by Kelan Lyons, NC Newsline
Earlier this week NC Newsline published an in-depth story about Bobby Norfleet, a 67-year-old man who was sentenced to life in prison in 1979. The story is about the myriad ways the justice system failed Norfleet, a poor and disabled Black man who grew up in a big, loving family in small Eastern North Carolina towns in the 1960s.
Two of those failures stem from North Carolina’s parole system and the state’s narrow laws on the medical release of elderly, disabled and sick incarcerated people.
Norfleet wasn’t the only person in state prisons who was elderly and eligible for parole. He wasn’t close to the oldest.
That distinction belongs to Harold White, a white man born in 1926. He is 96 years old. Convicted in 1993 of first-degree sexual assault, White was first eligible for parole in 2017. He has had one infraction since entering the prison system. It was in 2001. As of last month, he had been in a minimum-security prison, but the prison system currently lists his location as “not public information.”
Data provided by Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice, provide a glimpse into how many people in North Carolina prisons are in situations similar to Norfleet’s and White’s. As of March 4, there were 498 people in North Carolina prisons who are older than age 65 and eligible for parole. Most are male; just nine are female.
Almost half are Black.
Dee Atkinson has been imprisoned the longest, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder since Dec. 2, 1960. He is an 82-year-old white man in a minimum-security prison. His parole eligibility date was Feb. 4, 1982. He has had six infractions since 1960, the last of which was in 1980.
An automatic and impersonal review
Incarcerated people do not apply for parole. They become eligible based on the laws in place at the time of their conviction. Members of the Parole Commission conduct a review of each person’s file and vote independently whether that person can get out of prison. The decision doesn’t have to be unanimous; it can just be a majority.
The commissioners do not meet with the incarcerated person. They make their decision based on a case file, information from the prison system, and the thoughts of victims, family members and “any other interested parties,” according to the Department of Public Safety.
Members of the commission do not base their decision on just one factor. They consider the nature and context of the crime, the individual’s criminal record, their conduct in prison, and their participation in rehabilitative programs while incarcerated. Those who advance beyond the first stage are the subject of an investigation, in which commissioners weigh additional information, like a person’s plans once they’re released and what police and court officials think about them getting paroled.
Once an incarcerated person is parole-eligible, the commission must review the case at least once per year, except for people convicted of first- or second-degree murder; those cases are reviewed every three years. The cases of people convicted of sexually violent offenses are reviewed every two years.
Even for sick and very old prisoners, a high bar
Most of the people in Finholt’s dataset were convicted of serious, violent crimes. More than 200 were convicted of first- or second-degree murder. More than 150 were imprisoned for rape, and about another dozen were convicted of sexually assaulting a child younger than age 13. Eighty people were serving time for some other sexual offense.
Some were serving sentences for less violent crimes. A dozen were in for burglary. Five were considered “habitual felons,” which means they were convicted of three felonies before getting locked up for good. All of those individuals were convicted between 1987 and 1993.
Many of them are also very old. There are two people in their 90s, 25 people in their 80s and 221 individuals in their 70s.
But as Finholt pointed out in a previous interview with Newsline, age isn’t enough for a person to get sent home on medical release.
To qualify, imprisoned people must be so sick that they’re likely to die within six months, have a condition that makes them “permanently and totally disabled,” or be at least 65 years old and have chronic, debilitating diseases related to aging.
In each instance, the sick, elderly or disabled person must be so ill that they don’t pose a public safety risk.
“You do have to essentially be dying in order to access that medical or compassionate release provision and policy from inside a North Carolina prison,” Finholt said. “There’s no provision for ‘age’ at all.”
Many of the individuals also don’t have an extensive history of getting in trouble during their imprisonment. Thomas Bonney, a 91-year-old white man imprisoned for murder, has never received a disciplinary infraction since going to prison in 2007. He is currently incarcerated at a minimum-security facility. More than 30 other elderly prisoners have never received an infarction.
Edward Cummings, an 82-year-old Black man convicted of murder, also hasn’t received an infraction since arriving to prison in 1987. He, too, is at a minimum-security facility.
All told, 316 people are in “minimum custody,” according to the dataset Finholt provided. Fifteen are in “close custody,” among those considered by the prison system to present the most serious risk to others. The remaining 167 are in “medium custody.”
Almost 230 people — about 45% of the dataset — had received fewer than 10 infractions during their time in prison. By contrast, 123 people had 30 or more infractions. More than 20 people had 100 or more infractions.
James Johnson, a 66-year-old man serving a life sentence for rape who has been in prison since 1981, has the most, at 197 infractions. Despite his apparent proclivity for getting in trouble, he is being held in a minimum custody prison.
Disability Rights North Carolina, which was instrumental in Norfleet’s release from prison, contends that imprisoned people can be given infractions for a broad array of actions. Some infractions are meted out for serious behavior, like possessing drugs or a weapon. But others are given for conduct that would be a misdemeanor outside of prison, or that wouldn’t even be criminalized in the free world.
According to a legislative report prepared by the Department of Public Safety, the most common infraction in the 2020-2021 fiscal year was disobeying an order. More than 4,500 infractions were for profane language.
“There are so many low-level discretionary infractions that correction officers can issue,” Susan Pollitt, a supervising attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina, told Newsline in a previous interview. “You seem to have to be perfect to be paroled.”
Click here to read NC Newsline’s story about Norfleet’s life.
This story was written by Kelan Lyons, an investigative reporter at the North Carolina Newsline, where this story first appeared.
NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: email@example.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.