By Donna Robinson
On Aug. 13, 2019, my life’s course changed forever. While visiting my daughter at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, 300 miles from my Buffalo home, I received news of Valerie Gaiter’s passing. She was one of my daughter’s mentors at Bedford Hills and died of cancer at 61 years old while in prison.
Gaiter was the longest-serving woman in New York State prisons, who served 41 years on a 50-year-to-life sentence. Her case exemplifies why state lawmakers must pass the Elder Parole Act.
Gaiter was convicted of a terrible crime, a robbery gone awry in which two people were tragically killed. Lives were lost, families permanently damaged, and a community was unhinged.
Based on the heinous facts of the crime, I would never have thought that Gaiter would mentor my daughter and generations of incarcerated women for decades after the crime she committed at 19 years old. However, when my daughter went from a stable homeowner, mother and grandmother, and hard-working Buffalonian to a maximum-security prison, I quickly realized Gaiter should be judged by more than her worst act.
My daughter is one of 2,434 people from Erie County currently incarcerated in New York State prisons, and one of hundreds of Buffalonians serving a life sentence. The rug was pulled from underneath her and our family when she was involved in a tragic crime – a rooming house fire where two men died from smoke inhalation. We were all devastated by the lives lost and the loss our family felt from a life sentence.
When my daughter entered prison, Gaiter embraced her, taught her survival skills, and mentored her. She encouraged her to pray and take college courses. What Gaiter did for my daughter, she also did for thousands of others. She prepared women to safely return home to their loved ones even though her sentence prohibited any meaningful chance at release.
Valerie Gaiter died before her 50-year-to-life sentence allowed her a second chance. Today, there are roughly 1,000 New Yorkers who face the same fate. They are sentenced to prison terms that leave no room for redemption or hope.
To begin to safely unravel New York’s system of permanent punishment, state lawmakers should pass elder parole, pending legislation in Albany that would allow the State Parole Board to individually assess the cases of people aged 55 and older who’ve served 15 or more years in prison.
While it is too late for Gaiter and so many others who have died behind bars, it’s not too late for lawmakers to support and pass this bill to make our punitive prisons more redemptive.
Donna Robinson is the Western New York community organizer for the Release Aging People in Prison campaign.