Consider this: Arthur Biddle, who is 85 years old, went into the Maryland prison system the same month I was born — and he’s still there. Biddle was 20 years old in March 1954, when a judge in Cecil County sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of his uncle some six months earlier. Biddle has been in prison for more than 65 years. He resides in the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
There is little about criminal justice that surprises me after writing numerous columns on the subject. But even I have a hard time comprehending octogenarians behind prison walls in the supposedly progressive blue state of Maryland. At this point, what’s the point?
And yet, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services confirmed this week that Maryland taxpayers fund the incarceration of at least five people who are more than 80 years old, and Arthur Biddle is not even the oldest. The oldest appears to be Samuel Neal, once of Baltimore. Neal, who was sentenced to life for murder 37 years ago, was born in February 1931. That makes him 88. He is incarcerated at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.
Two other men have been in prison for more than 50 years:
- David Gibbs, born in May 1937, was convicted of first-degree murder in Baltimore County and started serving his life sentence in October 1966. He is also incarcerated at WCI.
- John Chesley, born in November 1936, was convicted of robbery and rape in Baltimore and started serving his life sentence in March 1967. Chesley will turn 83 later this month at the Jessup Correctional Institution.
There is one woman among Maryland’s incarcerated octogenarians. Emilia Raras, born in February 1936, has been at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, in Jessup, since April 2000. A judge in Howard County sentenced her to life without the possibility of parole for hiring a hitman to kill her daughter-in-law in the woman’s Elkridge home in 1998. Raras will turn 84 in February.
Let me stop here to note the following: I don’t have the full stories of these inmates yet. I have just started to look into their backgrounds and plan to contact each with the intent of interviewing them for future columns. And I’m aware that the state is working on “geriatric parole” to release more elderly inmates sooner rather than later.
But, come on, 80-plus years old, and still in prison? Why?
Leaving aside Raras, whose crime was relatively recent, it’s reasonable to ask what purpose is served in keeping the over-80 men behind the walls. Biddle, Gibbs and Chesley committed their crimes more than 50 years ago, and Neal, likely the state’s most senior prisoner, went inside in 1983. What possible threat to public safety could these old guys pose? What is the public interest in keeping them locked up in the late stages of life? Or, are we keeping them behind the walls because they have no place to go?
If you are into cost-benefit analysis, analyze this: The state’s annual estimated expense for one inmate is $45,000. For older inmates, it’s most certainly more, and the Justice Policy Institute puts the figure at $54,000.
I mention the JPI because that Washington-based organization has conducted a lot of research on sentencing and incarceration across the country, and particularly in Maryland. It takes the data-supported position that Maryland keeps inmates in prison far too long and, in the initial stages of incarceration, does too little to rehabilitate young adults who enter the criminal justice system in their late teens and early 20s.
In a new report being released Wednesday, the JPI accords Maryland special status: Among all states, we lead the nation in incarcerating young black men, and we keep them in prison longer than any other state. In that specific category, Maryland leads not just by a little, but by a lot, with a rate of incarceration that is 25% higher than the next state: Mississippi.
For its new study, the JPI looked at how Maryland judges sentence emerging adults — that is, people convicted of crimes while under the age of 25.
“Research shows that emerging adults are much more like teens than older adults, with brain science showing they are still developing into their mid-20s,” says Marc Schindler, the JPI’s executive director. “There’s a reason we treat youth differently than adults, but there is no good reason that should arbitrarily end at age 18.”
The JPI found that more than 70% of all people in Maryland’s prisons are black — double the national average — and that nearly 80% of people serving at least 10 years are black. Those are the highest such state percentages in the country, according to the JPI.
And, despite complaints of lenient judges and policies, sentencing and parole practices have resulted in inmates staying behind the walls longer than in other states.
“Currently, Maryland imprisons 3,000 people over age 50, and nearly 1,000 individuals who are 60 or older,” the JPI found. “Needlessly incarcerating older individuals is costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars with no positive public safety impact.”
Which gets us back to the octogenarians: Were they ever eligible for parole? Were they ever considered fit for release by the Maryland Parole Commission? If so, were they denied freedom by governors who took a hard line on parole for lifers?
Or is it possible someone thought we should keep these over-80 inmates behind the walls because they pose threats to public safety? Given recent experience in Maryland, that would seem an unreasonable concern. After the so-called Unger ruling by the Court of Appeals in 2012, state prisons released nearly 200 inmates who had been convicted of felonies before 1981. As of last year, only one of those senior citizens had been arrested again. Given that, why did we stop there? If we don’t have a seniority system when it comes to parole, we should get one.