Razor wire fence.

Seniors Behind Bars

by Kathryn Larlee, J.D., Hotline Attorney

Helen was serving a life sentence in prison. At age 85, she went before the parole board. Her kidneys were failing and she required dialysis twice a week. The parole board found her to be a threat to society because “she did not have firm employment plans.” At age 86, Helen died in prison. For more about Helen’s story read Tenacious: Art and Writings by Women in Prison.

In the U.S., the population of seniors in prison has increased substantially since the 1980’s. According to a study conducted by the Department of Justice, there are over 160,000 inmates over the age of 50 behind bars in Federal prisons, bringing the senior population to 19% of the total prison population.

The cost to taxpayers is an additional $16 billion because of the higher costs of care for older inmates. “Prisons simply are not physically designed to accommodate the infirmities that come with age,” said Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and an author of a report titled “Old Behind Bars.”

The cost to inmates and their families is the denial of dignity and the opportunity to die at home according to the ACLU in a report titled “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.”

The prison culture is violent and aging inmates are more vulnerable to abuse than other prisoners and more likely to die as a result of abuse. About 3,000 older prisoners die each year from poor medical treatment, overcrowding, and abuse. Many of these inmates are serving time for drug convictions, or have been sentenced to life without parole because of 3 strikes policies.

State laws permit compassionate release of prisoners who no longer are a threat because of aging, or health conditions, but prisoners sentenced under 3 strikes laws and harsh sentencing laws (i.e. the war on drugs) are excluded from this program. The decision to grant compassionate release rests with the Bureau of Prisons, and there is no appeal from a denial. So, a prisoner like Helen remains in prison at a cost of almost $1 million a year because of the need for dialysis and the extra guards to shackle her and escort her to and from treatment.

The issues are complex and there are some prisoners who are not candidates for release. Arguments against compassionate release are that the person did the crime and has to serve the full sentence, otherwise justice will not be carried out. There are concerns that if even one person released under this program committed a violent crime, then the parole board members would not be seen as “tough on crime” and not very willing to protect the law abiding public.

However, both sides agree that the cost is enormous. The ACLU argues that the practice of keeping frail, dying, and non-violent offenders behind bars does not further the cause of justice. State officials argue that justice requires that the offender must serve his/her sentence without regard to physical health, because victims would not be served if offenders were not punished to the full extent.

The prison population is aging, and at a rapid pace, and regardless of the differences of opinion in how to address this growing population, the costs will continue to grow as well.

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