Cruel Imprisonment: Nearly 200,00 People Aged 55 and Older are Incarcerated in the US

September 27th 2019

Jail Cell ( Andrew Bardwell )

Jail Cell (Andrew Bardwell)

By Bill Berkowitz 

“Prisons in the United States contain an ever growing number of aging men and women who cannot readily climb stairs, haul themselves to the top bunk, or walk long distances to meals or the pill line; whose old bones suffer from thin mattresses and winter’s cold; who need wheelchairs, walkers, canes, portable oxygen, and hearing aids; who cannot get dressed, go to the bathroom, or bathe without help; and who are incontinent, forgetful, suffering chronic illnesses, extremely ill, and dying.” --  “Old Behind Bars: The Again Prison Population in the United States,” Human Rights Watch

Nearly 200,00 people aged 55 and older are incarcerated in the United States. If you are in prison long term, you are likely to be part of a phenomenon called “accelerated aging” where 50 is the new 65. According to “Old Behind Bars,” “the number of sentenced federal and state prisoners who are age 65 or older grew an astonishing 94 times faster than the total sentenced prisoner population between 2007 and 2010. The older prison population increased by 63 percent, while the total prison population grew by 0.7 percent during the same period.” 

Writing for JSTOR Daily, Hope Reese reportedthat “Of the 1.5 million adults currently in state and federal prisons, the 55+ demographic represents roughly twelve percent, which represents a 300 percent spike in the elderly population since 1999. In the six years between 2001 and 2007 alone, 8,486 people over the age of 55 died behind bars. And the problem is only intensifying. By 2030, the number of elderly prisoners is expected to reach 400,000—an alarming 4,400 percent increase since 1981, according to a 2012 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).”

The cost of taking care of aging prisoners is astronomical; in the neighborhood of $16 billion a year, according to a 2012 ACLU report. Tina Maschi, a Fordham University professor and former prison social worker who studies aging prisoners, told Reese that “it costs $68,000 a year to keep an aging person in prison, whereas it’s only $22,000 for a younger person.” 

In addition to numerous physical problems – including chronic illnesses -- that prisoners enter prison with -- and that are not very systematically treated -- mental health issues are a major concern. Prisoners suffer from a high level of high levels of trauma and stress. Reese reported that “50 percent of prisoners reportedly suffer from mental health issues, according to the American Psychological Association.”

Reese pointed out that “Beyond physical tolls, there’s the cost of social isolation and depression. Maschi worked conducting research in prisons for years, and was struck by the loneliness of prisoners, which was an even more severe problem for older adults, who could be more socially isolated. 

Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, and author of Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, has observed the “agony of being separated from family and community” among older prisoners she interviewed.” Older adults in prison, Bazelon said, “do the best they can and build a life within the walls. but it can be tremendously difficult.” 

Aging incarcerated women 

“Currently, almost 7,000 women are serving a life sentence at prisons in states including California, Alaska, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland and Utah, according to the Sentencing Project,” The Crime Report’s Cassie M. Chew recently reported

“Data show women receive life sentences at double the rate of males and are receiving convictions later in life,” Chew noted. “Combined with the general aging of the U.S. population these trends suggest that as the years of their sentences go by, the number of incarcerated women over age 50 will increase.”

Chew maintained that “The data indicate that women aging in prison, like their male counterparts, are sicker than non-incarcerated women. Because of this, the National Institute on Corrections and some state prisons systems classify inmates at ‘elderly’ when they turn age 50. Incarcerated females have higher rates of chronic medical disorders, psychiatric disorders and drug dependence before receiving a prison sentence than men. Once inside, they seek medical care two and a half times as often of male prisoners.”

Compassionate release isn’t very compassionate

There is a program called “compassionate release,” which according to Bazelon, is “part of the [prison reform] movement that includes clemency and commutation.” “Compassionate release” not only eases the burdens faced by prisoners, it can effectively curb the costs of taking care of aging prisoners. Perhaps more importantly, it illustrates that Americans still have a certain level of mercy for people that are old and sick. 

That being said, however, it is very difficult for prisoners to be granted “compassionate release.” According to Reese, “The Bureau [of Prisons] received 5,400 applications between 2013 and 2017, of which it approved only 6 percent (or 324).”

Some lawmakers are against providing compassionate release. Many make the case that those in prison are a threat to society. Or that they should pay their dues.

Reese noted that “But even once compassionate release is granted, it can be tough for former inmates to find places to go. They may not have families or friends to take them in, and in some hospital settings, ‘even if they’re dying,’ Maschi said, ‘they can be denied treatment.’”

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