As Prison Populations Age, the Fight Over Parole Heats Up

An eight-word mantra defines Jose Saldana’s mentality on parole.  “If the risk is low, let them go,” said Saldana, 68, of the non-profit Release for Aging People in Prison.

Started in 2014 by former inmate Mujahid Farid, the group advocates for the release of older prisoners, who statistically have low risks of recidivism.  Only 1 percent of released individuals over 65 in New York State were charged with a new conviction, according to the State Comptroller, while the costs of incarcerating aging inmates are weighing on state budgets and local communities.

Jose Saldana at the Release Aging People in Prison office in Chinatown. (The Ink/Brian Gordon)

“We’re small, but we’re important,” Saldana said  from the group’s four-person office space in Chinatown.  He said the organization “is a household name in prison.”

The Bronx-resident would know.  Saldana spent parts of 38 years in 11 federal and state penitentiaries for a run of crimes in the late-1970s, chief among them being the partial blinding of New York Police Department Sgt. Patrick Pellicano with a shotgun blast. “The experiences of my youth formed my consciousness of who they were,” Saldana says of law enforcement.  “It wasn’t until years later, during my incarceration, that I started to see the harm, the real totality of harm that victims of crime suffer.”  As his four children grew up, Saldana created empathy-building programs for fellow prisoners in the 1990s, married childhood friend Rosa Gonzalez in 2000 and with the help of his wife, began preparing for his first parole hearing.

Saldana was first denied parole in 2010.  He received three more denials, at two-year intervals, over the next eight years.  “I realized at this point, it wasn’t a question of my rehabilitation,” he said.  “It was just a need to punish.  You shot a New York City police officer and we think you should never go home.”

With white taking over his short beard, Saldana entered his fifth hearing last December at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County.  There he faced a commissioner he had never seen before.  The first question was the same as always: Tell us what happened on July 3, 1979, the night Saldana took Pellicano’s right eye.  “Then she just looked at me, and after a couple of seconds and said okay. Now let’s talk about what you’ve been doing the last 38 years.”  Saldana says it was the first time a parole board had extensively inquired into his work beyond his initial crimes.  He credits the advocacy of release for Aging People in Prison and the group’s push to alter the composition of parole boards for his release.

The American Civil Liberties Union predicts that by 2030, one-third of the incarcerated population will be closer to 60 than 50, putting a burden on state budgets.  In a 2012 report, the ACLU estimated that prisoners under the age of 50 cost $34,135 per year, while those 50 and older cost north of $68,000.  At these figures, New York State paid more than $600 million to care for aging inmates, according to a 2017 report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller.

“I think cities, towns, states are already feeling the pressure of incarcerating older individuals,” says Lucius Couloute, policy analyst for the nonprofit think tank Prison Policy Initiative. “States are recognizing that hey, we can no longer spend so much on prisons, on jails.”

Beyond monetary costs are the ethical strains parole decisions inflict on society.

“My community deserves to have people like me, trying to strategize, to develop viable programs to address these plaguing issues in our community,” Saldana said.  “And the only thing that’s stopping this from happening is brutal inhumane system of perpetual punishment.”

Not everyone thinks Saldana should be free today.  “If somebody is going to shoot at the officer, knowing intentionally that they’re an officer… that person is a danger to their community,” says Sgt. Joseph Imperatrice, 33, founder of Blue Lives Matter NYC which aims to assist law enforcement and their families in times of need.  “I don’t agree that the parole board should even have it on their mind to let them go.”

In 2007, assailants in a stolen BMW shot and killed a 23-year-old police officer named Russel Timoshenko twice during a traffic stop in Crown Heights.

In 2015, Imperatrice set up Blue Lives Matter NYC as a non-profit group and began hosting a yearly benefit for Timonshenko’s family.  Regarding rehabilitation as cause for release, the head of Blue Lives Matter NYC does not see wiggle room for those who fire upon law enforcement.

“Your actions do follow you,” Imperatrice said.  “They did make a decision.”

Both Saldana’s group and Blue Lives Matter NYC fight to sway public opinion, protesting against parole commissioners who they view as too harsh or too lenient. Their ideals clash around one name: Herman Bell.  Bell, 70, was released from maximum-security prison last spring, serving a 25 years-to-life sentence for the murder of two New York Police Department officers in 1971.  The parole decision drew city-wide attention, with the New York Times praising the three-person parole board’s decision, while Mayor Bill de Blasio excoriated Bell’s release.

“That gentleman was released from jail and there he is living a normal lifestyle,” Imperatrice says from his home in Staten Island.  “Meanwhile [the officers’] family won’t see them walk through the front door again.”

Saldana, who can empathize with Bell better than most, champions the prisoner’s newfound freedom.  “He had extraordinary accomplishments in his four decades since,” Saldana says.  “At 70 years old, he no longer posed a threat.  The average 70-year-old man doesn’t pose a threat.”

As a community organizer, Saldana leads bus trips to Albany, lobbying legislators to make parole more likely for long-term inmates.  Currently, Saldana’s main emphasis is pressuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint parole board commissioners with backgrounds in behavioral psychology, rather than law enforcement, which his organization believes will give older inmates a better chance at earning parole.

From the Bronx home he shares with his wife, Saldana adjusts to modern technology, having never held a cell phone before his release.  He represents Release for Aging People in Prison in the media, like his appearance on Spectrum News’ Capital Tonight in August to advocate for the Presumptive Parole Bill, which would require parole boards to present evidence to deny an individual parole.

“I left a lot of good people in there, a lot of people who would do good out here,” Saldana said, hoping New Yorkers will see all the costs of an aging prison population.