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Prison Is No Place For The Elderly — Even Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort is in hell tonight. I know because I was there too.

I was 60 years old when I entered prison; Paul Manafort entered jail as a senior at age 69. It is frightening to be locked up the first time, knowing the nightmare is just beginning.

People applauded Paul Manafort’s arrest. Most of those people do not know what prison and jail does to your body. I do. I don’t applaud any older person’s incarceration, regardless of the crime, because I know we could punish people and hold them accountable in a more humane way.

The media speculated about where Manafort would be locked up with typically ignorant and stereotyping language. The D.C. jail is filled with murderers and rapists. The Virginia jail is a country club. Both stereotypes are incorrect.

Thirty-five percent of the D.C. jail’s population is people convicted of violent crimes. But they don’t pose the biggest risk to other incarcerated people — that comes from the very people entrusted with their safety and well-being. The D.C. jail has been sued repeatedly for not taking care of incarcerated people. It has been cited for numerous in-custody deaths due to lack of healthcare. And the Virginia facility is not a country club — no jail or prison is. No country club locks its members in cells. No jail or prison allows its prisoners to order drinks or meals. Every prisoner eats the same vile food.

Regardless of which facility you enter, the journey typically begins in the same way. My first stop was in the courthouse basement jail, where I sat on a cement bench for hours waiting to be taken to my designated jail. Paul Manafort was quickly driven from the courthouse, but he no doubt ended up sitting on a similar concrete bench during the booking process. I know how painful it is to sit on cement. It is particularly painful for elderly incarcerated people to sit on cement slabs, and to sleep on metal beds. Between back problems and fragile bones, elderly people face many physical challenges in jail.

During Paul Manafort’s booking process, he stood for his mugshot, then watched as guards put each of his fingers through a finger print machine.

Then Paul Manafort was strip searched. An officer took him into a cold and dingy room and ordered him to remove his clothes. He was asked to bend over and cough so the officer could check his anus for contraband.

It is at this point, during the first strip search, that 69 years of Paul Manafort’s life flashed before his eyes. It is at this point that everyone recognizes the freedom they’ve lost. The strip search on day one made Paul Manafort realize what he is facing. For me, the strip search was the most humiliating moment of my life. And Paul Manafort will have his dignity tested over and over.

Paul Manafort was then locked up for the night. He may continue to be locked up for years, with what will likely amount to a death sentence for a 69-year-old.

Should Paul Manafort be punished if convicted of a crime? Yes. In America we disregard age, young or old, when placing people in prison. People who have never been incarcerated have no idea of the harshness of prison. I know Paul Manafort needs to lose his freedom, but is mass incarceration the only choice we have?

The New York-based group Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) advocates for the release of elderly incarcerated people. I advocate for their release as well, because prison literally destroyed my back. I woke up every day crippled with pain from sleeping on a metal bed. I still have pain even three years after my release.

I expected to lose my freedom when I was convicted. I didn’t expect my life to be at risk every day. Only ignorant people think that being confined is easy. They know nothing of the sexual and physical violence and torture faced by incarcerated people.

More importantly, they do not understand that entering prison at an advanced age, or aging in prison, is dangerous for elderly people, who may be in prison with Alzheimer’s, dementia and heart conditions that require by-pass surgery.

I am not a fan of Paul Manafort. But I do understand what it is like to be old in prison. It is time to have the conversation about creating alternatives to incarceration for all elderly prisoners — including Paul Manafort.

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