A Grandfather’s Rare Freedom: The Hidden World of Incarcerated Elders

When initially sentenced as a child to between 40 to 80 years in prison, Kevin Butler struggled to grasp what a virtual life sentence meant. It seemed like the beginning of forever, a time too long to understand. An exceedingly rare commutation brought him freedom after 32 years of that sentence. But at that point he had lost most of his health, and the mother of his child.

Still, he exudes gratitude about his release. A grandfather of five at 58 years old, he relishes the opportunity he gets to spend with his family. “[That time] before I was incarcerated cannot compare to these last five weeks of me spending with my grandkids. It’s going to make me cry,” Kevin says. He’s well aware that’s a feat most people waiting for release in Kevin’s position don’t get to see.

Kevin’s situation is unique, in part because he dedicated his time to supporting the lives of other incarcerated people. Formerly the president of the Gray Panthers out of SCI Graterford, he led a multi-generational advocacy group in confronting ageism and other social justice issues. The chapter at Graterford is the only prison chapter of its kind, founded in 1980 and later revived by Kevin. 

His position is also unique because he is one of a rare few commutations out of the 7,000 elderly people in Pennsylvania prisons. Since 2015, Governor Wolf has granted only 38 commuted sentences. Amidst a rapid expansion of mass incarceration, the prison population swept in by mandatory minimums over the decades has only grown older while behind bars. Their sentence is not one of a secluded life incarcerated, but a sentence to die by incarceration.

“I thought I was going to die inside a jail”

Kevin’s initial sentence of up to 80 years meant coming to terms with the idea of life forever behind bars. “[The] first couple of years, it didn’t hit me. A lot of people say when they get their sentence that they don’t cry,” he offers. “I think when I got to the third or fourth year, I did shed a couple of tears because I was dealing with the fact that I wasn’t going to leave. I thought I was going to die inside a jail.” 

Like many people initially sentenced for a lengthy sentence in their twenties, the first few years prove to be very difficult. “I was so angry, I was kicked out of 13 facilities.” At only the age of 25 when sentenced, he was similar to so many others: it is now understood that crime increases throughout adolescence and then peaks at age 17. People are found to age out of crime and violent behavior, with rapidly decreasing recidivism rates after the age of 40. This is true even for those who have histories of serious, persistent, and even violent crime in their youth.

“When I got to the third or fourth year, I did shed a couple of tears because I was dealing with the fact that I wasn’t going to leave. I thought I was going to die inside a jail.”

Kevin was originally approved for commutation in September, but it was pushed back until February 11th. The mother of his son had been sick, and anxiously awaiting his return home for a long time. “Anybody could tell you in any of those facilities, I always talked about [her]. She was the only woman that I [had] ever been in love with. It was the love of my life. Do you know when the governor signed my commutation? February the eleventh. She passed away on February eleventh.” He left a free man, but one in mourning.

Cynthia Alvarado (left) and Kevin Butler (right)

Prisons grow, people grow older

Kevin’s virtual life sentence was undeniably harsh considering the circumstances of the crime. He was convicted of robbery, a third-degree felony usually punishable by up to 7 years of incarceration—but due to bodily injury caused during the felony, he ultimately faced 40-80 years.

Kevin points to this as just one piece of the development of mass incarceration keeping more people like him locked up. “When I was first incarcerated,” he explains, “in the late eighties, there [were] only seven facilities. Now I think it’s up to twenty-eight.” His experience with others serving lengthy sentences is that they rarely ever get out after the minimum number of years of their sentence has passed. 

At 58, he was one of over 7,000 incarcerated people that are over the age of 55, an age that some lawmakers, prison reform advocates, and academics consider geriatric due to the rapid aging that incarcerated people are subjected to. The harsh conditions of prison result in younger onset health problems and psychological issues like depression and dementia. A person at a healthy 55 on the outside is late in life on the inside. 

“When I was first incarcerated in the late eighties, there were only seven facilities. Now I think it’s up to twenty-eight.”

“They don’t want to spend the money on you”

Kevin was confronted with the violent reality of prison aging when he needed a tumor on his bladder removed. The prison failed to take action because “they don’t want to spend the money on you, they make you just [wait], want to give you aspirins and Tylenol for every damn thing. So you have to go through a bunch just to go see an outside doctor,” he says. Only after pressure was put on by his family and they advocated for surgery were his urgent medical needs addressed.

While most prison medical services programs claim that every prison should have procedures for adequate healthcare, it is less common in practice. When possible, the process to receive proper care outside of a facility can be long and complicated. Some people will die waiting for medical conditions to be taken seriously. Prisons are not set up to provide care for the aging—nor are they incentivized to.

A chance for parole means life after prison

As Kevin rebuilds his life post-release and looks forward to his future, he can’t forget the people he mentored who are still incarcerated. After serving ten years as the President of the Gray Panthers, he is looking to claim a seat at a different table. Politics, he says, is his passion. The next step is higher education: aiming for his bachelor’s degree in political science.

Kevin is not alone in his post-release dreams to leverage his experience and wisdom as an elder.  He has an opportunity to bridge generations in his community. Those who are currently serving life or virtual life sentences could offer the same community repair, if only they are given the chance for release sooner. Kevin wants to work with legislators on policies that could have an effect to free more geriatric incarcerated people—“I’m a coalition builder.”

If comprehensive medical and geriatric parole legislation was introduced like Senator Street’s recent bill SB 835, Kevin could have been home seven years ago. He could have spent time with the love of his life, and watched his grandkids grow up. Street’s bill would permit parole eligibility to anyone who is over the age of 55 who has served at least 25 years or half their sentence, or to anyone with a chronic medical condition. If this legislation succeeds, more people like Kevin Butler have a chance at returning home, healing intergenerational divides and the loss of broken families.

You can be part of the campaign to pass this bill and free more elders like Kevin. Contact us today to talk about how you could play a role in the movement.

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