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May 3, 2015

The never-aging (and ever-costly) story of ever-aging US prison populations

14972752EToday's Washington Post has this extended front-page story about the graying of America's prison populations. This will feel like an old story to regular readers of this blog, but these prison realities will remain timely as more and more offenders "age into" the decades-long sentences that became far more common even for lesser offenses over the last quarter-century. The piece is headlined "The painful price of aging in prison: Even as harsh sentences are reconsidered, the financial — and human — tolls mount," and here are a few excerpts:

Twenty-one years into his nearly 50-year sentence, the graying man steps inside his stark cell in the largest federal prison complex in America. He wears special medical boots because of a foot condition that makes walking feel as if he’s “stepping on a needle.” He has undergone tests for a suspected heart condition and sometimes experiences vertigo. “I get dizzy sometimes when I’m walking,” says the 63-year-old inmate, Bruce Harrison. “One time, I just couldn’t get up.”...

In recent years, federal sentencing guidelines have been revised, resulting in less severe prison terms for low-level drug offenders. But Harrison, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, remains one of tens of thousands of inmates who were convicted in the “war on drugs” of the 1980s and 1990s and who are still behind bars. Harsh sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums, continue to have lasting consequences for inmates and the nation’s prison system. Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013.

Some prisons have needed to set up geriatric wards, while others have effectively been turned into convalescent homes. The aging of the prison population is driving health-care costs being borne by American taxpayers. The Bureau of Prisons saw health-care expenses for inmates increase 55 percent from 2006 to 2013, when it spent more than $1 billion. That figure is nearly equal to the entire budget of the U.S. Marshals Service or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to the Justice Department’s inspector general, who is conducting a review of the impact of the aging inmate population on prison activities, housing and costs....

“Prisons simply are not physically designed to accommodate the infirmities that come with age,” said Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and an author of a report titled “Old Behind Bars.”

“There are countless ways that the aging inmates, some with dementia, bump up against the prison culture,” she said. “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.”

For years, state prisons followed the federal government’s lead in enacting harsh sentencing laws. In 2010, there were some 246,000 prisoners age 50 and older in state and federal prisons combined, with nearly 90 percent of them held in state custody, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report titled “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.”

On both the state and federal level, the spiraling costs are eating into funds that could be used to curtail violent crime, drug cartels, public corruption, financial fraud and human trafficking. The costs — as well as officials’ concerns about racial disparities in sentencing — are also driving efforts to reduce the federal prison population.

For now, however, prison officials say there is little they can do about the costs. Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said: “We have to provide a certain level of medical care for whoever comes to us.”

A few (of many) recent and older related posts:

May 3, 2015 at 10:57 AM | Permalink


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Basic care is not expensive. Cut out organ transplants, and sex change operations. Give them Obama Care, which is zero care at all. Treat them as patients on the outside are being treated, with rudeness and perpetual denial of care by insurance companies. If you tell a doctor, you are leaving because of poor care, he celebrates now, because of being paid a pittance ahead of time. Bring in the Commie Care of Europe, which is OK for physical exams and vaccinations, but denies all expensive procedures. Crush accrediting and licensing organizations that require gold plated, worthless facilities and staffing.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 3, 2015 11:24:26 AM

What an absolute disgrace. Bill Otis and his ilk could care less. His complicity with the elements that have brought this atrocity is all the more astonishing given his association with folks who suffered personally and had relatives who suffered in the Holocaust, unfortunately the closest parallel to our system of incarcerating harmless old folks. Do folks like Otis think for a second about the hit to this country's moral authority to speak out against human rights violations elsewhere? No, they would rather try to perpetuate the horrors. Disgraceful that this man is on faculty at one of our leading law schools.

Posted by: Mark | May 3, 2015 12:13:31 PM

Mark. Please, tell Prof. Berman if you are Mark Osler, so he may tell me. I have no problem his giving you my real name. I actually like the lawyer. I want to debate him not harm him. No one here is close to being in the lawyer hierarchy. They need to go.

That being said, when a little girl reports grandpa touched her weewee, who do you think grandpa is? You want to loose these predators on the public, on little girls, and helpless dementia patients in nursing homes.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 3, 2015 2:32:49 PM

If we are looking at a possible solution to this issue at the federal level, I believe that there are several fact and data based risk prediction devices that are and have been used with moderate success over decades. And we have the U.S. Parole Comm'n still being funded with some "old law" experience in making these kind of decisions. A little legislative action would obviously be needed . . . but there is at least a model here.

Posted by: alan chaset | May 4, 2015 9:05:28 AM

"246,000 prisoners age 50 and older in state and federal prisons combined"

50 is a pretty low line ... I think 65 might be better.

Posted by: Joe | May 4, 2015 10:06:53 PM

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