Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

The Looming Crisis in Our Nation’s Prisons: Aging Inmates

with 5 comments

This local article on the rising number of elderly prisoners in Georgia’s prisons highlights an impending crisis for our nation’s prisons (and you thought we already had a crisis!). In recent decades, states have imposed lengthier and stiffer sentences even as parole boards in many states have all but stopped granting parole (see my earlier posts on Michigan and Virginia). Around the country, men and women who were sentenced to very long prison terms in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are starting to reach their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s. Many of our nation’s prisons are ill-equipped to care for young, healthy people, much less the aging and infirm — and considering that prison life itself can exacerbate physical and mental health conditions, it seems like a safe assumption that after 20 or 30 years of life behind bars our aging prisoners are going to require extraordinary outlays, and/or be subject to extraordinary suffering. Already in California, medical care for the state’s 21 sickest prisoners costs an estimated $40 million per year — some of which goes simply to paying the salaries of guards who watch over them 24/7 while they are in the hospital.

I don’t have any idea how states that have been particularly enamored of LWOP and three strikes laws and the rest plan to deal with this problem in coming years. I’d guess the states don’t have any idea, either. In Georgia at least, as the article notes, the state does have something of a safety valve for dealing with its aging prison population, should its prison bureaucracy decide to make use of it:

Georgia’s Constitution empowers the Board of Pardons and Paroles to release any prisoner older than 62 or a younger one who is “entirely incapacitated.” The definition of incapacitated, though, is subject to interpretation.

“Georgia could apply an expansive definition of who is eligible,” said Melanie Velez, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “There is a growing number of people who would not pose a threat to society.”

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5 Responses

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  1. [...] reading this post at Prison Law Blog, I decided to research the states with the top percentages of inmates over 55.  Below is a chart [...]

  2. [...] sprawling network of prisons is not immune from health care cost [...]

  3. I’m an attorney in Pennsylvania with some prisoners’ rights experience, and I can tell you that out here the Commonwealth responded to concerns about spiraling health-care costs by overhauling the “compassionate release” program. The revised law (IIRC) permits the Bureau of Prisons to release prisoners with terminal illnesses to hospitals or hospice care, which will at least keep the costs of end-of-life care off the BOP books (and ultimately pass it along to the federal gov’t via Medicare or Medicaid, I imagine).

    Daniel J. Linehan

    August 2, 2010 at 3:47 pm

  4. [...] Last week I blogged about the looming crisis of aging inmates. Of course, another effect of the trend towards lengthier sentences is that even those prisoners who are released or paroled are increasingly likely to be elderly. The Denver Post recently reported on Colorado’s efforts to help parolees like Habe Lawson, 73, reintegrate into their communities (h/t: Think Outside the Cage): By the time Habe Lawson was released from prison in 2002, he had spent 50 years incarcerated. He was too old to start over but too young to just fade away. [...]

  5. [...] about the aging prison population that was sparked a couple of weeks ago by Sara Mayeux’s post at Prison Law Blog and followed by my own about the top states with the highest percentages of [...]


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