More than thirty years ago, Mohaman G. Koti shot a police officer during a parking ticket dispute in which no one was killed. He is now in his late 80s and suffers from asthma and a neuromuscular disorder. He doesn’t hear so well, either. Yet Koti, a well-known peacemaker behind prison walls, was denied parole every two years beginning in 2005 because New York State still considered him a risk to public safety. The state did this despite the fact that it costs, on average, twice as much to lock up a stooped grandfather with digestive problems as it does to hold a healthy young man—and can sometimes cost as much as five times more. It was only last month, after many denials, that Koti was finally granted parole. He will re-enter the population just a few years shy of his ninetieth birthday.
Gloria Rubero, 64, was lucky enough to avoid this fate. She got released from prison before she became so old and infirm that her story took on the absurdist warp of Koti’s case. But she quickly found that life on the outside as an aging ex-inmate had its own challenges. When she was sentenced to twenty-to-life for murder and robbery, we still called the Internet ARPANET; there were no smartphones or digital cameras, and CDs were considered cutting edge. Twenty-six years later she was released into an unfamiliar, wireless world. She had no driver’s license, no birth certificate, no idea how to use a subway card, and the people who might once have helped her navigate these novelties—friends and neighbors—had disappeared. In the lonely chaos of the free world, she often found herself longing for the security of prison.
“People thought I was crazy,” said Rubero, who had spent almost half her life behind bars by the time she was released. “But inside I had a job. I got my education there, I knew a lot of people. I didn’t have to think about rent, electric bills, credit.”
These are just two stories from the front lines of the emerging crisis of America’s aging prison population. All across the United States, prison populations are graying, growing old and infirm behind bars. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of people in prison who are older than 55 quadrupled, and the numbers keep increasing. Today, nearly 16 percent of this country’s 2-plus million prisoners are over the age of 50, or “elderly,” as defined by the National Institute of Corrections. By 2030, a third of all inmates will be elderly—and many prisons may look a lot like nursing homes.
This is not because old people are suddenly becoming violent, turning to lives of crime in their retirement years. This is a man-made crisis that tracks back to the nation’s long obsession with retribution, which peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s when the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” ideologies reigned supreme, spawning mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes” laws, among other things. Now, several decades later, people sentenced during this wave of aggressive incarceration are hitting their 50s and 60s—and the full meaning of “twenty-five-to-life” is becoming clear.
“The sheer number and the specialized needs of the aging prison population have begun to surpass correctional facilities’ capability to provide effective and humane care,” the Osborne Association and Florence V. Burden Foundation warn in a recent report titled “The High Costs of Low Risk.” “This sustained mass incarceration of elders bears major economic, social, ethical, and health implications—and without decisive action, our criminal justice system is at serious risk of collapsing under its own weight.”