Aging Americans are becoming just one more problem for America’s prisons, which already have enough to deal with. Old and very old Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the country’s prisoner population. Prison is difficult for any person; it is especially hard on seniors. The problem of aging prisoners is the subject of this report by Jamie Fellner and of a report by her organization.
Fellner points out that prisons have a hard time dealing with elderly prisoners because they are not equipped to do so. Prisons were never designed and are not operated to meet the needs of elderly people. Elderly prisoners also have expensive medical needs that prisons find it hard to meet and expensive to pay for.
Another problem is the cost of caring for elderly people, in prison or outside. Elderly people have increasing medical needs, including dealing with chronic diseases. People outside of prisons often reach the point of needing assisted living or nursing home care, either because of dementia or physical disabilities. Fellner recalls a prisoner who needed assistance from the prison staff to tell his right shoe from his left one. She also mentions seeing a game of bingo in prison where the staff had to put the markers on the bingo cards because the inmates couldn’t handle it.
One big reason for the presence of so many old people in prison is lengthy sentences imposed at the state and federal levels, often for drug-related offenses. States especially have enacted harsh mandatory minimum sentences and prior offender laws, including “three strikes” laws that impose life sentences. Sentences like these, including consecutive sentences, serve to assure that more and more people will grow old and die behind bars.
Fellner points out that the U.S. has about 1.5 million prisoners, 200,000 of them in federal prisons. Federal clemency programs are helpful, but the majority of the prison population won’t be helped by federal efforts. Fellner suggests that it is time for states to examine their sentencing plans, including mandatory minimums that eliminate any judicial discretion, and ask whether the lengths of sentences being imposed under their laws are serving any useful purpose or whether these things are left-over political window dressing from times when politicians were trying to look tough on law and order issues.
Fellner also says that all correctional systems need to look at the back end of sentences imposed under their laws and inquire into any possible benefit of keeping old people locked up. It might be sensible to release older prisoners with physical or mental problems to some environment or facility other than a prison. People who no longer post a public risk need not be locked up in prisons. It’s important to weigh not only the needs of prisoners and the concerns of victims, but also the burden placed on taxpayers to warehouse older people who carry high incarceration costs.
Another issue, Fellner notes, is the availability of medical care to old people released from prison. On the other hand, “it’s not a good argument to say [that we’ll] keep them in prison because life on the outside is tough.” There is no Medicare or Medicaid support in prison as there would be for someone in the community. Prisons should be reserved for people who “have offended us deeply” and pose such a risk that they need to be locked up. And old people are less likely to commit violent crimes than young people.
Jamie Fellner is a Senior Advisor with the US Human Rights Watch. She specializes in US criminal justice issues, including prison conditions, the incarceration of the mentally ill, sentencing, the death penalty, and drug law enforcement. From 2001 to 2007, she was the first director of Human Rights Watch's US program, supervising research and advocacy on US counterterrorism policies, immigration, and the criminal justice system. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.