Years ago when I was a state child welfare worker, one of my jobs was to supervise children and teens in foster care. I didn't have them in my own home, but just supervised their placements making sure that their needs were being met and that they were safe.
One of these kids that I inherited from a worker in another county was a fifteen-year-old boy named Joey. (Okay, Joey wasn't his real name - but for privacy reasons that is what I am going to call him.) Joey had been raised by his grandmother since the day he was born until he was thirteen, and even though he knew she was his grandmother, he appropriately called her "mom" because she was the only mother he had ever known.
Joey came home from school one day and found police in his home talking to his mom. A short while later she was arrested and he was hurriedly sent to live with his only other nearby relatives. The last time Joey had seen his mother was through a thick glass window in the local sheriff's office just before she was put on a plane and shipped off to a state far, far away where she was put on trial for a twenty-year-old crime. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Joey was obviously devastated. His placement with relatives did not work out and he quickly wound up in foster care with no family support within hundreds of miles. Two years later when I met him he had difficulty completing a thought without referencing his mom and talking about how horrible it was to see her through the glass at the sheriff's office. He had been able to speak to her a few times by phone, but basically they had to correspond through letters. His situation was heart-wrenching.
I resolved to get Joey to the prison in that state far, far away so that he could have a visit with his mother. I was with him in the visitor's center in the state women's prison when that reunion happened. I don't know what I expected to see when mom (grandmother) came through the door into the visitor's center, but what I did not expect to see was a little old lady, obviously in poor health, being pushed through the door in a wheel chair.
A jury had said that mom did the crime and would have to serve her time, but my first thought was that this elderly individual was obviously not John Dillinger. Did the state really need to take up bed space in a maximum security prison with somebody this frail and helpless? Couldn't she be more appropriately treated (if prisons are for treatment) at a half-way house or some other less severe and less expensive facility?
Joey's mom was in her early seventies. She told me at our first meeting that her "bunkie" was in her eighties.
We were able to get Joey back to see his mom the following two summers before he aged out of the foster care system. I went on one of those trips, and I became a friend of sorts to mom. We exchanged letters for several years, and through her letters kept she kept me apprised of her deteriorating medical condition, and the problems that she encountered in getting adequate medical treatment and necessary items like eye glasses and a new wheel chair after hers broke. Life in the joint was miserable, and for the state it was an expensive situation to respond to the medical needs of the indigent elderly.
But we live in a society that values punishment far more than treatment. Many promote prisons and the austere treatment of prisoners as deterrents to crime, but there is no credible research anywhere that backs up that assertion.
A few weeks ago I got an email from Joey, now in his late twenties, stating that his mom had finally been paroled. Today I got a second email saying that she had made her way back home and they have been reunited. I don't know all of the details, but the news brought tears to my eyes.
This evening, quite coincidentally, I found a news item on the Internet regarding a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discussing the plight of elderly people in prison. It stated that the population of old people behind bars had increased by 1,300 percent since the 1980's. The report stated, rightly, that the elderly are seldom a threat to society, and the likelihood of a prisoner committing a new crime after release dropped dramatically as they became elderly. The report calculated that a state would save approximately $66,000 annually for every old codger it released. That's real money that could be funneled toward areas like crime prevention and education.
I am not saying that criminals should not be punished - including being taken off the streets when necessary. But we all know that there are different classes of criminals, and the poor and minorities are far more likely to face the brutality of prison life than are celebrities, white collar criminals, and the uber rich. Joey's mom went to trail with a public defender who was overworked and not invested in her case. She felt that her particular charge was the result of prolonged and serious domestic abuse, but with the bare minimum of legal representation, she was unable to present that claim to the jury in an effective manner.
Maybe mom deserved to go to prison, and maybe she didn't. I don't know. But I do know that our judicial system is flawed and the poor have far less success in dealing with it than do the rich.
But with the inequities of the court system set aside, once a person is in prison, rehabilitative treatment should be a goal for all but the most dangerous of prisoners. (Most prisoners will be released at least once, and if they haven't learned positive things while inside, they darned sure will have learned criminal skills.) And people who pose little threat to society, such as the elderly and infirm, should exit the penal system as quickly as possible. Not only is that more humane and sensible, it saves state government thousands and thousands of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere.
It's time to let the grannies go.