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High Costs of Low Risk - The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population, Osborne Association, 2014

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The High Costs of Low Risk:
The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population

Prepared by the Osborne Association for:
The Florence V. Burden Foundation
July 2014

Executive Summary
For the past four decades, we have witnessed the most sustained and widespread imprisonment
binge known throughout recorded human history. The facts are all too familiar: the United States
has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, yet is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s
incarcerated population. With an estimated 2.3 million adults in jail or prison and 1 out of every
32 adults under correctional or community supervision, the U.S. surpasses all other countries in
sheer numbers and per capita incarceration rates.
The immense costs of incarceration have increasingly framed the conversation around reducing
the prison population as a matter of fiscal responsibility and budgetary necessity. This discussion
is often centered around reducing the arrest and prosecution of so-called “non-violent drug
offenders.” But these issues belie a much more pressing human and economic concern: the
aging prison population, whose costs for incarceration and care will soon prove unsustainable if
meaningful action is not taken. And though prison is expensive, cost is far from the only
justification to move away from our reliance on incarceration, as the continued long-term
incarceration of aging citizens has serious moral, ethical, public health, and public safety
This paper aims to provide a brief contextual framework of the issues affecting elders in prison;
to illuminate the ongoing efforts being undertaken to improve conditions within correctional
facilities, increase mechanisms for release, and develop robust post-release services specifically
targeting the unique needs of the aging population in reentry; and to sketch out preliminary
recommendations to serve as a basis for further work to be done throughout several key sectors.
Despite their apparent interrelated interests in the aging prison population, the fields of
gerontology, medical and mental health, philanthropy, and corrections have only sporadically
interacted around this issue, and never as a unified voice. Thus, a primary objective of this work
is to encourage multi-sector dialogue, cross-pollination of ideas, and a shared foundational
knowledge that will strengthen the connections among these fields and form a basis for unifying
We believe such a partnership will be well equipped to identify and engage in appropriate
measures that will immediately impact the aging prison population, while also developing and
implementing the necessary socio-structural architecture to effectively address long-term
mechanisms of diversion, release, and reentry.
Austerity-driven approaches to shrinking budgets and increasing public discomfort with mass
incarceration create an opportunity to seriously address the epidemic of America’s graying prison
population and to imbue our criminal justice system with values and policies that are humane,
cost-effective, and socially responsible.


A Spectre is Haunting America
The aging prison population represents a national human-made epidemic decades in the making.
Although there is no commonly agreed-upon age at which an incarcerated individual is “old”—
definitions range from 50 to 65—it is clear that regardless of the age metric, the number of
people in prison requiring significant age-related medical care has risen and will continue to rise
at a substantial rate given existing population trends. From 1995 to 2010, the U.S. prison
population aged 55 or older nearly quadrupled. By 2030, this population is projected to account
for one-third of all incarcerated people in the U.S., amounting to a staggering 4,400 percent
increase over a fifty-year span. 1 Even as crime has drastically declined and the U.S. prison
population has begun to shrink, the aging prison population continues to rise at a
disproportionate rate: while the overall prison population grew 42 percent from 1995-2010, the
aging population increased by 282 percent and shows no signs of slowing down. 2 Today, there
are an estimated 246,600 prisoners age 50 or older in the United States and nearly 9,300 aging
incarcerated individuals in New York, comprising roughly 17 percent of the state’s total prison
The scale of this crisis is not limited to a handful of states with exceptionally poor policies, but
affects the entire nation: at present, twenty-eight states hold more than 1,000 older prisoners, up
from just two states in 1990. 34 We have now reached what Fordham University Professor Tina
Maschi calls a “critical Omega point” 5 in which both the sheer number and the specialized needs
of the aging prison population have begun to surpass correctional facilities’ capability to provide
effective and humane care. This sustained mass incarceration of elders bears major economic,
social, ethical, and health implications – and without decisive action, our criminal justice system
is at serious risk of collapsing under its own weight.
Economic Costs
Unsurprisingly, the large-scale incarceration of the elderly has proven to be enormously
expensive. The United States currently spends over $16 billion annually on incarceration for
individuals aged 50 and older – more than the entire Department of Energy budget or
Department of Education funding for school improvements. 6 Existing analyses calculate that, on
average, it costs approximately twice as much to incarcerate someone aged 50 and over
($68,270) than a younger, more able-bodied individual ($34,135)—and in some cases, may
actually cost up to five times more. 7 These runaway costs cannot be attributed to any single
factor, but are the expected consequence of current policies imposed upon a population that has
significant physical, medical, and holistic needs.
It is much more expensive to provide medical care to aging individuals in prison. Security adds
an additional layer of cost, planning, and complexity, as medical procedures that cannot be
accomplished on-site require a secure trip to a medical facility under the constant and costly
supervision of corrections officers. Once there, it costs approximately $2,000 per 24 hours to
guard individuals receiving medical care outside of prison. 8 In short, the unique needs of the
elderly and the commensurate costs for their care are compounded by additional and unavoidable
expenses of correctional supervision; it is clear that any long-term use of prisons as makeshift
nursing homes is financially unsustainable.

Health Impact
Even if the mounting fiscal crisis could be swiftly addressed, the health implications associated
with incarcerating older adults are no less troubling. Compared to their non-incarcerated peers,
aging individuals in prison present with an array of serious medical issues that are
simultaneously obscured and exacerbated by their incarceration. We must also bear in mind that
aging individuals in prison have health issues that correlate with socioeconomic factors. That is,
the same demographic groups that are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated—people of
color and individuals from lower socioeconomic status—are also more likely to be at risk for
poor health prior to their incarceration. Thus, the composition of (and relative health status
within) today’s prison population has quite accurately been called a “distorted reflection of the
general population” in that its constituents typically enter prison having had less access to
primary care, a greater likelihood of co-morbid factors such as substance abuse, and greater
health needs. 9 Within prison, we see a high prevalence of communicable and chronic diseases
(including hepatitis, HIV, tuberculosis, arthritis, hypertension, ulcer disease, prostate problems,
respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, strokes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer) in the older prison
population compared with both the general population and overall prison population. 101112 The
elderly in prison also demonstrate a greater risk of injury, victimization, ailing health, and death
than their younger counterparts. 13
While incarcerated Americans are the only citizens with a constitutional right to healthcare, they
often do not receive the necessary depth or breadth of care. People in prison are dependent on
staff for their medication (staff that typically operate on a limited schedule), are faced with a
dearth of dietary choices, and have greater difficulty with self care and disease management
practices. Diabetics, for example, are typically prohibited from keeping glucose monitoring
devices, insulin, or syringes.
Incarceration not only compounds existing health issues and heightens the risk of further health
problems, but—most alarmingly—has a deteriorating effect on the bodies of incarcerated people,
causing them to physically age at a much faster rate than the public at large. 1415 This
phenomenon of accelerated aging, which can be attributed to the prevalence of environmental
stressors coupled with a lack of access to holistic healthcare, means that the body of an
incarcerated 50-year-old has a “physiological age” that is 10 to 15 years older. 1617
Mental health issues are an equally serious concern among this population. 18 One study found
that 40 percent of older prisoners had a diagnosis of cognitive impairment, a prevalence rate that
far exceeds their peers in the community. 19 Higher rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, and
stress have also been found among older incarcerated adults. 20 21Furthermore, the poor physical
and mental health of aging prisoners places them at greater risk for dementia and other severely
debilitating forms of cognitive impairment.
Unfortunately, mental health diagnoses among aging prisoners remain both underreported and
undertreated. 22 23 Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that roughly 40-60 percent
of imprisoned individuals aged 50 and older are reported to have mental health problems, yet
only one in three have access to treatment. 24 Early warning signs for the onset of dementia and
other mental health diagnoses can be hidden by the rigid routine of prison life. Existing research

shows that corrections officers have reported cognitive impairment in older prisoners at nearly
five times the rate as that reported by prison officials, displaying a critical knowledge disparity
between levels of bureaucracy that bears potentially serious consequences for aging prisoners
who may not receive the care they need. 25 At the same time, cognitive, visual, and aural
impairment (for example, failing to hear the orders of a correctional officer) can lead to
behaviors mistaken for disobedience or aggression and subject to institutional punishment,
further compromising the well-being of those most in need of care. 26 Older adults with dementia
and other mental health diagnoses are subjected to victimization and bullying from younger
prisoners and can be subject to additional disciplinary action if their self-defense mechanisms
turn violent. 2728 Individuals with profound dementia are sometimes incapable of understanding
that they are incarcerated (let alone understanding why they are there or whether they are
remorseful) and must be reminded of their crime prior to a parole hearing. 29 So while prisons in
the United States were expressly designed around the concept of penitence—that is, creating
conditions for contemplation, remorse, and rehabilitation—the typical environment and policies
of contemporary correctional institutions effectively ensure that very few older adults will leave
prison in a better mental and physical state than when they entered.
Strain on Correctional Systems
Given the overwhelming prevalence of serious chronic medical problems among the aging prison
population, correctional resources will be increasingly strained by the weight of such staggering
need. If the current trend in the aging population continues, correctional systems will soon find
themselves in unsustainable financial territory, resulting in cost-cutting measures that lead to
overcrowding and compromise their ability to provide sufficient health care, as has been welldocumented in California’s prisons. 30 To be clear, the majority of correctional facilities strive to
provide humane and appropriate care. That aging prisoners do not always have their needs met
may not be borne of malicious intent, but it is nonetheless indicative of the systemic
shortcomings woven into the fabric of correctional structures. Prisons were simply not designed
to be long-term care facilities, as there are architectural limitations that pose significant problems
to the aging population: stairs, narrow doorways, wheelchair inaccessibility, and the lack of
handrails are just a few ways in which prisons are structurally unequipped to deal with the needs
of this population. Cafeterias, medical units, and other necessary facilities may be spread far
apart within a prison, making daily life difficult for individuals with mobility impairment. Aging
individuals may also require additional time to eat meals or struggle getting to and from their
bed, especially on a top bunk. Geriatric incontinence and other physiological difficulties unique
to old age can be extremely difficult to handle with dignity in an environment lacking privacy,
leading to harassment and feelings of shame, isolation, and depression. 31 The possibility of
adequately retrofitting prisons or constructing new age-appropriate facilities is, once again,
restricted by budget limitations. When prisons cannot adequately make concessions to address
these needs, it is the aging prisoners themselves who suffer.
Social Costs and Public Safety
While the most palpable consequences of incarceration affect the individual at the
psychophysical (body and mind) level, they also ripple outward to affect individuals, families,
communities, and social structures in ways that are less immediately tangible. Rampant
incarceration gives rise to disrupted, fragmented communities, and the continued imprisonment

of elders (who are often parents or grandparents) bears a significant intergenerational impact on
children and families not easily quantifiable. There is also a clear loss of economic productivity
and family stability that stems from incarceration: approximately two in three imprisoned men
were the main earners for the households prior to their incarceration and are likely to have
difficulty securing employment upon release due to their criminal history. Those who are able to
find work will find their annual earnings reduced by an average of 40 percent as a result of their
having served time. 32
The stated objectives of incarceration would suggest that correctional spending should be
allocated among demographics in proportion to their public safety risk and potential for
behavioral change. The majority of existing research suggests that length of time served has no
clear relationship to recidivism rates 33—rather, it is age that serves as an accurate predictor of
recidivism. Despite the staggering costs of incarcerating the elderly—which far exceed any other
correctional population—aging adults in prison have the lowest recidivism rate and pose almost
no threat to public safety. 34 Nationwide, 43.3 percent of all released individuals recidivate within
three years, while only 7 percent of those aged 50-64 and 4 percent of those over 65 are returned
to prison for new convictions—the lowest rates among all incarcerated demographics. 35 36
Similarly, arrest rates among older adults decline to a mere 2 percent by age 50 and are close to
zero percent by age 65. 37
The Roots of the Crisis
Far from an inexplicable anomaly, the soaring aging prison population is the logical consequence
of longstanding rigid sentencing laws and release policies. Mandatory minimums imposed by the
Rockefeller drug laws and the ensuing “tough on crime” culture that permeated the 1980s have
had disastrous consequences for the social fabric of America. While some aging individuals are
so-called “nonviolent drug offenders” sentenced under the Rockefeller drug laws, many of the
elders who have spent decades in prison were incarcerated for violent offenses bearing lengthy
sentences. Regardless, the effects of stringent mandatory minimum and three strikes laws on the
front end of the criminal justice continuum are further compounded by limited parole
opportunities, underuse of compassionate early release, and truth-in-sentencing laws. This
overall increase in sentencing length combined with decreasing rates of release on discretionary
parole has created a bottleneck in the criminal justice system, leading to a far greater number of
people serving longer, less flexible prison sentences, with little national consensus on how best
to address overcrowded facilities and accumulating costs.
What we are left with, then, is a system that continues to funnel large numbers of people into a
traumatic prison environment against the evidence that alternative sanctions are more successful
in reducing crime and recidivism. By locking individuals into lengthy mandatory sentences with
limited avenues for earlier release, we all but ensure that they will grow old in prison. As a
result, we are forced to spend billions on incarcerating the aging, elderly, incapacitated,
immobile, and infirm in spite of their mounting physical, mental, and social needs and minimal
risk to public safety.
Our current national trajectory is economically infeasible and morally untenable: we must
consider alternatives that will curb exorbitant economic costs, improve healthcare access and
quality, mitigate elder trauma and abuse, and reestablish a precedent for a more humane justice,

sensitive to the unique needs of aging prisoners. Fortunately, there are a growing number of
programs and organizations that seek to 1) improve conditions for older adults inside correctional
facilities; 2) advocate for the increased release of suitable low-risk aging individuals; and 3)
connect these individuals to quality community programming upon their release. The following
section examines these emerging models so as to provide a road map for further successes,
beginning with the work being done within prison walls.
From the Inside Out: Meeting the Needs of the Aging within Prisons
As of 2007, less than 5 percent of state correctional institutions in the U.S. provided any form of
geriatric-specific services, and there are currently few evidence-based models targeting aging
individuals within correctional facilities. 38 This dearth of quality programming can be attributed
not only to a lack of funding but a lack of institutional understanding of the needs of older adults
in prison. Nonetheless, there is valuable work being undertaken throughout the country to
address the myriad issues impacting the aging prison population. Selections from the field are
summarized below.

Ohio’s Hocking Correctional Facility, in collaboration with the Area Agency on Aging 8, has
implemented chronic disease self-management and diabetes self-management programs at the
facility. Created at Stanford University, these six-week peer-led programs are grounded in
empirical research and have had positive outcomes. 39 Similar programs have also been
implemented in New Jersey and Oklahoma.


Nevada’s volunteer-driven True Grit program provides a daily structured living program
intended to address the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional needs and well-being of the
elderly in prison. Activities and services include physical therapy and recreation, group and
individual counseling, therapy dogs, musical groups, choir, theater, a published journal, and
craft-making designed to slow the onset of osteoarthritis through fine-touch movements. 4041 An
evaluation of True Grit shows that the program has decreased the number of doctor visits and
medications used by the elderly while also enhancing levels of social support and well-being. 42


Virginia’s Deerfield Correctional Center provides assisted living services and programming,
including peer tutoring, horticulture, and a library that offers assistance for blind and visually
impaired individuals. 43


Incarcerated individuals at California's Men’s Colony can become “Gold Coats”, individuals
trained by the Alzheimer’s Association to care for the daily needs of fellow prisoners living
with dementia and to recognize and report on changes in their behavior. 44


Angola State Prison’s hospice program, which trains prison staff and incarcerated volunteers
to care for those dying behind prison walls in accordance with national standards for
community hospice programs. 45 The prison's partnership with University Hospital Community
Hospice in New Orleans allows these services to be provided at no additional cost. Similar
hospice services are provided in at least 75 other prisons in 40 states. 46



New York’s Unit for the Cognitively Impaired, located at Fishkill Correctional Facility,
utilizes professional caregivers to provide services to incarcerated individuals living with
dementia. The average cost per bed in the Regional Medical Unit (RMU) is $93,000 – more
than double the $41,000 per bed in the general prison population. 47
While this list is far from exhaustive and some programs do not yet live up to their promise, it
represents a variety of engaging services that have considerable potential to meet the unique
needs of this population and to improve quality of life for elders behind prison walls. What these
programs do not address, however, is the possibility of allowing aging men and women to live
the remainder of their lives in the community.
The Question of Parole
Once an individual has received a sentence that will potentially keep him or her incarcerated into
old age (or is imposed after someone has reached old age), there are only two possibilities of
returning home: parole and compassionate release. Both mechanisms are handled by the same
body, the Parole Board, but evaluate different factors. Whereas parole is primarily concerned
with the nature of the crime and an individual’s behavior and remorse while incarcerated,
compassionate release most typically considers the health needs of the incarcerated in the case of
terminal illness or severe medical issues. Compassionate release can also be applied—however
rarely—in the event of the death or incapacitation of a caregiver providing for a prisoner’s family
member. While compassionate release laws are on the books federally and in 36 states, they are
rarely used. The following excerpt sheds light on a real-life scenario in which the release of an
elderly individual was ultimately denied:
In 2013, an 86-year-old man, having served 40 years for felonies committed in the 1970s—crimes
that were serious but caused no deaths—comes before the parole board. He is mostly confined to
a wheelchair, suffers from a serious neuromuscular disorder, asthma, high blood pressure, cancer
and other ailments. Prison officials call him a reliable peacemaker and protector of the
vulnerable. He has a place to live and people to support him, should he be released.
The decision? Denied. The reason? The supposed “probability” that he would re-offend and the
notion that his release would “undermine respect for the law.” Today, he remains behind bars in
the medical wing of an upstate prison. 48

In other cases, the effects of dementia become so pronounced that individuals have difficulty
remembering why they are incarcerated to begin with even as they appear before the Parole
Board. 49 Unfortunately, these situations are all too commonplace in today’s criminal justice
system. Medical parole requests and compassionate release are seldom granted, though national
data on the number of requests and denials is not readily available. This underuse of existing
release mechanisms for the aging can be attributed to narrow and exclusionary criteria, political
calculation and bureaucratic procedures that stifle wider implementation. 505152 Eligibility for
compassionate release is often limited to those over a certain age or convicted of certain
offenses, leaving vast numbers of individuals in the prison population—including those
convicted of a violent crime—completely shut out from the possibility of release regardless of
their health status or achievements during incarceration. Those eligible are likely to encounter
bureaucratic procedures that can slow down the process considerably, to the point of rendering
release moot altogether. Of the 2,730 requests for compassionate release in New York State filed

from 1992 to April 2012, only 381 were granted release; 950 individuals died prior to release
while their applications were pending. 53 In a recent high profile case, Herman Wallace, one of
the ‘Angola Three’ who spent 41 years in solitary confinement following his conviction in the
1972 killing of a prison guard, was released from prison on October 1, 2013 due to his ailing
health and advanced liver cancer; he died less than three days later. 54
Compassionate release notwithstanding, the broader parole apparatus is remarkably nebulous.
Members of the Parole Board are not elected but appointed by state governors, and there is no
clear system of checks and balances to ensure a fair appraisal of parole applications. Incarcerated
individuals may put in tremendous effort to transform their lives by completing programming,
earning advanced degrees, and becoming assets to society, only to see their application denied
solely on the basis of “the nature of the crime” —the lone factor that can never be changed and
speaks only to past circumstances rather than who a person has become. Additionally, Parole
Boards are understandably sensitive to public perception and acutely aware of the public scrutiny
and outrage that can follow the parole of an individual involved in a high profile case. Without
transparency and accountability, it becomes much easier to summarily dismiss eligible applicants
than to risk the perception of culpability in the event of a new crime post-release. This
reluctance, however understandable, ultimately results in the continued incarceration of large
numbers of low-risk aging individuals who have transformed their lives, yet remain imprisoned
without clear purpose or benefit.
Though these flaws in the parole system can feel insurmountable, efforts are underway to change
the parole process, and the charge is being led from the inside out by individuals who have
directly experienced and navigated the system. Recognizing that any shift in parole policy is
predicated on a deeper cultural change, Mujahid Farid founded the Release of Aging People in
Prison (RAPP) campaign in 2011 after serving 33 years in New York State prison. At its core,
RAPP aims to mobilize “currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, their families, and
other concerned community members in efforts designed to increase parole release rates for
aging people in prison who pose no risk to public safety.” 55 Working in partnership with a
diverse network of individuals, advocates, communities, faith-based groups, and nonprofit
organizations across New York, RAPP raises public awareness around the aging prison
population and encourages the increased use of release mechanisms for low-risk individuals who
have already served much of their sentence. By educating policymakers, correctional officials
and the broader public through research and advocacy, RAPP aims to generate the momentum
necessary to spark humane parole reform through improved accountability, expanded eligibility
and increased utilization of existing release mechanisms. Although focused exclusively on
policies and practices within New York State, RAPP represents a grassroots strategy of coalition
building that can be replicated across the country.
Others use even more direct measures to address the shortcomings of the parole process.
Founded in 1989 at Tulane Law School and now operating in five states, the Project for Older
Prisoners (POPS) employs a risk assessment approach to help older incarcerated adults obtain
paroles, pardons, and other alternatives to incarceration. 56 Law student volunteers assess
recidivism risk among eligible individuals aged 55 or older by conducting interviews to collect
data, and then work with those candidates identified as low risk to prepare them for their parole
hearing and may advocate the case before the Parole Board. Beyond RAPP and POPS, other
organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Sentencing Project are

engaged in similar issues affecting aging people in prison, although their work is not exclusively
focused on this population.
Support for releasing aging prisoners does not only come from academics and advocates: in
Michigan, a group of 27 former Department of Corrections officials (including directors, parole
board chairs, and wardens) have stepped forward to call for statewide parole reform. 57 Noting
how the correctional regard for those serving life sentences has significantly shifted in a way that
provides little opportunity for parole-eligible individuals to earn their freedom, the group states
that the “current parole process does not encourage the board to get to know individual lifers
well” and accordingly calls for a swift, fair and comprehensive of every parole-eligible
individual serving a life sentence. “Taxpayers are paying roughly $200,000 for every decision to
continue a lifer’s incarceration for another five years,” the group’s February 2014 letter reads,
“and they are often getting virtually no increased safety for their money.”
The Reentry Experience
The transition from correctional facility to the community impacts bears tangible effects not only
on those elders returning home but on public health more broadly, making it all the more
necessary to identify and address the particular needs of this population. 58 59 While the reentry
experience for aging individuals poses similar challenges as that of any other person returning
home from prison, elders face additional obstacles and heightened complexities including greater
rates of homelessness, low employment, increased anxiety, fragmented community and family
ties, chronic medical conditions, and increased mortality rates. 60 61 62 63 64
Upon release, returning individuals may not know how to reinstate their benefits and often
experience a delay lasting months before their coverage is finally renewed. 65 This can exacerbate
existing health conditions and increase the reliance on expensive and inefficient emergency
services as a substitute for primary care: a 2008 Urban Institute study found that one-third of
returning individuals used emergency services within the first year of release. 66 Additionally, the
limited supply of medication provided upon release by state correctional departments is likely to
run out prior to scheduling an initial healthcare visit. 67 Older adults with cognitive impairment or
mental illness, which comprise a large and underreported segment of this population, are likely
to experience even greater difficulty transitioning to the community.
The stigma of incarceration coupled with limited work histories can stifle employment prospects
for any returning individual, let alone the aging population, when the physical and mental health
infirmities of old age can turn even the mundane activities of daily life into significant
challenges. Furthermore, benefits such as Social Security and Supplemental Security Income are
suspended during incarceration and compensation for work in prison is staggeringly low. As a
result, opportunities to build a meaningful financial cushion to help prepare for reentry are all but
nonexistent. Many who have been in prison since their young adulthood may not have paid into
the Social Security system long enough to be eligible for Social Security or Medicare upon
release, and unbelievably, even those who have Medicare are not able to receive care under the
program as long as they are under parole supervision. 68
Social connectedness and community stability pose considerable challenges as well, particularly
in terms of securing long-term geriatric-appropriate housing. Aging individuals may no longer

have a family or community network to return home to – and even if they do, there is no
guarantee that families are equipped or willing to handle the staggering medical expenses and
high level of care required for chronic health conditions. 69 Aging individuals with criminal
records are often discriminated against or stigmatized by nursing homes and hospice care,
leaving them with few options and woefully unmet needs. These issues are best articulated by an
aging prisoner facing the prospect of release:
“[Y]ou have a lot of men over 50 getting ready to go home, with no money. No place to stay. And
no one trying to understand this part of the problem. I earn $15 a month. I go home in 9 months. I
have no family to turn to. I don’t want to come back to prison, after doing 7 years. I am trying to
stay positive.… But the reality is, when I hit the street I am on my own.” 70

Such sobering reflection highlights the necessity for meaningful action. But while geriatric
models of care within correctional facilities are beginning to garner greater attention, there are
few models of care for formerly incarcerated elderly individuals living in the community. Large
gaps in knowledge regarding the health and healthcare needs for this population persist, 71 and
the existing evidence has not been effectively communicated to community healthcare providers.
Although the current landscape of existing community-based models and services is nascent,
there are several viable possibilities worthy of consideration:

Based in San Francisco, the Senior Ex-Offender Program (SEOP) is the first reentry
program in the U.S. that exclusively focuses on the aging population. SEOP’s
wraparound services include transitional housing, case management, pre- and postrelease counseling, transitional support groups, health and mental health services, access
to a certified addiction specialist, and useful provisions such as clothing and hygiene
products. 72 Participants engage in services for an average of 3 to 12 months. 73


In addition to robust in-prison services for aging people, Ohio’s Hocking Correctional
Facility has a one-stop pre-release program providing older individuals with ageappropriate information on housing, employment training and job searching skills, selfcare, available benefits and educational opportunities. HCF trains staff in managing the
unique issues affecting geriatric populations and strives to ensure that returning
individuals have the proper supports and resources available for successful reintegration,
including placement in nursing homes when necessary. 74


At Colorado’s Sterling Correctional Facility, the Long-Term Offender Program (LTOP)
was created in 2011 to assist parole-eligible individuals serving long sentences to
transition to the community through structured programming grounded in peer support
and restorative justice. 75 While in prison, elders who have demonstrated significant
transformation during incarcerated are screened and enrolled in a course designed to
acclimate them to the new realities of the outside world, including how to use an ATM,
learn computer skills, and find a job. 76 Successful candidates are then released to a
halfway house, where they are supported by counselors and meet weekly with their peers
to support each other in the reentry process. Thus far, all 32 LTOP participants have
found work and housing, with only a single minor misdemeanor incident since the
program’s inception.



Created in 2009, the Transitions Clinic at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx
provides access to comprehensive primary care, HIV care, mental health treatment, and
addiction treatment services for individuals recently released from correctional facilities.
The clinic is operated by professional staff who understand the unique circumstances of
the reentry process, helping to assuage patient uneasiness and establish a comfortable
doctor-patient relationship.


In Connecticut, some of the aging prison population is transferred to Rocky Hill Nursing
Home, a privately-run facility. However, the ambiguity of this public-private partnership
resulted in lawsuits over whether residents are technically defined as “incarcerated,” a
status that makes them ineligible for Medicaid or Medicare under existing laws. 77
Ultimately, these elders were designated as “residents” rather than “prisoners”, thus
transferring the cost of care from corrections to Medicaid. 78

While State and Federal programming does not expressly target or meet the wide range of needs
of this population, many formerly incarcerated aging men and women can benefit from
government programs. There are several types of adult care facilities in New York State that
provide transitional and permanent residential care to adults unable to independently care for
themselves due to physical and mental impairment/disability or other age-related limitations. 7980
Aging New Yorkers returning from prison may also qualify for temporary cash assistance
benefits such as Safety Net Assistance (SNA). 81 Additionally, changes to national healthcare
through the Affordable Care Act enable incarcerated people in participating states to reestablish
benefits such as Medicaid prior to release to help ensure a more seamless transition home.
Furthermore, medical services that cannot be delivered within prisons and require off-site travel
are now covered by Medicaid in much of the country. 82 It will, however, take some time to fully
realize how the Affordable Care Act affects the criminal justice system.
The Work To Be Done
The issue of aging people in prison can be interpreted through several distinct lenses, whether as
a matter of economic urgency, a public health crisis, a violation of human rights, or a reflection
of the critical shortcomings of our criminal justice system. Accordingly, any serious and
sustainable attempt to resolve this crisis requires a multifaceted approach and cross-disciplinary
discussion among practitioners of gerontology, criminal justice, health, and philanthropy. In
order to provide a launching point for further dialogue and action, we have identified the
following recommendations:
Within Correctional Facilities
Protocols, Rules & Regulations
• Design and implement geriatric assessment care plans within correctional settings that
will evaluate the needs of elders prior to their release and connect them to appropriate
community-based service providers
• Define and universalize the age at which an incarcerated person is considered ‘aging’ and
encourage correctional systems to recognize this population as a unique sub-group with
specialized needs 83






Adapt and enforce the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners 84 to
preserve the dignity and human rights of incarcerated men and women
Improve screening protocols for aging prisoners to better understand individual health
needs during incarceration
Develop and integrate models and best practices for aging prisoner care into the National
Commission on Correctional Health Care standards 85
Research & Modification
Modify structural conditions within correctional institutions through age-appropriate
retrofitting 86 and conduct additional research into architectural modifications that may
produce positive outcomes for aging individuals 87
Identify activities of daily living that are prison-specific in order to recognize functional
impairment among the population 88
Research the benefits of segregating versus integrating aging prisoners from the general
prison population to help develop effective and appropriate correctional housing models 89
Test and measure interventions that decrease medical costs while maintaining healthcare
quality, incorporating existing gerontological models 90
Staff Enhancement
Train correctional staff in geriatric care techniques and empower them with the
knowledge to respond to the physical, mental, and gender-specific needs of the aging
population 91
Incorporate ongoing feedback from correctional officers, medical staff, and other on-site
providers 92
Program Development
Introduce support groups and geriatric counseling for stress and trauma 93
Greatly increase the availability of programming tailored to elders
Continue to explore the feasibility of linking with private sector to provide care and
assisted living services

Release Mechanisms
• Implement parole reforms such as the Safe and Fair Evaluation (SAFE) Parole Act
proposed in New York to eliminate the continued reliance on the nature of the original
crime as a basis for perpetual parole denial upon completion of the minimum sentence
• Improve and enforce accountability and transparency of the Parole Board
• Increase utilization of compassionate release and medical parole policies
• Implement geriatric release policies
Post-Release Services
• Ensure continuity of care through specialized transitional planning and follow up for the
aging population, including connection to health insurance and care coordinators 94
• Conduct further research to identify the needs and concerns of the aging reentry
population and the communities to which they will return



Develop infrastructure within communities to receive and care for returning individuals,
including enhancing the capacity of senior centers and elder services to effectively serve
formerly incarcerated elders

While no single recommendation will serve as panacea to the challenges facing the aging prison
population, a shift to embrace any of the above recommendations will help move the needle
toward a more compassionate, fair, and humane justice system. And with support from key
stakeholders, many of these recommendations can be piloted or even fully implemented within a
realistic timeframe. Developing a comprehensive evaluation of elders prior to their release, for
example, does not require the creation of new assessment tools. Similar care plans are already
used within the geriatric field and need only be adapted to a correctional setting. Such an
approach is not without precedent: during the AIDS epidemic, corrections effectively responded
to the crisis through implementation of the M11q form, which fast-tracked individuals in need of
services to community providers upon their release.
Toward a New Paradigm of Punishment
Decades in the making, the aging prison population is the logical conclusion of misinformed and
retributive criminal justice policies that have led the United States to incarcerate more people
than any country in the world. These well-entrenched policies—the result of a confluence of
attitudes, ideas, and events, and grounded in the now-bankrupt “tough on crime” ideology of
overly aggressive sentencing—have brought us to the precipice of an unmitigated human-made
disaster. The crisis inherent to aging in America’s prisons serves as a microcosm for the broader
issues at stake, highlighting the urgency of repealing mandatory minimum, truth-in-sentencing,
and habitual offender laws and demonstrating the need to reallocate correctional spending from
prolonged and impractical incarceration towards diversion, community-based sanctions and
services, and community supervision. These developments afford us an opportunity to reflect on
longstanding paradigms of punishment.
The traditional criminal justice framework of the United States holds that punishment serves four
distinct functions: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. As reports from the
ACLU and Human Rights Watch have made clear, the perpetual incarceration of aging men and
women does not justifiably fulfill these purposes. Retribution—ensuring that the punishment
fits the crime—is glaringly undermined by the fact that many individuals have already served
more than their minimum sentences and perhaps more than the sentencing judge would have
imposed were it not for stringent mandatory minimum guidelines. The use of long sentences as
effective deterrence is undermined by research showing that long sentences do little, if anything,
to deter crime. 95 Furthermore, an aging prisoner suffering from dementia and chronic illness who
cannot recall his or her crime has little to gain from rehabilitative programming. Finally, the
physical and mental impairments and deteriorating health that accompany old age (accelerated
by the years spent in prison) essentially function as a debilitating force, rendering further
incapacitation via continued incarceration unnecessary and inhumane.
In grappling with the ideological underpinnings of the criminal justice system, we are forced to
ask ourselves: what is the intention behind incarceration? If the point of the criminal justice
system is public safety and the point of incarceration is retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and
incapacitation, we gain little by keeping the elderly and infirm behind bars. There may be

situations in which there are no alternatives to incarceration that achieve the public purpose but
we must look to prison as a last resort when less expensive and more effective dispositions are
not deemed appropriate. By analyzing the aging prisoner dilemma through the traditional
criminal justice framework, it becomes clear that keeping aging, low-risk individuals
incarcerated neither satisfies any of the aforementioned purposes nor serves the public good.
Instead, it results in unsustainable economic, social, ethical, and health costs and causes
unnecessary human suffering.
Fortunately, changes may be on the horizon. The Obama administration and Attorney General
Eric Holder appear to be quite cognizant of the shortcomings of existing criminal justice policy
and have repeatedly argued for significant reform. We have begun to feel the rumblings of
change: in August 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons considerably revised its position on
compassionate release mechanisms in three distinct ways. First, BOP extended the period to seek
compassionate release in anticipation of an incarcerated person’s death from 12 months to 18
months. They then solidified criteria to allow for the possibility of release in the event of the
death or incapacitation of a caregiver responsible for a family member (a policy already in
existence but yet to be utilized). And finally—in a wholly unprecedented change—BOP now
permits individuals age 65 and over with chronic or serious medical conditions who have served
at least half of their sentence to apply for early release. Individuals who meet the age
requirement but do not suffer from such medical conditions can also apply, provided they have
served at least 10 years or 75 percent of their sentence. 96 While these policy shifts could signify a
truly meaningful step towards substantive reform, the mere existence of improved policies on the
books does little good if they are seldom utilized, as has been the case to date. Nonetheless, if
such promises of systemic reform are kept—and it is our collective duty to ensure that they will
be—we may be entering an era of reform that could both stem the flow of entrants into the U.S.
criminal justice system and mitigate the aging prisoner crisis.
The abundance of evidence is clear: aging people in prison experience greater hardships and
worse health outcomes while incarcerated, have unique needs that place enormous strain on
correctional institutions, and comprise the most expensive cohort to incarcerate while posing the
least danger to public safety. Taken together, these factors have culminated in a financially
unsustainable and morally precarious—if not wholly untenable—crisis that can no longer be
ignored. While architectural and programmatic modifications within prisons are necessary
components to meaningful change, merely making living conditions more amenable to the needs
of the infirm and frail does not address the full range of problems affecting those aging in prison.
At the same time, releasing people en masse without a comprehensive plan for their reentry will
simply create a new humanitarian crisis and will not resolve the underlying issues within the
prison system.
The interconnected complexity of the aging prisoner crisis demands a strategic response that is
versatile and multifaceted, and that seeks to address the issue at multiple points of intervention
with involvement from all stakeholders. The fields of gerontology, philanthropy, health, and
corrections are uniquely positioned and qualified collectively to inform and implement both
short- and long-term solutions to this issue. Armed with critical interdisciplinary knowledge and
backed by investment from the philanthropic community, such a collaborative partnership
possesses unparalleled opportunity to make lasting contributions to the policies and best
practices affecting the aging prison population.

This joint stakeholder alliance is particularly well-suited to enrich the reentry process, first by
identifying those factors that formerly incarcerated elders need to thrive upon their release to the
community and subsequently creating resources and pathways for success. Such an approach
would not only yield tremendous cost savings, improved public health outcomes, and economic
growth, but would also embody a commitment to human rights—including the freedom for our
elders to live the remainder of their lives within their communities and to die with grace in the
presence of friends and family.
Ultimately, any systemic and sustained change around this issue is contingent upon our collective
willingness to deal with the looming challenge of a graying prison population in rational, direct,
and effective ways that reduce costs and improves lives while recognizing the inherent dignity
and worth of all people.
About the Osborne Association
The Osborne Association offers opportunities for individuals who have been in conflict with the law to
transform their lives through innovative, effective, and replicable programs that serve the community by
reducing crime and its human and economic costs. We offer opportunities for reform and rehabilitation
through public education, advocacy, and alternatives to incarceration that respect the dignity of people
and honor their capacity to change. Osborne serves more than 8,000 currently and formerly incarcerated
individuals and their families across several sites throughout the state, including the Bronx, Brooklyn,
Poughkeepsie, Rikers Island, and in 20 state correctional facilities. |


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