Monday, February 20, 2012

U.S. Prisons Are Becoming Old Age Homes

I am not one of those who is opposed to the death penalty as a matter of principle or moral conviction, but I do admit that the judicial system in the U.S. is so flawed that it cannot be trusted to wield the power of life and death. There have been too many instances since America resumed executing prisoners back in the late 1970s in which innocent people have ended up on death row, wrongly convicted because of incompetence or even corruption in the criminal justice system.

Those who are adamantly opposed to capital punishment, however, have never sufficiently answered the question of exactly what society SHOULD do with those who commit heinous crimes such as premeditated murder. Most would just say, give 'em "life" imprisonment, without stopping to think what that really means. For what exactly do you do with an aging prisoner who has been behind bars for half a century, whose health is failing and who is no longer a threat to anyone. Do you let them back out on the street where they likely have no remaining living relatives or friends, let alone any ability to care for themselves? It's a very tricky issue that is about to get trickier, as reported last week by Digital Journal:
A dramatic increase of aging prisoners in the United States is leaving prison officials stretched in providing proper housing and medical care, and now find themselves operating “old age homes behind bars,” a new report reveals.

Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States, (pdf), a 104-page report by Human Rights Watch, reveals that in just three years, between 2007 and 2010, federal and state prisoners age 65 or older grew 94 times the rate of the total U.S. prison population. The number of prisoners age 65 or older is now 26,200, an increase of 63 percent.

“Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities, said Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the U.S. Program at HRW and author of the report, in a statement. “Yet US corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”

In U.S. state and federal prisons, the number of those incarcerated age 55 or older has nearly quadrupled between 1995 and 2010, a 282 percent spike, even as the total number of prisoners grew by 42 percent. There are now 124,400 prisoners age 55 or older.

According to the report, almost one in 10 state prisoners (9.6 percent) serves a life sentence. Additionally, 11.2 percent are serving sentences longer than 20 years.

The report notes that in New York, 28 percent of state prisoners age 60 or over have been in prison continuously for 20 or more years.

These long sentences mean many prisoners will be very old when leaving prison, if they leave at all.
The article doesn't explore the ramifications, but here is the biggest problem this situation is causing for the federal and state governments:
Medical expenses in relation to these aging populations are three to nine times higher, depending on the state, as for other prisoners. In Michigan, where the average annual health care cost for a prison inmate is estimated at $5,801, costs increase dramatically: from $11,000 for the 55-59 age group to $40,000 for those age 80 or older.
So, leaving aside any humanitarian concerns, the cost of housing a rapidly aging prison population is about to explode just at a time when the lingering affects of the Great Recession are decimating state budgets, yet it should be pretty clear that the solution is not to just dump these older convicts on the streets to fend for themselves. Ultimately, the routine imposition of long prison terms was yet another short-sighted public policy that has now left cash strapped prisons systems between a rock and a hard to speak.

Bonus: I wanted to use the "Brooks Was Here" clip from The Shawshank Redemption for this piece, but it was "embedding disabled" on You Tube. So here is some more Social Distortion instead:


  1. We are headed for generational warfare, I fear. When the kids figure out that the spoils have gone for good, I suspect they are going to be very angry.

    Interview with Springsteen:

    1. Sadly, though, the Boss doesn't really get it, either:

      Obama hasn't done bad, Springsteen says. "He kept General Motors alive, he got through healthcare - though not the public system I would have wanted - he killed Osama Bin Laden, and he brought sanity to the top level of government. But big business still has too much say in government and there has not been as many middle- or working-class voices in the administration as I expected. I thought Guantanamo would have been closed but now, but he got us out of Iraq and I guess we will soon be out of Afghanistan."

      1). General Motors should have been allowed to fail as should any business that is not viable post-peak oil.

      2). Obamacare is nothing more than yet another unsustainable, giant corporate giveaway program.

      3). Osama Bin Laden should have been brought back to the U.S. and tried for his crimes, just like Ramsey Yousef, who also tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and is current incarcerated in the Supermax prison in Colorado.

      4). Spending $1.4 trillion more than we take in from taxes every year is hardly, "bringing back sanity to the top levels of government."

      5). Big business does not have "too much say," it has ALL the say in Obama's government.

      6). Obama did NOT get us out of Iraq. All he did was follow the already-established Bush timetable for withdrawal.

      7). We're not out Afghanistan yet.

    2. Oh, I think you are right about that...I thought you liked his music.


      I disagree with the very first sentence: "The 2012 election will offer voters a stark choice between right and left alternatives."

      Voters have no choice. This is not a democracy.

    3. If I looked too closely at the political positions of the artists I like, I'd probably have to give up on rock and roll altogether. :)

  2. We apparently are an entire nation of people that just love painting themselves into a corner. It's all we seem to do, from the wars we fight, to the way tax and spend, and even the very way we live our lives completely unsustainably.

  3. Watch what happens as states continue to feel the pain, or as the pain increases. I would bet that, eventually, you will see the states start to repeal mandatory sentencing and 3-strike programs. They will increase the number of people paroled, and the elderly will be prime candidates for this since it is much easier to sell grandpa as "not a threat to society". They will figure out ways to incarcerate fewer people, so that they have fewer people to clothe and feed and care for. Again, the elderly have higher health care costs, so they make for attractive parole targets.

    As states get increasingly squeezed by ongoing tough economic conditions (never mind, deteriorating conditions), I expect that the "tough on crime" mantra will quietly be replaced with a "cut spending at any cost" mantra.

    To some degree, this may be a good thing, as the American penal system is ridiculously overused for all manner of minor infractions. Still, it seems only a matter of time before they start closing enough prisons that they are having to kick loose seriously dangerous people that will, shall we say, interact badly with society as a whole.

    Another short-term policy coming home to roost. And the beat rolls on...

  4. The system will abandon prisoners in much the same way it has abandoned the mentally ill for many years.. back on the street.