We've discussed measures taken to reduce or eliminate bail and lower incarceration rates with guests like Robin Steinberg, however, what of our parole system and the elderly? This week's guest, Jose Saldana, meets with Xander to talk about the aging prison population's plight. Saldana takes us on a tour of what senior prisoners experience, from failing health to repeated parole denial, and how the organization Release Aging People In Prison (RAPP) saved him.
Saldana is a first-generation Puerto Rican, raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. In 1980, a then 27-year-old Saldana was dealing drugs and wound up in a gunfight with authorities. He was charged with attempted murder, served 38 years in prison, and was released at 65. Though he was guilty of the crime, he believes policy change led people of color to suffer more arrests and longer sentences in response to various civil rights movements. Saldana was a former Young Lords member, a group inspired by Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton. With the Young Lords, he began to build his cultural identity and understand societal discrimination.
Initially, when he was arrested, he couldn't imagine his future behind bars. "You don't go to prison thinking you're going to be old." He says, "You look at the old men, and you don't think one day you'll be like them." As the years went on, he saw similarities of his story with others; they were mostly poor minorities. He realized that he had to advocate for himself and others by changing the conversation. "I knew that for us to really get out of prison at a relatively productive age that we would have to change the laws," Saldana explains. He shined a light on the racism and unfair treatment during trials and parole hearings. He started his organization in prison, complete with inmates who had studied law. Still, he explains the challenge early on, "Who's really listening to someone in prison beefing that it ain't fair?"
It wasn't until 2011 and 2012 that RAPP brought about success and exposed evidence of unfair court decisions and biased police commissioners. Saldana says, "Some of the languages that they were using to us”, He says, "The racial slurs, the derogatory terminology, showing complete bias, interjecting their personal feelings into the hearing." Saldana believes that the legacy of The Black Panthers and the Young Lords is reflected today with BLM. "That gave us the opportunity to say, 'Well, if black lives matter in the streets of New York, then surely black lives matter in prison too."
Though Saldana and RAPP's work of showing inequality in hearings is crucial, having helped bring New York States' parole release from 4% to 40%, the work also points to the importance of considering a prisoner's age. "After years in prison, you just don't stay the same.", Saldana explains. He suggests replacing law enforcement from parole hearing boards to eliminate the bias replacing them with teachers, clergy, and social workers. A new lead commissioner on his board was a former social worker. She spent 35 minutes with him as opposed to the typical 10-12 minutes; he says, "She asked me just one question about the crime." then she continued, "Okay, now let's talk about what you've been doing the last 38 years."
Saldana, now director of RAPP, launched a campaign for clemency for the elderly during the pandemic but was denied by Governor Cuomo. They hope to push bills like The Elder Bill. "We realize that our best chance at getting elder people released is through the passage of these two bills because the Governor is just not budging on this." Despite pushback, their bills will be on the state senate's agenda and Saldana remains vigilant that, "Justice is not defined as punishment; justice values human transformation."