Peter Bergne

Footnote to What It is Like to Be an Older Inmate Doing Time in Prison

By Peter Bergne | October 28, 2019
Mount Tamalpais College

Published in the November 2019 newsletter, which you can read in its entirety here.

Being incarcerated is physically and mentally stressful enough, even for a young, able-bodied person, but for someone older, the challenges are even more intense. When I invited Peter Bergne to write for this newsletter about the experience of being incarcerated while an elderly person, I imagined he would write about the vulnerability to abuse or exploitation, the sense of social isolation, challenges of accessing medical care, lack of appropriate toiletries, poor nutrition, sleeping on a bad mattress with older bones, or the fear of being involuntarily moved to another prison with far fewer programs due to one’s physical limitations. Instead he wrote a very personal account of what it is like to be repeatedly denied parole. My immediate reaction was to think he’d veered off topic, so I asked him to write some more in response to the original prompt. It was only when I saw his second response that I realized that he was in fact answering the question. I am grateful to Peter both for writing this piece, and for his patience with me. —Jody Lewen

My life as an older inmate is different in that it is more oppressive psychologically, and it is the egregious unconstitutional prison overcrowding that has made incarceration much more difficult today. This is only one issue. Secondly, the isolation and very restricted contact with people on the outside is a problem for older inmates who need better interaction with community volunteers and reentry facilities. Also, time is very valuable to older inmates who are trying in good faith to salvage what time they have left in a free society under parole supervision.

What is not understood very well by others outside in society are the overt abuses in the state’s existing parole system. Life in prison would be made a lot better and more fair if elderly prisoners would be released unconditionally without the “suitability” hurdle by the parole board commissioners if they have served more than 30 years and who 1) are over the age of 70, 2) have not taken the life of a police officer, child, or governmental official, 3) have not been sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole, 4) have not committed multiple murders, and 5) have not been convicted of first-degree murder except for those who have been granted relief by the courts pursuant to Senate Bill 1437.

Currently, and most unfortunately, California’s parole commissioners with their excessively broad authority and discretion over the fate of life-term prisoners create an atmosphere of fear and even terror in the hearts and minds of many elderly prisoners hoping to be released on parole. Like other deserving and reformed lifers, my 15-years-to-life term is being unjustly and unconstitutionally prolonged and unreasonably hampered by findings of “unsuitability” by unduly biased and prejudicial parole commissioners who have the unfettered liberty of using any one of a dozen or more “highly suggestive reasons” as a basis for denying parole.¹ This abusive practice needs to be overhauled and changed.

Finally, in a higher dimension of human and spiritual thought and awareness, I will add that the principalities and rulers of this Earth shall never dictate to me who I am, where I may be, or where I am going, for I am a reborn child of God and a new creature founded in Christ. I will never know what it is to be an old man because I am still young in spirit, mind, and body. Only my Father in heaven knows when, and if, I will ever become an old man.

¹”Highly subjective reasons” include, for example, “lack of insight,” “lack of remorse,” “lack of appreciation for the impact of a crime on the community,” etc. Also, there is unfair discrimination due to parole applicants’ autonomy, personal beliefs or sexual orientations or tastes in clear violation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and precedent set forth under Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 192 L. Ed. 2d 609, 621-631 (2015).

Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.