An Occasional Series
We’ve talked a lot here about aging inmate populations, their special needs and management, and their impact on whether prison diversion programs actually result in correctional savings as we sell to policymakers. Recently I had a student who did a paper on the aging inmate which, while not comprehensive or without faults, did a nice job, I thought, capturing much of what we need to talk about in a readable format easily broken into blog post junks.
So with his permission we will excerpt from his paper over the next few weeks where space beckons/permits. (Endnotes have been omitted but, if you want to know references, just e-mail us.) Those of you already way too aware of the problems associated with this special population will nevertheless enjoy the reminders, we think, while those way too unaware can be brought up to speed fast. So, without further ado, whatever “ado” is, everything you ever wanted to know . . . well, enough for now anyway.
“The Elderly Inmate”—Leonard Webb, guest poster
The razor wire along the top of the walls of the Men’s State Prison in Hardwick, Georgia, is almost a joke where many of the inmates are dependent on canes, walkers or wheelchairs.“ It keeps going up and up. “We’ve got some old guys too sick to get out of bed. And the courts say we have to provide care and we do. But that costs money” said Alan Adams, director of Health Services for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Data from the Bureau of Justice found that the number of men in prison over age 55 increased from 48,800 to 89,900 from 1999 to 2007. That is an increase of 82% in eight years. The growth of older inmates is not the result of a geriatric crime wave, “three strikes” and “truth in sentencing” laws and other sentencing reforms are responsible for the trend. This is more prevalent in the Southern states because of their tougher sentencing laws in comparison to the rest of the nation. The growth rates of prison population in 16 Southern states have increased by an average of 145% since 1997. A few states have a “two strikes and you’re out” law. Georgia is one such state. If convicted of one of seven violent felonies one must serve a minimum of 10 years without parole, and any sentence of 10 years or more, for any offense, at any time is also without parole. A second conviction for any violent felony, he or she is automatically sentenced to life without parole.
Longer and tougher sentences are not the only factor that has led to the population boom of older prisoners. Historically Americans are accustomed to viewing the elderly as victims in regard to crime. There has not been much research done in regard to older offenders; however, Duncan conducted one of the first studies in 1930. He analyzed age and crime data from prison records of those incarcerated in a Texas prison from 1906 to 1924. Duncan concluded that although criminal activity generally declines after 40 it may not completely cease. In fact, he reported that violent crimes occurred frequently among older criminals. Studies in crime and the elderly reveal two types of older offenders: First timers and chronic offenders. In 1936 Schroeder pioneered research in the crimes of each type. He studied a group consisting of 486 criminals, 243 of the sample under 40 and 243 over 40, and a total range in age from 15 to 64. He found that those who offend after 40 represented one of two groups. One group tended to commit violent crimes such as murder and sexual crimes. Members of the other group had a tendency to commit white-collar crimes. Those who committed violent crimes after 40 tended to be relatively free of early criminality and delinquency. Although the white-collar crimes tended to be a continuation of a pattern established at an early age.
Managing the Elderly Inmate
Medical care and security is a challenge confronting many correctional facilities. Typically the older inmate keeps busy to pass the time and steer clear of younger inmates that may cause trouble. The lifer or on inmate with a long sentence generally accepts that prison is the place they will spend a long period of their lives, if not all of their lives. They accept certain facts like that they will live without the companionship of the opposite sex and ties to family and community will weaken if not disappear altogether. They will have new relatives through birth and marriage and relatives they know and love will die, without his or her participating in these events.
The rights of prisoners to quality health care have been the topic of much debate. The government has the authority to punish the people it governs when those people violate the rules or laws prescribed by the government. Provided those laws are in line with the Constitution of the United States and the government follows due process in the prosecution of offenders. In addition the punishments meted out by the government are not deemed to be cruel and unusual. The United States Supreme Court determines if the laws violate the U.S. Constitution.
The court has established that incarceration as a punishment involves the offender losing his freedom, separation from family, and the community. The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires the government provide medical care for those it punishes by incarceration. The court ruled that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,” which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
The aging process is complex and varies from individual to individual depending on genetics, lifestyle, and environment. One particular individual may be old and feeble at 50, whereas another is still young in mind and body at 60. This holds true with the population in general and is no different in prison. One challenge facing prison administrators in regard to programs and planning is their inability to define an “old” inmate. However, a majority of studies use the chronological age of 50 to 55 at which an inmate becomes an elderly offender. A national study of correctional departments showed that correctional staff typically agree than an inmate in their 50s has the health problems and physical appearance of someone at least 10 years older.
Health conditions among the elderly are likely to be chronic, permanent, progressive, and generally incurable. These conditions often result in physical disabilities that require long-term management and are typically involve continuing pain or distress. The likelihood of becoming disabled as a result of contracting a chronic disease greatly increases with age. Some of these older inmates may require heart surgeries, procedures to clear clogged arteries, costly medications to thin blood, treat diabetes, and reduce blood pressure. The most common ailments among the elderly is arthritis (48%), hypertension (37%), hearing impairments (32%), heart disease (30%), orthopedic impairments (18%), and cataracts (17%). It is important to note that the incidence of these conditions varies with ethnicity. For instance, arthritis and hypertension are more common in African Americans than Caucasians, whereas the opposite is true in hearing impairments and heart disease.
END OF PART TWO