RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Sitting inside the U.S. prison system are about 150 people whose futures are especially uncertain. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports that the parole system is broken, and these prisoners, many of whom are now old and sick, don't have a lot of hope for release. Carrie is with us now to talk more. What, first off, just provoked you to start looking into the fates of these prisoners, Carrie?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Well, Democrats and Republicans in Congress - many of them say they want to reduce the federal prison population, and so does President Biden. And experts who study the system say this group could be one place to start, in part because these people have served in prison for decades. But these can be hard cases, and there are very few ways, as you said, for them to win release. Here's one story.
Davon-Marie Grimmer has been struggling to get help for more than a year for her cousin, Kent Clark. She says when he calls from prison, he asks to speak with relatives who are no longer alive. Sometimes, Grimmer says, Clark forgets the name of his cellmate. She's worried.
DAVON-MARIE GRIMMER: As far as I know, he hasn't received any medical attention for the dementia. He's just so vulnerable in there. He's 66 years old. He can't take care of himself.
JOHNSON: They grew up in the same house in Newark, N.J., but she hasn't seen him face-to-face since he went to prison 31 years ago. A jury convicted Clark of kidnapping and extortion. He was part of a crew that abducted a postal worker, stole his uniform and tricked its way into the home of a bank manager in 1985. The alleged ringleader of the scheme ran away.
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JOHNSON: That man was captured years later, after his girlfriend saw him on the TV show "America's Most Wanted." Then, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI and testify against Kent Clark at trial. He got five years. Clark got life with the possibility of parole. Prosecutors viewed Clark as a more serious threat because they said he raped the bank manager's daughter during the botched extortion. Clark always denied the rape. His blood, hair and fingerprints did not tie him to the crime scene.
Grimmer says her cousin's record has been clean more than 20 years. But in 1992, Clark killed another inmate he said was planning to rape him the next day. A warden at that prison later told the parole commission he would have done the same thing. Grimmer says Clark is at risk now.
GRIMMER: He said the younger guys - they're, like, picking on me. And I told him, I said, Kent, you got to try to stay safe, and you got to stay to yourself. I said, walk around, you know, with the Bible in your hand, and that will help. And read the Bible when you're out in, like, the general population.
JOHNSON: Grimmer has petitioned the authorities for her cousin's medical records, and she enlisted a lawyer to try to win his release. Rahul Sharma is an assistant federal public defender in New Jersey.
RAHUL SHARMA: I strongly believe that the court has both a moral and legal obligation to conduct an expedited resentencing for Mr. Clark.
JOHNSON: Sharma says he has doubts about the strength of the evidence. Biological samples are long gone, so there's no ability to test for DNA using new and better technology.
SHARMA: Mr. Clark is suffering dearly.
JOHNSON: Chuck Weisselberg says Clark isn't the only longtime federal prisoner who's suffering.
CHUCK WEISSELBERG: They are the oldest and most vulnerable cohort of people within the federal prison system today.
JOHNSON: Weisselberg is a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law and a former public defender. Today, about 150 people who were convicted of breaking federal law before November 1987 are still in prison. For them, he says, the odds aren't so good.
WEISSELBERG: Their only path for release is through the Parole Commission, an agency that's been dying for decades.
JOHNSON: The old law prisoners like Clark engaged in violence or drug trafficking decades ago. Most people don't remember them. In 2018, Congress made it easier for the sick and elderly to ask a judge for compassionate release, but that change didn't apply to this group. Even for lawmakers who want to reduce the prison population, these people are easy to overlook.
Kara Gotsch works to promote shorter sentences. She says the old law prisoners have done decades of hard time.
KARA GOTSCH: Many people who are incarcerated have significant pre-existing health conditions. 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.
JOHNSON: As for Kent Clark, the U.S. Parole Commission reviewed his case last year. Clark's case manager told the commission that Clark is showing signs of dementia. He pointed out, 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, quote, "how can the commission be certain he has learned something from his mistakes?"
But people fighting to reduce the size of prison say crime is mostly a problem for young people. Kara Gotsch says the old law prisoners may have broken the law decades ago, but they're not likely to do it again.
GOTSCH: Not surprisingly, as you get older, you become more mature. You develop your brain functioning and decision-making process is much more advanced.
JOHNSON: The U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey is fighting Clark's request for a shorter prison term. NPR is not naming the survivor of the rape. She says her father died a year later from stress and heartbreak. He didn't live long enough to see the arrests. She says it's been a lot of years, and she doesn't want to play judge or jury, but she's sure that Clark would have been convicted again if the crime happened today.
Paul Fishman prosecuted Clark in 1990. He told NPR he, the jury and the judge all thought that Clark was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The Parole Commission is scheduled to grant Clark another hearing in 2022. He will be 67 years old.
MARTIN: So, Carrie, is there any movement here in Washington, D.C. to deal with this group of vulnerable prisoners?
JOHNSON: There's a little. A bipartisan group of senators has proposed legislation to make these people eligible for compassionate release, to ask a judge for release. There's also a push maybe to try to get them in the line for clemency, but, Rachel, there are 15,000 clemency petitions. There's a huge backlog right now.
MARTIN: So it might be a long wait. NPR's Carrie Johnson, thank you so much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
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