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Alabama Should Release Elder Prisoners at Risk for COVID-19

by Ed Lyon

The efficacy of states continuing to retain elderly prisoners has been questioned by corrections experts for decades. The problems with continuing to needlessly incarcerate senior prisoners has become even more germane amidst the ongoing coronavirus crisis as activists, along with prison reformists, urge Alabama to release its aged state prisoners.

Statistics compiled from the five largest prison systems in the United States show that about 20 percent of the nation’s prisoner population are elderly – defined as 50 and older in the unique environment of a prison setting, according to many researchers and some state departments of correction. “That’s because people in prison are physiologically seven to ten years older than their chronological age due to a range of factors, including, but not limited to, the conditions and stress of incarceration and—outside of prison—a lack of access to adequate medical care and histories of substance use,” according to an article by the Vera Institute of Justice.

At first glance, Alabama’s statistical data indicates the state’s elderly prison population is well below the national average. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) warehouses around 22,000 prisoners and operates at a daily average of 170 percent of design capacity.

ADOC’s reported elderly prisoner population is composed of 942 medium and close custody prisoners, or 4.3 percent of its general population, and around 1,100 minimum-security prisoners, or 5 percent of its general population. That makes 9.3 percent of the total ADOC population “elderly,” which is less than half of the national average.

However, ADOC’s prisoner data is based on “elderly” being defined as 65 and over – 15 years higher than in some states. If Alabama defined “elderly” as over 50, its elderly population would be in the neighborhood of 20 percent.

Data collected for decades show that people age out of criminal behavior, making older prisoners of far less risk to the public upon their release. ADOC’s own handbook defines a minimum custody prisoner to be of no “risk to [himself] or others.” Of the 1,100 identified elderly minimum-custody ADOC prisoners, 107 are imprisoned for a non-violent felony, 112 have less than one fourth of their sentences remaining to serve, and 201 have served over 30 consecutive years of a life sentence with eligibility for parole, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Prisoners held in such close proximity present a fertile ground for COVID-19 transmission. Law professors joined with law enforcement officials in recognizing this clear and present danger to human life and have petitioned Governor Kay Ivey to order the release of ADOC’s elderly prisoner population that are parole-eligible in order to avoid a “public health catastrophe.”

Stated Josiah “Jody” Rich, professor at Brown University and directing co-founder of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights: “Each of those [elderly prisoners] could potentially occupy an ICU bed and a ventilator that is going to maybe be needed by somebody else to save their life.” 



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