Elderly Inmates: The Forgotten Prisoners by Katie Davis

Elderly Inmates: The Forgotten Prisoners

When defendants are sentenced to life in prison without parole, society seems to forget about them; they just age in prison without any hopes of seeing the world anew. This is especially true for older defendants, whose prison population has increased dramatically[1]. These older prisoners are quickly forgotten as soon as the door to their cell closes behind them. What society fails to see are the problems these prisoners endure in their daily life within the walls of the prison; unfortunately, elderly prisoners face more troubles than their younger counterparts. Even though elderly inmates need more medical treatment and require special care, most of these inmates do not receive special treatment or care from the prison.[2]

When these individuals, sentenced during their older years or sentenced to a life in prison, receive a prison sentence, it is often a death sentence.[3] Although older prisoners only occupy about one percent of the prison population, the imprisonment of these individuals present serious concerns, not only for themselves, but to society at large and to the prison management.[4] The prison death rate of inmates fifty-five years old and older is three times higher than inmates between the ages of forty-five and fifty-four.[5] This high death rate can be largely attributed to their demanding medical needs and lack of necessary care.

One of the biggest problems prisons face in regards to elderly prisoners is their health concerns and the financial cost of caring for them. In 1990, prisons spent an average of $18,600 a year for caring for an individual prisoner; the cost of care for elderly inmates averaged around $67,000.[6] The medical concerns of elderly inmates are much more severe than for individuals of the same age and are not incarcerated; this can be credited to many limitations inside the prison walls, including poor diet, lack of exercise, and the stress of prison life. [7] Older prisoners have also medical needs that include corrective aids and prosthetic devices.[8] Psychological needs are of common concern, as elder prisoners need help coping with anxiety and their fear of attack from younger prisoners. [9] This creates a large problem for prison budgets as they struggle with determining where to get the money to care for these demanding inmates.

Prices to care for elderly inmates range from sixteen to sixty-one million dollars.[10] Coming from 1986, these numbers are sure to increase. Florida spends three times more money to incarcerate an elderly inmate than it does to incarcerate a younger inmate.[11] This high price of incarceration of elderly inmates is the result of the medical problems that they endure.

Due to their variety of problems, states have developed different methods of dealing with the elderly population in state prisons.[12] As long as the inmate’s security classification allows, inmates over fifty years old are housed in geriatric units in Mississippi.[13] The elderly prisoners in Mississippi will get the one-on-one medical attention that many of their counterparts, who are not in prison, receive. This is not always a viable option, however. States that cannot afford to build geriatric units have to find other creative ways to provide the necessary care for these prisoners.

Some states offer compassionate release to elderly inmates. Compassionate release is an early release program for inmates that have serious medical conditions or those who have reached an advanced age.[14]  If allowed, this is one of better methods of helping the elder inmates because those that are not a safety concern to their community can leave the prison to spend their last few months with their families. When the nature of the crime does not allow compassionate leave for an elderly prisoner, some states have comprehensive facilities to accommodate the elderly inmates.[15] Although a great idea to help provide the appropriate medical care to elderly inmates, it is not always an option in states that do not have the funds to build these facilities. In these states, the elderly prisoners are forced to be in a facility with younger inmates. This opens them up to potential attack from younger inmates and requires them to partake in the activities that healthier inmates engage in; older inmates simply cannot do the same thing as their younger counterparts.

States that do not have or do not allow compassionate release have adopted different means in an effort to protect and care for elderly inmates. South Carolina allows inmates to retire from working in the prisons at age sixty-five.[16] Nine states attempt to alleviate some of the concerns by considering the age of the defendant at sentencing; these states have statutes that allow the defendant’s age to be a mitigating factor in determine the sentence.[17]

Whatever method a state chooses to employ, the health of elderly prisoners and the cost to care for them is a large concern for the states and prisons. Although these inmates may be in prison and barred from causing any more harm to society at large, they are experiencing harm to their health and to the prison’s budget. Legislatures should look to methods other states have used to combat this problem of caring for the elderly when discussing their own reform. No matter what is chosen, the elderly inmate’s health should be of top concern. Although they may be behind bars, the elderly inmate’s medical concerns should continue to be an important topic in the discussion of the prison environment.

[1] Timothy Curtin, The Continuing Problem of America’s Aging Prison Population and the Search for a Cost-Effective and Socially Acceptable Means of Addressing it, 15 Elder L.J. 473, 475 (2007).

[2] Molly F. James, The Sentencing of Elderly Criminals, 29 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1025, 1027 (1992).

[3] Aging Inmates: Correctional Issues and Initiatives, Maryland Bar Journal, 44-DEC Md. B.J. 22 (2011).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Marjorie P. Russell, Too Slow: Compassionate Release of Terminally Ill Prisoners – Is the Cure Worse than the Disease? 3 Widener J.Pub.L. 799, 807 n.25 (1994).

[7] Tina Chiu, It’s About Time: Aging Prisoners, Increasing Costs, and Geriatric Release http://www.vera.org/download? file=2973/Its-about-time-aging-prisoners-increasing-costs-and-geriatric-release.pdf (last visited September 29, 2015).

[8] Patricia S. Corwin, Senioritis: Why Elderly Federal Inmates Are Literally Dying To Get Out of Prison, 17 J. Contemp. Health L. & Pol’y  687, 697 (2001)

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 698

[13] Id.

[14] Nicole M. Murphy, Dying to be Free: An Analysis of Wisconsin’s Restructured Compassionate Release Statute, 95 Marq. L.Rev. 1679, 1681 (2012).

[15] Corwin, supra note 8, at 699

[16] Corwin, supra note 8, at 698

[17] Corwin, supra note 8, at 699


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