Over 100 people crowded the sidewalk outside the legislative office building in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday evening. They were mourning the death of 61-year-old Valerie Gaiter, New York’s longest-serving woman prisoner, who died last Tuesday. Among the mourners were dozens of women who had served time with Gaiter. Many wore shirts emblazoned with Gaiter’s face.
The protesters were also demanding that legislators pass the Elder Parole bill, which would require an immediate parole interview for people ages 55 and older who had served at least 15 years of their sentence. Nine percent (or 203) of the 2,255 women in New York’s prison system, and 5,767 of the state’s 45,986 prisoners would have become immediately eligible for parole; Gaiter would have been one of them. But the bill stalled in committee this past session and while advocates hope it will pass when the legislature reconvenes in January, it comes too late for Gaiter.
Valerie Gaiter with one of the many service dogs she trained in the Puppies Behind Bars program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (courtesy of Release Aging People in Prison)
Gaiter had been imprisoned since 1979 for the robbery and fatal stabbing of an elderly couple in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Gaiter, then age 21, and her 17-year-old co-defendant were sentenced to 50 years to life, meaning that without the Elder Parole bill, they would not be eligible for their first parole hearing for 50 years. (Gaiter’s co-defendant Roslyn Smith was resentenced to 25 years to life and paroled last year.)
While in prison, Gaiter trained service dogs for wounded veterans, ran the photography program, facilitated the prison’s anger management program and earned multiple degrees. She also mentored the women around her.
Jennifer Duncan entered Bedford in 1991. “I was a wild child because I was under 21,” she told Gothamist. “She would pull me back and say, ‘What you doin’ Badness? Do the right thing.’ She was always trying to instill positivity in me.”
In recent years, Gaiter began complaining about pain in her throat area and trouble swallowing. In February 2017, a stent was placed in her esophagus. Days before her death, she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer which had metastasized and spread to her stomach. Her weight had dropped to 84 pounds.
When Duncan, who was released in 2003, learned about Gaiter’s hospitalization, she attempted to visit. But because Gaiter was in the prison unit of the Mount Vernon Hospital, she could not.
In 2012, Gaiter applied for clemency, or a shortening of her prison sentence. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who launched a clemency initiative three years later in 2015, denied her application.
“The worst part was watching Valerie do everything possible in the past 40 years to prove that she was changed and worthy of release only to die in shackles,” Gaiter’s older brother Samuel told the crowds. “The governor and state legislature need to take action to ensure these tragedies don’t continue happening. We got a lot of old-timers up there; let them come home and be productive rather than stay there and die in shackles.”
Since 2011, when Cuomo first became governor, over 1,000 people have died in the state prison system. During his three terms, the governor has granted 18 commutations, 65 pardons (which expunges people's convictions after they've been released from prison), and 140 youth pardons (in which people convicted as minors have their convictions expunged).
Valerie Seeley is one of those eighteen. Seeley entered Bedford Hills in 2003 on a 19-to-life sentence for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. By then, Gaiter was 46 years old and working in the kitchen; kidney beans and chopped meat was one of her specialties. Later, both women were assigned to the prison’s highest honor unit, where they became friends. At times, Seeley became overwhelmed by the length of her sentence, but Gaiter encouraged her not to give up: “You know Seeley, you’re not going to be in here forever."
Gaiter was right. In December 2016, Cuomo granted Seeley clemency, allowing her to leave prison the next month. By then, Gaiter had already been sent to the hospital a few times. She had even been put on a diet of soft foods and liquids because of her difficulty swallowing. “She already did 40 years in prison. When she started getting sick, [the governor] should have given her medical clemency,” Seeley said.
Seeley is referring to medical parole, a rarely-used form of early release for people who are terminally ill or significant illness. “Of the 2,370 people who filed medical parole requests between 1992 and April 2012, 950 people died prior to having their application even certified,” Dave George, associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, testified at a 2017 hearing about prison health care.
Amanda Bashi of the Women’s Decarceration Practicum at Cornell Law School, had been finalizing another clemency petition for Gaiter. But she only learned about Gaiter’s diagnosis five days before her death and had no time to apply for medical parole.
“I’m calling on every Democratic lawmaker in this state to pass Elder Parole. No more elders dying in prison,” she said to the assembled mourners, who chanted, “The bill belongs to Valerie Gaiter!” Bill sponsor Senator Brad Hoylman and co-sponsor Senator Zellor Myrie vowed to push the bill in the next legislative session.
“Everybody can make a mistake,” Samuel Gaiter said. “She could have come home and helped a whole lot of women. She did it in there and you see the results with all the young ladies representing her,” he added, nodding at the crowd.
“Sadly, it always takes a tragedy to let people know that something is necessary,” RAPP co-founder and organizer Laura Whitehorn told Gothamist. “She would have gone to the parole board, she almost certainly would have been given parole, then she would have gotten some decent health care.”