Prison overcrowding has been an issue for years. Law enforcement knows it, lawmakers know it, and the general public knows it. Recently, though, the issue has taken on a different face. Prison populations are aging, creating a new set of challenges for those who manage or work in correctional facilities.
Human Rights Watch, an international non-profit watchdog group, released a study showing that numbers of state and federal inmates aged 65 and older increased at 94 times the rate of younger inmates between 2007 and 2010.
Jamie Fellner, senior advisor for the U.S. Program with Human Rights Watch, authored the report. Ms. Fellner voices the concern being felt by correctional officers nationwide, that “Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities… Yet US corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”
The cost of care for an aging population is staggering. Officials in New York state estimate that the annual cost for supporting an inmate over 55 is $70,000. This estimate does not include any costs associated with making the facilities themselves more accessible, but only covers health and basic necessities costs.
Association of State Correctional Administrators president A.T. Wall said that among other issues faced, correctional facilities officers must consider retrofitting cells with grab bars, installing handicap accessible toilets, and creating wheelchair accessible doorways and hallways.
The problem for all prison facilities seems to have the same basis. Correctional facility management has traditionally been based on managing a large population as a large group, a system that is showing cracks as the population ages and subsets with specific needs emerge. There are inmates suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s, mobility impairments, and other issues generally associated with aging. Meeting their needs while still maintaining the order necessary to run a correctional facility is proving a difficult task.
This issue has no simple solutions. Some groups have proposed implementing a type of age parole board, where inmates could be examined to determine their current state, whether they would currently be a threat to society, and whether they would be able to function outside of an institution. Detractors claim that while this system might reduce the burden on prison budgets, it could undermine the correctional system and the inmates in question would still supported by tax dollars, but the support would come through social programs instead of the prison budget.
The prison budgets would be even more strained if other options are embraced, such as building geriatric care centers on prison grounds or remodeling or building new prisons to be more accessible.
Until prison sentences are imposed for shorter terms, or crimes committed by anyone over the age of 30 cease entirely, the elderly population in prisons will continue to grow. The costs associated with this growth will continue to rise, and the system will demand more alternatives for the continued incarceration of the elderly.