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Forgetting And Forgotten: Older Prisoners Seek Release But Fall Through The Cracks

There is a group of about 150 people in federal prison known as "old law" prisoners who committed crimes before November 1987 and still have little hope of release.
Cornelia Li for NPR
There is a group of about 150 people in federal prison known as "old law" prisoners who committed crimes before November 1987 and still have little hope of release.

Davon-Marie Grimmer has been struggling to get help for more than year for her cousin, Kent Clark. Sometimes, when he calls from prison, he asks to speak with relatives who are no longer alive. Sometimes, he forgets the name of his cellmate.

"As far as I know, he hasn't received any medical attention for the dementia, and he's just so vulnerable in there," Grimmer said. "He's 66 years old. He can't take care of himself."

Clark is one of about 150 people in federal prison who time mostly forgot. This group of "old law" prisoners committed crimes before November 1987, when the law changed to remove the possibility of parole. But even with the grandfathered-in chance for parole — and despite a push to reduce prison populations — dozens of men in their 60s, 70s and 80s still have little hope of release.

When Congress tweaked the law three years ago to allow sick and elderly people behind bars to apply to a judge for compassionate release, that change didn't apply to the "old law" prisoners. They're easy to overlook.

"They are the oldest and most vulnerable cohort of people within the federal prison system today," said Chuck Weisselberg, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "I mean, their only path for release is through the parole commission, an agency that's been dying for decades."

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation that would give "old law" prisoners the chance to petition judges for release based on their age and poor health, but it's awaiting action in Congress.

How Clark got here

The last time Grimmer saw her cousin face to face was before he went to prison 31 years ago. They were a tight family, sharing the same home in Newark, N.J., as children. She and his sister, June Clark, said relatives stood by Clark during his legal proceedings.

After a five-day trial, a jury convicted Clark of kidnapping and extortion. Prosecutors said he was part of a crew that abducted a postal worker, stole his uniform and tricked their way into the home of a bank manager in 1985. The alleged ringleader of the scheme fled the state — only to be captured, years later, after his girlfriend saw him featured on the television show America's Most Wanted.

Ultimately, he agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department — and testify against Clark at trial. He got five years. Clark got life, with the possibility of parole. A third man allegedly involved in the abduction was never charged with a crime because the statute of limitations had expired.

Prosecutors viewed Clark as a more serious threat because they said he raped the bank manager's 19-year-old daughter during the botched extortion. The judge cited her testimony when he imposed a life sentence, and in a recent interview with NPR she reiterated her belief in Clark's guilt. But Clark always denied the rape. His blood, hair and fingerprints did not tie him to the crime scene and the assailant wore a ski mask, according to documents provided to the parole reviewer.

Grimmer said her cousin's prison record has been clean for the past 20 years. But in 1992, Clark killed an inmate who he said was planning to rape him the next day. An official at that prison later told the parole commission he would have done the same thing. That official, Bill Henderson, has since died, but his wife reviewed a written record of his statements shared by NPR this year.

"No living inmate or staff member who knew Bill Henderson would say that Bill was anything less than a fair and honest man," Moni Henderson said. "I doubt Bill represented many at Parole Board hearings but, if he felt he could make a difference based on his knowledge and facts, Bill would not hesitate to stand up for inmates [and staff alike]. I knew the man for almost 35 years and say that with confidence."

The effort to get him out

Grimmer fears that her cousin Clark is at risk in prison now.

"He said, 'The younger guys, they're like picking on me,' " Grimmer said. "And I told him, I say, 'Kent, you got to you got to try to stay safe and you got to stay to yourself. You know, I said walk around with the Bible in your hand and that'll help, you know, and you just read the Bible when you're out in like the general population.' "

Grimmer has petitioned the authorities for her cousin's medical records and enlisted a lawyer to try to win his release.

Rahul Sharma, an assistant federal public defender in New Jersey, said he believes "the court has both a moral and a legal obligation to conduct an expedited resentencing for Mr. Clark."

Sharma told a judge he has doubts about the strength of the evidence from all those years ago. Biological samples are long gone, so there's no ability to test for DNA using new and better technology. Sharma said Clark is "suffering dearly" in prison and he wrote the judge that a prison worker recently told him Clark is "out of his goddamn mind."

People who advocate on behalf of prisoners said they tend to be less healthy than the general population; inmates over age 50 are considered "geriatric."

"Many people who are incarcerated have significant preexisting health conditions," said Kara Gotsch, deputy director of the Sentencing Project, which works to promote shorter prison sentences. "They have histories of substance use disorder, they have serious mental illness issues. And so they already have compromised health systems going in. Being incarcerated exacerbates that problem."

As for Kent Clark, the U.S. Parole Commission reviewed his case last year. According to written records, Clark's case manager told the commission that Clark is showing signs of dementia. He pointed out that as a young man, Clark was a boxer who may have a history of head injuries.

But the parole examiner denied Clark's bid for release. The examiner wrote that if Clark can't remember what he did, "how can the Commission be certain he has learned something from his mistakes and/or that he has developed the skills to avoid engaging in the same behavior?"

Gotsch, of the Sentencing Project, said the "old law" prisoners may have broken the law decades ago, but research suggests that crime is mostly a problem for young people, so they're not likely to do it again.

"Not surprisingly, as you get older you become more mature, you develop your brain functioning and decision-making process is much more advanced," she said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey is fighting Kent Clark's request for a shorter prison term that would send him home soon. Current Justice Department officials declined to speak about a pending case.

Last week the rape survivor in the case, whom NPR is not naming, said the damage to her family resounded for years. Her father died a year after the assault, before he could see anyone arrested for the crime.

"He took away my dad from me," she said. "Whatever his family wants to say ... he did commit a rape."

Asked about Clark's new attempt at release, she said she didn't "want to play judge and jury. It's been a lot of years." But, she added, she believes he would be convicted again if the crime happened now.

Paul Fishman, who prosecuted Clark in 1990, told NPR that he, the jury and the judge all thought that Clark was "guilty — beyond a reasonable doubt."

Fishman said it's hard to say now whether the life sentence was too long. It may well be that circumstances have changed, 30 years later, but Fishman said he doesn't know enough to say.

The Parole Commission is scheduled to grant Clark another hearing in 2022. He will be 67 years old.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.