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Number of State Prisoners Age 55 and Over Increased 400% in 20 Years

Although much of the attention concerning the huge increase in America’s prison population has focused on the federal prison system, a new U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) report found that the number of prisoners in state facilities increased by 55%, from 857,000 in 1993 to 1,325,300 in 2013. However, it is in the over-55 category that state prison populations have exploded during that same time period, up 400%. The large increase in elderly prisoners has resulted in soaring criminal justice costs.

According to the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the increase in aging prisoners is attributable to the following: “(1) a greater proportion of prisoners were sentenced to, and serving longer periods in state prison, predominantly for violent offenses, and (2) admissions of old[er] persons increased.” The BJS noted that in the past two decades, the “median age of admission increased from 29 years ... to 32 years.” Thus, much of the increase was the result of locking up a large number of people who grew old in prison due to lengthy sentences.

By comparison, the number of prisoners age 39 or younger, and in the age group of 40 to 54, has flattened out over the past decade after increasing in the 1990s.

The increase in elderly prisoners has put severe financial pressure on already-overburdened state budgets, as prison officials struggle to provide “more services geared toward aging inmates, including hospice services and assisted living units.”

No state has been exempt from the increase, and Virginia’s circumstances are not atypical, with prisoners over age 50 in that state increasing from 822 in 1990 to 7,202 in 2014. “In 2013, nearly half the $58 million that Virginia spent on off-site prisoner health care went to the care of older prisoners,” reported Stateline, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Over time, we’ll need more and more money for that population because they will need more drugs, more specialist visits, more nursing hours, more everything,” added Trey Fuller, the Virginia DOC’s acting health services director.

While some states have implemented programs to release elderly prisoners early, advocates have criticized the many hurdles that must be cleared to obtain such releases. Congressional studies have criticized the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for failing to follow its own regulations with respect to its compassionate release program.

What caused the explosion in older prisoners? Many, echoing the findings of the BJS, blame draconian sentencing laws that were enacted on both the state and federal levels in the 1980s, which accelerated in the 90s.

“It was the push for mandatory sentences and three strikes you’re out. So we’re seeing people who came to prison in their 30’s and 40’s and [are in their] 50’s and 60’s and 70’s today,” said Linda Redford, director of aging and geriatrics at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Additionally, the BOP and many states, including Virginia, eliminated parole – which further increased prison populations.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that many prisoners are in poor health when they enter the prison system, often due to drug and alcohol abuse. They have higher rates of smoking than non-prisoners and suffer from elevated levels of heart disease, hepatitis C, HIV and diabetes. As a result, medical experts say, the physical age of many prisoners is about a decade higher than their chronological age. According to Dr. Owen Murray with the University of Texas Medical Branch, “the norm in prisons is to use 55-and-older as the metric associated with old prisoners primarily because the consensus is that our [prison] population is ten years ahead, clinically,” compared with non-prisoners.

The solution, said Murray, is not difficult. “Either you figure out ways to get them out of the prison system and on to Medicare, or you choose to take a firm line that those patients have to do their time, and you need to fund those facilities and care services that are necessary.” Unfortunately, as Prison Legal News has extensively reported, prison officials typically try to balance their budgets by denying medical care or providing inadequate care, including through private contractors.

Some states have begun to make improvements, however. Connecticut contracts with private nursing facilities to house elderly prisoners, while Louisiana, Ohio and Virginia have some form of “geriatric conditional release.” New York has opened a unit for older offenders who are cognitively impaired and a number of other states have facilities specifically designated for aging prisoners.

Although these developments are laudable, and most criminal justice experts agree that older ex-offenders are less likely to commit new crimes, lawmakers are still uncomfortable with freeing elderly prisoners – even if they are terminally ill.

Liz Gaynes, president of the Osborne Association, summed up the mindset of politicians who object to early releases for aging prisoners: “It comes down to they did a bad thing and they should be punished, endlessly.”


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