The Other Death Sentence

The Other Death Sentence

Dianne Frazee-Walker

Past the stench, unopened food containers, and manila folders covering the window of the “medical bubble” laid William “Lefty” Gilday in his own urine and feces.

William Gilday had been tagged “Lefty” not because of his politics but because he was a Southpaw during his stint in the minor leagues. Gilday went from an accomplished athlete to the most hunted-down criminal in Massachusetts history.

“Lefty” spent most of his life in prison for accidentally shooting a police officer during a bank robbery in 1970. Even though a group of Brandeis University students were also involved with the robbery, Gilday was convicted of murder and sentenced to death but eventually got life without parole when the Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972. The other young students that took part in the shooting spent less than seven years in prison.

During “Lefty’s” younger days as a prisoner, he was well-liked by other inmates because of his status as an “in-house lawyer.” Gilday worked as a paralegal putting his time to good use in prison by settling disputes and organizing fellow inmates’ legal papers for court.

After 40 years of prison life, “Lefty” developed dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other physical ailments. His mental and physical condition caused him to throw a milk carton at a prison guard because he couldn’t open it. Gilday was sent to solitary confinement for the offense. He was prohibited from having his friends visit him in “the hole”. The nurses taped manila folders over his window so they wouldn’t be reminded of the inhumane condition of the thrown-away geriatric prisoner.

At the end of Gilday’s life, his aging inmate friends formed an ad hoc hospice team and were allowed to take care of their ailing friend as best as they could. They, too, were feeling signs of aging and were destined to die in prison.

Gilday was 82 years old when he died in prison. The man known as an elder statesman in his elderly years continued to be robbed of his dignity after he passed away. His friends were denied a memorial service in the prison chapel and had to hold the ceremony in a classroom.

Sadly, The United States leads the world in incarceration, with more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails.

“The mass incarceration of the elderly is an example of our criminal justice system at its most heartless and its most irrational,” says David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project.

While elderly prisoners are growing older, the incarceration rate is growing as well. From 1995 to 2010, as America’s prison population grew 42 percent, the number of inmates over 55 grew at nearly seven times that rate. A new report from the ACLU estimates that, by 2030, the over-55 group will number more than 400,000—about a third of the overall prison population.

A large portion of prison overcrowding is due to older inmates who committed crimes in the 60s and 70s. Many of the crimes were non-violent. In Texas, for example, 65 percent of the older prisoners are in for nonviolent acts such as drug possession and property crimes.

Most senior inmates are not physically capable of shoplifting, let alone murder. Data from New York State, for example, tracked 469 inmates who were originally sentenced for violent crimes and were later released as senior citizens—over a 13-year period, just 8 of those former inmates went back to prison, and only 1 went back for a violent offense.

This portion of mass incarceration is being funded by taxpayers’ money. Educating older prisoners and releasing them early as productive citizens would save taxpayers billions of dollars. According to the ACLU, caring for aging prisoners costs American taxpayers some $16 billion annually. This exorbitant figure does not include assisted living units, wheelchair accessibility, handicapped toilets, and grab bars that are needed if these old folks are not released before they become physically debilitated.

Then why are young violent offenders with no rehabilitation being released early and older offenders left in prison to die when 65 and older folks’ arrest rates are almost nonexistent, and the arrest rate for 16-19-year olds is around 12%?

The answer to this puzzling question is simple.

Out-dated tough-on-crime policies legislated in the 80s and 90s are the cause of rising geriatric incarceration rates. These policies have lengthened the amount of time non-violent offenders, with convictions such as drug possession and property crimes, remain in prison. The tough-on-crime laws are responsible for more than 100,000 prisoners that are currently destined to die in prison and the many more that will remain there well into their 60s and 70s.