Criminal justice forum showcases experiences of the formerly incarcerated

By Graham Schiltz, Contributor

Philip Newborn hasn’t had an easy life. He grew up in a home that grew marijuana and made whiskey — both things his parents, and eventually he, abused. He fractured his spine in three places in a tractor-trailer accident and recently suffered a heart attack.

Yet the phrase Newborn said most often in the telling of his story? “It’s a blessing.” 

Newborn used these three words as a mantra, talking about both positive and negative periods of his life – including the 28 years he spent in prison. Newborn was one of many panelists and speakers invited to the Community Criminal Justice Days on Oct. 17 and 18 at Eastern Mennonite University.

Growing Elderly Population in Prisons

The Institute for Reform and Solutions, an organization focused on changing the prison system in America, hosted the event. The two-day conference looked at the criminal justice system from a variety of angles, with topics ranging from restorative justice to reentry of former inmates into society.

One of these panels was “Releasing Aging Persons from Prison,” which featured Newborn and two other speakers who were all released after age 55. One panelist, Costella Forney, spent 15 years in Fluvanna Correctional Center until being released on geriatric parole in 2016. Her case is rare — 96 percent of inmates who apply to geriatric parole, meaning they are over 60 and have served 10 years, or are over 65 and have served five, are denied. The Truth in Sentencing law Virginia enacted in 1995 made it nearly impossible for convicted felons to be granted parole, as the law dictates that inmates have to serve 85% of their sentence before applying.

Panel organizer Wynonah Hogan in her 2016 documentary, “Rocktown Justice: UNLOCKED.”

Moderator and panel organizer Wynonah Hogan provided background information about prison reform, one she knows well as a young advocate. Two years ago, at age 17, she began a Shenandoah Valley chapter of the Aging People in Prison Human Rights Campaign, a national organization dedicated to the rights of older inmates. Before that, in 2016, she made “Rocktown Justice: UNLOCKED,” a documentary focused on overcrowding in the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Regional Jail. It’s been shown at high schools, colleges, churches — even Court Square Theater.

“This isn’t my first interview,” Hogan joked.

One of the issues Hogan highlighted most is how fast the aging population in prison is growing.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of prisoners aged 55 or older sentenced to over one year in state prison increased 400% between 1993 and 2013. Because of the Truth in Sentencing law, the older prison population is expected to continue its exponential growth. 

Another pressing issue is how, with age, comes the need for more and better quality medical care that prisons may or may not be equipped to provide. 

Incarceration itself can have negative effects on health, especially for those with chronic conditions – like the elderly. During the session, Forney said that she developed the need for a cane while in prison. Three years after being released, she no longer uses it.

Fellow panelist Richard Jackson suffered three heart attacks in prison, something that hasn’t happened to him since being released. 

All three expressed how prevalent the overdiagnosis of mental illness is. They also agreed that these diagnoses can be used against them in the parole process as proof that they aren’t mentally stable enough to return to society.

“There’s a lot of suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Forney said. “It looks like slavery. It’s inhumane.”

Rebuilding their Lives in Faith Communities

From the panelists’ testimonies, the best support they found once on the outside was in church. They hadn’t always been people of faith — Forney converted soon after being incarcerated in 2001, Newborn about ten years ago — but their faith has helped them both in and outside prison.

The man across the table from Newborn at lunch was his fellow congregation member, Mike Thompson. Thompson mentored the then-homeless Newborn after he was released from prison.

“We’re like family. That’s the reason they came today, because a family member was here speaking, so they come,” Newborn said. “If they need anything, all they gotta do is holler and I’ll be there.”

When Forney first entered prison, she vowed to be a better person if God gave her the strength to make it through her 15-year sentence. Now, she’s the pastor at John Wesley United Methodist Church, and was appointed to the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority in February..

“When I got out, I feel like God made good on the promise I made with him,” Forney said.

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