Greying of Prison Inmates: An Economic and Social Disaster in the Making

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger

BoP sealThose who advocated for longer prison sentences failed to take the Law of Unintended Consequences into consideration.  We all know that prisons have become warehouses. There are several areas where the US leads the world. We lead all industrialized nations in infant deaths the first day of life. We lead the world in illegal drug use. In addition, we lead the world in number of people incarcerated.

The US prison population is about 2.3 million, more than any other nation. Those numbers come from a global study of prisons by the International Centre for Prison Studies, London.

China is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison, despite a population of 1.35 billion. (NOTE: That figure does not include political prisoners in administrative detention for “reeducation.”)

The unintended consequences are an aging prison population. Perhaps the for-profit prisons did not count on that glitch in their bottom line. However, prisons at both the state and Federal level are finding themselves running geriatric nursing homes.  In 2010, the last year for which we have accurate data, prisoners age 65 or over increased 94 times the rate of the total prison population in the three-year period 2007-2010.  During that same three-year period, the total US prison population grew 0.7%.

At the rate we are going, by the year 2030, estimates are that almost a half-million prisoners will be elderly.  Most prisons spend an absolute minimum on staffing and patient health.  Private prisons find the elderly cutting into their profit margin. Problems not anticipated for younger prisoners are cropping up.  What good does it do for a correctional officer to give orders to a prisoner with Alzheimer’s disease?  Prisons are not designed for accommodating walkers, wheelchairs and those who may have serious age-related illnesses.

Sociologists have been studying the problem for some time, and find a multitude of reasons. One finding was that elected judges are under pressure to be “tough on crime” so they will be reelected.  Drug laws are adding to the problem.  Draconian sentencing guidelines, and parole boards refusing to release prisoners who are no longer a threat add to the problem.  This news article has a lede photo worth seeing, with the caption that asks if the inmate shown is still a threat to society.

Several years ago, I evaluated a prisoner who was scheduled for a parole hearing in the next few days.  I reviewed his chart and found he had been given a life sentence for forcible rape in 1954.  He was now 83 years old and in poor health. Two correctional officers escorted him to the interview, holding him by his elbows to keep him from falling. He used a walker, shuffling slowly into my office.  He was alert and responded appropriately to my questions, but was frail and obviously in marginal health.  I wrote my report and in my conclusions, observed that the chances of him committing another sex offense even remotely like his original charge was zero. A few days later, I got a call from the attorney for the Parole Board. She was insistent that my report was too vague, saying that I had to guarantee he would not commit any kind of sex offense at all for him to even be considered for parole. I pointed out to her that I could not guarantee he would not pat one of the nurses at the nursing home on the behind. That was not good enough for the parole board. They denied him parole. Later, I had a chance to talk with a member of the parole board.  She said the policy of the parole board was to never grant parole to a sex offender. They have to flat time their sentences, despite the fact that a parolee can be monitored and have parole revoked, whereas they lose track of those who do have determinate sentences.  She was not swayed by that logic, repeating that the board will never grant parole to a sex offender, even if they are terminally ill.

The old man I had interviewed died a few months after I talked to him. He passed away quietly in his sleep, still in prison. I suppose that now I can write a report guaranteeing that he will never offend again.

This issue is a ticking time bomb for the taxpayers. No one wants to pay for taking care of elderly prisoners. When I try to talk to people about it, they tend to brush it off with the cliché, “If they can’t do the time they shouldn’t do the crime.” The ACLU estimates the cost of caring for a prisoner older than 50 years is about $70,000. It costs about $35,135 to keep an inmate under 50.

As inmates grow older, they become needier, medically and physically, driving the cost up almost exponentially. A comprehensive study just published this month by the ACLU, At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly, shows the rising incarceration rate is driven by harsh sentencing guidelines, not increasing crime. You can read the executive summary at this link. Download the full report here (PDF warning).

Is there a solution? Why does one of the most industrialized nations in the world feel the need to imprison more of its citizens than the most populous countries?  Even more important, why are we imprisoning the aged and infirm?

I encourage everyone to read the links and watch the video. The ACLU study is 98 pages long and definitely worth reading. The floor is open for discussion.

72 thoughts on “Greying of Prison Inmates: An Economic and Social Disaster in the Making”

    1. @JonathanH. I sure would like a longer exegesis of your point….

  1. Getting old and having health issues is certainly one way to earn parole….

  2. Charlton, thank you for the very informative article. Some other articles of interest to you and readers appeared today that begin to address victim versus offender issues:
    Other free and downloadable resources and publications can be found at:

    1. Thank you. Interesting reading. I find I’m much more amenable to wealthy folks heading off to prison in their golden years than I am for the poor. I’m going to need to examine my bias, there.

  3. OS,

    Excellent article. Call it a pipe dream, but I see a state like California purging its prisons of non-violent drug offenders in the future; if only to stave off over crowding.

    Per the geriatric prison population, there’s only a few instances where I wouldn’t be sympathetic regarding parole.

    For example, I’m against the death penalty in principle because the burden of proof, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, necessitates a margin of error and that margin of error necessitates putting innocent people to death.

    Accordingly, for first degree murder convicts I think life in prison, with death row conditions, is the appropriate sentence. Growing old in prison with no hope of parole is part of the punishment.

    All the other crimes should be viewed by the parole board in the same way you viewed that rapist from the 50’s.

    I also object to the privatizing of prisons. If the state is going to keep the frail and elderly in prison, it should build prisons dedicated to that task so as to do it correctly.

  4. Juliet N.,
    Very good. Facts and data are troublesome things. Some folks don’t want their beautiful minds cluttered with reality. Denial is much easier.

    1. @Oro Lee :”Bron: “let government do what it was designed to do: protect the rights of the individual.”

      That is a pipe dream, unfortunately it is a very large pipe and serves as one of the pillars of America’s Great Exceptional Myth. Government does not exist in and of itself…. It is a tool of those with power. Those with power are those who control resources, means of production, and resultant wealth.
      Government does only two things, and protecting the rights of individuals is not one of them: Governments limit people’s liberty and take people’s property, The wealthy game the system, buy the politicos, and pay the enablers. They tolerate just enough justice and demand more than enough security to prevent a successful revolt.”

      I point out that Bron’s point was “designed to do”… not as it has necessarily worked out in the public square over time.

      Beyond the obvious defects of the constitution, still clearly the underlying principles of the consititution are at least these a) The power of the state is derived from the People. b) that the purpose of government is to serve the citizen. Thus the bill of rights.

      The meaning, context, and reason for the Constitution while being detailed in the Federalist Papers is to be found in the Preamble. This part of the Constitution is often ignored in the discussion of this or that amendment or S.Court interpretation. But I think the preamble has to have its place in the conversation as setting the frame/context for all that follows in the particulars.

      So to your point: Our system is corrupted from its original ideas, and never has actually fully embodied them. I agree. But I think we need to keep in our mind the central propositions that have been corrupted.

      I mean this as a balancing point, not as a rebuttal or counter to yours. Your response is at a different level than the original assertion is all.

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