The Fastest Growing Population in Prison? The Elderly

A new report by Human Rights Watch found that, the elderly are the fastest growing population in our prisons:

Long sentences mean that many current prisoners will not leave prison until they become extremely old, if at all. Human Rights Watch found that almost 1 in 10 state prisoners (9.6 percent) is serving a life sentence. An additional 11.2 percent have sentences longer than 20 years…

While serving time in prison can be hard for anyone, it is particularly challenging for the growing number of older prisoners who are frail, have mobility, hearing, and vision impairments, and are suffering chronic, disabling, and terminal illnesses or diminishing cognitive capacities, Human Rights Watch said.

As Adam Gopnik wrote in his must-read piece for The New Yorker, The Caging of America:

For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.

Human Rights Watch reports that medical expenditures for older prisoners are three to nine times as high as for other prisoners. The cost is an important part of the story as it may help to persuade our legislators to rethink so-called tough on crime policies, and convince them to support releasing the elderly from prison early. The ACLU reports that:

We keep the elderly locked up in the face of undisputed research showing that committing crimes drops dramatically with age. Department of Justice statistics show that prisoners 55 or older recidivate at a rate of just 2 percent. Additional studies have shown that there is virtually no recidivism for individuals age 60 or older. It’s clear that it’s senseless to spend exorbitant amounts of money to imprison elderly people who pose no threat to public safety.

Take a moment to look at the Human Rights Watch slideshow depicting the older population in our prisons. And also, take a moment to think about what that life-without-parole sentence means for the 18-year-old sentenced today.