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Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?

May 29, 2012 04:38:00 am
Comments (10)

By Jamie Fellner

As the US confronts a growing population of geriatric prisoners, it is time to reconsider whether they really need to be locked up. Prison keeps dangerous people off the streets. But how many prisoners whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age are dangerous?

According to prison statistics, hardly any.

In Ohio, 26.7 percent of former prisoners commit new crimes within three years of their release from prison.  But only 5.6 percent of those released between the ages of 65 and 69—and 2.9 percent of those released between the ages of 70 and 74—commit new crimes. Of those released at age 75 or older, none revert to criminal behavior

In New York, you can count on two hands the number of older prisoners who have gone on to commit violent crimes after release.

Of 1,511 prisoners aged 65 and older when released between 1995 and 2008, only 8 were  returned to prison  for committing a violent felony.  Among the released older prisoners were 469 who had originally been sent to prison because of a violent crime. Only one has returned to prison because of a new crime of violence.

These statistics quantify what criminal justice professionals know from experience: as a group, released older prisoners are not likely to pose much of a risk to the public.  The risk is no doubt even less if the released prisoners are ill or infirm.

Among the more than 26,000 state and federal prisoners  aged 65 or older are some who have severe physical and mental impairments.

One 87-year-old I met last year while conducting research on older prisoners could not tell me his name. He had been in prison for 27 years, 20 of them in a special unit because of his severe cognitive impairments. 

I met prisoners who were dying and could not breathe without assistance; prisoners so old and frail they needed help getting up from their bed and into their wheelchairs; prisoners who lacked the mental and physical ability to bathe or eat or go to the bathroom by themselves.

In theory, of course, a deathly ill or feeble prisoner could suddenly rise from his bed and commit a serious crime.  But it isn’t likely.  

Noting the forgetfulness that can come with old age, one prisoner told me that by the time one of “these guys manages to get up from his wheelchair he’ll have forgotten what he was going to do.”  

Wholly apart from the effects of age and infirmity, years in prison also leave older prisoners with little desire to pick up a gun or hit the streets looking for trouble even if they were physically able to do so. They want to spend their remaining time on earth with family and friends. They do not want to die behind bars.

Ensuring just deserts for those who harm others is a legitimate criminal justice goal. But age and infirmity can change the calculus of when the time served is long enough.

At some point in a prisoner’s life, parole supervision and perhaps restrictions on movement (e.g. home confinement)   may suffice as a cost-effective and sensible punishment. It won’t satisfy those who think prisoners who have killed or maimed should only leave prison in a pine box.  But, while understandable, this “eye for an eye” perspective is not a sound basis for determining how to use scarce prison resources.

The growing number of prisoners who use walkers and wheelchairs, are tethered to oxygen tanks or completely bedridden, is forcing the country to ask  why we keep people in prison into their dotage 

Most states and the federal government have laws permitting the early release of prisoners who are terminally ill, permanently incapacitated , or in some cases, simply old, as long as public safety would not be jeopardized. 

Unfortunately, the laws exclude certain prisoners based on the nature of their crimes (e.g. those convicted of murder); or officials making release decisions decide to exclude them because of those crimes. In either case, the public is being short-changed.  Past crimes—even brutal ones—should not be automatically conflated with current risk.  

Protecting public safety does not require turning prisons into old-age homes. Jamie Fellner is Senior Advisor to the US Program of Human Rights Watch and author of Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States. She welcomes comments from readers.

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Posted by Jim
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 05:01

My uncle got 2 PHDs and 3 other degrees in jail, helped out the community like he did before hand, has a perfect record that exceeds pretty much everyone elses as hes been told, and they are still refusing to let him out and hes 65 years old.

Posted by SHIRLEY
Wednesday, January 09, 2013 11:28


Posted by Lawrence Janow
Friday, August 31, 2012 07:27

videos on elderly in adult prisons – cost of life without parole

Posted by S.M.Chandler
Friday, June 22, 2012 12:11

The sheer profit from such elder incercerations exerts an irresistable atraction to a set of powerful centers of power: prison constructors, police unions, prison guard unions, as well as the baying of congressional andcity council hounds for continuing, indeed intensifying “tough on crime” practices. They will dance with the one who bruought them to the dance. No ammount of rational presentations,especially those that smack of charity or humanistic understanding will make the slightest impact: thepowers that be are impermeable to such liberal twaddle. It hurts me as much as it must hurt you.

But we must continue to insiston rational treatmentto those who are held behind bars.

Posted by Gary
Thursday, May 31, 2012 09:39

This is really a tough call – for elderly offenders who have been convicted of violent felonies that brought them to prison in the first place. What do you tell victims and their families – that after a certain age, if you are older, you get a “free pass.”? However, among good poinst made in the article is one that prison resources are increasingly scare and beds should be viewed as such – an expensive resource that should be no longer used indiscriminately by judges.

Posted by erik roskes
Wednesday, May 30, 2012 07:43

in my forensic practice, i have seen a disturbing prosecutorial trend of filing charges on elderly assailants who commit crimes based on dementia. I have previously written about this here: http://www.thecrimereport.org/archive/2011-05-why-are-impaired-elders-charged-with-crimes. It is non-sensical, and it leads to judicial nonsense. incarceration should be based on a risk assessment, and while there is of course no guarantee that the 90 year old will never do anything wrong, it is certainly probable that he will not do what he did when he was 40. decisions should be based on risk, not a purported guarantee.

Posted by Renee
Wednesday, May 30, 2012 03:18

I write aprisoner in MI thats 70+ years old his last parole date came and he got a letter instead of review stating they were not intesrted in paroling him. I agree with you past crimes should not be automatically conflated with current risk.
My main area of revolt is isolation. No one over 65 regardless of past crimes should after 3 decades be in isolation. These are human rights violations it is frightening to think our constitution is ignore and people can be tortured I enjoyed your article.

Posted by beth curtis
Wednesday, May 30, 2012 01:47

There are non-violent marijuana prisoners serving life for pot. This is fiscally irresponsible and an affront to civil liberties. http://www.lifeforpot.com

Posted by Kristina Randle
Tuesday, May 29, 2012 06:32

You make many great points. Thank you for bringing attention to this population and to this problem. WIth prison budgets skyrocking across the country, policy makers should be reading your work.

Posted by J W
Tuesday, May 29, 2012 04:19

While I agree that a prisoner who can’t get up isn’t particularly dangerous, the ones who can’t remember who they are can be.We had a 90-year-old man molest a mentally impaired 12-year-old two years ago in SW Minnesota. He was old and infirm, yet still managed to shatter the child’s life.

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