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.
Many of these inmates are in their 70s and 80s. The release of these inmates, many who are imprisoned for non-violent crimes and/or drug possession would not constitute a danger to their communities. Many outstanding citizens would cry that such releases would then drain the budgets for the elderly in the outside world. This is contradicted by a fiscal analysis by the ACLU which found that states would save approximately $66,000 a year for each elderly inmate released from prison.
It is also important to note that health care in prisons is inadequate at best and horrible for the elderly. The physicians and their assistants were not trained for care of the geriatric prison population. Prisons do not treat elderly inmates differently from young inmates although their healthcare and other issues are so 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 in their 70s and required canes to ambulate. I knew one inmate in his 50s who was attacked by an inmate in his early 20s, because the young man wanted his stool.
Many prisons do have tiers for inmates who are over the age of 40. This policy helps somewhat in protecting older inmates from younger inmates, but does not eliminate this problem completely since all inmates share the chow hall and the outside areas. Of course, the problematic health issues remain the same.
There are solutions for this growing problem. First, parole and early releases should take more into account the age and health of the inmate and whether the conviction stems from non-violent charges. Second, The courts and the legislatures need to amend the current laws which have severe penalties for non-violent crimes. The manner in which our prison systems treat elderly inmates certainly defines the type of society in which we live today.