Elderly inmates are now in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The release of these inmates, many who were imprisoned for non-violent crimes and/or drug possession would not constitute a danger to their communities. A fiscal analysis by the ACLU found that states would save approximately $66,000 a year for each elderly inmate released from prison.
Bruce Harrison, a 63 year old federal inmate, has served almost twenty one years of a fifty year sentence. Mr. Harrison, two time purple heart recipient during the Vietnam War, was arrested in 1994, for transporting large amounts of marijuana and cocaine. The arrests were part of a sting by undercover federal agents. Mr. Harrison was paid $1,000 for each trip ( several trips) and received a fifty year sentence. After the sentences were imposed, jurors objected to the mandatory sentence in light of the extenuating circumstances. Today, revised federal sentencing guidelines impose much lower prison terms for low-level drug offenders.
Unfortunately, Mr. Harrison, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, is still incarcerated. He walks with special medical boots because of a painful foot condition that causes him to feel he’s “stepping on a needle.’ He has suffered from vertigo and is undergoing tests for a heart condition.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report in 2013 about elderly inmates. The elderly inmate population has increased 1300 percent since the early 1980’s. The federal government and the states spend more than $16 billion a year to incarcerate aging inmates. The report noted that almost all inmates over 50 are not a threat to society. It costs $68,000 to imprison an elderly inmate which was twice the cost to imprison a young inmate. The difference in costs resulted from health care expenses which has increased every year. Now, the new age of the Corona virus has placed aging inmates at great risk for injury and death. Prisons do not have the facilities or the medical personal to mitigate or treat this growing epidemic. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has stated, the densely crowded prisons “creates a risk of infection and transmission for inmates and staff.”
Health care in prisons for aging inmates is inadequate at best, and at its worst–a death sentence. The physicians and their assistants are not trained for care of the geriatric prison population. Most prisons do not treat elderly inmates differently from young inmates, although their healthcare requirements are very different. On a personal note, I watched inmates stand in line outside in the rain for 30 minutes waiting for their medications. Some of these inmates were over 70 and required canes to walk.
According to Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and an author of a report, “Old Behind Bars,” “There are countless ways that the aging inmates, some with dementia, bump up against the prison culture,”… “It is difficult to climb to the upper bunk, walk up stairs, wait outside for pills, take showers in facilities without bars and even hear the commands to stand up for count or sit down when you’re told.”
Additionally, elderly inmates are easily victimized by predatory inmates. I knew one inmate in his 50’s who was attacked, and seriously injured by a 21 year old inmate, because the young man wanted his chair. Some prisons do have tiers for inmates, who are over the age of 40. This policy has helped somewhat in protecting older inmates from younger inmates, but has not eliminated the predatory issue, since all inmates share the chow hall and the outside areas.
There are solutions for this growing crisis. First, we need to eliminate all mandatory sentencing and allow the judges sentencing discretion. Second, our justice system should look to alternative sentencing programs, instead of prison for defendants, who have committed nonviolent crimes. Third, and most importantly, the decisions regarding parole and early compassionate release should place more emphasis on the age and health of the inmate.