By John Gonzales

A study published in 2019 found that there are over 200,000 prisoners in US prisons 56 years and older. Over the next 10 years, the elderly prisoner population is anticipated to reach nearly 400,000 according to a 2012 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). How will our society choose to deal with this population and their unique needs?

Overlapping cultural issues of aging, physical and mental health, justice, and compassion for both victim and offender – make this a complex issue.

Balancing Cost and Justice

In addition to the societal complexity of this issue is the expense of keeping the elderly and infirmed incarcerated. The US spends approximately 16 billion dollars annually on keeping these elderly offenders behind bars; each elderly inmate costing approximately $72,000 annually three times more than younger inmates. A report from the Prison Policy Initiative finds that the cost of mass incarceration is almost $182 billion a year for local, state, and federal governments combined. Coupled with the rising rates of imprisonment in our country which is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies, it won’t be long before state and federal governments begin seeking remedies to curb these costs and reform policies dealing with the aging population in prison.

One mechanism adopted by nearly all states is the Compassionate Release program, whereby prisoners, families and/or their advocates may petition the state for release based on terminal illness and severe medical conditions. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a group dedicated to improving the fairness of sentencing and prison reforms, this program is rarely used. The criteria used by states for program eligibility is often complex with many layers of reviews and approvals, which can be time-consuming. Time that many elderly prisoners do not have because of their deteriorating health.

It is difficult to get specific statistics on how many prisoners are granted Compassionate Release due primarily to the fact that only 13 states are required by law to track these statistics, and very few of these states make that information public.

Again, this issue is complex with multiple factors needing to be balanced, including public safety. However, it should be noted that the rate of recidivism is extraordinarily low for elderly offenders who are released. This is due in large part because most states require that a prisoner’s health be sufficiently degraded so that they pose no threat to the public. A 2019 article posted on JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, books, and peer-reviewed research, reported that when 200 older adults were released early in Maryland, the rate of recidivism was only 3 percent. By contrast, the national average of repeat offenders was approximately 66 percent in 2017.

In addition to the challenges of caring for an elderly offender’s physical issues, there is the problem of managing the common mental problems associated with growing older. Issues like depression, isolation, anxiety, dementia, and Alzheimer’s are not only replicated in our aging prison population but they are exacerbated by the environment. At what point – assuming there is one – do we go from justly punishing an offender to cruel and unusual punishment? Should there be more uniform criteria for granting someone compassionate release when we discuss prison reform?

What Happens Next?

Finally, we reach the question of “where?” Many, if not most, of released elderly offenders – whether granted compassionate release or completing their sentence have spent not days or months or years behind bars, but generations. They have no social, financial, or medical support to help them – many have no families to turn to capable of helping, much less caring for these people. What options do they have? Our homeless population continues to grow, increasing concerns on the impact they are having on society. By ignoring the problem of where to place released elderly prisoners, we are contributing to the problem.

As an industry, caring for our nation’s seniors, we should at least be involved in helping to find solutions. Or are we content to simply ignore the problem – and the person – and move on with our lives?

The last time I was in a grocery store parking lot with my grandson, an elderly homeless man approached me asking for money. He was obviously confused, distressed, or drunk. He told me he’d just gotten out of prison. I ignored him. What other choice did I have?