Senior Power: “Graying prisons,” early release, and ‘assisted living’

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Monday January 03, 2011 - 05:01:00 PM

The U.S. prison population grew from over 319,000 in 1980 to nearly 1.5 million in 2005. Elderly inmates represent the fastest growing segment of federal and state prisons.Conservative estimates suggest that this population now represents 33%, reflecting the general aging of society. 

Definitions states have established for elderly prisoners vary; some have no official age designation for the elderly prisoner population. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of men and women in state and federal prisons age 55 and older grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008, the latest year available, from 43,300 to 76,400. The growth of the entire prison population grew only 18 percent in that period. The aging inmate population has created new challenges for states.  

Inmates tend to age faster than members of the general population, on average 7 to 10 years older than their chronological age. Older inmates tend to develop age-related health problems earlier. The National Institute of Corrections lists arthritis, hypertension, ulcer disease, prostate problems and myocardial infarction among the most common chronic diseases among elderly inmates. Diabetes, Hepatitis C and cancer are also common. General accommodations and protection against younger offenders also increase the cost of housing older inmates. Stress contributes to accelerated aging.  

Corrections professionals, academics and policymakers are considering whether some older inmates should be released through medical (so called assisted living) and early release programs. Proponents argue that once released, inmates may be eligible for Medicare, Social Security or veterans’ benefits. “Prisons aren’t geared to the needs and vulnerabilities of older people. In the prison environment, there are a number of unique physical tasks that must be performed every day in order to retain independence,” according to Brie Williams, M.D., a geriatrician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. [Graying Prisons; states face challenges of an aging inmate population. By Carrie Abner. State News. Nov/Dec 2006]  

The Project for Older Prisoners (POPS), directed by Jonathan Turley, at George Washington University Law School, D.C., encompasses a number of prison projects in which students are involved as volunteers or work for academic credit. Some assist individual low-risk prisoners over the age of 55 to help them obtain paroles, pardons, or alternative forms of incarceration. In a typical case, a student will prepare an extensive background report on a prisoner to determine the likelihood of recidivism. If the risk is low, the student will then locate housing and support for the prisoner and help prepare the case for a parole hearing. In five states (Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia), law students interview and evaluate older and geriatric inmates in obtaining parole or other forms of release from incarceration. 

Turley testified in the House Judiciary Committee on prison reform and older prisoners in December 2007 that some prisons are 200% to 300% over capacity and rehabilitation work programs have been eliminated to make room for bunks. It is no longer a question of whether California’s prisoners will be released, but which ones. 

POPS proposed a risk-based approach in dealing with California’s burgeoning older population. The decision made on the basis of societal and not political risks, makes risk-based decisions that select the lowest-risk individuals for early release.As a general rule, people become less dangerous as they age. In males, the greatest drop in recidivism occurs around age 30 and tends to continue to fall. The average cost of an older prisoner is two to three times that of younger prisoner. In 2006-7 there were almost 20,000 prisoners over 55, including 717 over 70. 

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that elderly prisoners — the fastest growing segment of the prison population, largely because of tough sentencing laws — are three times more expensive to incarcerate than younger inmates. ACLU estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared to $24,000 for a younger prisoner.
In New York State as of January 1, there were 1,836 inmates older than age 60 serving time. Officials say 77 percent of those inmates were in custody on violent felonies.  

Information released after a public records request from Associated Press indicated that Washington State had 2,495 inmates age 50 or older, the state's definition of elderly. A new assisted-living facility at Coyote Ridge has a capacity of 74 inmates. To qualify, an inmate must be disabled and be considered a minimum security risk. The average age in the assisted living unit was 59, a figure skewed slightly by three inmates in their 30s with disabilities. Nearly all the inmates in the assisted-living unit were in for murder or sex crimes, although a few are serving time for assault, drug or property crimes. 

Many states are studying ways to reduce the number of elderly prisoners. New or expanded early release programs have been adopted by some.. But a study by the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City found the laws have rarely been used, in part because of political considerations and complicated reviews. Early release for infirm inmates would be fine, but prisoners need to be able to pay for the nursing care they need. 

And this is an international problem. Japanese prisons face a swelling elderly population. Mari Yamaguchi reported that Japan's population is aging faster than anywhere else. [Dec. 5, 2010 Washington Post] The number of Japanese prisoners aged 60 or older has doubled over the past decade to more than 10,000. The elderly now represent 16 percent of the nation's inmates. Though Japan's crime rate remains relatively low, the spike in elderly crime is another sign of the social and economic strains on the nation. An entire floor has been converted into a pilot geriatric ward at Onomichi Prison, near the city of Hiroshima. The government has also invested $100 million to build larger facilities at three other prisons around the country, and more are planned. Most of the inmates have been convicted of shoplifting and theft, reflecting the financial pressures and lack of family support facing many older Japanese amid a lengthy economic slump and fraying social cohesion. About half are repeat offenders, including some who steal to get caught and return to the relative security of prison, where at least shelter - if Spartan - and three meals a day, as well as a twice-weekly bath, are guaranteed. 

"The number of senior inmates has been surging, and there is no sign of decrease," according to Koki Maezawa, a Justice Ministry official in charge of prison services. "It's a serious problem that the entire society must tackle so that offenders don't keep coming back to prison once they get out." 


Saturday, December 18, 2010: Holiday Food Baskets were delivered to Berkeley senior housing tenants who had indicated interest in such bounty. Fresh fruit and vegetables, chickens, and other groceries were provided by the City of Berkeley Fire Department, San Francisco Fire Credit Union, Berkeley Lions Club, Ashby Pluming & Heating supply, Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods. They were delivered by “many volunteers & Berkeley Firefighters.”