August 29, 2019
The recent death of New York State’s longest-serving female inmate, a Brooklynite convicted of a 1979 double murder, has renewed calls for the state to reform its parole system and provide the opportunity of parole to incarcerated people over the age of 55. Advocates say such measures are especially important in Brooklyn, where a disproportionate number of incarcerated individuals are serving long sentences.
Valerie Gaiter died earlier this month at age 61 after serving nearly 40 years in state prison for the 1979 murder of an elderly couple in Flatbush during a robbery-gone-wrong. Despite her becoming a model inmate — getting a college degree, running a photo program, and training service dogs for wounded veterans — Gov. Andrew Cuomo denied Gaiter clemency in 2012.
The stakes of the elder parole bill, which will be back on the table in Albany during the 2020 session after failing in 2019 to make it to a vote, are particularly high in Brooklyn. Statewide, Gaiter and other convicts from Brooklyn made up 20 percent of all people serving life or virtual life sentences (those in which the sentence exceeds life expectancy) in state prisons as of 2018, according to data compiled by advocacy group Release Aging People From Prison and shared with the Brooklyn Eagle. Brooklyn makes up just 12 percent of the state’s total population.
Life or virtual life sentences include life without parole, life with parole, and sentences of 50 years or more, according to the data. More than 1,800 Brooklynites are serving these sentences, out of just over 9,000 people serving the sentences statewide.
These sentences are more common in Brooklyn than any other borough, even though Brooklyn doesn’t account for the highest percentage of the incarcerated population citywide. Manhattan, for example, accounted for 36.4 percent of those incarcerated in 2018, while Brooklyn accounted for 26.2 percent.
One in three people serving state prison time for crimes committed in Brooklyn are serving life or virtual life sentences, the data shows.
“The death-by-incarceration sentences that so many Brooklynites are serving in New York State prisons is a statewide embarrassment and racist stain on the borough,” said Jose Saldana, director of RAPP, who served 38 years in prison for attempted murder of an NYPD sergeant. “It is unconscionable that roughly one in three people convicted in Brooklyn and currently in state prison is serving a life sentence.”
It’s not possible to pinpoint exactly why Brooklyn has more people incarcerated with these long sentences using borough-by-borough numbers alone, said Jeffrey Butts, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research and Evaluation Center. In order to determine why Brooklynites are serving so many life and virtual life sentences, Butts said, it would be necessary to control for specific crimes to then see if there is a pattern in sentencing.
A few elderly people in prison will get out on medical parole before they die — but there’s a catch: they have to be dying of a terminal illness.
Edguardo Gonzalez, 75, has been in prison since 1983, when he was convicted of intentional murder and depraved indifference murder for killing two people in a Brooklyn shootout. It’s a crime he has regretted for 30 years, his lawyer said.
Now, Gonzalez is getting out of prison. On Thursday, he was granted approval for medical parole, an option for incarcerated people dying of terminal illnesses.
Gonzalez has recently faced a host of medical issues, including hepatitis.
“”The perverse thing is that it’s like: ‘Congrats Mr. Gonzalez, you’re now eligible for parole because you’re dying,’” said his lawyer, Steve Zeidman.
“For all the Edguardo Gonzalezes, there are more people — mercifully — who are just as old but not terminal yet. Without elder parole, they will die in prison.”
Without medical parole for his terminal illness, Gonzalez would not have seen a parole board for another 15 years. He would be 90 at the time.
The elder parole bill has the support of Brooklyn’s largest public defense practice, the Brooklyn Defender Services, as well as the Brooklyn district attorney — the borough’s top prosecutor.
“It’s unacceptable that so many Brooklynites incarcerated in New York State prisons are facing death-by-incarceration,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, the executive director of BDS. “Already, far too many people have died behind bars without the possibility of parole.”