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. Juliet N. Sure the libertarians and the tea party are for the big bankers as they don’t want them to be regulated. You are right about Rand Paul. Last week he compared gay marriage to bestiality. I think he can kiss the youth vote goodby but doubt he really ever had it.

  2. So long as people like Janice say, “They’re getting what they deserve,” nothing will change. I suppose we could try to appeal to their wallets by showing them the math, but that group has demonstrated the ability to be unmoved by facts and figures. What can one do if nearly half the population is “derpy.”

  3. Bron: “The tea party and libertarians arent for the big bankers.”

    You wouldn’t know it from the way they vote. Take our libertarian freedom fighter, Rand Paul. No really. Take him. Please.

  4. No one has mentioned the white paper published by the ACLU at the link given. I hope everyone downloads a copy and actually reads it. There are some recommendations at the end.

    Janice, what can I say? I know people like you, and that is part of the problem because some of them sit on parole boards.

  5. Oro Lee:

    I was thinking the same but then we do have many class action law suits which go after companies for bad actions.

    I think it was litigation and consumer demand which ended the Pinto. Also people like Ralph Nader.

    So I would say there is a good possibility the water and air might be even cleaner if people understood it was on them and not the government to force companies to comply with clean air and water standards or go out of business.

    Companies pay attention to profit or lack thereof. I would rather pay a few million in fines to the feds than have angry consumers sitting in my conference room or making videos for on-line cosumption about how I poisoned their child and showing a child in the final stages of life with a big headline which read “Gladby’s Pure Lemon Oil Did This to My Johhny/Susie.”

    Going out of business would be the least of my worries.

  6. From Bron’s linked article: “A wealthier society is a safer and healthier society.”

    ROFLMAO. Only if is there is an equitable distribution of wealth.

    Again, the article is all about neutral-value accretion of wealth. A simple for instance — regulations which force producers to internalize costs once borne by the public increases the producers cost but relieves society of the burden of the public subsidy. Would we be able to drink our water, breathe our air, and drive vehicles which don’t explode from a simple rear-enders if not for these regulations?

    Thanks for the morning wake up

  7. Oro Lee:

    What do you think of this article?

    http://news.investors.com/print/ibd-editorials/062813-661866-dont-blame-capitalism-and-free-markets-for-poor-economic-performance.aspx

    “A study published this month, for example, observes that if just federal regulation (state regulation wasn’t considered) had remained at the level it was in 1949, the economy would be more than 3.5 times bigger than it is.

    “Regulation’s overall effect on output’s growth rate is negative and substantial,” economists John Dawson and John Seater write in “Federal Regulation and Aggregate Economic Growth” Published in the June issue of the “The Journal of Economic Growth.”

    “Federal regulations added over the past 50 years,” they say, “have reduced real output growth by about two percentage points on average (annually) over the period 1949-2005. That reduction in the growth rate has led to an accumulated reduction in GDP of about $38.8 trillion as of the end of 2011.

    “That is, GDP at the end of 2011 would have been $53.9 trillion instead of $15.1 trillion, if regulation had remained at its 1949 level.”

    Numbers that big aren’t easy to put into perspective. But at a more micro level, they mean losses of “$277,100 per household and $129,300 per person” per year, the the authors reckon.”

    I dont know how accurate the numbers are but I am thinking it may not be 3.5 times as large but I bet it could easily be 2 times as large.

  8. Oro Lee:

    “So throwing money at it does cure it.”

    should read “so throwing money at it [poverty] does not cure it.”

  9. We should let them all out JT and put them up in your suburb where they can continue to commit crimes – potentially against your property and your family.

    You people are all very tolerable and appeasing to these criminals so long as they are not living next door to you or breaking into your house and car, conducting home invasions, car thefts and armed robberies in your suburb, molesting your children or your friends and neighbours children, selling drugs outside your local schools and so on. Then it is an entirely different story. Oh no not in my nice neighbourhood please.

    They should have thought about the repercussions of what they did before they committed the crime and stayed well out of jail.

    I am tired of listening to all these bleeding hearts go on about all the stupid people in society and those that commit crimes are just that.

    Everyone has a choice in life and no one is forced to commit crimes – both violent and non violent – to survive in this, the world’s wealthiest country.

    If there are a bunch of old criminals in jail who are having a tough time of it then hard luck. If it costs money to look after them in jail do not assume that it will cost no money to keep them elsewhere. Either way someone in society has to pay if they are looked after because they have little resources of their own. If they commit crimes again once out of jail someone pays the price also.

    These people made their choices in life and have to live with them.

    Apply your sympathies for those in society in need that are good, honest, law abiding people and god knows, there are plenty of them that could use your help.

    1. @Janice “If there are a bunch of old criminals in jail who are having a tough time of it then hard luck. If it costs money to look after them in jail do not assume that it will cost no money to keep them elsewhere….These people made their choices in life and have to live with them.

      Apply your sympathies for those in society in need that are good, honest, law abiding people and god knows, there are plenty of them that could use your help.”

      A screed worthy of Mr.Scrooge.


      And one that thrashes about in the shallow end of the pool of stereotypes, false assumptions, and completely missing the point.
      In my opinion it is this sort of thinking/mindset that is the energy behind such failed policies as the 3Strikes and the various “Wars”. It is the mindset that popularizes shows like “Cops” by (falsely) creating an sense that “they are the bad people, and we are the good people, because we would never do THAT”.
      No. Perhaps not. But we will allow some to nearly dismantling the economy with nary a slap on the wrist. People such as those have caused infinity more pain and suffering than any of these aging prisoners, however horrible their crime might have been. (And I am not justifying, nor minimizing that. Not even a little.) What does that say about us as a nation? as a society?

      The choices are not so binary as to be “leave them in prison” v. “put them on your doorstep”. How about developing policies and systems that respond to the realities of things and can make distinctions. Some people need to be incarcerated, and others do not. Some need to be in less punishing institutions and others do not.

      It would be great if we could get beyond a penal system based on fear, and created to “dispose” of unwanteds and remember that in our founding was the notion of “penitentiary” not “punishment” as a way to deal with offenders. We moved from retribution and inflicting shame and pain (“unusual punishment”) to ostensibly a system of incarceration to allow the offender “time to think, and repent”. The “penitent” of “penitentiary”

      Of course we are far removed from that ideal. The problem is, as far as I can tell, is that there are hardly any shreds of this underlying ideal left in our penal system. Our system is cruel and embodies our fears and angers such that we are blind to the injustices and simple dumb thinking.

      Be wise. And kind where possible. It makes a difference in what happens next.

  10. Bron: “what you suggest is war of all against all. whose group is stronger. that is the end of civilization.”

    War denotes violence. I deplore violence and do not advocate same.

    There are things everyone can do. Massive change requires group action, which requires a lot of small groups to come togehter on big tasks. For example various groups came together and re-elected President O’bama. Conspicuously absent — white males. Find groups that are getting things done. Join as many as you can. Create communication between the groups. Join up on common causes.

    On a individual level, take yourself out of the consumer-oriented model as much as possible. This drastically reduces you carbon footprint. I’ve gone vegan and grow my own food. If i buy, I look to local or fair trade. i never buy Chinese. I avoid plastic like the plague.

    Most importantly — forget about pies in the sky. Become informed. Demand good information, and proper analysis. Insist of reality based observation and discussions.

    Bron: “As far as poverty goes, we have spent trillions of dollars and still have poverty.”

    Which begs the question, what would this country look like if we hadn’t? Evidence based answers, please. Maybe Detroit.

    BTW — throwing money at the poor is one of the simplest and most efficient ways of throwing money at a slow-moving consumer-demand oriented economy. The poor spend all of their money. This helps maintain demand for goods and services and sustains jobs. it avoids deflation and job loss. for example, school lunch programs aren’t about children — its about farm corporations. And it helps to keep the cost of food low for all of us.

    The only downside is if that money had otherwise been invested in something more productive, a venture that would have to exceed the economic and societal costs of not providing for the poor.

    The last question is whether the country and the poor would be better of if the money had been left with the taxpayer. For the vast majority of taxpayers, that money would not have been saved or invested but expended.

    The benefit only occurs if the big taxpayers make productive investments that they wouldn’t have otherwise made. And that is a function of demand. Simply having a lot of money doesn’t mean that it will be put to productive use. Evidence seems to indicate that tax cuts for the rich actually depresses an economy instead of stimulating it. Exhibit A: George Bush’s economic meltdown. There was no additional investment because there was no increased demand.

    Wipe out the poverty programs, and unemployment will go through the roof. Give all that money to the rich, and the economy will go through the floor.

  11. The author’s piece is long on pointing out the not-so-shocking news about
    the costs of keeping people imprisoned until they become geriatrics, but it was sorta short on proposing a solution. Here are some on offer.

    1. STOP locking up people for victim-less crimes.
    2. ELIMINATE for-profit prisons.
    3. Drastically lower sentences & bring them in line with those of civilized
    countries.
    4. Provide a guaranteed national income to ALL American citizens…just as
    President NIXON proposed 40+ years ago.
    5. IGNORE the diversionary bleatings of those who want to maintain the status quo by claiming there’s no such thing as a victim-less crime.

  12. oro lee:

    I dont agree, what you suggest is war of all against all. whose group is stronger. that is the end of civilization.

    The tea party and libertarians arent for the big bankers.

    As far as poverty goes, we have spent trillions of dollars and still have poverty. So throwing money at it does cure it.

  13. And . . . we haven’t even discussed a growth oriented economic system, let alone a fossil fueled growth oriented economic system, in a world of finite resources. We have already exhausted one of those resources — the ability to pollute our atmosphere with greenhouse gasses. Unless immediate action is taken to drastically reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses, all our hand wringing and esoteric discussions will come to naught — but, hey, where is the money in that?

    It is already a certainty that our children will not have it as good as previous generations. Whether there is a God or not, we have for several decades sinned against our children and their children for many, many generations.

  14. 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.

    Bron: “the free market”

    Another pipe dream, as are free enterprise, free trade, free exchange rates, market driven prices, market driven supply and demand, or better yet a reasonable buyer/seller, an informed buyer/seller, and arm’s length bargain. They are all theoretical constructs of particular economic model — they do not exist in reality. They are woefully inadequate in describing reality, and the the model — even when aided by super-computing power — simply cannot handle the synergies of economic human behavior even if humans were capable of identifying, calculating, and inputting all material factors.

    I graduated college with a minor in economics, i drank the Adam Smith Kool-Aid. I was also quite familiar with Atlas Shrugged and other Rand works (in my case it all had to do with sex, but I’ve done dumber for same).

    Then I asked a Darwinian question. If it is all about the survival of the fittest, then fittest for what? At adapting to one’s environment. For what purpose? Passing on one’s genes. The answer blew me away, it is totally value neutral. In a changed environment (climate change, anyone?), humans could easily “devolve” into chimps if that is what it takes to pass on one’s genes.

    In that value neutral realization of survival of the fittest, I realized that the capitalist system is also value-neutral. it is the best at allocating resources to meet consumer demands. But people starve to death. The U.S. produced enough food last year to feed 10 billion people, any only 8,5 populate the earth. Don’t the demands of the starving matter?

    it is the demands of consumers who can pay for what they want, to cover the cast as well as the profit of getting what they want. That’s why we have 50 varieties of dog food and as many of toilet paper, and why people starve to death. There just no money in feeding all the starving people.

    The capitalist system is the best economic system we have for creating wealth. And nothing more. i was so stupid. The word wealth was in the title of Smith’s book, but I was enamored with theory and a world that just does not and has never existed.

    Capitalism has nothing to do with respecting the dignity of each human being, of ensuring an equitable distribution of wealth. If the best way to meet demands is through a few large transnational corporations, so be it, If 90% of that wealth ends up in the hands of 10% of the population (again I was so stupid, for Smith suggest that such an outcome is likely), so be it.

    Atlas Shrugged is a myth, just as much as the free enterprise, free market system is. Rights are only respected in a group. The plutarchs don’t care about your rights, only their security and economic stability You want maximum protection of your rights, the full expression of respect of your human dignity? then you’ve got to be in a group that is more powerful than theirs. And you’ve got to get control of the government, going it alone won’t get you anything but crushed. The ten percenters understand this. The Libertarians and Tea Partiers don’t. That’s why the ten percenters love them.

  15. Bron,

    In a civilized society, everyone should have a roof over their head, food on the table, a shirt on their back, education, and health care. Not everyone is in a position to provide for him or herself, I’m especially thinking of the infirm, the elderly and children. It also includes those who are out of work or underemployed for no fault of their own.

    If you want to decrease the number of people receiving housing grants, food stamps, or medicare, consider getting Congress to move on increasing the minimum wage and then tacking it to a cost of living increase. They should also expand the VA system to include everyone, after the VA fixes the morass for the vets looking for application approval. They might also find ways to keep the multi-national corporations from exporting jobs and avoiding taxes.

    Forget attacking social security. I paid in for decades and have absolutely no guilt in accepting a check each month.

    Forget about attacking the children (aid to dependent children, school lunch program, head start, etc.). NO child asked to be born in poverty.

  16. Oro lee:

    I would say government intervention. Just let the people figure it out and let government do what it was designed to do: protect the rights of the individual.

    I would add that the wealthy turn to government for those protections because the free market doesnt suffer fools and dispatches them pretty quickly.

    It is just what happens in a statist country. It isnt atavism or maybe it is, most of human history has been the rule of the few.

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