Aging Inmates Straining Prison Capacities

There is a growing group of American citizens which most of us forget about on a regular basis. However, they consistently use taxpayer resources to live, and as they age, those numbers are growing rapidly. No, they’re not on welfare, and they aren’t using food stamps. They are prison inmates. Due mostly to the war on drugs started by President Nixon in the 70s, harsher sentences for minor crimes meant that offenders are currently spending most, if not all, of their lives behind bars. In this week’s blog, we’ll investigate the history behind this sentencing strategy, and whether or not keeping the elderly and infirm in prisons is worth the price taxpayers are shelling out.

Minor Crimes, Major Sentences

It is a known fact that the Nixon administration started the war on drugs as a way to maintain political power. An advisor to the former president once admitted that they used scare tactics surrounding drugs as a way to infiltrate gatherings of leaders in opposing communities. Because arresting someone for having and rallying around a different point of view is illegal, the President and his cohorts needed to have a legally legitimate reason to arrest them. This criminalization of minor offenses continued through the 90s and early 2000s, and has been reinforced by Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush on different occasions. Many of the people arrested over the years, even for minor offenses or trace amounts of drugs, are still imprisoned today due to the zero tolerance policy of past administrations.

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Prisons or Assisted Living Centers?

One of the most concerning issues with the federal zero tolerance policy is that inmates are aging; and the statistics are alarming. In almost every state prison system, the ratio of inmates over 50 years of age is skyrocketing. The inmates in question have been there for decades, but many have no possibility for parole and will continue to live in the system until their deaths. This means they are the responsibility of the state in which they are imprisoned. The Criminal Justice Degree Hub reported that the number of inmates with life sentences quadrupled between 1984 and 2008; the numbers grew from 34,000 to 140,000. One can only imagine how overcrowded and underfunded American prisons will become if the numbers continue to rise at that rate.

Elderly Eating Up Funding

The most biggest detriment to keeping people in prison throughout old age comes down to cost. Aging, as we know, is an expensive process. Doctor visits, medications, wheelchair and walker accessibility, and hospitalization all cost money among other issues. The aforementioned article also reported how much it costs to keep the elderly imprisoned, and the numbers are staggering. The cost of caring for an elderly inmate is double the cost of caring for a younger inmate, and that’s on the low end. While annually it costs about $34,000 to care for a young inmate, older inmates can inflate that cost to anywhere between $68,000 to $100,000. If populations of inmates serving life sentences grow as they are, cost of inmate care will easily overtake any budget allocated to rehabilitation and education: programs which are proven to decrease the number of repeat offenders.

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Where Do We Turn?

One proposed solution is the conditional release of elderly prisoners. With this plan any prisoner without a violent record would be released due to medical conditions. This raises some concerns. How will these offenders make a living and care for themselves after spending years in prison and, more than likely, having no job skills? They are likely to be on government assistance which simply moves geriatric convicted persons from one government budget to another. A long-term, but likely more effective, solution would be to allocate more money to rehabilitation and education and reduce sentences for inmates convicted on minor crimes or first-time offenders. This means they will have necessary job skills and be paroled at an early enough age to live life as productive, contributing members of society. While no one plan is fool-proof, there is one thing we know to be true. If prison systems are not reformed soon, they are going to need advice from home care and assisted living facilities to care for their elderly populations.