With longer sentences and harsher mandatory minimums, we are seeing a growing "silver tide" of elderly, ailing people filling our prisons. They are expensive to treat and house, yet many are not dangerous. Governors and legislators are loathe to use clemency or compassionate release to let them out to die at home. This thoughtful and engaging piece from The California Progress Report asks some deep questions and provides some jaw-dropping statistics about the elderly incarcerated:
[F]rom 1995 to nearly 2010, the number of prisoners 55 and older nearly quadrupled—a growth 94 times the overall rate. As America’s prison population of 2.3 million people continues to go gray, a very real question presents itself: does everyone have a right to die free?
Since one in ten prisoners are currently serving a life sentence, the population of older prisoners will continue to swell in a process calling “stacking.” Policies that have engendered this situation include increased likelihood and length of sentences, such as three strikes laws and mandatory minimums; crimes sentenced with life and/or life without parole; and more restrictions on parole. To illustrate, consider that nearly one third of federal prisoners who entered prison in 2009 had sentences ranging from 10 years to 40 years to life and most of them will die in prison.
Aging prisoners face some of the worst conditions and treatment, and they are the most expensive to house. Most policymakers seem to fail to see the implications of two facts: long-term, aging prisoners are astronomically expensive and they reoffend at the lowest rate of prisoners. In California, the cost to imprison a prisoner has increased by $19,500 since 2000; over one-third ($8,300) is from increased health care costs (and $7,100 for security, most likely because of overcrowding). The average elderly female prisoner in a California prison costs $138,000 per year and since prisons are not eligible for federal Medicaid and Medicare funding, the state picks up the tab.
Nation-wide, the annual cost of incarcerating an older prisoner is nearly double that of a younger prisoner, approximately $70,000 a year; Human Rights Watch reports that the cost of housing older prisoners is three to nine times higher than for younger ones. An extraordinary 82 percent of prisoners 65 and older have a serious and chronic medical problem that requires treatment. Even in Ohio, which leads the nation in care for older prisoners, only one-third of those with such conditions are in chronic care or hospice. ... [T]he health of most aging prisoners resembles that of a person ten years older.
Should lawmakers be required to consider a "death factor" when creating sentencing laws? In other words, should a guiding principle of sentencing be that, whenever possible, the offender gets to leave prison alive? To even ensure such a result, we'd have to start by doing away with mandatory minimum terms, because they don't allow for any consideration of a prisoner's age or health condition, or the likelihood of a death behind bars.