What is the consequence of a criminal justice system that continues to dish out longer and harsher sentences? One answer to that question, which we don’t always think about, is that thousands of people are growing old behind bars. From overly punitive mandatory sentencing schemes to aggressive prosecutorial decisions to unsympathetic courts, we have watched prison populations balloon and people are being locked up for longer than ever before. Many people face the reality of dying in prison. In 2007, for example, 46% of people aged 55 in state prison died behind bars. Right now, 1 in 10 state prisoners is serving a life sentence and 11% are serving sentencing longer than 20 years. What does this mean for them?
A few weeks ago, Human Rights Watch came out with a report about the aging prison population called “Old Behind Bars.” As they describe the problem, “Prisons in the United States contain an ever growing number of aging men and women who cannot readily climb stairs, haul themselves to the top bunk, or walk long distances to meals or the pill line; whose old bones suffer from thin mattresses and winter’s cold; who need wheelchairs, walkers, canes, portable oxygen, and hearing aids; who cannot get dressed, go to the bathroom, or bathe without help; and who are incontinent, forgetful, suffering chronic illnesses, extremely ill, and dying.” And as Colorlines’ infographic (at top) shows, Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented throughout the prison population, including among the elderly.
It is inhumane to keep ill and elderly people locked up when they pose virtually no risk to public safety, especially when those prisons aren’t equipped to provide geriatric care or daily living assistance to the elderly. It’s a huge financial cost to the states and an even larger cost to the humanity of our society to have people aging behind bars.