The Graying of America’s Prisons: ‘When is Enough Enough?’
Inmates over 55 are among the fastest-growing population. They burden prisons and taxpayers but pose the lowest threat to society.
One of Wayne Pray’s earliest run-ins with the criminal justice system occurred when he was 22. He was arrested for having pills in two envelopes. At 29, he was given probation on fraud charges.
By the time he was 41, he was charged as a drug kingpin, according to court documents and a New Jersey report that detailed black organized crime in the state. In 1990, a federal judge sentenced Pray to life in prison without parole, plus three 25-year stints for, among other things, cocaine and marijuana possession and distribution. (Life in prison without parole AND three 25-year additional periods of incarceration), what Lis this judge thinking of? Doesn’t he know Life in prison without Parole is for the rest of his life!!
Now 71, Pray has been locked up for three decades on nonviolent offenses, most recently at the federal prison in Otisville, New York. He is one of about 20,000 older federal inmates — prisoners over 55 who are among the fastest-growing population in the federal system. Many of them were given life amid the war on drugs of the 1990s. (Now marijuana is legal so what about all those inmates in federal or state prison on marijuana charges?)
Mandatory life sentences mean a federal prison population that is graying in large numbers. This group puts the greatest financial burden on U.S. prisons while posing the lowest threat to American society. (Healthcare is horrible in prison, good medical care is non-existent, inmates wait years for dental care if they get it at all, x-ray machines are broken, and all phases of medical care, i.e., medical equipment, medical services, prescriptions, rehabilitation, physician appointments are all pathetic and atrocious). Nevertheless, whatever little inmates receive, taxpayers are paying a huge price!
Pray’s status and that of others aging in the system presents tough questions: How old is too old to remain incarcerated? Is Pray, at 71, the same threat he was at 41? And if he isn’t, then why is he still behind bars? (If you are reading this, does it make sense to you?)
A telephone interview with Wayne Pray, also known as Akbar Pray, quickly reveals that his life, like many of ours, is multifaceted. Today he’s a poet and a voracious reader. He’s considered a model citizen in prison. He mentors kids who are on the cusp of making the same mistakes he did and created a CD with important life lessons called “Akbar Pray Speaks to the Streets.”
A letter from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (written in 2012, when Baraka was still a high school principal) describes Pray as a man who has encouraged students to be “critical thinkers responsible and accountable to their families, and communities.” Baraka is one of many people who have spoken up in support of Pray’s pleas for clemency, all of which have been denied. (Save those pardons for our political office holders who really need them!)
Lack of Judicial Discretion
From 1993 to 1996, nearly 800 drug offenders were sentenced to life without parole in federal prison, according to the Buried Alive Project, which tracks rates by year and state. That’s 57% higher than during the previous four-year period.
Prosecutors wield a lot of power when it comes to sentencing. It isn’t uncommon for attorneys to push plea deals on defendants in exchange for information. And the rejection of those deals sometimes means elevated charges that result in mandatory minimum federal sentences, including life.
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Eileen Rivers, USA TODAY Sep. 8, 2019