Geriatric Prisoners Are Burdening Cash-Strapped Governments

Roughly one in six of the 1.5 million state and federal prison inmates is 50 or older and their numbers are growing at seven times the rate of the total prison population. Long-term incarceration is said to add 10 years to a prisoner’s physical age. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that by 2030, about a third of all prisoners will be over age 50. [1]

Acording to the Pew Center on the States, bewtween 1990 and 2009 the average length of a prison stay increased in 42 states. In Florida, the length of time served for drug crimes went up 194 percent over the same time period. Currently, one in ten state prisoners is a lifer and about one in ten federal prisoners over 50 is serving 30 years to life. [2]

In Texas, nearly two-thirds of older prisoners are in for non-violent offenses, such as drug possession and property crimes. In the nation as a whole, arrest rates drop to two percent for people who hit 50 and they become almost nil at the age of 65. In contrast, more than ten percent of those aged 20 to 24  get arrested at some point. A study of more than 450 New York inmates sentenced for violent crimes and released as senior citizens, found that over a 13-year period, only eight went back to prison, one for a violent crime. [3]

The ACLU calculates that caring for aged prisoners costs taxpayers some $16 billion annually. We shell out roughly $68,000 a year for each inmate over age 50, about twice what it costs to keep a younger prisoner locked up. [4]

Bob Hood, former warden of the federal correctional complex in Florence, Colorado, says he had inmates in whom a total cost of $100,000 a year was on the low side. Hood warns that we will need to “retrofit every prison in America to put assisted-living units in it, wheelchair accessibility, handicapped toilets, grab bars — the whole nine yards.”

As for remedial solutions for the aging prisoner population in the United States, there is not much to show. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have geriatric release programs; other states have provisions for medical or compassionate releases, although they are rarely granted. [5] And the big question remains: to where are medically needy prisoners released?

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