We often think of prisons as places filled to the brim with young aggressive men. However, according to a report issued today by Human Rights Watch entitled Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States the reality is that many prisoners today are more in need of old age homes than they are of prison cells. The report found that the number of sentenced state and federal prisoners age 65 or older grew at 94 times the rate of the overall prison population between 2007 and 2010. The number of sentenced prisoners age 55 or older grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population between 1995 and 2010. The reason for this upsurge in the number of elderly prisoners is sentencing laws in the United States. Currently over 10% of the prison population are serving life sentences and another 11% have sentences of greater than 20 years.
Prisons are not designed as geriatric centers. Thus, for the growing number of older prisoners, many of whom are frail, with myriad of problems associated with old age, prison confinement without adequate attention to their needs becomes harsh and punitive. The report makes three recommendations. The first is that sentencing and release policies be modified to allow for release of prisoners whose condition no longer justifies incarceration. Second that plans be developed for housing, medical care, and programs for this population of older prisoners. And finally that prison rules that make no sense for older inmates be reformed. The report, which is important and timely, is found at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/01/26/old-behind-bars.
Michael B. Mushlin
Professor of Law
Pace Law School