U.S. prisons becoming ‘old age homes behind bars’

Posted Feb 16, 2012 by Lynn Herrmann
A dramatic increase of aging prisoners in the United States is leaving prison officials stretched in providing proper housing and medical care, and now find themselves operating “old age homes behind bars,” a new report reveals.
Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States, (pdf), a 104-page report by Human Rights Watch, reveals that in just three years, between 2007 and 2010, federal and state prisoners age 65 or older grew 94 times the rate of the total U.S. prison population. The number of prisoners age 65 or older is now 26,200, an increase of 63 percent
“Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities, said Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the U.S. Program at HRW and author of the report, in a statement. “Yet US corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”
In U.S. state and federal prisons, the number of those incarcerated age 55 or older has nearly quadrupled between 1995 and 2010, a 282 percent spike, even as the total number of prisoners grew by 42 percent. There are now 124,400 prisoners age 55 or older.
According to the report, almost one in 10 state prisoners (9.6 percent) serves a life sentence. Additionally, 11.2 percent are serving sentences longer than 20 years.
The report notes that in New York, 28 percent of state prisoners age 60 or over have been in prison continuously for 20 or more years.
These long sentences mean many prisoners will be very old when leaving prison, if they leave at all.
For the study, HRW visited 20 prisons in nine states and interviewed prisoners, corrections and gerontology experts, and prison officials. Among the discoveries, prison officials are “scrambling” in response to needs and vulnerabilities of these aging prisoners.
Walking long distances to dining halls, climbing to a top bunk, or just standing for count can be almost impossible for some older prisoners. Added to this are the burdens of incontinence and dementia.
Staff behavior at prisons with high proportions of elderly have had to adapt to these realities. “Prison staff who work with the elderly know it makes no sense to yell at a prisoner who doesn’t understand what they are saying,” Fellner said. “As one sergeant told me, staff have to give older prisoners ‘a little more leeway’ when it comes to enforcing the rules.”
Medical expenses in relation to these aging populations are three to nine times higher, depending on the state, as for other prisoners. In Michigan, where the average annual health care cost for a prison inmate is estimated at $5,801, costs increase dramatically: from $11,000 for the 55-59 age group to $40,000 for those age 80 or older.
The country’s “tough on crime” policies such as long mandatory minimum sentences, increasing life sentences and reduced opportunities for parole means the number of aging prisoners will continue to increase, and HRW calls for modifications to these policies.
“How are justice and public safety served by the continued incarceration of men and women whose bodies and minds have been whittled away by age?” Fellner added.
The report contains national statistics on the number and proportion of older prisoners and their sentences, data for 24 individual states, and detailed information on California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.