Yohannes Johnson is serving 75 years to life in a remote upstate New York prison, behind 30-foot concrete walls and locked steel doors, 300 miles and 30 years and 10 months from home in New York City.
He measures time in long, slow, personal change. And he maintains hope he will, someday, walk outside the Clinton Correction Facility.
"One thing I don't do is subject myself to the thought I'll never leave prison," said Johnson, now 55, slender and soft-spoken, his hair flecked with gray. He's a convicted robber and killer and president of the prison's Lifer's and Long-Termer's Organization, part of a growing club of inmates locked up for life nationwide. "I can't afford to do that. I do that, I lose hope. I lose hope then I don't care about anything. I don't care about anything then I become a detriment to myself and those around me."
Now, even corrections officials are considering different options for older inmates while some research suggests keeping them locked up until they die might be an expensive and unnecessary price for the public to pay.
Nationally, nearly 10 percent of more than 2.3 million inmates were serving life sentences in 2008, including 41,095 people doing life without parole, up 22 percent in five years, according to The Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to prison. The increase resulted from lawmakers "dramatically" expanding the types and repeat offenses that carry potential life terms, research analyst Ashley Nellis said.
"The theme is we're protecting society, then the question is: From what?" said Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog group. She said with the cost of keeping a state inmate $55,000 a year _ a cost that grows as they age and their medical needs increase _ a financial analysis shows that parole and probation are far cheaper punishments that can also satisfy the public need for retribution.
Meanwhile, data show new crimes by convicted felons steadily declining from their teens through their dotage.
"Most criminal behavior is tied with impulse control. The section of the brain that controls impulse control is the last section of the brain that becomes fully developed," Elijah said. There's a large drop-off in criminal behavior and recidivism after 40 or 45, she said, a point seldom made in public discussion "because it's not convenient. It doesn't dovetail with the kind of tough-on-crime mentality that results in votes."
Patricia Gioia, whose daughter was murdered 26 years ago in California and who runs the Albany chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, said killers should spend their lives locked up, contemplating what they did, the person whose life they took and the lifelong suffering of families and friends. "They should in effect be punished for this and should not enjoy the freedom that other people have to wander the world," she said.
The lifers know well the patterns of youth.
"In the `80s I used to say, `No, I don't regret nothing. I'd do it all again,'" Johnson said. "In the `90s I realized it was that attitude that got me in the position I'm in."
Johnson went to prison at 17 for attempted robbery and again at 21 for grand larceny and attempted weapon possession. In 1982, at age 24, he was convicted of murder, attempted murder and robbery for shotgun holdups of cabdrivers in Manhattan and killing a driver.
Some of the lifers and long-termers meeting last week discussed Dannemora's younger prisoners, whom they variously described as still having "a child-like mentality," overriding selfishness, a tendency to respond to difficulties with violence and those "who just don't know how to conduct themselves."
"We got a lot of young brothers in here who are going to return back to society," said Doran Evans, a thick-shouldered man doing life without parole for murder. "As lifers we've got an obligation."
This autumn day, Johnson was surrounded by 18 others in one of their few respites. The Lifer's and Long Termer's Organization is a break from the numbing monotony of maximum prison: Walking in lines through locked doors and gray halls on fixed schedules to and from meals, and nine hours a night spent in 6-by-8-foot cells, where anyone's policy infractions can mean punishment for all.
About two dozen prisoners among more than 2,000 men at the maximum-security main prison attend the weekly three-hour meetings. Far more could qualify: 458 are serving 15 years to life, 712 doing 25 to life and 40 sentenced to life without parole.
Through barred or mesh-screened windows, they can see the Adirondack Mountains, which were turning gold and burnt orange. A freestanding stone Catholic church, built inside the walls by inmates in the 1930s, is called the Church of the Good Thief. Its patron is St. Dismas, crucified next to Jesus.
The meeting is part therapy and brainstorming session for the men in forest-green pants and shirts or sweat shirts and sneakers, an opportunity to vent. Issues included changes in television reception, the number of prisoners allowed to use the electronic law library, keeping the prison peaceful and avoiding lockdowns, and collecting clothing and food for Hurricane Irene relief.
According to some older lifers at Clinton, they are no longer a threat and should be let go. Prisoner advocates say the same, pointing to New York and new California data showing they commit few crimes if paroled.
"After a 10-year stretch, our recidivism rate is nearly zero," said Michael Mack, 48, an outgoing ex-Marine serving 30 years at Clinton for two separate robbery convictions, one he said he did. "So there's no need to be resentencing us like they do" with tougher sentences, he said.
A Stanford University study in September showed the recidivism rate was less than 1 percent among 860 murderers paroled in California since 1995. Five returned to prison for new felonies, none for similar life-term crimes.
By contrast, nearly 49 percent of all released California inmates were recommitted for new crimes.
"Not only are most violent crimes committed by people under 30, but even the criminality that continues after that declines drastically after age 40 and even more so after age 50," the study found. In New York, the number of lifers with few prospects for release has grown in the past decade, tracking a national trend and raising a new set of criminal justice policy questions.
"What kind of treatment programs should we be considering for the offenders who have a sentence of life without parole, or enter the system with sentences of 50 years to life?" Commissioner Brian Fischer asked recently on the 40th anniversary of the deadly riots at Attica, another maximum-security prison in New York. Since the state's 1996 sentencing amendments for capital crimes, establishing life without parole for first-degree murder, inmates with that sentence rose from four to 223, with 15 more expected each year, he said.
New York now has more than 800 prisoners who are 65 or older, double the total a decade ago. It has no death penalty, though 34 states and the federal government do. Federal prisons held 3,254 inmates age 66 or older in August, up from 1,326 in 2000.
From 1985 to 2006 in New York, 72 prisoners released when they were over 65 were returned for new crimes, less than 5 percent.
The lifers say they have something more positive to give back home.
"Those communities we came from, we left them in shambles," Johnson said. "There's a generation behind us and a generation behind them that thinks prison is a rite of passage."
In the lifers meeting, even foul language is barred. Johnson said they should speak to each other the way they do the parole board.
"You have to be thinking for the next man, the man ahead of you and the man behind you so that they don't do something out of stupidity and out of ignorance that can lead to a lockdown," he said. "We have to learn to live among people without creating havoc."
It's a timely lesson they say they can take outside the prison first built in 1845.
"We can't have a bad day," Mack said. "I have to be respectful. For me to have a bad day can cost me my life."
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