Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

The Graying of America’s Prisons

Frank Soffen, now 70 years old, has lived more than half his life in prison, and will likely die there.

Sentenced to life for second-degree murder, Soffen has suffered four heart attacks and is confined to a wheelchair. He has lately been held in the assisted living wing of Massachusetts’ Norfolk prison. Because of his failing health and his exemplary record over his 37 years behind bars—which includes rescuing a guard being threatened by other prisoners—Soffen has been held up as a candidate for release on medical and compassionate grounds.

He is physically incapable of committing a violent crime, has already participated in pre-release and furlough programs, and has a supportive family and a place to live with his son. One of the members of the Massachusetts state parole board spoke in favor of his release. But in 2006 the board voted to deny Soffen parole. He will not be eligible for review for another five years.

The “tough on crime” posturing and policymaking that have dominated American politics for more than three decades have left behind a grim legacy. Longer sentences and harsher parole standards have led to overcrowded prisons, overtaxed state budgets, and devastated families and communities. Now, yet another consequence is becoming visible in the nation’s prisons and jails: a huge and ever-growing number of geriatric prisoners.

Increasingly, the cells and dormitories of the United States are filled with old, often sick men and women. They hobble around the tiers with walkers or roll in wheelchairs. They fill prison infirmaries, assisted living wings and hospices faster than the state and federal governments can build them—and since many are dying behind bars, they are filling the mortuaries and graveyards as well.

The care these aging prisoners receive, while often grossly inadequate, is nonetheless cripplingly expensive—so much so that some recession-strapped states are for the first time seriously considering releasing older terminally ill and mentally ill prisoners rather than pay the heavy price for their warehousing. It remains to be seen what will happen when such fiscal concerns run head on into America’s taste for punitive justice. A recent report by the Vera Institute made this clear.

Politicians no doubt did not imagine this Dickensian landscape of the elderly incarcerated when they voted to lengthen sentences and impose mandatory minimums three or four decades ago. But their actions are yielding an inevitable outcome. While the graying of the prison population to some extent reflects the changing demographics of the populace at large, it owes considerably more to changes in law and policy. And this is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Growing Old Behind Bars

According to The Sentencing Project, the United States imprisons five times as many people as it did 30 years ago and more than seven times as many as it did 40 years ago. Our criminal justice system now keeps 2.3 million people behind bars—about half of them for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes. Twenty-five years ago, there were 34,000 prisoners serving life sentences; today the number is more than 140,000. The fact that each person is spending a longer stretch behind bars means that the falling crime rates of the 1990s do not translate into fewer prisoners. It also means that more and more people who committed offenses in their 20s or even their teens are growing old and dying in prison.

The situation is particularly stark in California, Texas and Florida, which have large prison populations with cells crammed to overflowing because of harsh sentencing laws. In California, the population of prisoners over 55 doubled in the ten years from 1997 to 2006. About 20 percent of California prisoners are serving life sentences, and over 10 percent are serving life without the possibility of parole. Louisiana’s prison system now holds more than 5,000 people over the age of 50—a three-fold increase in the last 12 years.

While 50 or 55 may not be old by conventional standards, people age faster behind bars than they do on the outside: Studies have shown that prisoners in their 50s are on average physiologically 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age. Older prisoners require substantial medical care because of harsh life conditions as well as age. Prisoners begin to have trouble climbing to upper bunks, walking, standing in line and handling other parts of the prison routine. They suffer from early losses of hearing and eyesight, have high rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, and are susceptible to falls.

A recent study by Brie Williams and Rita Abraldes, published as a chapter in the book Growing Older: Challenges of Prison and Reentry for the Aging Population, found that in addition to chronic diseases that increase with age, older offenders have problems such as paraplegia because of the legacy of gunshot wounds. Many have advanced liver disease, renal disease or hepatitis. Still others suffer from HIV/AIDS, and many more from drug and alcohol abuse. Living under prison conditions, they are more likely to get pneumonia and flu.

Many prisons are notorious for not taking prisoners’ health complaints seriously, and there is anecdotal evidence this problem may be compounded when prisoners are elderly. A doctor under contract in one southern prison stated in a recent interview how a diabetic man’s illness was misdiagnosed, resulting in months of excruciating pain and the amputation of toes and part of one foot. Back in prison, the man asked for prosthetic shoes so he could get around by walking; his request was denied.

Another elderly prisoner complained of an earache which went untreated for months. When it became unbearably painful, the prisoner was shipped to a local hospital emergency room under contract to the prison. There the doctors found the earache was brain cancer—and by then, too advanced to treat.

The exploding prison population has further undermined the already questionable quality of prisoner medical care. In California, which has the nation’s largest number of state prisoners, a panel of federal judges found that the state of medical care was so poor that it violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and was in danger of routinely costing prisoners their lives. The only solution, the judges said, was to reduce prison overcrowding caused by the state’s draconian mandatory sentences. The court recommended shortening sentences and reforming parole, which it believed would have no impact on public safety; it has given California two years to comply, though state officials have since appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. [See: PLN, August 2010, p.1].

Impact on Older Prisoners

Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, members of the Angola 3, have spent most of the past 37 years in lockdown in Louisiana.

A civil action currently in federal court claims that both men, now in their 60s, have suffered serious harm to their physical and mental health from their years in isolation, spending 23 hours a day alone in 6x9-foot cells.

What distinguishes this case in particular is that it not only challenges the constitutionality of long-term, continuous solitary confinement, but draws on its particular effect on aging prisoners.

According to medical reports submitted to the court, the men suffer from arthritis, hypertension and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety and depression. Wallace, who just celebrated his 67th birthday, has also become hard of hearing and has had increasing difficulty communicating with attorneys or friends on the phone and during visits.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he and other hearing-impaired prisoners should receive whatever special care they require. In Wallace’s case, according to one of his attorneys, the prison (he has been transferred out of lockdown at Angola to lockdown at Hunt near Baton Rouge) gave him one—not two—hearing aids, which made matters worse by adversely affecting his balance (the prison has promised to provide a second hearing aid).

Many older offenders suffer from serious mental illness—some of it produced or exacerbated by lengthy incarcerations. One study revealed depression among male prisoners was 50 percent higher than for those living outside. All in all, 54 percent of older prisoners met standards for psychiatric disorders. Williams and Abraldes wrote, “In one report from a maximum-security hospital, 75 percent of elderly prisoners were admitted between age 20 and 30 and the majority were schizophrenic.”

At Louisiana’s Angola prison, the warden reported that 2,000 of over 5,000 prisoners were on psychotropic drugs. Many mentally ill prisoners are simply warehoused and fed drugs to keep them under control. Even worse, some are labeled “discipline” problems, and end up in solitary confinement. A 2006 report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that mentally ill prisoners are increasingly being relegated to isolation cells where they live in “torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration.”

For the most part, however, old prisoners have far fewer disciplinary problems than younger prisoners. A research study conducted by Kristie Blevins and Anita Blowers, criminologists at the University of North Carolina, suggests that older prisoners present less of a disciplinary problem than younger prisoners, and their offenses are relatively minor. The 2004 study looked at 428 men between the ages of 55-84 in state correctional facilities around the U.S. Past studies have found that many perceived behavior problems among the elderly can be attributed to “victimization,” that is, getting harassed and beaten by other prisoners.

Low Recidivism

In addition to causing less trouble inside, older offenders released from prison have a low recidivism rate. They are also likely to cost taxpayers far less than the $70,000 a year which, according to Williams and Abraldes, is the average expense of keeping a geriatric prisoner imprisoned. The continued incarceration of these aging and dying prisoners, then, clearly does not serve to protect society. Its only purpose is punishment.

In 2008, the federal government launched the Elderly Offender Home Detention Pilot Program, under which prisoners aged 65 and over can be released into a kind of supervised house arrest. As outlined by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, eligibility guidelines are strict: offenders must have served at least 10 years and 75 percent of their sentences; no lifers and no perpetrators of “crimes of violence,” including sex crimes and firearms violations. The total number expected to participate is 80 to 100 nationwide, out of a total federal prison population of over 200,000.

Pennsylvania’s onerous law on compassionate release, dating from 1919, was revised in 2008 so that old, dying prisoners might be released into custody of family or friends—provided the corrections department does not find them to be a security risk and they are equipped with electronic monitoring devices.

According to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which tracks the revised law, “It provides for release to a hospital, hospice, or other licensed provider for terminally ill prisoners or those dying within one year. A home with licensed care may also be approved but then the prisoner will have electronic monitoring.” But the effect of this purported reform is unclear because the courts haven’t decided how to interpret it.
Susan McNaughton of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said statistics concerning compassionate release are scant, but in the past, “on average about six inmates are released from Pennsylvania state prisons annually this way. I am not aware of any such releases since this new law was enacted.”

Before such releases can take place, attorneys for an old and ill prisoner will have to take the case through the Pennsylvania court system. It must go before the state superior court which, according to an attorney with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, another group that has been involved in the reform effort, could take two years.
This may well be too long for Tiyo Attallah Salah, 76, a prisoner at SCI Dallas near Wilkes-Barre currently serving life without parole. A former jazz musician, Salah has developed long-distance relationships with a large network of friends, including Lois Ahrens of the organization Real Cost of Prisons, Marina Drummer of the Angola 3, and historian Howard Zinn, whose support helped him earn a college degree and study law.
He now tutors other prisoners and has assisted 250 prisoners in earning their GED high school equivalency diplomas. Salah currently is sponsoring a prison abolition group from inside SCI Dallas.

Salah suffers from high blood pressure, arthritis and prostate problems, and nearly died from diabetes. The prison pumped the old man full of steroids to keep him going. Like all prisoners, he has to walk up and down flights of stairs, to the shower and to meals. Salah’s job was cleaning showers on his hands and knees, and even though increasingly ill, he didn’t want to give up the job because it earned him 20-40 cents an hour, money he used to purchase goods at the prison commissary, such things as socks, sweat pants, tea, maybe a hat.

In early November 2009, he told Ahrens there was no heat in the cell block and he was trying to get more clothes. Ahrens, who is in close contact with Salah, says at one point he could scarcely walk. He has been saved by a broad network of friends inside as well as outside the prison, with younger prisoners stepping in to take over his job and bringing him something special to eat from time to time, like a piece of fruit.

At Norfolk prison in Massachusetts, a state which has no compassionate care law—and where one in six prisoners is serving a life sentence—offenders have banded together in an organization called the Lifers Group. They have drawn up a model bill they hope can be introduced in the state legislature. Fred Smith of St. Francis House, which currently helps newly-released prisoners in adjusting to society, recently was invited by the group to give a talk inside the prison. He found more than 100 prisoners turned out to hear his offer of support.

The long-termers’ model bill would permit the corrections department to grant a medical release to prisoners who are not judged to be a danger to society, when they face terminal illness or when “confinement will substantially shorten the prisoner’s life.”

Frank Soffen, whose case was described at the beginning of this article, is cited by the Lifers Group as an example of an offender the new law could help. But Soffen, too, may die long before any reforms take place.

The final consequence of the aging prison population, and especially of life sentences, is that more and more offenders are dying in prison. Angola, home to 5,000 offenders, is well known for its hospice, where trained prisoners ease the last days of fellow prisoners; the program is cited as a model for other prisons to emulate. You can get an idea of what it’s like by looking at a documentary film on the hospice by Edgar Barens, called “Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door.”

The hospice sees plenty of use, since an estimated 85 percent to 90 percent of the prisoners who enter the gates will never leave. Angola’s warden, Burl Cain, is also proud of the fact that the prison has its own mortuary, a coffin-making shop and a cemetery called Point Lookout, and gives each prisoner a funeral service. “Two funerals a month,” Cain told one Christian publication, “that’s just about the only way out of here.”

Colonel Bolt, a former Angola prisoner who got out after 20 years in solitary, knows he is an exception to the rule. But he says that some men have spent so long at Angola that they can’t even envision living out their old age on the outside. “They’ve been down so long,” Bolt said, that “they don’t have no friends ... don’t have no lawyers. There’s nothing out there for them.... They concentrate on things keeping you going ... [they want to] occupy time ... writing, drawing.” When these men think of what’s going on outside, he said, “they get so frustrated ... don’t see no way out”—so some of them simply stop thinking about it.

Some prisoners can’t even imagine going home to die, because they’ve had no home but Angola for most of their lives. When they die, Bolt said, “If the family got the money—they can bury them outside. Send the body to the front gate and [someone] will come get it out.” But many prisoners who “get to certain age,” he said, no longer have family, and no one who is “going to spend that money” for a coffin or a funeral.

When that happens, he continues, they “bury you down on the plantation..... Old partners, old friends can take care of you.... Go down to Point Lookout. A lot of cats want to be buried by their friends.... [They say] ‘I’m going to live here and die here ... if I got out what can I do?’ If you got three life sentences, four life sentences, what are you going to do?”

James Ridgeway is the senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones magazine. This article was first published in two parts in The Crime Report (, and is reprinted with permission.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login