When Val visited the nurse’s office, she was given Pepto-Bismol. Cancer treatment with Pepto-Bismol.
Family and friends of Valerie Gaiter, also known as Val, along with activists gathered this month to rally for better prison healthcare and more parole opportunities, particularly for the elderly.
Before her death from cancer in 2019, at age 61, Gaiter had worked longer than any other woman in the New York state prison system. For many of those years, she was incarcerated in New York’s largest women’s prison, the Bedford Hills correctional facility, located roughly 42 miles north of New York City.
Gaiter passed away in prison, never having been granted parole despite her lengthy record of volunteer work and exemplary behavior while a prisoner.
According to Gaiter’s loved ones, prison officials ignored his cancer because they didn’t think it was serious. The pain of trying to eat while ill caused her to become malnourished, and eventually led to her death.
I didn’t even get to see her beautiful brown eyes close as she left me behind. Sam Gaiter, Valerie’s older brother, said, “They told me after she was already dead.”
It’s time to send our elderly people packing. They have passed their use-by date. When asked, “Why do you still want them in there?” The words of Sam Gaiter.
However complicated the situation may be, the fear that crime is on the rise in New York state has largely stalled efforts to reform criminal justice in the state, particularly with regard to parole.
Despite crime being near historic lows, politicians in New York, including Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, are calling for a rollback of crime reform laws due to a recent increase.
Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, has stated her support for reforming the criminal justice system. During her term, she has pledged to fully staff the state’s parole board and to investigate human rights violations at the infamous Rikers Island jail.
Criminal justice reformers, however, say Hochul consistently lets them down and that prison conditions are deteriorating.
Covid-19 and monkeypox are two of many communicable diseases that continue to disproportionately affect the incarcerated population.
As of August 15th, at least 10,885 inmates in the state system had positive Covid-19 tests, and 44 had died.
Life-threatening conditions have arisen for the incarcerated in New York during the recent heatwaves, and serious health emergencies are more likely in the context of the inadequate healthcare provided in correctional facilities.
According to Serena Martin-Liguori, director of the criminal justice organization New Hour, “Prisons literally are killing people.”
Many people over the age of 55 remain incarcerated in New York’s prison system into old age, despite the fact that the likelihood of recidivism decreases with age.
There were 10,140 New Yorkers over the age of 50 in state prisons as of 2016. This represented nearly 20% of all state prisoners and represented a significant increase over the previous decade.
Martin-Liguori, an advocate and Gaiter’s friend who was incarcerated with her, said that the parole board process in New York state routinely denies requests for release, even for inmates with impeccable records of good behavior and noteworthy contributions to society.
Even though Gaiter had received rave reviews from prison staff and had participated in a number of programs, including one that taught service dogs to veterans, he was denied parole in 2012.
Judith Clark, who was incarcerated alongside Gaiter, said, “I watched Val grow and mature.” Clark also mentioned that Gaiter had completed her bachelor’s degree while in prison.
Some of the other elderly women in New York’s prisons are in the same position.
During a robbery in their Brooklyn apartment, Gaiter and another young woman stabbed and killed an elderly couple.
Gaiter has apologized for her actions ever since the crime.
She admitted her own stupidity and a lack of empathy in her final year of life in a letter. That person is gone, and I no longer carry them with me. Today’s me would never act out in such a vicious and angry manner toward another helpless human being as I did 39 and a half years ago.
A reminder of “what I was then and how I can never be again,” the letter continued, “the impact of what I did and the pain I have caused their family will live with me for the rest of my life.”
Martin-Liguori pleaded for a broader view of human redemption.
They don’t always consider the positive changes someone has made and the achievements they’ve made, she said.
Similarly, Martin-Liguori argued that inhumane treatment exists in prisons, particularly in regards to access to healthcare.
Martin-Liguori argued that incarcerated seniors, and particularly incarcerated women, incur greater costs to the state because of the increased prevalence of co-morbidities among this population.
Advocates beyond the rally’s scope have also urged the state legislature to pass laws expanding access to parole.
Under the proposed Fair and Timely Parole Act, parole would be granted to all qualified offenders unless they pose an extreme risk to society. Meanwhile, the Elder Parole Act provides parole eligibility every two years to those over the age of 55 who have served at least 15 years.
However, both bills failed to pass in June, so activists are hoping that spotlighting Gaiter’s case and the plight of so many others who have been locked up for decades will inspire action.
Leah Faria, a rally speaker and former inmate with Gaiter, said, “It’s about being a human being and basic human rights.”
And if they can’t give that to people on the inside, they should at least let friends and family give it to them from the outside.
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