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.