Prison is a place I which you and I don’t want to visit. We believe that place is not meant for us and the situation there is unpleasant. Otis Johnson spent 44 years in prison. His story narrates below.
Venturing out into Times Square in New York City, Otis Johnson is struck by the overwhelming number of individuals. Everybody is by all accounts walking rapidly with blank faces and wires in their ears.
He's befuddled. Being completely eliminated from society since 1975, Johnson believes he's entered a dystopia where everybody has become a spy wearing wires. The him Steve Jobs era has completely passed by.
In August 2014, Johnson was released from jail after serving a 44-year sentence for the attempted homicide of a cop. He went to jail when he was 25 years old. When he came out, he was 69.
Johnson's release date was originally scheduled for earlier, but he ended up serving an additional eight months at the age of 69 for a juvenile shoplifting charge he got when he was 17.
Johnson addresses an exceptionally small arrangement of individuals in the United States. In 2013, approximately 3,900 inmates were released from US penitentiaries after serving at least 20 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That is under 0.7% of all state detainees released that year.
Meanwhile, about 6,000 federal detainees are to be released in November 2015. The United States Sentencing Commission has carried out early releases for some medication offenders.
Jail reform has become a major center point for the White House during US President Barack Obama's final year in office. In a new discourse at Rutgers University, he featured the requirement for detainee reemergence programs zeroed in on education, work training and lodging, and related examples of overcoming adversity of formerly incarcerated residents who had escaped the pattern of recidivism that plagues many inmates.
“It’s not too late,” Obama said. “There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes, but with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path.”
But while initiatives to reduce the sentences for drug offenders and nonviolent crimes are under way, the elderly prison demographic is beginning to emerge as another group in need of legislation reform.
In 2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall US prison population fell to its lowest level since 2005.
However, the data also shows that from 1999 to 2014, the number of state and federal prisoners aged 55 and older grew by 250 percent, while those younger than 55 grew by only 8 percent. Elderly prisoners were only 3 percent of the total prison population in 1999. But by 2014, that number had grown to 10 percent.
The justice department sees the nearly quarter-million elderly prisoners as a top issue year after year, not least because housing and feeding an aging population is expensive. But the number of senior citizens released from prisons remains small.
Bipartisan agreement on anything is rare these days. But there’s consensus on mass incarceration. New sentencing guidelines could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 federal drug offenders qualifying for early release. Elderly inmates could be the next wave of ex-convicts to be reintroduced into society.
But former prisoners like Johnson, who was released after decades of isolation, encounter obstacles that transcend those the current, younger, wave of ex-convicts face. Their needs are drastically different. Mental health issues, coping strategies and other side effects of long-term imprisonment come into play.
Marieke Liem, a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School talked with detainees who have served decades in jail. She said there is a large lack of assets for those coming out after serving long sentences.
From being acquainted with current innovation, to navigating public transportation, to opening a bank account, to making straightforward life decisions like what to purchase at the supermarket, Liem says many of these sort of ex-detainees battle due their lack of agency.
"Jail chooses when lights go on and when they go off," Liem said. "Each snapshot of the day is scheduled. When you have been in the jail framework the majority of your life, how might you be relied upon to work as a citizen? And make a plan?"
Upon release from jail, Johnson was handed an ID, archives illustrating his criminal case history, $40 and two transport tickets. Having lost all family associations while serving his sentence, Johnson currently depends on Fortune Society, a nonprofit that gives lodging and administrations to ex-detainees in Harlem.
Each day, he navigates the world as best as he can. He includes himself with a local mosque. He practices tai chi and meditates. He attempts to seek after his dream of opening up a shelter for ladies, however with his lack of record getting the assets for such a venture has demonstrated near unimaginable. He walks the roads of New York, observing individuals around him. He gets back to Fortune Society by 9pm each night, heeding his time limit.
With the current spotlight on reform, Johnson trusts that reemergence for ex-detainees, including those having served for decades, will be streamlined to adequately address their necessities. Whether opportunity can demonstrate liberating, rather than overwhelming, for those convicts who have grayed in the slammer, remains to be seen.
What will you say about this ex convict?
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