Earlier this week President Obama issued a proclamation designating Monday, June 15, 2015, as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/12/presidential-proclamation-world-elder-abuse-awareness-day-2015). The President called on all Americans to observe the day by “learning the signs of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and by raising awareness about this important public health issue.” With more than 40 million Americans already older than 65, and with 10,000 more Americans joining their ranks every day, these are issues of increasing urgency.
But what about aging prisoners and the institutional abuse, neglect and exploitation they suffer as conditions of their confinement?
A decline in physical and mental capabilities occurs with age, as does the related incidence of chronic illness. The risk of developing various other illnesses and disabilities increases. What is not widely known, however, is that prisoners typically have physiological and mental health conditions that are generally associated with people at least a decade older. According to Human Rights Watch, this accelerated aging process is likely due to the disproportionate rate of disease among minority populations from impoverished backgrounds (persons who comprise the majority of the prison population). Substandard medical care makes the problem worse. The violence, anxiety, and stress of prison life; isolation from family and friends; and the possibility of spending the rest of one’s life behind bars also contribute to faster aging.
Human Rights Watch argues: “While age does not change the rights of people who are incarcerated, it should change what prison officials must do to ensure those rights are respected in particular cases, i.e., how officials treat older people should not be determined by age alone, but on the individual’s physical and mental condition.”
The U.S. Constitution and international laws afford Leonard Peltier the right to be treated with respect for his humanity and inherent human dignity; to not be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment; to receive appropriate medical and mental health care; to have reasonable accommodation for any disabilities; and to be provided appropriate activities and programs. However, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is disinclined to responsibly deal with this older prisoner. Consider the following key areas of concern.
Health Care— Peltier began exhibiting symptoms commonly attributed to prostate cancer in 2009. Prostate cancer affects 1 in 6 men in the United States. Medical experts agree that the cure rate for prostate cancer is high, but only if detected early. Peltier’s age (he is now over 70 years old) and family history are risk factors for the disease. Pressured by Peltier’s attorneys, the BOP reluctantly ran standard blood tests in June 2010. Peltier received the results four months later. At that time, a physician indicated that a biopsy was needed to make a diagnosis, but the biopsy wasn’t performed until early 2011. While the tests were negative for cancer, Peltier’s symptoms persist. A serious medical condition is indicated, one that could lead to serious complications if left untreated.
A physician who conducted an independent review of Mr. Peltier’s medical records in 2000 concluded that his overall medical treatment had already been below a reasonable standard of care. Decades before, Mr. Peltier suffered a stroke which left him nearly blind in one eye—damage physicians say could have been prevented had he been treated sooner. For many years, he had a seriously debilitating jaw condition which left him unable to chew properly and caused consistent pain and headaches. The BOP medical facilities could not properly treat this condition. In fact, two prison surgeries only worsened Mr. Peltier’s condition. A physician from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, offered to repair Mr. Peltier’s jaw free-of-charge, but was turned down again and again by prison authorities until the United Nations sharply rebuked the United States for subjecting Leonard Peltier to inhumane conditions. Surgery was performed and Leonard’s condition improved somewhat. Subsequent surgeries are required, however, to fully address his condition. To date, such treatment has not been approved by BOP officials. In recent years, Leonard Peltier has again begun to experience severe discomfort related to his jaw, teeth, and gums.
Mr. Peltier also suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, and a heart condition. According to an affiliate of Physicians for Human Rights, Mr. Peltier risks blindness, kidney failure, stroke—and premature death—given his inadequate diet, living conditions, and health care.
Safety—The BOP and its corrections officers also have the responsibility to protect the safety of those they confine, and people who have been deprived of their liberty have the right to be kept safe. U.S. prisons can be extremely dangerous places—for aging and defenseless persons, in particular. In early 2009, Mr. Peltier was viciously and severely beaten in an unprovoked attack by younger prisoners. Other less serious incidents have occurred since 2009.
Reintegration— Recently, it’s become popular to acknowledge that our criminal justice system needs fixing—something activists have known for a very long time. There are now frequent calls for reducing prison sentences for “nonviolent” offenses. However, as David Cole and Marc Mauer recently wrote (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/opinion/sunday/how-to-lock-up-fewer-people.html): “For the same conduct, the United States imposes sentences on average twice as long as those the British impose, four times longer than the Dutch, and five to 10 times longer than the French… it’s not enough to ease up on low-level, nonviolent offenders… we need to recognize that the excessively long sentences we impose for most violent crimes are not necessary, cost-effective or just.”
In the federal system (as in many states), parole has also radically been restricted at the back end. As a result, many inmates are held long past the time they might pose any threat to public safety.
In Mr. Peltier’s experience, the U.S. Parole Commission has been heavily influenced by government prosecutors and officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who oppose his release from prison. As a result, Mr. Peltier has been required to remain in prison for decades past his parole eligibility date. According to its most recent parole decision in 2009, all indications are that the government intends never to parole Mr. Peltier. Mr. Peltier’s next full parole hearing is scheduled for 2024, at which time Mr. Peltier will be 80 years of age (assuming he hasn’t died in prison in the meantime). This position on the part of the U.S. Parole Commission precludes the possibility of reintegration into society and constitutes inhumane and degrading treatment.
Further, Mr. Peltier has often applied for a transfer to a medium security facility that would afford him greater safety and access to quality health care. All such applications have been repeatedly denied by BOP authorities.
Mr. Peltier has already served a major portion of his sentence and is being unnecessarily held in prison despite the fact that his continued incarceration does little to serve even the principal purposes of punishment.
Mr. Peltier’s continued imprisonment will not ensure his safety and well being. His right to adequate health care will continue to be violated. Mr. Peltier’s increasing age and infirmity and his conditions of confinement change the calculus against continued incarceration of any kind and in favor of some form of release—even conditional release to home confinement under supervision.
Mr. Peltier’s age, education, work ethic, prison record, etc., make him an excellent candidate for home confinement. In addition, he does not have a history of mental illness or addiction. This makes him an excellent candidate for successful re-entry. The nature of his alleged offense and short criminal record, as well as this being his first release from prison, also make Mr. Peltier a statistically good candidate for re-entry.
As to the issue of harm to others should Peltier be released, Leonard Peltier is known to be a responsible citizen who routinely contributed his time, energy, and meager resources to his community. The low probability that released prisoners well on in years will commit new crimes suggests that Mr. Peltier’s continued incarceration adds little to public safety. After so many years of imprisonment, in fact—and due to his age and health status—Leonard Peltier does not pose a public safety risk at all.
Mr. Obama is to be congratulated for his concern with regard to elder abuse. Respect for and care of all our elders is essential. In the case of Leonard Peltier, after a wrongful conviction and nearly 40 years of mistreatment at the hands of the BOP, the institutional abuse and neglect of elderly prisoners are factors the President must take into account as he reviews Peltier’s application for Executive Clemency.