Sentenced to death by old age
A growing geriatric prison population borders on a crisis of care and life sentences turning into death sentences for thousands
One in ten state prisoners nowadays is a lifer, and about the same proportion of federal prisoners over 50 are serving 30 to life. In short, more than 100,000 prisoners are currently destined to die in prison, and far more will remain there well into their 60s and 70s. Many of these men—as most are men—were never violent criminals even in their youth.
The boom in geriatric prisoners is the inevitable result of legislation from the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s laws, which dramatically extended sentences and slashed parole opportunities. According to a June 2012 report by the Pew Center on the States, drug offenders released in 2009 had spent 36 percent longer behind bars, on average, than those released in 1990.
The United States leads the world in incarceration with more than 2.3 million people in its prisons and jails, and the graying of this population is shaping up to be a crisis with moral, practical and economic implications for cash-strapped governments. In recent years, a growing number of advocates—and even a handful of corrections officials and politicians—have dared to suggest that we consider setting some of these old-timers free.
As of 2010, state and federal prisons housed more than 26,000 prisoners 65 and older and close to five times that number of 55 and up, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. (Both numbers are significant, since long-term incarceration is said to add 10 years to a person’s physical age; in prison, 55 is old). From 1995 to 2010, as America’s prison population grew 42 percent, the number of prisoners over 55 grew at nearly seven times that rate. Today, roughly 1 in 12 state and federal prisoners is 55 or older.
And the trend is worsening. A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that, by 2030, the over-55 group will number more than 400,000—a significant part of the overall prison population.
Keeping thousands of old men locked away might make sense to die-hards seeking maximum retribution or politicians seeking political cover, but it has little effect on public safety. By age 50, people are far less likely to commit serious crimes. Arrest rates drop to 2 percent. They are almost nil at the age of 65. The arrest rate for 16 to 19 year olds, by contrast, runs around 12 percent.
Once released, therefore, the vast majority of the older prisoners never return. Beyond any questions of efficacy or mercy lies the looming issue of the price tag. According to the ACLU, caring for aging prisoners costs American taxpayers some $16 billion annually. We shell out roughly $68,000 a year for each prisoner over 50, twice what it costs to keep a younger person locked up. And the older the prisoner, the greater the cost.
Even when you factor in post-incarceration expenses—for parole, housing and public benefits such as health care—the ACLU projects that taxpayers save $66,000 a year, on average, for each prisoner over 50 our prisons set free. “States are con-fronting the complex, expensive repercussions of their sentencing practices,” notes a 2010 report from the Vera Institute for Justice.
Prison officials are hard-pressed to provide conditions of confinement that meet the needs and respect the rights of their elderly prisoners. They are also ill-prepared—lacking the resources, plans, commitment and support from elected officials—to handle the even greater numbers of older prisoners projected for the future.
It is not difficult to see why it costs so much. The medical conditions that present themselves to long-term elderly inmates run anywhere from dialysis to cardiac treatment to dementia. It is staff intensive. Prisons also are not designed for people with mobility problems. Their assisted-living and hospice units are often full to capacity.
The activities available to inmates are limited, and usually require a prisoner to walk a distance or to climb stairs. For some old-timers, a cell is their entire world; doing time simply means awaiting death. The rising tide of older persons in the United States as the “baby boomers” begin to hit age 65 has been called a “silver tsunami.” U.S. corrections systems are also confronting a “silver tsunami” of aging prisoners. But the wave they confront is not the result of uncontrollable natural forces. It is the result of legislation enacted decades ago.
Officials should review their sentencing and release laws and practices to determine what can be adjusted to reduce the elderly prisoner population without risking public safety. Meanwhile, corrections officials should review the conditions of confinement for their elderly prisoners, including the services and programs available to them, and make changes as needed to ensure their human rights are respected.
About the Writer: Tony Vick, 60, has served 25 years on a Life With Parole sentence in Tennessee. In 2018, his essays and poems, “Secrets From A Prison Cell, (A Convict’s Eyewitness Accounts of the Dehumanizing Drama of Life Behind Bars),” was published by Cascade Books. His works have been included in multiple books and publications, most recently “Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality & the Arts,” and a poetry anthology, “A 21st Century Plague: Poetry from a Pandemic,” by Elayne Clift. To contact him: Tony Vick, #276187, SCCF, PO Box 279, Clifton, TN 38425. Email: friendsofTVick@gmail.com