By Stanley Bellamy
Special to the Eagle
As days turn into months, months into years and years into decades, incarcerated people dream of one day being free; of returning home to their families and communities as productive members of society. They participate in all mandatory programs in prison hoping to enhance their chances of a successful transition back to their families and communities. Some go even further by creating therapeutic programs, enrolling in college, taking care of other incarcerated people, maintaining family ties or finding innovative ways to give back to the community.
It is most often that these activities are performed by elderly incarcerated individuals who, because of their lengthy sentences, have little to no hope of ever being released from a correctional facility themselves. Yet, despite their own circumstances, they work tirelessly to prepare others for the transition they can only dream about.
On Aug. 13, we lost one such incarcerated person. Valerie Gaiter, New York State’s longest serving incarcerated woman, lost her battle with cancer and passed away in prison custody at the age of 61 years old.
As a 21 year old, nearly forty years ago when she was a young, impulsive woman, Ms. Gaiter was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison after participating in the tragic deaths of an elderly couple. Over the years, Ms. Gaiter took the path that countless other incarcerated elders take by turning her life around to such a degree that she no longer resembled her younger self.
In prison she earned college degrees, became a mentor, developed programs and accumulated a host of accolades conferred on people who have achieved a high level of success in our society.
Despite her tremendous rehabilitative efforts, Gov. Andrew Cuomo denied Ms. Gaiter’s 2012 clemency application, and the state legislature failed to pass an elder parole measure (S.2144) in 2019 that would allow incarcerated older people to appear before the Parole Board for a chance at release at 55 years old after serving 15 or more years in prison. Without these interventions, our state all but guaranteed that Ms. Gaiter would die in prison, still being punished for a crime she could never change. The only thing she could change, and did, was herself. Yet, sadly, this was not enough to earn her any meaningful chance at release.
Although New York State is trying to move toward a fairer and more forward-looking criminal justice system, we are still a state in which punishment trumps redemption. Our state has yet to fully recognize or accept that all people have the capacity to change, age out of crime, and rarely pose a threat to public safety in their older age.
Being incarcerated for the last 33 years, I know this reality firsthand. Like Ms. Gaiter, I was involved in a tragic crime in my early twenties in which a life was taken and serious harm was caused. I’ve thought about my role in that crime every day since it happened and for more than three decades have tried to repair the hurt I caused by mentoring my younger incarcerated peers and by founding and facilitating in-prison programs. Today, I am a grandfather, college graduate and one of more than 5,800 people aged 55 or older currently incarcerated in a New York State prison.
While I know with certainty that I’d never commit another crime if released, overwhelming research shows that I’m not alone. New York State’s own data on prison reentry and recidivism shows that older people, especially those serving time for serious crimes of violence, are least likely to return to prison upon release across all age groups and categories of crimes. Yet roughly 1,000 other New Yorkers in prison and I are serving sentences that amount to the same death-by-incarceration that Ms. Gaiter faced. My 62.5-year to life sentence won’t allow me to appear before the Parole Board until after my 86th birthday. By then, it’s most likely that I’ll have succumbed to Ms. Gaiter’s fate.
If New York cares to center redemption and real public safety over punishment and revenge, then we must make sure that relief for long serving incarcerated elders like me is more than death-by-incarceration. Queens lawmakers, and lawmakers across the state, should allow me and others to have the chance for redemption, to prove that we are more than our past acts. They must pass elder parole for all incarcerated older people who have served decades in prison without exception.
Lawmakers can’t end mass incarceration by offering hope to some and more death-by-incarceration to others. Even if it would positively impact me, incarcerated colleagues and I would reject such a proposal that further extends or solidifies any sentences that amount to death for people with whom we are imprisoned. Instead, the legislature must unconditionally support the passage of elder parole. My life and the lives of so many others literally depend on it.
Stanley Bellamy is currently incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility where he is serving a 62 and a half year to life sentence.