Free At Last

The Brooklyn Women’s Shelter is a hulking beige compound on a desolate street in East New York. The walls are fringed with barbed-wire and pictures of the outside are actively discouraged by security. Photography of the interior is totally prohibited. Visitors are forbidden too; to sneak inside you would have to disable the electric lock on the heavy doors of the only entrance, creep under the looming arch of a metal detector and weave, somehow unobserved, through a waiting room occupied by wary guards.

For the last two months, Raqibah Basir has shared a room at the shelter with 11 other women. Her nights are often sleepless. A wet towel placed on the wrong bed or a missing toothbrush is enough to spark a fight. She can’t eat the shelter’s food because she needs a low-sodium diet for her hypertension but the disability checks she uses for meals – saltless chicken soup sipped in local cafes and stewed dumplings packaged in polystyrene containers – are resources she could be saving for an apartment.

Two years ago, the state released Basir after 27 years in prison. She had been convicted of murdering her daughter in a fit of rage after the discovery of missing money, a crime of which, Basir insists, she is innocent. She spent four years in Rikers Island, 21 in Bedford Hills and two in Albion. Since her release, she has been shuttled from shelter to shelter.

Now, at 57, Basir is very old to be starting all over again. But that’s the challenge facing a growing number of older ex-inmates thrust into freedom in New York State.

The Census Bureau predicts that by 2030, 20 percent of American prisoners will be over 50. At the moment, 9.3 percent of those incarcerated are 50 or older, with a head count of approximately 9,000. Most of these older felons have been behind bars for decades. This is the fastest growing demographic in New York’s incarceration system.

With older, longterm, prisoners must come older ex-prisoners, too. For seniors, retirement is a tempting option. Some ex-inmates, however, are old, but not that old. Men and women in their 50’s and 60’s are also reentering society – trying to forge a new life, in a new world, at an old age.

Theodore Haywood was 25 years old when, in 1973, he entered Green Haven Correctional Facility on charges of murder and robbery. He shuffled out into the free world just after his 50th birthday, sporting a brand new pair of yellow suede shoes. On the day of his release, following a pitstop at JC Penney’s to buy a coat to help him weather a particularly harsh winter, Haywood went home to his mother’s house and lay down on her bed. The phone rang. Haywood picked up the receiver but the ringing didn’t stop. “Fool, you don’t know how to answer the phone?” exclaimed his 75-year-old mother, taking the aggressively buzzing hand-piece from him. “When I left there were princess phones,” said Haywood. “Now you have to press the button.”

This was Haywood’s first memory of the struggle to reacclimatize after such a long time in prison. It would only get harder; even the smallest tasks seemed overwhelming. Figuring out how to budget, and how to buy groceries, would leave Haywood wandering about the aisles of the supermarket for hours, staring sightlessly at rows of smiling cartoon cereal mascots and ‘I can’t believe it’s not…’ products. Before crossing the road, he would sidle up to a fellow pedestrian and step in time with him or her, afraid that a stumble would leave him behind and vulnerable to Manhattan’s hectic traffic. At 50 years old, Haywood had to painstakingly relearn how to manage tasks that most 12-year-old Americans can accomplish with with an Iphone in one hand and a cup of Pinkberry in the other.

In New York, there are no programs specifically designed to meet the reentry needs of the over 50 set. Reentry facilities like Fortune Society and the Osborne Association were designed to meet the needs of younger people, who have lived out shorter sentences. The funding for specific programs tends to be restricted to treatment of issues like addiction or HIV/Aids. To Haywood and Basir’s wary eyes, it’s not a support system geared towards dealing with the unique problems that come from aging in a prison environment.

Research by Fordham University’s Tina Maschi shows that the support network of many prisoners, friends and family, shrink as their sentence passes. Basir, like Haywood, kept in touch with many of the people important to her; her family members were regular visitors while she was incarcerated. Still, while in prison, people “began to die – my grandmother, my friends,” said Basir.

Basir’s son-in-law picked her up on the day she was released: March 2, 2011. They’d planned to go to Crown Fried Chicken and toast her freedom with 27 years worth of drumsticks. As they left, however, a family crisis called her son-in-law back to North Carolina and she found herself instead at the doorstep of the Fortune Society, a reentry program and shelter Basir was familiar with from what she called her “young, wild days.” The majority of her family – her six children and her grandchildren– have moved to the South since her imprisonment and her parole officer has denied her travel permission. One of the conditions of her freedom was also that Basir wasn’t allowed contact with children under 18. Her only New York based offspring, a daughter living in Chelsea, has three underage kids. Basir’s 16 year old granddaughter is serving time in Sing Sing Correctional Facility for armed robbery, and she isn’t allowed to visit.

For Haywood, with his mother and brother close at hand, building a new family was the major personal challenge. Haywood fell in love the year of his release with an independently wealthy conflict resolution specialist named Betsy Rothschild. He met her through the Alternatives to Violence Project, a grassroots anti-violence organization he worked with after his release from prison. After nine months of living in his mother’s attic, he moved into Betsy’s E 28th St apartment, but incarceration hadn’t prepared him well for the stress of a live-in girlfriend.

“Betsy would be on the computer and I would be watching TV and she would say ‘talk to me,’” he recounted. “She’d go to the computer to check something, and I would get up and leave, because I felt uncomfortable – I didn’t know how to talk to someone. In prison, if you get a visit or take a phone call you can rehearse what you’re going to say. If things get hectic, you can lock in.” Under the strain of silence, the relationship deteriorated and Haywood moved out and bought an apartment with money he’d been saving from prison counseling with the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

Basir stayed at Fortune Society’s Harlem residence for almost a year. She left a week before her time was up, when a man she said had raped her in 1983 moved into the building to which she was assigned. Her caseworker did nothing, she said. She had no future plans. “I got helped to freedom. But what about after?” she asked.

Shelters are only a temporary solution. The curfew, bedtimes and harsh restrictions on visiting are intolerable to Basir: “I’m back in prison except that I’m free,” she said.

Outside of the shelter system, there are few other options, said Laura Whitehorn, the organizer of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting over 50’s touched by the incarceration system. Aged-care homes and senior specific programs often discriminate against those with a criminal record. And many people in their 50’s and early 60’s, Basir included, aren’t ready for assisted living. “I am disabled.” she said. “But I am a functionally disabled person who can live by myself.

As of November, New York City’s Housing Authority has relaxed its rules to allow a small number of former inmates into public housing developments. But housing developments are often ill-suited for older people and people with disabilities. A citywide survey conducted earlier this year by NYC Infocus, a Columbia Graduate School of Journalism website dedicated to New York’s housing developments, demonstrated that elevators and ramps in the projects are often subpar or nonfunctional.

Viola Collins who runs the senior center at Taft Houses in Harlem said that the seniors in her development are more socially isolated than most. They are often so lonely that they turn to drugs and alcohol. For the many ex-felons who suffered from substance abuse prior to their time in prison, Basir included, this environment is less than ideal. A 2010 press release by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that 65 percent of American inmates meet the medical criteria for substance abusers. Once outside of prison, there are no programs to monitor the health and welfare of the elderly ex-prisoner, Maschi said.

After the Fortune Society, Basir found a room in the Bronx through a friend of a friend. She shared a cramped two bedroom apartment with another tenant and a couple who ran an illegal dentistry in their living room cum dining room cum bedroom cum dentists office. The apartment was rat-infested and she said she often woke up to find stiff, little corpses lined up outside her door. The arrangement did not last long, however, as Basir’s roommates soon discovered her criminal record. The female landlord called Basir’s parole officer, telling her how frightened she was. The police mounted an investigation; an investigation lead to the exposure of the illegal tenants, dentistry operation and thousands of dollars of unpaid rent. The couple was evicted, while Basir was once again homeless.

The psychological and physical stresses of being incarcerated makes for inmates with health conditions that outstrip their actual age Maschi’s research shows. In prison, a 55-year-old is likely to have the same health status as a free American at 65.

Haywood was a college athlete who made most of his inmate friends spiking a volleyball in the prison yard. A tall, leanly built man with energetic hands, he admitted that at 65, he was a healthy anomaly amongst the older formerly incarcerated. He said, “the most difficult things I’ve seen are with people who have health issues. They don’t last very long – they die.”

By the time she was 38, Basir had suffered a small stroke with complications due to Bell’s Palsy. Her speech became slurred and each word swallowed the next one whole. The lid of her right eye drooped low like a sagging curtain. Before she regained her freedom, Basir had two more heart attacks. A poorly constructed plastic chair lead to a herniated disk and torn tendon. She became asthmatic and a probing nurse shattered her left eardrum, leaving her partially deaf. In the last couple years of her prison term, she was in and out of the hospital regularly.

From the room, Basir moved into the Franklin’s Women Shelter in the Bronx for just under two weeks. Her cot — a chicken-wire spiderweb — collapsed under her and she was rushed to the hospital with a fractured back and neck. Every Monday and Thursday she has to make the long commute to Long Island for physical therapy, an exercise in exhaustion.

After Franklin, Basir moved to Susan’s Place, a shelter in Chelsea. One night, heading towards the D train, Basir passed out on the steps of the 145th St train station. She woke up in a hospital bed, disoriented and alone. The diagnosis was Type 2 diabetes. Basir was in the hospital for more than 72 hours – the maximum time a shelter resident can be away from their bed without losing their place. She begged to be released early, but the hospital wouldn’t allow it. Her health was too much at risk.

Basir carries a monitor under her headscarf to measure her weak heartbeat. The device is nestled in her pocket beside a phone filled with pictures of smiling Southern grandchildren she may never meet in the free world. Twice this year, in April and in June, she said she tried to stop the “tick tick tick” of the machine with pills. The drain of her health problems and her inability to see her family, she said, made her consider going down the path of drugs and alcohol, as she had done in the aftermath of her rape. Suicide almost seemed like a healthier option. “Being in prison for so many years took a toll on my health; I feel like I’m going to the same thing again but the care in prison is slightly better,” she said.

At the end of her hospital stay, and still with no source of income beside her disability check, Basir left the facility facing another stay in a shelter until she can save up the money to get out.

In 2005, Haywood fell in love for the second time since his release. He married the lady in question, and adopted her children from previous relationships. At 57, he suddenly had a family to support. Five years later, Haywood was let go from his job as a clinical supervisor. He’d lucked upon the appointment a few years earlier through prison connections when school fees and mortgages meant that he couldn’t live off his counseling income alone.

At first, inspecting a resume that was thick with educational pedigree developed during those long years behind bars, Haywood thought it would be easy to find another job. “I have good credentials, but the age! When I went to the interview, it was a different story,” he said. His prison background restricted his employment opportunities and being in his later 50’s, despite being almost entirely healthy, whittled down the remaining choices even further. To make ends meet, Haywood took on two barely sufficient part-time jobs. Finally, the full brunt of his reentry transition, Haywood believed, was peaking, more than 13 years after getting out.

The experience has put into perspective the plight of former inmates less fortunate than himself. He said, “older people get lost in the system. Some people come out and they’ve done like 30 to 40 years and who’s going to hire them? I worked from ’98 to now and I excelled in every position, and got promoted every time and I can’t get a job. Some people come out and they haven’t worked in a long time; what value do they have to the system?”

In her two years of freedom, Basir also searched for employment. She has applied for jobs, particularly in the retail market, time and time again, but she said her health issues, lack of training, age, and the fact that she has been out of the job market for so long make her an unappealing prospect for employers. She also thought about going back to college to study social work and psychology, but since her movements are limited, the best option seemed to be university online. But you can’t go online without using a computer.

Although in 1998 she collected college credits in Microsoft Excel, in prison, the computers were outdated and heavily restricted, so her skills developed slowly. At Fortune Society she would practice on a friend’s laptop, but her friend was a male and speculation ran rampant, so she could only work surreptitiously. Now, Basir is without a computer. She goes to the library to apply for jobs on the internet. She types slowly, doggedly, and there is a time limit. Still, she keeps on.

Some criminal justice organizations like RAPP are working to create an infrastructure for older ex-prisoners like Basir and Haywood. Most of the reentry programs in New York are staffed by people who have been through the criminal justice system themselves, often having left prison later in life. Newly released Lead Organizer of RAPP, Mujahid Farid, who is in his 60s, has been actively searching for ways to extend reentry programs to older inmates. Earlier this year, he approached Senior Planet, an organization based in Chelsea designed to hone computer skills in people 60 and over. In three years, Basir would be eligible for such a program. When asked to comment, however, a representative of Senior Planet said that the program was in the earliest stages of planning – it was still a whisper of a dream.

While he lived with his mother, Haywood used to spend hours in his prison buddy, Julio Medina’s, red Corola, scribbling a blueprint for a program to extend Exodus Prison Ministry to include reentry services furiously on stacks of looseleaf paper. At the time, employed and healthy, Haywood focused his plans on a younger demographic. Only after becoming unemployed did he appreciate how few resources existed for the older ex-felon. But he’s ever practical: “Where will the funding come from?” he asked. As he saw it, from the perspective of funders, people over 50 with limited years of productivity ahead of them are not really worth investing in when the competition for grant money is so fierce.

He scratched his head, smiled ruefully and said, “it’s a good idea though. It’s a good idea.”

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