The number of women inmates serving life without the possibility of parole has risen 43% since 2008, adding to an already aging prison population nationwide, according to a new report from the Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for criminal justice policy changes.
That means nearly 2,000 women now serving life-without-parole sentences can expect to die in prison, according to the report released Wednesday. These “excessive” punishments contradict international human rights standards, according to the advocacy group, and women of color are disproportionately impacted, as are victims of abuse, according to the advocacy group.
“The circumstances that lead women to commit violent crimes are often complicated by a history of sexual and/or physical trauma,” the report’s authors wrote. “Women who serve life sentences report high levels of psychiatric disorders, histories of physical and sexual violence and previous suicide attempts.”
While there are still more men serving life-long sentences in federal and state prisons for violent crimes, the Sentencing Project found that 4,600 women are serving life-with-parole sentences, or a “virtual life sentence” of 50 years or more, in addition to those serving life-without-parole.
Tough-on-crime policies in the US have contributed to higher rates of mass incarceration in recent decades. The majority of women serving life-without-parole were convicted of first- or second-degree murder, according to the report, which was jointly produced with the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and the Cornell University Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.
But with the graying of prison populations, there have been increasing calls from advocates for compassionate releases as well as more generous clemency and pardon policies.
In New York, there are now more women than men who are 55 and older and serving a minimum of 10 years to a maximum of life in prison, according to data from the New York Department of Corrections that was obtained by CNN through a public records request. There were about 2,250 women in that category imprisoned in New York as of May, compared to less than 2,200 men.
Ross Kramer, director of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivor Initiative at the non-profit Sanctuary for Families, which is based in New York, says he’s seen many cases of gender violence survivors receiving “really extreme sentences, wrongfully.”
Kramer says that domestic violence survivors convicted of crimes against their abusers or coerced into crime by their abusers are “not the population that you have to deter from recidivism. These are individual life circumstances that put somebody in that position.”
Monica Szlekovics was 20 years old when she was sentenced in 1997 to 50 years to life for contributing to the kidnapping and murder of a man. Szlekovics says her then-husband was abusive and forced her to participate in the violent crime.
“I was broken and self-punishing for many years about what happened,” Szlekovics, now 45, told CNN. “The prosecution reinforced that I deserved to be punished.”
Szlekovics says she wallowed in guilt until she had a “pivotal conversation” with an older inmate who advised her to find redemption by moving forward. She said that during the next 23 years in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, she earned a degree in sociology and became part of a sorority of inmates also facing the rest of their lives behind bars.
By the time Szlekovics exhausted her appeals, she says she had started the clemency process.
“My attorney said that one day someone will listen to me,” Szlekovics said. “No one looks at the crime as a traumatic event, they don’t look at the individual who was a part of it. The clemency process is about the individual and what happened versus the legal side of the incident. It is a much more human experience.”
Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted Szlekovics clemency in 2019. Her sentence was commuted to time served with five years of post-release supervision.
In recent years, prosecutors and lawmakers across the country have used their discretion to tackle mass incarceration by passing laws and implementing policies aimed at offering inmates second chances, such as reviewing old cases to determine if sentences should be reduced.
“There’s an exponentially higher number of people who are wrongfully sentenced than wrongfully convicted,” Kramer says.
State lawmakers in New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in 2019, allowing judges to consider if the offender’s experience of domestic violence contributed to the crime before sentencing and allows certain convicted offenders to have their sentence revisited.
“Women are frequently responsible for a comparatively smaller role in certain violent crime scenarios, such as being a getaway driver,” the authors of the report wrote.
“Because they are sometimes coerced into involvement in such crimes by romantic partners or husbands, they are also often disproportionately punished where laws require identical punishments for all defendants regardless of their role in the crime.”
Evie Litwok, founder of Witness to Mass Incarceration, an organization that supports formerly incarcerated people, says that clemency, pardons and compassionate release should be exercised more frequently by governors, sitting presidents and prison wardens.
The Bureau of Prisons often rejected applications under the federal compassionate release program. Under the First Step Act of 2018, Congress expanded and changed the program by reducing the BOP’s authority over who should be considered and giving inmates the right to appeal.
But even with the changes and the coronavirus pandemic, only 21% of more than 12,000 applications were granted in 2020, according to the US Sentencing Commission’s Compassionate Release Data Report released in June.
The Sentencing Project found that 27% of people serving life without parole last year were at least 55 years old. Among the sample of women in the count, a “shocking” 44% are at least 55 years old, according to the report.
The oldest woman serving life is 91-year-old Alice Green, who has been imprisoned for 45 years in Pennsylvania for her role in a 1977 murder, the Sentencing Project found.
State inmates in 49 states and Washington, DC, also have an opportunity to receive compassionate release. The rules vary, but most programs allow for release for health reasons. And many states don’t release data on denials.
Litwok, 70, says mass incarceration in the US “reflects their lack of concern for human rights and decency.”
Litwok was 60 years old when she received a two-year sentence in federal prison for tax evasion and mail fraud. She served her time in two separate federal prisons and spent more than a month in solitary confinement.
“When I went to prison, I couldn’t carry my own laundry bag, it was physically difficult for me. I had to pay a younger person to do it for me,” Litwok said in an interview with CNN. “Topographically, when you’re walking in prison, you’re not walking on paved roads, you’re walking on pebbles and rocks and it’s easy to fall. You see women with walkers walking to lunch a mile down the road, and you find yourself in disbelief.”
Litwok said some inmates were unable to make it to the cafeteria in the 10-minute window that the guards allowed inmates to be in the hallways.
“Your age in prison is a problem. You’re in fear of falling because of the lack of medical care. I don’t know anyone who got a hip replacement or an MRI while in prison,” Litwok said.
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