In parts of some state prison facilities, you’re less likely to encounter any dangerous convicts than you are to see someone who could be your grandparent. But even if they can barely walk, much less commit another crime, elderly prisoners often remain locked up for life.
For tens of thousands of seniors, a cell block is their equivalent of a retirement home. As the country reckons with the legacy of a generation of mass incarceration, the Vera Institute of Justice argues that making the system more humane and less wasteful demands that imprisoned elderly people should be released, out of compassion for the individuals, and as as part of a broader structural effort to “decarcerate” society.
On a practical level, there is growing evidence that the practice of imprisonment of seniors is harmful, unhealthy, and unconnected to community safety, keeping families apart until death if they’re serving a life sentence or if their prison term simply outlives them. An orderly release back into society, with the appropriate social supports, is one of the least risky ways to reform a system that many see as an injustice to people at any age.
Most states now offer “compassionate release” processes, which allow selective release based on poor health or age (plus the unlikelihood of reoffending). But unforgiving criminal-justice policies have denied all but a tiny handful each year the dignity of passing away a free man or woman.
The aging crisis in prison is the fallout of an era of long sentences, driven by the brutal criminal-justice policies of the seemingly never-ending “war on drugs.” Now the surge in prisoners over the past several decades has erupted into a “gray wave” of more than 131,000 people age 55 or older in state prisons nationwide, housed at a cost of some $9 billion annually. By 2030, an estimated one in three people in federal or state prisons will be aged 55 or older—more than triple the proportion in the early 1990s. A survey of 42 state prison systems shows a spike in the elderly prison population by about one-third between 2007 and 2011.
For all the taxpayer funding the overcrowded, underfunded prison infrastructure absorbs, prison has become both one of the cruelest and most expensive ways of aging. The inmates bear the heaviest medical and social costs, locked in cramped quarters, sometimes with much younger inmates, and subject to psychological and physical abuse, neglect, and guards who may mistake symptoms of dementia for disobedience that calls for disciplinary measures. And although social contact is vital to preserve health for the incarcerated as well as the elderly in general, they are typically isolated from their long-estranged families and lack access to basic forms of recreation, even open space.
Many elderly inmates nevertheless face massive legal and bureaucratic barriers in applying for compassionate release. Often so-called “truth in sentencing” laws exclude people with certain convictions, like sexual offenses or capital murder, from compassionate release. Some states, seeking to trim prison costs, have in recent years revamped the procedures, with mixed results. For example, South Carolina expanded the medical-parole petition process in 2016 with more straightforward criteria, making eligible those who were terminally ill or “permanently incapacitated,” or individuals age 70 or older with a chronic debilitating condition. Only a handful of applicants were reviewed, resulting in nine releases. The main bottleneck isn’t the individual criteria but the harsh “truth in sentencing” provisions that preempt parole for many felony categories involving more severe convictions, including murder and some drug offenses. The long-term effect is unclear, but even a loosening of the rules would likely be eclipsed by overall trends: A major portion of the state prison population is now aged 55 or above, and this group has been growing since 2012.
Currently the burden of proof is on inmates to bring their own petitions, or, if they’re fortunate enough to get selected, prove that they are worthy of freedom. Rebecca Silber, program manager for special initiatives at Vera, says that states have a duty to proactively offer opportunities for emancipation: “There should be automatic triggers for release consideration once you hit a certain age, more training of and encouragement of correctional staff to put people forward, and more assistance for people to navigate the process.”
Whether elderly inmates are released or not, prison authorities could improve conditions for incarcerated seniors by simply ensuring that prison staff know how to handle the aging process. A specially designated medical “navigator” would be able to identify symptoms of illness or mental deterioration early in order to ensure immediate, appropriate care or management of chronic conditions.
Silber stresses that, as with younger releasees, “ensuring that people have access to the care and services they need upon release is an essential part of the compassionate-release process.” Often bureaucracy and inadequate access to services becomes a bottleneck that only prolongs their punishment for no reason other than the state’s incompetence. And their criminalization, Silber notes, follows them after they return to their communities: “Many of the people being released need nursing care that can only be provided in a nursing home or hospice or hospital. Some of these institutions do not accept people with felony convictions.” Some lack health insurance, and an untold number simply have no one to look after them if they cannot secure the care of a relative.
Yet the review process for compassionate release remains an adversarial, judgement-based procedure, which only compounds a more troubling underlying civil-rights crisis: Across all age groups, the massive racial disproportionality at every level of the criminal-justice system has contributed to social devastation and intergenerational poverty in many communities of color. Now the aging crisis in prison reveals how the scars of mass imprisonment continues to haunt families all the way to the grave.
With such an asymmetry of power controlling the fate of the most vulnerable people in the system, the basic question is why the state continues imprisoning them for no moral or safety purpose. As policy-makers move toward more progressive, socially constructive forms of public safety, the fact that so many elders remain warehoused because of outmoded policies shows that for many it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But we might as well use what time they have left to begin a collective healing; they’ll never get a second chance at life, but they can at least have one last taste of freedom.