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Locked Behind Bars and Out of Reach of Social Security

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By Frederick H. Lowe

CHICAGO—In an unprecedented move, Chicago officials have agreed to pay $5.5 million in reparations to black men who spent decades in prison after police tortured them into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.

Black men who serve long sentences in prison lose out on Social Security Retirement Benefits.
Black men who serve long sentences in prison lose out on Social Security Retirement Benefits.

Although each man could receive as much as $100,000 before taxes, the settlement points to another major financial roadblock a corrupt and racist police, prosecutorial and judicial system drops in the path of black men who have been wrongfully convicted.

The Loss of Youth and Social Security

As a result of their arrests, convictions and decades behind bars beginning at young ages, wrongfully convicted men spent their most-productive years in prison. They were prevented from working at jobs that provided pensions and that paid into the Social Security Benefits System for their retirement beginning at age 62.

Their loss of youth and income in this instance was caused by now disgraced former Chicago police Commander Jon Burge and his subordinates.

Burge and his so-called midnight crew tortured 120 African-American men between 1972 and 1991, using electric shock, mock executions, suffocation and beatings.

The police department finally fired Burge in 1993. He was convicted of perjury in 2010 for lying about having tortured accused men, but not about torture itself because the statute of limitations had expired. A judge sentenced Burge, former commander of Area 2 and Area 3 on the mostly African-American South and West Sides, to 4 1/2 years in prison. He was released in October 2014.

During a Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday at Chicago City Hall, Stephen R. Patton, Chicago’s Corporation Counsel, a key participant in the deal to pay the men reparations, said many of them are now senior citizens.

The Corporation Counsel’s spokesman said the government department did not have exact demographic data, such as ages, on all the men who would be eligible to receive reparations.

One-Time Lift in Income

Although the reparations checks will provide a one-time bump income for men who literally have had nothing for decades that money could quickly run out so they will need monthly source of regular income to pay rent, buy food, gas, ride the bus or see a movie. To achieve that goal these senior citizens who lack work skills and education face a steep climb.

Arresting and convicting innocent black men is systemic in the nation’s police departments, prosecutors’ offices and courts.

Released from Prison as an Old Man

Joseph Sledge was sentenced to prison as a young man and came out as a senior citizen.
Joseph Sledge was sentenced to prison as a young man and came out as a senior citizen.

Joseph Sledge is an example of an African-American man who spent most of his life in prison for a double murder he didn’t commit.

Sledge was 33 when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1978 for the 1976 murders of a mother and her daughter in their Elizabethtown, N.C., home. He was a 70-year old senior citizen when he was released from prison in January after spending 37 years behind bars before DNA evidence proved he wasn’t the women’s killer.

Sledge is eligible for $750,000 in state compensation, but he probably does not qualify for Social Security retirement benefits because the nearly four decades he spent in prison prevented him from holding a job that paid into the fund, said Christine Mumma, his lawyer.

A spokesman for the Social Security Administration said a person needs 40 credits (quarters) or 10 years of work to qualify for Social Security Retirement Benefits. “Social Security does not have a program that compensates wrongfully convicted individuals with no work history,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Bryan L. Sykes, assistant professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California at Irvine, said African-American men with felonies face barriers to employment and wage growth, thereby lessening their qualifications for Social Security.

Wrongfully convicted men released from prison after decades behind bars receive the most attention because some of us read about them and believe when they are freed justice has finally been achieved. Last year, 125 people were exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit, according to The National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School. Historically 60 percent of exonerees are African-American men.

Black men who are mentally ill and never held a job because of their illness, and African-Americans who cannot find work because of race discrimination or who are paid under the table also don’t receive Social Security retirement benefits.

Lack of Social Security by the Numbers

Data concerning black men who don’t receive Social Security Retirement Benefits is scant.

The total number of African Americans 65 years old and older who receive Social Security was 2.9 million based on 2012 data, said Sara E. Rix, senior strategic policy advisor, economics team at AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

Of the nearly 3 million African Americans 65 years old and older who receive Social Security, 15.82 percent or 563,028 do not, Rix said.

“There are approximately 311,000 total males over the age 60 who do not qualify for Social Security retirement, due to not having worked enough quarters. Of the 311,000 total males, approximately 45,000 are African-American men,” Ben Stump, a spokesman for the National Social Security Administration, wrote in an email. This information is based on a small study.

Not Enough Quarters

Andrew Burrell, 68, is one of those black men who comes close but doesn’t have the required 40 credits to receive Social Security retirement benefits. “I have 37 quarters,” said Burrell who lost his job as an automobile spray painter for Maaco in 1978 after suffering a nervous breakdown on the job. Police escorted him from Maaco and took him to Chicago-Read Mental Health Center.

“I have gone to the Social Security office six or eight times to get my Social Security but they won’t give it to me, “Burrell said. He has been psychiatrically hospitalized several more times, making it impossible to get hired.

Burrell lives on $740 a month Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is designed to help disabled people who don’t have any income. If he qualified for Social Security Retirement Benefits, Burrell said he would receive more than $1,000 a month.

David Nero-Mailey, who has been in and out of mental hospitals, said he never has held a paying job, but he volunteered at three Chicago hospitals for 25 years, working in their mailrooms.

The 58-year-old Mailey, however, is proud of his late father, John B. Mailey, a janitor, who worked a job that paid into Social Security.

Holmes’ Story

Anthony Holmes has a different story to tell.

Holmes confessed to a murder he didn’t commit after being tortured by Burge and his crew. Holmes spent 30 years in prison before being released in 2004 on probation, his lawyer G. Flint Taylor told NorthStar News Today. Com and Blackmansstreet.Today. Holmes’ conviction has not been overturned.

Holmes, who is 69, testified at the Chicago City Council Finance Committee hearing. Sometimes he stopped talking to wipe away tears. Holmes said he couldn’t get job when he got out of prison. “This has been very hard on me and my family,” he told the standing-room only hearing of mostly white women, many of them wearing “Reparations Now” t-shirts.

The audience gave him a standing ovation before and after his testimony.

In a research paper titled “One Strike and You’re Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records,” Rebecca Vallas and Sharon Dietrich, the authors, wrote that people with convictions face barriers to employment, housing, public assistance and education and this significantly affects black men.

“These barriers adversely impact not only individuals, but also their families, communities, and the entire economy: the U.S. loses an estimated $65 billion per year in gross domestic product due to the unemployment of people with criminal records,” wrote Vallas and Dietrich.

Holmes finally found work as a day laborer, loading newspapers on trucks.

Meanwhile, Burge, Holmes’ torturer, collects $4,000 a month from his police pension and lives in Florida. The city of Chicago also has spent $21.8 million defending Burge in court.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Amnesty International, USA, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, an umbrella organization that includes Black People Against Police Torture, reached the agreement concerning reparations. The entire 50-member Chicago City Council will vote on the reparations ordinance next month.

Frederick  H. Lowe wrote this article with support from a journalism fellowship provided by New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation.


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