Prisons across the USA are dealing with an aging group of people. According to a Human Rights Watch study made in 2010, some 26,000 inmates in the USA were 65 and older, and this trend is growing. A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that by 2030, the over -55 group will number more than 400,000. This projection amounts to about a third of the overall prison population.
More and more older women and men are dying in prison of natural causes. Some grow old and die in prison and some enter prison in such a poor health that they will die before they complete their sentence. According to the National Institute of Corrections, prisoners age 50 and older are considered “elderly” or “aging” due to unhealthy conditions prior to and during incarceration. A study by Brie Williams and Rita Albraldes published as a chapter in the book Growing older: challenges of Prison and Reentry for the Aging Population, found that in addition to the chronic diseases that increase with age, older offenders have problems such as paraplegia because of the legacy of gunshot wounds. Many have advanced liver disease, renal disease, or hepatitis. Still others suffer from HIV-AIDS, and many more endure the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. Living under prison conditions, they are more likely to get pneumonia and flu.
Cells and dormitories are starting to fill up with old, often sick, men and women. They get around in wheelchairs and walkers. They fill the prisons, assisted living wings and hospices faster than the state and federal government can build them. And since they will probably die in prison, they also fill up the mortuaries and graveyards.
Passing on in a Prison
Some prisons have created hospices to respond to the emotional as well as physical needs of the dying. The rules about visitors are usually more relaxed, so that family members can sit at their relative's bedside seven days a week and are permitted to hug and touch their loved one. The “staff” in a hospices are other volunteer inmates who complete a 50 hour training, as well as ongoing training as the need arises. These volunteers will read, pray and write letters for the dying; they also assist the nurses with certain tasks such as preparing baths and changing diapers.
Sadly, even though attempts to try to deal with this growing challenge, it is still far from well working. Most of the time, the care the aging inmate receives is grossly inadequate and very expensive. For the first time some states are considering releasing terminally ill and mentally ill prisoners before they complete their sentence. To me this seems like a good idea.
Compassionate release is a legal system that grants inmates early release from prison sentences on special grounds such as terminal illness or a child in the community with an urgent need for his or her incarcerated guardian. Compassionate release can be mandated by the courts or by Internal Corrections Authorities. Unlike parole, compassionate release is not based on a prisoner's behavior or sentencing, but on medical or humanitarian changes in the prisoner's situation. Why should we let people out from prison?
It is unnecessary to keep the old incarcerated, since there is evidence that demonstrates that recidivism drops dramatically with age. For example, in New York, only 7% of prisoners released from prison at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions within three years. That number drops to 4% for prisoners age 65 and older. In contrast, this figure is 16% for prisoners released at age 49 and younger. Further, the majority of aging prisoners are not incarcerated for murder, but are in prison for low-level crimes. in fact, many aging prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.
Keeping people in prison is very expensive. The US spends approximately $77 billion annually to run the penal system. The incarcerated aging prisoners cost far more than younger ones. Specifically, it costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older.
US Federal sentencing laws has been very harsh for a generation. Compassionate release is a humane and practical program and it saves money. Yet, it has not been used very much. In a lot of cases, prisoners and their families don't even know about this program.
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