Prisons Aren’t Nursing Homes — The Older Prisoner Crisis

The New York Times
October 9, 1989

BYLINE: By Jonathan Turley; Jonathan Turley, assistant professor of law at Tulane University, directs the Project for Older Prisoners.

On June 7, 1973, a 50-year-old homeless man named Quenton Brown walked into a bread store in Louisiana and, at gunpoint, stole $100 and a 15 cent pie. He then crawled under a nearby house where he remained until the police arrived. After his arrest, the state found that Mr. Brown had an I.Q. of 51 – the intelligence of a three and one-half year old child. After a one day trial, Mr. Brown was given a 30-year sentence without chance of parole. Now 66 years old, Mr. Brown has been at Angola State Penitentiary for 16 years.

Mr. Brown is an example of an emerging national scandal: the failure to release geriatric, low-risk prisoners to make room for younger, more dangerous ones. Even as prisons turn away hundreds of drug dealers because of overcrowding, they continue to hold Prohibition-era felons. Nationwide, there are at least 20,000 inmates over the age of 55.

The costs of these prisoners are staggering. An elderly prisoner will suffer an average of three chronic illnesses during incarceration. The average maintenance cost of an elderly prisoner is $69,000 – three times that of a younger prisoner.

This does not include expensive alterations that prisons must make to accommodate elderly prisoners, including replacing uniform buttons with Velcro patches, expanding doors and adding ramps for wheelchairs and serving special diets.

Many prisoners in the state and Federal systems are bed-ridden. Others require extraordinary care, like Harvey Edwards at Angola state prison, 59 years old, half-blind and paralyzed, who must have two shots of insulin and 32 pills per day for high blood pressure and a heart condition. His fellow inmate William Hankins, a 62-year-old convicted murderer, must be driven long distances three times a week for dialysis treatment – at a cost of $39,000 annually.

Because prisons continue to hold low-risk geriatric prisoners, new cell space is needed to handle prison overflow. In the Federal system, that alone will cost $3.8 billion to $5.5 billion for the estimated 57,000 to 83,000 new cells needed by 1997. By the year 2000, a new cell will cost a projected $200,000. At that cost, the cells currently occupied by elderly prisoners will be worth as much as $4 billion -four times what President Bush is asking for prison construction.

Early release is clearly out the question for some prisoners. The Richard Specks, Charles Mansons and other vicious criminals will, and should, never be released. Most elderly prisoners, however, fall into crime categories with very low likelihoods of committing new offenses. Nationwide, people between the age of 50 and 54 are responsible for 1.6 percent of new crimes. People 60 years and over are responsible for 0.07 percent of new crimes.

Age is used by the U.S. Parole Commission as the most reliable predictor of recidivism (committing a new offense). Within a year of their release, prisoners between the ages of 18 and 24 have a recidivism rate of roughly 22 percent. The recidivism rate for released prisoners over the age of 45 is only 2.1 percent.

Some elderly prisoners have had no disciplinary ”write-ups” in 10 or 15 years. Ironically, the nonviolent character of most elderly prisoners makes them virtually invisible in institutions that are primarily concerned with violent prisoners. Stable, nonviolent prisoners are hardly a priority for most wardens.

Unfortunately, elderly prisoners are not priorities for anyone. After the release of Willie Horton became an issue in the last Presidential campaign, governors have viewed executive pardons and early releases with as much interest as drinking molten lead. Some governors prefer the court-ordered release of a dangerous prisoner to the early release of an elderly prisoner for one simple reason: If a court-released prisoner kills someone, the courts (not the governors) are blamed. The true cost of this political timidity is borne by the victims of the 68 percent of young, court-released prisoners who commit new offenses within three years.

This political theater is almost vaudevillian at times. In New Orleans, a state agency has sued the local prison for violating state fire codes. The local prison is overcrowded, however, because the state prison is overcrowded and under a court order to reduce its population.

Enter President Bush, who calls for a war on drugs. New Orleans responds by arresting dozens of dealers. The result: Dozens of prisoners (including some drug dealers) are released to house the new arrivals. This drama is repeated daily, with 42 states and the District of Columbia under court order to relieve prison overcrowding.

In the meantime, elderly prisoners like Quenton Brown remain sad but apt personifications of the outmoded, geriatric policies that keep them behind bars.