18 times since taking office.
“Our justice system must prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and condemnation,” said State Sen. Brad Hoylman. “Death-by-incarceration is New York’s new death penalty. It’s time for progressive reform.”
The issue of releasing people convicted for violent, often fatal crimes, can challenge politicians and their constituents. Hoylman acknowledged the “terrible crime,” but, he added, “she also spent nearly forty years while incarcerated working to improve herself and to help others.”
“We renew our call on our elected officials, from Governor Cuomo to state legislators, to adopt policies that recognize the deep transformation incarcerated people like Val have fought for, said RAPP community organizer Laura Whitehorn, who served 14 years in prison. “We join Val’s family, the thousands of elders behind bars in New York, and their families and communities in vowing to reject life without parole and death by incarceration.”