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The Elderly in Prison – Updated



Australia is now considering their first dedicated prison for the elderly. The prison-nursing home would be built in western Victoria. The state and federal prison systems in the United States should adopt and implement this progressive approach regarding the increasing aged population incarcerated in our prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report in June about elderly inmates. Incredibly, the elderly inmate population has increased 1300 percent since the early 1980s. The federal government and the states spend more than $16 billion a year to jail aging inmates. The report also included the fact that almost all inmates over 50 are not a threat to society. It costs $68,000 to imprison an elderly inmate which is twice the cost to incarcerate the average inmate. The difference in costs results from health care expenses which rises every year.

What is prison like for old senior inmatesFrom 1995 to 2010, the number of inmates 55 and older in federal and state prisons increased by 282 percent as reported by Human Rights Watch. The increase of seniors in prison have strained an already overcrowded prison system. On December 9, 2012, PrisonPath posted an article on the “Elderly in Prison.” The article noted, ” It costs $68,000 to imprison an elderly inmate, which is twice the cost to incarcerate the average inmate. The difference in costs results from health care expenses which rises every year.”
More and more judges are now considering the age and health of a senior in determining a fair sentence. A sentence of ten years of prison time for a 70-year-old defendant (non-violent offender) in poor health constitutes a death sentence. On the other hand, should elderly defendants receive favoritism over young defendants? Prosecutors argue that age should not be a factor in determining a sentence. If you commit the crime, you do the time. The argument is made by the government that health care rendered in prisons is satisfactory, but this argument is not correct as shown in the 2004 and 2002 surveys of inmates.

“The analysis by Wilper and colleagues examined data from the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities and the 2002 Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, which showed that large proportions of inmates with serious chronic physical illness didn’t receive adequate care during their incarceration. For example, 13.9% of federal inmates, 20.1% of state inmates, and 68.4% of local-jail inmates with a persistent medical problem hadn’t received a medical examination since beginning their prison term. Continuation of prescription medication was also problematic. Before entering prison, approximately one in seven inmates was taking a prescription medication for an active medical problem. However, upon incarceration, 20.9% of federal, 24.3% of state, and 36.5% of local-jail inmates stopped their medication.”

The following article reflects the controversy over sentencing non-violent seniors to long prison terms.

Should defendants’ age or health issues be sentencing factors?

Richard Bistline

By  Kathy Lynn Gray of The Columbus Dispatch Sunday March 3, 2013

Is prison more of a punishment if a defendant is 50 rather than 20?

Some defense attorneys are debating that issue in federal court as they seek to minimize prison sentences for defendants 50 or older.

“We’re seeing it a lot,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove said.

The issue is at the heart of an unprecedented second appeal that Solove has filed over the prison sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge James L. Graham on a Knox County man, Richard Bistline.

Graham originally sentenced Bistline, 70, of Mount Vernon, in 2010. The sentence, for possessing child pornography, was one day in prison plus 10 years of supervised probation. Solove appealed, saying the sentence was too lenient.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Graham to resentence Bistline, saying the original penalty “does not reflect the seriousness of his offense.”

In January, Graham ordered the same sentence but added three years of home confinement as part of Bistline’s probation. The judge said he didn’t order more prison time because he was concerned about Bistline’s age and health problems, which included two strokes and a heart attack a year ago. He questioned whether Bistline would get adequate medical care in prison.

Solove, who prosecuted the case, had asked for a five-year prison term, which was a bit less than is called for in the sentencing guidelines determined by the court. Graham maintained that would be “a life sentence, or more accurately, a death sentence,” for Bistline.

Graham said last week that judges can consider age and infirmity in sentencing, and he does that if a defendant is not a danger to the public. “I was completely satisfied in this case that he was not.

“Your job as a judge is to figure out which one of these defendants are the really bad guys you need to put away.”

In another case, Laura E. Byrum, an assistant federal public defender, is arguing that her 64-year-old client should get a prison sentence that’s shorter than the guidelines call for, in part because of his age and health problems.

Robert W. Burke of 767 Bracken Court, Worthington, pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography, and the guidelines call for a 20-year prison term.

Byrum has asked for a 10-year prison term followed by 20 years of supervised release. She argues that the life expectancy of a man Burke’s age is 18 years, and his is likely shorter because he has skin cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Twenty years is a “virtual death sentence,” she wrote in her sentencing memorandum.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Hill said the federal prison system can handle most of the typical health problems associated with aging.

“Going to prison isn’t easy for anyone, but that is the consequence of breaking the law,” she said. “We’re not sure that being nearer to the grave gives you license to be a criminal.” According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, state and federal prisons held 124,440 prisoners who were 55 or older in 2010. That was a 282 percent increase from 1995, at a time when the total number of prisoners rose by 42 percent.

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"Compassionate Release" - Prison Path Visitor Information & Inmate Locator- Prison PathPrisonPathfrank@knightlawyer.comHelenGloria Recent comment authors
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Walter Price

When it comes to something that will impact the rest of a person’s life, every factor should be considered including age. Looking at it money wise we must determine if the risk of giving that person doing the crime again at their age given a shorter sentence vs. how much it would cost. Given that, on the other end of the spectrum we should also factor in youth (mental maturity) and social circumstance.

Mark Barmes

Judges who judge fairly should be commended. Each case should be viewed individually. Otherwise, why would we need judges on the bench? I appreciate the thinking and response by Judge Graham. Thank you, Your Honor!


By Helen–Prisons were not built for the elderly. My priority and concern are for those elderly already in prison who are frail and vulnerable. Many suffer medical neglect. It would be nice to have a special facility for them. helen


By Gloria–Why should we spend more tax dollars on special facilities? Most of the elderly pose no threat to society and if not, release them. Lets get smart on crime!


By Helen–I do agree to release if the elderly are capable of caring for themselves, or have family
That would assume responsibility. Some have no relatives left.

how does this assist elderly “state inmates” who need to be placed in safer and non violent institutions; or even to transferred to another state for the same purpose?


[…] we have discussed the inadequate healthcare for elderly inmates and the substantial increase of seniors in prison. The following New York Times Editorial focused on the Federal Bureau of Prison’s so called […]