Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Aging in Prison

Recently I attended the monthly general meeting of the New York NGO Committee on Ageing. The topic was “Aging in Prison – a Human Rights Issue.” Two academics who have specialized on treatment of US prisoners presented some of their research. They were:

Tina Maschi, PhD, LCSW, ACSW, who is now Associate Professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Services (FUGGS); she’s also a Social Fellow at the New York Academy of Medicine, a Research Scholar at the Ravazzin Center on Aging, and Coordinator for the FUGGS Human Rights and Social Justice sequence. The second speaker, Deborah Viola, PhD., is Associate Professor and Associate Director, Doctoral Program, Department of Health Policy & Management at New York Medical College, and Research Scholar at the Center for Long Term Care Research & Policy.

General Facts
The US population makes up about 5 percent of the world’s population. About 10 million people are imprisoned world-wide. Surprisingly, 25 percent of those are “doing time” are held in US prisons. Among them, 16 percent of the 10 million are 60 years and older. The US exceeds all nations in the number of old people incarcerated in its prisons. At present, the older population is the most rapidly growing group in US prisons. In fact, the number of older prisoners is growing faster than the number of older persons in the US population. In the US, 756 human beings out of every 100.000 people are incarcerated.

Why are there so many people in US prisons?
One would think since the US has the largest prison population in the world that the nation must be home to very dangerous criminals who everyone would agree are “bad” people. But wait a minute, are they?

About three decades ago the US introduced a “tough on crime” policy. State and federal legislators adopted laws that increased the likelihood and length of prison sentences, by including mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes laws. It seems a bit strange that while the crime rate had declined since the 1980's; nevertheless the US prison population grew six-fold.

It is very interesting that the US has privately owned prisons. The two largest private prison companies combined to bring in close to $3,000, 000, 000 in revenue in 2010. Earlier in the 1980's, there were no privately owned prisons in the US. Since then the number of incarcerated people has exploded. It does not take a genius to see what is going on here.

Last year the largest private prison in the US, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), received $ 74 million of taxpayers’ money to run immigration detention centers. There are numerous reports on human rights’ abuses in these private prisons. For example, when auditors visited one private prison in Texas, they “got so much fecal matter on their shoes they had to wipe their feet off on the grass outside.” The prisoners were literally living in their own excrement. To make a phone call to a lawyer or loved ones, the CCA charges its inmates $ 5 per minute, yet the prison only pays inmates who work at the facility $1 per day. To me, it looks like the more people the “justice system” can put behind bars, the more money the private prisons will make.

A lot of people go to US prisons because of drug crimes. Examining who actually goes to prison because of a drug crime speaks very loud. About 14 million whites and 2.6 million Afro-Americans report using an illicit drug. While five times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americas are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). Surely this is not “equal treatment under the law.” One out of every 12 Afro-American men of working age is in prison. These statistics tell us that if you commit a drug crime and are not white, you will go to prison. If you are white, it is considered a public health problem.

What are the problems facing an older population behind bars?
Prisons in general are designed for the young and able-bodied. For example, when people grow older they have different medical and health needs than the young. Older persons are more likely to develop disabilities that require the use of assistive devices such as glasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs, walkers and canes. As in the community, the elderly in prison suffer from falls, which contribute to hip fractures and high health costs. Even if these conditions are provided for, many elder inmates are confined in facilities that cannot meet the structural or programmatic needs of mobility-impaired persons. Because of their higher rates of illness and impairments, older prisoners incur medical costs that are three to nine times higher than those of younger prisoners. In general a younger prisoner costs about $22.000 per year while an older person can cost as much as $65,000 per year.

It is also documented that the older prisoners “age” about 15 years faster than people who are not incarcerated.

Sooner or later, one of two things will happen to an aging prisoner. Either he/she will die in prison, or will be released. Neither of these alternatives has gained that much attention. Reentry into society is very difficult for any former prisoner. Older persons face additional challenges. Older women and men find it extremely hard to find work, housing and transportation, as well as necessary medical and mental healthcare. Some have the assistance from former friends and family, but many have lost contact with their families because of the length of time incarcerated or the nature of their crimes.

As the number of older prisoners increases, so too does the number of men and women dying of natural causes behind bars.

For references and more information please visit:
Human Rights Watch's report “Old Behind Bars

Sanna Klemetti


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