Friday, September 13, 2013

Graying of Inmates-What are the Solutions?

The story about the 107 year old in Arkansas who got into a shoot-out with the SWAT team was sad on many levels.  My students caught the headline (I wonder if they would have if the age wasn't mentioned) and we talked about whether the person's age made the story more attention-getting.  It is unusual to hear about someone who is 107 getting into a shoot-out with anyone, but that doesn't mean that only younger people get into shoot-outs.

I was thinking how I could use this story as a teaching point for my students, not  the facts of the story but the emphasis on age. So I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about what-ifs, sentencing issues and where to "house" a felon of advanced age.   

We need to consider some of the unique issues that the corrections system faces with the graying of the prison population.  There have been a number of reports about the geriatric prison population, including a 2006 report by Carrie Abner published the Council of State Governments. Governing ran a 2011 story by David Levine discussing the aging of the prison population, noting that the drug sentencing laws from earlier decades resulted in more folks sentenced to prison and thus aging behind bars.  This story, Aging Inmates Squeeze Health-Care Budgets, also examined the health care costs relating to this segment of the prison population.

Along that vein, a March 31, 2013 story by Jean Mikle, concerning the New Jersey prison population, Spike in Aging Prison Inmates Creates Tax Turmoil in N.J., noted that “[o]lder prisoners are also the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population…[with] [a]n estimated 246,000 people over 50 ... behind bars [in 2012]” citing to an ACLU 2012 report. This story takes a comprehensive look at a number of the issues states face from the aging prison population and notes that some states have taken unique steps to respond to the issue:

Some states have ... separate prisons to house them, or unique programs to address their distinct needs. In Nevada, the "True Grit" program has helped reduce infirmary visits for about 200 prisoners by offering music and art therapy and physical exercise, including wheelchair basketball.

California is building a 1,700-bed prison to house medically infirm prisoners. In 2006, New York opened a special prison unit for the cognitively impaired at its Fishkill facility. Most of the prisoners in the unit suffer from dementia. Washington state has an assisted living unit at one of its prisons.

Other states, like Louisiana, have passed laws making it easier for some elderly prisoners to be released after a parole hearing at which their risk for committing future crimes is assessed. Releasing some older prisoners early could shift the cost of their care from states to their family members, and make them eligible for federal programs like Medicaid, experts say.

As you may recall, we posted recently about Anthony Marshall who received a medical parole after only serving a short portion of his sentence. The New Jersey article discusses the concept, noting that New Jersey is one of a majority of states with some sort of parole potential for medical issues, but that not a lot of inmates have been released under such provisions. Another unique approach is being used by the Wabash Valley Correctional Institute in Carlisle, Indiana where trained inmates provide end of life care to other inmates.  John Tuohy wrote the September 8, 2013 article for the Indianapolis Star, noting that "[t]he program helps the Indiana Department of Corrections more humanely manage an exploding population of older prisoners." This Indiana program, which is the only one in the state, came about as a result of "a prisoner who had watched his friend die of lung cancer in 2009 without a single outside visitor."

I suspect that as state budgets continue to shrink, we will hear more about the corrections system and how the system is going to respond to the graying of their inmates.

Becky Morgan

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Thanks again for bringing the story to our attention.... would love to read more about the law's take on changing parole and sentencing for the incarcerated elderly...
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Posted by: Ron Levine | Sep 25, 2013 6:42:46 PM

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