US prisons increasingly resemble high-security nursing homes, as the number of aging inmates continues to soar. New data compiled by Human Rights Watch (and described in further detail below) reveals that the number of people age 65 and older serving sentences in state and federal prisons has doubled since 2007, even as the overall prison population fell slightly. Today, one in ten prisoners is age 55 and older; seven years ago the figure was one in twenty. Many of these prisoners will be into their 70s, 80s, or even older before they have finished their sentences; some are serving life without parole.
Prison isn’t easy for anyone, but it is especially punishing for those afflicted by the burdens of old age. As Human Rights Watch documented in a 2012 report, prisons are not designed for inmates who need wheelchairs, walkers, portable oxygen tanks; who cannot get dressed without help or haul themselves to the top bunk; who can’t hear prison officers’ commands; who are incontinent, forgetful, or infirm. Nor are prison budgets: older prisoners’ medical costs are three to nine times as high as younger inmates’.
The number and proportion of aging men and women behind bars began to increase in the mid-1990s, as a result of tough-on-crime laws – mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes,” and life sentences. Parole was eliminated in many places, and even where it exists, the criteria for release are too narrow and officials are reluctant to use it fully.
Keeping tens of thousands of geriatric men and women in prison isn’t just expensive. In many cases it’s unnecessary. Many have already spent years and even decades behind bars. They have been held accountable for their crimes. And research indicates that even those who have committed violent crimes are unlikely to re-offend if released to their families or nursing homes. Neither justice, fiscal prudence, nor public safety are served by the continued incarceration of the people whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age and illness.
Lawmakers should ensure aging and incapacitated prisoners who can safely be released are not kept behind bars. They should reform antiquated and counterproductive sentencing laws that require needlessly long sentences. They should also ensure effective early release programs for the aged and infirm. Compassionate release and medical parole programs exist in many prison systems, but officials blocks most requests for such early release and the programs often exclude people who committed violent crimes regardless of the likelihood that they would reoffend.