When many Americans enter their 50s and 60s, they start looking toward retirement—that season of life when there is freedom to travel, spend extra time with the grandkids, or devote more hours to volunteering or pursuing a dream. But for those growing older behind bars, the graying years don’t look much different than all the rest—just that they are spent with increased dependency and cost to the prison system.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, people in prison are more likely to age faster than the regular population because of unhealthy lifestyles before and during their sentence. Because of this, a prisoner 50 or older is deemed “elderly.” And the number of those in this demographic is quickly increasing, due in part to tough-on-sentencing legislation enacted in the 80s and 90s.
In 2012, a report put out by the ACLU counted 246,600 elderly in America’s prisons. Because of increased health care needs, the added cost to care for an aging prisoner can be twice as much—around $68,000 a year. In North Carolina, for example, the DOC spent more than $33 million just on health care for its declining population. These numbers will only increase in the coming years, as by 2030 it is estimated that one-third of the prison population will fall into this 50+ age bracket.
The question begs to be asked: How valuable is it for America to keep the elderly incarcerated behind bars?
Longtime warden at Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) Burl Cain said:
When I came here and saw the elderly population, I said, ‘God, well, why are they here? Our name is Corrections to correct deviant behavior [but] there’s nothing to correct in these guys; they’re harmless … ‘
Apparently, the State of Connecticut tried to release some of its elderly population into nursing homes on the outside, but no one would take them. So, they built their own nursing home in a community called Rocky Hill. But still, those in the vicinity haven’t been thrilled about their new neighbors and have even sued to shut it down. Further, the government has refused to issue Medicaid reimbursements to the facility.
Meanwhile, the Second Chance Act of 2007 initiated an “elderly pilot program” which allowed prisoners who were at least 65 years old and had served 75 percent of their sentence to be released to confinement at home or in a nursing home. But after the pilot was complete, the Government Accountability Office reported that it was unclear whether cost savings were achieved as a result of releasing elderly prisoners. Sponsors of the pending reauthorization of the Second Chance Act and the CORRECTIONS Act would like to make the elderly release option permanent and expand eligibility to prisoners at least 60 years old who have completed two-thirds of their sentences.
With all of this, what is the compassionate and Christ-centered approach to the incarceration of the elderly? The topic remains controversial at best—one that we are still weighing from all sides, considering both the need for justice to be done and mercy to be extended. Still, at the very least, we have a call to love and visit those who are growing old while serving time.
I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25:36, NIV)
To read personal stories and see high quality photographs of those aging in prison, check out Narrative.ly’s “20 Inmates Show the Heartbreaking Reality of Growing Old Behind Bars.”