What happens when the whole arc of your life is cramped in a 10-foot concrete square? For years, the United States has sent people to prison for life, without fully thinking through the human consequences of aging prisoners’ dying behind bars.
After two decades of steady growth, fueled by harsh Drug War sentencing policies, the portion of the incarcerated population over the age of 50 rose to more than 243,000 by 2013. According to an analysis by the Osborne Association, by 2030, fully one in three imprisoned people will be at least half a century old—born around the time of Reagan’s first election, and probably incarcerated under the types of tough-on-crime policies that are now widely repudiated as inhumane. If they are eventually freed, they may rejoin a world that’s generations out of sync, perhaps without family, housing, or job prospects, carrying a lifetime’s burden of illness and trauma.
The largest incarcerated elderly populations can be found in the states with the most elderly people: Texas, Florida, and California, where services for the aging are severely under-resourced inside and outside the prison system. But aging prisoners don’t even qualify for standard Medicaid and Medicare once out of prison, and for the roughly two-thirds who are scheduled to be released, many face a “free” life that is isolated from their families and communities, excluded from social services, rife with poverty and stigma.
Not surprisingly, these seniors’ enfeebled state comes with recidivism rates much lower than their younger counterparts’. The Osborne report cites low security risk as a reason to make parole procedures more generous and grant “compassionate release” on medical grounds, because “the costs of incarcerating an aging prison population can be reduced without threatening public safety.” But the system has little mercy for imprisoned elders: A New York Times investigation revealed that, over the past four years, “the Bureau of Prisons approved 6 percent of the 5,400 applications received, while 266 inmates who requested compassionate release died in custody.”
While these aging prisoners are too old to do harm, they’re often not fit enough to live well in prison. They are systematically denied basic recreational and physical activity, with little access to doctors and counselors. Since aging is challenging even in the healthiest settings, prison is known as an environment of “accelerated aging”—when preventable suffering becomes chronic deterioration. Sometimes prisoners’ vulnerability exposes them to abuse and exploitation from predatory security officers or fellow inmates. Often, researchers observe, the aging body “can lead to behaviors mistaken for disobedience or aggression”—leading to dangerous punitive measures like solitary confinement, which is internationally condemned as a form of torture. Their mental state might interfere with their legal prospects as well: Researchers report that some applicants “must be reminded of their crime prior to a parole hearing.” How can they prove good behavior when they’ve forgotten “why they are there or whether they are remorseful”?